Early on his career Ridley Scott proclaimed, “The time is ripe for a John Ford of science fiction films to emerge. And I’m determined to be that director.” And he was well on his way with the one-two punch of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – cinematic game changers that presented incredibly detailed future worlds. And then he attempted to adapt Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune but the project slipped through his fingers. As if that wasn’t enough, his big budget fantasy film Legend (1985) was a box office flop and received a critical mauling. Understandably frustrated, Scott turned his back on the science fiction and fantasy genres and spent the next few decades tackling a host of other ones, from the cop thriller (Black Rain) to the historical epic (Gladiator) to the war movie (Black Hawk Down) to varying degrees of success. However, fans of his early work had always held out hope that he would return to the genres that established him a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Not only does Prometheus (2012) mark Scott’s triumphant return to science fiction but it also sees him revisiting a franchise he helped start – Alien. Touted as a prequel of sorts, the veteran filmmaker has been rather coy in admitting this new film’s link to the original, stating that it contains “strands of Alien’s DNA.” However, the impetus to make this film came from Scott’s curiosity as to the origins of the extraterrestrial being, nicknamed the “space jockey” by fans, that piloted the derelict spaceship discovered by the crew of the original film and which contained the series’ alien antagonists. Prometheus has come along at a good time to breath new life into the Alien franchise, which had hit an all-time low with Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). While the film was financially successful many felt it was creatively bankrupt and there was a desire to return the franchise to its roots and who better to do that than the director of the first one?
It is 2089 and in Scotland, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) uncovers ancient hieroglyphs that are actually a star map, which may provide the location to an alien home world whose residents may have visited Earth several thousands of years ago. She believes that these aliens will have the key to the origins of humanity. Four years later and Shaw heads up an expedition into outer space with a crew of 17 including an android named David (Michael Fassbender) and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an executive from Weyland Corporation, the company that funded the mission.
Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), her lover and fellow archaeologist, believe that the planet their spacecraft, the Prometheus, arrives at, deep in space, may have inhabitants that created humanity. Vickers is not too crazy about Shaw’s mission, a pet passion project of her father’s, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and quickly exerts control, which sets up an intriguing antagonistic relationship between the idealistic scientist Shaw and the hard-nosed pragmatist Vickers.
Shaw and an away team make landfall and investigate a massive structure, one of several, in a canyon, which reinforces Ridley Scott’s mastery of establishing a specific mood and atmosphere through incredibly detailed set design and gorgeous cinematography. This results in evocative settings like the pristine sterility of the sleek futuristic Prometheus ship to the dark, dank cavernous interior of the alien structure, which takes what we glimpsed briefly in Alien and elevates it to another level. As with all of his films, the production design is of the highest quality and rich in detail, creating a fully realized and believable world. He also knows how to create a mood of foreboding mystery as our protagonists explore the alien landscape and we wait for something bad that we know is going to happen to these unfortunate people.
As with previous films in the Alien franchise, the Weyland Company doesn’t care about the crew, aside from David, just on how they can make money off whatever Shaw and co. discover. Not surprisingly, David, much like Ash in Alien, has its own agenda and is not entirely trustworthy. If you’ve seen any of the Alien films then you pretty much know how things are going to go down – the humans mess around with something they don’t understand and run afoul of a xenomorph that is hostile.
The seemingly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender is a real standout in Prometheus as the logic-based android with a hidden agenda. The actor is quite believable as an artificial person complete with slightly stiff expressions and gestures that look real enough and yet only have the illusion of humanity. It is a tightly controlled performance complete with precise speech patterns that is fascinating to watch. Noomi Rapace is excellent as the inquisitive scientist whose ambition proves to be her undoing. Over the course of the film she conveys a wide range of emotions as her character is put through the wringer and this is evident in a scene where Shaw is forced to deal with an alien that has invaded her body. It’s an intensely harrowing sequence that comes the closest to recapturing its famous equivalent in Alien. Shaw struggles with notions of faith versus science and is the heart and soul of the film.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Charlize Theron plays an icy corporate executive at odds with Rapace’s Shaw and yet she is given a scene or two to show, perhaps not a softer side, but that there is more to her than being strictly a business type. With the exception of the always excellent Idris Elba, the rest of the cast is just fine but largely unremarkable but only because they play disposable characters. Like any skilled character actor, Elba makes the most of his limited screen-time, playing the grizzled captain of the ship.
While an easy target for helping engineer the prolonged tease that was the popular television show Lost, screenwriter Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott should be commended for creating and then getting a major Hollywood studio to release a serious-minded science fiction film during the summer blockbuster season – a time when multiplexes are populated by dumb action films loaded up with car chases and loud explosions or mindless comedies rife with dick and fart jokes. Prometheus wrestles with weighty themes and the big picture (i.e. who created us and why are we here?) while fulfilling one of the oldest tropes of the genre by presenting a story that acts as a warning – don’t meddle with things you don’t understand.
Whether the filmmakers were successful or not in conveying these important themes in a thoughtful and engaging way is certainly open to debate but at least they tried. The film’s third act is certainly problematic as it basically loses its mind and devolves into a pretty conventional action film with a weak climactic battle. This is too bad because the first two-third of Prometheus is so strong and thought provoking. A well-intentioned film loaded with ambition like this one should be championed despite its flaws (weak characterization, plot holes, etc.). The end result is easily the best Alien film in the franchise since James Cameron took over the reigns with Aliens (1986).