For a long time now, director Ridley Scott and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof have been preaching that Prometheus has “Alien DNA,” but little did moviegoers suspect just how literal that description would be. I thought it meant the movie would have background elements that related to the 1979 classic’s universe that were not in-your-face; but, like the crew of the vessel Prometheus, I was wrong, so wrong.
The story begins in 2089 with a pair of scientists, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering ancient cave paintings that confirm their belief that an alien species (dubbed the Engineers) seeded human life on Earth and left a star map as an invitation to come visit the parent species when we became sufficiently advanced. Enter dying wealthy eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who funds Shaw and Holloway’s voyage 35 lightyears (about 205 trillion miles) into deep space because he wants to meet his maker before he dies. When the Prometheus crew arrive at their destination, what they find is nothing they expected.
And this movie is probably not what the average viewer is expecting, either. Unless, of course, you’re expecting a visual feast of high science fiction brought down to human scale. Each installment of the Alien franchise has been a different type of movie: Alien was a haunted house tale, Aliens was a military adventure, Alien3 was a… mess, etc. – and Prometheus is its own thing, as well. The first half of the movie is wonderful new material, but the second half quickly begins to feel rushed, until the breakneck action at the very end feels like a race to wrap up the movie within a designated running time.
Also, while this movie addresses some of the questions raised by Alien and Aliens, it doesn’t answer them all. In fact, it raises many new questions that are left dangling at the finale. The set-up for a sequel is shameless! There are many, many echoes of Alien: Several new characters reminded me of some of the classics, flamethrowers reappear, the robot is… a robot, and even some situations were closely replicated. I feel like this was done as fan service and homage more than imitation, since some of the same producers (David Giler and Walter Hill) were involved, along with director Scott.
I don’t want to make it sound as if I didn’t like the movie, because I did. Scott’s direction never flags, and his storytelling and editing are clear (with the exception of an action sequence during a huge sandstorm scene). The sets and costuming are wonderful — the fishbowl-headed spacesuits are straight out of a Wally Wood comic book. The Prometheus herself did seem a bit clean and futuristic compared to the ramshackle Nostromo in Alien, but since the latter story takes place decades later, in 2122, there’s time for things to fall into disrepair. Scott’s world-building is impeccable, creating an effective future society in which 2089 doesn’t look too
alien foreign to our 2012 eyes. There are some intriguing new alien species and creatures that are realistically realized, and the story comes up with a new type of body horror that will particularly hit home with women.
I liked a lot of the new characters, including Dr. Shaw. Rapace gives her lots of spunk and determination without turning her into a clone of Ripley. I’d say she has as much moxie as Ripley, but she’s not as good with an axe. She also gets a lot more scared than Ripley did. And Shaw’s anguish when she realizes that she not only led the expedition astray but may have doomed the entire human race, feels real.
Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is in charge of the mission as Meredith Vickers, an icy, beautiful corporate-type who is wound tighter than her skintight uniforms. In contrast, the robot aboard Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender), seems to be quite a warm personality – another in a long line of science-fiction automatons who endeavor to prove themselves more human than humans. Shaw is, unsurprisingly, the most interesting character, full of quirky contradictions (she wears a crucifix while resolutely pursuing a course that could disprove the existence of God) However, some of the other characterization is inconsistent. Why is Milburn (Rafe Spall), the biologist, even on the mission if he is so afraid of unseen things that go bump in the dark that he would pass up the chance to examine a big discovery in favor of returning to the ship? And then, later, he approaches another new discovery, clearly fascinated and risking his life. Is Fifield really a geologist?
Idris Elba imbues his Captain Janek with the same world-weary sense of “I’m just here to run the ship” that Dallas had in the original, but is this just another assignment for the Prometheus and crew? Do they usually travel out that far? Vickers made the mission sound like some grand undertaking that took years of planning and massive financing, but all they had to do was rent a tub to take them where they wanted to go? If this really was an extraordinary mission, why were Janek and Chance (Emun Elliot) and Ravel (Benedict Wong) so lackadaisical about it? (Janek is also stuck with the clichéd character trait of being someone who loves the music of the late 20th century, allowing the audience to say, “Hey, I know that song!”) As Ford, Kate Dickie has even less to do than Lambert in the original.
The aliens-as-creator gambit has been used before – it was hinted at in STAR TREK TOS, and was the basis for the original Stargate movie – but here the concept gets tweaked more than a little because the Prometheus doesn’t exactly end up where Shaw thought it was going, and a lot of the second half of the movie hinges on the mysterious motives of even more mysterious aliens. There’s more than a whiff of anti-science sentiment here (doubtless to counter what will be perceived as an “anti-religion” agenda), and it’s the usual “scientists must be punished for their hubris” of wanting to know stuff.
For a movie that is so large in scope – it proposes to answer the biggest of Big Questions – nothing less than Why Are We Here, and Is There a Purpose to Life? – this movie is remarkably limited in scale, taking place in just a few locations with just a handful of characters. I don’t think this was done to emphasize claustrophobia, since there is never an emphasis on being scary, even when a couple of characters find themselves trapped someplace they don’t want to be by a storm. Yet several of the characters do take the time to ask each other about religious beliefs and what they hope to accomplish by seeking the origin of all human life. Do we get satisfactory answers? Depends on your point of view. I have a feeling the inevitable sequel will be even more cerebral than this film, threatening as it does to get into questions about the identity of God.
Speaking of a follow-up, there are a myriad of loose story threads left dangling by the end of the movie — rarely is the set-up for a sequel more bald-faced and obvious (except in the middle film of trilogies). Why did the Prometheus land on the Zeta II Reticuli system’s LV-223, not LV-426 (the setting of the first movie)? In fact, the more I think about it, the more questions I can come up with. Which I suppose is good on one level — it means the audience is left wanting more — but Lindelof is liable to take it on the chin from people still angry over unanswered questions lingering from LOST. Like that TV show, the movie’s ending is not what fans were expecting — but neither was its beginning.