Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
There’s a hell of a lot going on in Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s far-reaching prequel to his 1979 masterwork of brutal science fiction, Alien. And that, Alien enthusiasts, is what sets Prometheus apart from its 33-year-old predecessor.
With its bare-bones plot, about a crew of space miners fighting to survive against an extraterrestrial predator aboard their increasingly claustrophobic spaceship, Alien plays more by the stalk-and-kill template of horror movies than it does by any heady, deeply involved sci-fi rules, which is just a small part of its majestic charm. In Prometheus, on the other hand, Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof have much more on their minds, ideas stretching way beyond simple genre thrills: the origins of mankind, an intergalactic duel between ancient gods and otherworldly monsters, and faith versus science, amongst other concerns.
By the film’s third act, all of Prometheus’ conflicting themes congeal into somewhat of a narrative clusterfuck, leaving heady questions unanswered and watching several characters’ once-interesting arcs get squandered for a balls-to-the-wall action-fest. So it’s a damn good thing that Spaihts and Lindelof’s script has a visionary beast like Sir Ridley Scott to bring it all to eye-popping life.
Scott’s long-awaited return to the sci-fi genre, which he redefined with ’79’s Alien and the highly ambitious 1982 classic Blade Runner, Prometheus wastes no time before announcing itself as something way stranger than Alien. The film opens with a brief, existential preamble, setting the religiously tinged stage for scientists Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to kick the plot into motion. Together, in the year 2089, they’ve discovered a 30,000-year-old cave painting that shares attributes with other drawings the duo has encountered, all depicting the same formation of stars. Using their super-high-tech telescopes, Shaw and Holloway have figured out that these formations are directing them toward a distant moon that can sustain life, leading them to believe that it could very well be the place where humans were first engineered.
Fast forward to 2093, when, aboard the spacecraft Prometheus, named after the Greek god who created mankind (yeah, not so subtle), Shaw, Holloway, and the rest of the ship’s 17-member crew are woken up by David (an excellent, perfectly calculated Michael Fassbender), a cold, emotionless android who’s been awake the entire time. David is at the beck and call of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a representative of the Weyland Corporation (Alien connection No. 1) who’s sole purpose on the Prometheusis to regulate and flash ice-grills in everyone else’s direction.
At this point, the film looks and feels a great deal like Alien, with Scott’s camera spending long, patient stretches of time exploring the ship’s interior (a la the older film’s visual analysis of the Nostromo), establishing a wisecracking rapport between its inhabitants (particularly with Idris Elba, hamming it up as the laidback, dryly comedic captain), and sending a few of the characters on an outside-the-ship mission to poke around the uncharted moon, giving way to a sequence full of eggs that all but begs for a facehugger to jump out.
No facehuggers show up, though, but that doesn’t stop Spaihts and Lindelof from quickly amping up the tension by introducing pint-sized aliens that leap into people’s throats and a dark-colored ooze responsible for slowly turning one character into a harbinger of E.T. genes. And as soon as the latter incident occurs, Prometheus goes full steam ahead with its highfalutin, sci-fi-minded horror tropes, centered on inquiries about Alien’s enigmatic “Space Jockey.”
The switch from meditative contemplation to action-heavy thrills is rather jarring, particularly in how Prometheus’ script continually asks its where-do-we-come-from questions throughout the film’s all-out summer blockbuster finale. It’s also a shame to see Theron, doing all that she can with an underwritten role, be so underused, with a late-game reveal about her character feeling like it’s been tacked on rather than justifiably developed. Fortunately, Rapace, given her first big Hollywood look after wowing critics in the Swedish-made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies, is able to pick up the slack; on top of believably conveying Shaw’s emotional vulnerability, Rapace is also totally game for every physical challenge Scott throws her way, namely an acutely horrific run-in with futuristic medical equipment that gives C-section procedures a whole new level of heinousness.
Even that, the film’s standout moment of freakishness, while undeniably and effectively badass, feels somewhat out of place in Prometheus, almost as if Spaihts and/or Lindelof felt the need to satiate lovers of Alien’s infamous chestbuster sequence. But in Scott’s hands, it’s a brilliantly staged bit, proving that the 75-year-old English filmmaker hasn’t lost the ability to bring the nightmarish goods. Nor has he forgotten how to elegantly present an unfamiliar world; Prometheus, looking like every single penny spent to make the picture is right there on the screen, is a breathtaking film to behold, the best use of 3D since James Cameron’s Avatar. Even as the story devolves into a maelstrom of undercooked characters and overdone explosiveness, Scott keeps the surface-level aesthetics in a class all their own.
The director’s magnificent work here is so impressive, in fact, that it’s easy to forget about the film’s storytelling inefficiencies. Or the feeling that its ties to Alien often feel tenuous, like gratuitous winks that could’ve easily been inserted into an otherwise unrelated screenplay. Prometheus is an ostentatious spectacle that should benefit from repeat viewings, if only to bask in Scott’s gorgeous and haunting images. Not exactly the kind of reaction that its makers, with their deep-thinking concepts, desired, we're guessing.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)