There has been much speculation since Prometheus was announced regarding what exactly it would be, and how (if at all) it would connect to the Alien franchise. Make no mistake: this IS a prequel, and it answers some of the questions left blissfully unanswered by the original Alien film. Ultimately, this is both the film’s blessing and its curse. That said, it is a solid, well-made science fiction film that blends contemporary effects with a more old-fashioned, deliberate pace and tone. In addition, the 3D is worth the money, serving typically to add depth to shots – and most importantly it is NOT a post-conversion.
Ridley Scott and his collaborators were deliberately coy in the marketing for , and more often than not they avoided making any direct connections between it and Alien. At one point Scott was quoted as saying the film carried “strands of Alien‘s DNA, so to speak” (a comment which becomes much more interesting once the new film has been viewed). Just a few minutes in, however, it becomes clear that this was all misdirection. In terms of narrative, the film actually follows fairly similar beats as Scott’s original film. However, I think with Prometheus Scott has much different intentions, and it all has to do with characters and themes.
Alien was not a film about exploration. Its themes are rooted in distrust of corporate authority and that space brings death and uncertainty rather than any sort of answers. The characters, as well as the audience, learn virtually nothing about the planet or creatures that are encountered. It is an exercise in claustrophobia, suspense, and the terror of an inhuman, highly sexualized unknown. All of this is summed up in that film’s tagline – “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Prometheus retains the mysterious setting of that film (I don’t think that’s a spoiler at this point, since it’s clear from the trailer that both it and Alien are set on the same planet), but rather than a set of blue collar space truckers the crew is a mixture of regular crew and scientists. These explorers, like the director of the film, are focused on the existential question of mankind’s origin, the transitory nature of life, and a desire to investigate life on other planets. In this respect it is thematically closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: The Year We Make Contact than Alien, although Prometheus never forgets its horror roots. It is a movie about belief – faith, even – and the danger of seeking proof. Thus, while the crew in Alien are reactive, avoiding the unknown unless absolutely necessary, the crew in Prometheus pokes the hornets’ nest and tries to illuminate the darkness.
With this in mind, it stands to reason that for better or worse several of the unanswered mysteries of Alien are given explanations. I am definitely of two minds about this; I have always loved those mysteries, especially the throwaway appearance of the “Space Jockey,” and was fairly confident that no subsequent film would do justice to the speculations I had come up with over the years. Yet the film does not fail in this regard. I think I will still do my best to pretend that I have not seen Prometheus when watching Alien, but for the purposes of this new film, those explanations are serviceable. It also helps that the film is not content merely to provide answers. Rather, Scott and his collaborators use the bait of these revelations to draw the audience to a new line of questions which, by the end of the film, provide a new direction for the franchise which could remain within the same continuity while potentially departing radically in theme and narrative. I would complain only about the final scene of the film – it looks good, but I could have lived without it as it felt an awful lot like tacked-on fanservice.
The cast for the most part manages to avoid being overshadowed by the effects and of effectively making the roles their own rather than simply doing variations on Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, et al. Some of the supporting characters don’t feel as fully developed as those of the original film, but they all get a chance to show at least a little of their personalities. Noomi Rapace is probably most like the Ellen Ripley character of the other films, but she brings a level of vulnerability and intimacy to the role that is distinct from Weaver’s performance – I wouldn’t go so far as to call one better than the other, but both are appropriate to their respective films. Charlize Theron delivers an appropriately cold performance as the corporate representative on the expedition. Yet I hoped for a little more development from her character; the moment that I think was supposed to reveal her motivations was not surprising or meaningful enough to be satisfying. The real standouts of the movie, however, are Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender. Elba, as the captain of the ship, is the closest link to the blue collar characters of Alien, and his pragmatism easily makes him one of the most relatable characters in the film. Fassbender plays the android David as a kind of combination of David Bowie and Peter O’Toole (i.e. The Man Who Fell To Earth meets Lawrence of Arabia). Without going into plot details, I’ll say it’s a pleasure to watch him in action, and his performance raises, for me at least, some interesting questions about the androids in the Alien franchise.
Visually, the film is impressive. The design of the ship, spacesuits, and other technology deliberately evoke the styles and lines of Alien without being bound to the 1970s limitations which informed those designs. Some may complain that this gives the humans of this chronologically earlier film more advanced technology than those of the “later” one. For me it’s all a matter of suspension of disbelief, and I never had trouble buying it. Besides, a trillion-dollar corporate expedition probably WOULD have much better technology than a rickety space truck. For the alien structures and creatures Scott was able to bring in H. R. Giger, designer of the sets and creatures from Alien to expand on those designs and further emphasize continuity with Alien. The film uses a mixture of practical and CGI effects, both of which look as good as I would expect from Weta, and the 3D definitely compliments the sets and effects nicely. There were only a few moments where the CGI crossed the uncanny valley and looked computer generated.
I’ve spent most of this review talking about Prometheus in comparison to Alien. From the interviews I have seen, this is not what the writers and director want me to do. However, the film in structure and content demand it. This is not a bad thing – the film does mostly stand on its own – but be aware that this is a franchise film with some direct connections to the rest of the series. “Prequel” seems to have become something of a dirty word over the years. Yet Prometheus rises above the average prequel by avoiding simply rehashing the existing material. Certainly the formula is still present, yet Scott uses it as a frame to springboard the franchise he helped build into a new, bigger direction. Also, while the film does reveal backstory and offer explanations for events in the original film, it is not content to leave it at that.
As it stands, Prometheus is not as groundbreaking or original as the marketing had led me to believe (but then, what movie is?). Even the thematic elements which separate it from Alien have been tackled in other sci-fi films. 2001, Star Trek (the tv series, at least), Mission to Mars, and even the works of H.P. Lovecraft ask similar questions and in some cases offer similar answers. Despite this, the film succeeds both on the level of being suspenseful and engaging the audience with its existential questions. In recent years science fiction has become more about action-adventure and space opera. This is not a bad thing (see my glowing review of John Carter), but it is nice to see a film that remembers that science fiction’s great potential is not only to show us the stars, but also to reveal something about ourselves. With all the special effects, spaceships, and scares, this is a film that tries to tackle the question of what makes us human. Does it succeed in answering those questions? Not entirely. But even in making that effort I think Prometheus is a film worth watching, and in leaving some of its questions unanswered there is the potential for a sequel which could totally break from the Alien formula. Should that sequel come to be, I will welcome it. Until then, I think I am content to revel in the unanswered mysteries of Prometheus, just as I did for years with its predecessor.
© Ralph Lawson III, 2012, All Rights Reserved