Prometheus introduces us to the origins of the Alien saga. But does Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated film of 2012 begin the epic story with a whimper or a roar?
In one of the most anticipated films of 2012, director Ridley Scott returns to the franchise he started. In 1979 he made Alien, a science-fiction horror film that changed the face of a genre over populated with flying saucers, gleaming white spacecraft and men in tin foil suits. Alien birthed (literally) one of the most ferociously malevolent creatures to ever hold the mantel of movie monster that would find its way into several sequels of varying quality. Now he returns to the film which started it all. Prometheus takes up the story that made infamous the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” several years before the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, drawn by a latent distress signal, unleash the terror that destroys them.
Two scientists – Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) – discover a correlation between the depictions of the solar system, in particular the placement of a series of planets, as recorded in paintings drawn by ancient civilisations. With the financial aid of a dying oligarch Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the scientists, along with a group of explorers, set off to find the planet depicted in each of the drawings. Arriving on the planet they find the remains of a dead alien race in a cavernous relic. But something that lurks there is still alive and their discovery of it threatens to destroy them all.
Crucially, any enjoyment from Prometheus relies on the audience’s ability to remove the notion that this is another Alien. Alien is a monster movie that happens to be set on a spaceship in the future, lending itself more to horror than science-fiction. Prometheus, on the other hand, ditches the horror in favour of pure science-fiction and therefore has more in common with Scott’s futuristic dystopia Blade Runner than it does Alien. Here, Scott is more concerned with humanity’s creation than its systematic destruction despite obvious hints to the latter. In investigating this idea he happens upon a very interesting notion that the deadly creature that would pursue Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley across the galaxy was created through human beings’ naivety and callous pursuit of power. How that directly links to the doomed spaceship found by the Nostromo’s crew in Alien is what Prometheus sets out to discover.
“Crucially, any enjoyment from Prometheus relies on the audience’s ability to remove the notion that this is another Alien. Prometheus ditches the horror in favour of pure science-fiction and therefore has more in common with Scott’s futuristic dystopia Blade Runner than it does Alien.”
Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the driving force behind the film, her pursuit of the truth bringing to the fore the answers she is perhaps unprepared for. Fassbender’s David, the Prometheus’ android, whose motives remain ambiguous, drifting between Ash from Alien and his icy fatalism and Bishop from Aliens and his disassociated goodness, counters this. The dynamic between the two is the emotional centre of the film. Their dual pursuit of knowledge raises questions of whose motives could achieve the most good. Given our preconceptions thanks to a series of preceding films, unleashing a destructive Trojan horse underlies it all.
Nevertheless, Scott fails to sustain the suspense. Given unlimited creative power, something bestowed on an admittedly deserving filmmaker such as him, has its drawbacks. Namely, his mission to tell an origins story to the Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Sussett-created Alien in this way, both thematically and stylistically, betrays somewhat the beauty of the Alien series. Namely, its rollercoaster of scares. In doing so, he systematically alienates an audience bred on these traits; the very audience the film should appeal to the most.
Indeed, straight away the inhospitable, perennially dark and ruggedly unwelcoming planet as seen in Alien is substituted for the warm embrace of a Saharan-like desert-scape at sunset. Scott may be alluding to a notion of impending despair brought to this world but here is a home for the warm and cuddliest creatures not cinema’s greatest monster. It is a clear indication that Scott isn’t prepared, on this occasion, to reintroduce us to our old foe.
Other issues crop up in Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof script. The ship’s captain – played by Idris Elba – whose role for most of the film is to act with wise-cracking machismo (who cares little about the science operation and more about discovering if Charlize Theron’s Dee is a robot by sleeping with her), suddenly has all the answers in one hurried minute when he fills in most of the plot’s mysteries seemingly as if placed there by a screenwriter running out of time. He then takes on an even greater responsibility, in a key part of the film’s conclusion, which brings into question the authenticity of the character’s motives against the requirement of the filmmaker for dramatic propulsion. There are lofty ambitions at work, and the ideas are undoubtedly intriguing, but the lazy plotting only highlights an overstretching of these ideals. It brings into sharp focus the real beauty of Alien – its relative simplicity.
However, taken on its own merits, Prometheus manages to distinguish itself as a captivating science-fiction film. Its idea behind our beginnings is intriguing, alongside the underlying posthumous devotion of Peter Weyland to understand his maker. Scott also muses over the notion that mankind’s overzealous pursuit of power has a hand in the creation of the monster that will destroy it. And, despite my reservations for the depiction of the alien planet, the production design cannot be faulted. The recreation of the alien spacecraft is exemplary, its intestinal passageways the dark bowels of a brooding monster. Certainly, the film is at its best when inside the alien spacecraft when the sense of the unknown is at its highest and Scott can rely on the tension of the characters to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Rapace is genuinely strong in the lead role, enjoying some of the film’s best scenes including its stand out (and only real Alien-like moment) involving a machine capable of performing surgical operations and one character’s need for a brisk abortion. Fassbender and Theron are also more than capable in their respective roles. Fassbender, as the ship’s artificial person, has a particular tough task given the limelight left by Ian Holm and Lance Henrikson in similar roles exhibited within the Alien franchise. However, his impassive expression is unmoveable, giving the character an air of mystery throughout.
“Perhaps Scott’s ego has prevailed. In pursuit of his very own creation he has sidestepped too far, making a film he wanted to see, not the one we wished for.”
Prometheus isn’t the film fans of Alien and Aliens might have wanted to see. Lacking the brutal horror of the former, the exciting thrills of the latter, Prometheus is a wholly different beast. Here, Scott focuses on pure science-fiction, meaning his film has more in common with Blade Runner than Alien. The director’s approach produces both good (intriguing notions of man’s creation and ultimate destruction told with competence and style, and featuring strong performances) and bad (lack of suspense, some lazy plotting, overreaching ideals) resulting in a film that will inevitably find itself compared to its predecessors. In that, it lags far behind the original film, nestling somewhere between Fincher’s underrated Alien 3 and Jeanet’s disappointing Alien Resurrection. Perhaps Scott’s ego has prevailed. In pursuit of his very own creation he has sidestepped too far, making a film he wanted to see, not the one we wished for.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron
Released: 2012 / Genre: Science-Fiction / Country: USA / IMDB