Release Date: 1 June 2012
15 | 124 minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron
Sometimes the hardest obstacle to overcome is yourself. Few have done more to define what cinematic science fiction can be than Ridley Scott, so returning to the genre (and franchise) that made his name was always going to be a challenging mission. Remarkably it’s one the Alien and Blade Runner director negotiates with his sci-fi credentials pretty much intact, because while quasi-prequel Prometheus is no classic, it’s not a Phantom Menace-shaped disappointment either.
Scott may be back in the Alien universe, but that doesn’t mean he’s retreading old ground. This is a prequel in the loosest possible sense of the word, a story that – while sharing, to use Scott’s phrase, “Alien DNA” – runs in parallel to the Alien movies rather than feeding directly into them. Let’s put it this way: Prometheus’s relationship to Alien is the equivalent of a Star Wars prequel based in Cloud City before Han Solo and Princess Leia landed; relevant but incidental.
So while the Alien nods are clear – a company named after a man called Weyland, the “Space Jockey” species whose crashed ship caused all that bother on LV-426 – they’re just a small part of a bigger picture, namely a research mission to find the interstellar origins of human life on Earth. And, for the first two acts at least, Prometheus is good enough to be considered on its own merits.
Running around in outer space for the first time in over 30 years, Scott is completely in his element. As he’s done in Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and all his best movies, he crafts a believable, totally-planned-out world, and makes it look stunning. He shoots spaceships and alien landscapes like he’s completely in love with them, giving you plenty of time to soak in the majesty of the Prometheus craft and extraterrestrial vistas, without taking his foot off the storytelling gas. For the first hour of build-up, Prometheus is a gripping ride. What a shame, then, that it all falls apart once it needs to start delivering answers.
Prometheus has a colossal Achilles heel in the script by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour). Not in terms of their dialogue – the banter between the characters is remarkably natural – but in the unconvincing storytelling decisions they make, an utterly baffling overload of ideas, and some really clumsy attempts to attach deeper meaning to what’s essentially a sci-fi horror movie.
Maybe somewhere along the line they were fooled into thinking that Alien was less a peerless monster movie (which it is), than an analysis of male fears of birth or something similarly A-level psychology. Why else would they invest so much time in diluting big sci-fi ideas with tired themes of creation myths, faith and daddy issues? There’s something rather ironic about a film so obsessed with the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box being crushed under the weight of its own pretentious ideas.
The sense that more is less echoes throughout the movie. There are so many different species of monster here that it’s impossible to keep up (and the lifecycles are even more complicated than the classic egg/host/chestburster/drone sequence), while at least one mutant form feels like it’s wandered in from a completely different movie. There’s certainly nothing as scary as the original Xenomorph – even if one beastie does allow for a spectacularly icky piece of body horror.
Meanwhile, the Prometheus craft is so overpopulated that few characters get a chance to become anything more than monster fodder. The most fleshed-out character by some way is Michael Fassbender’s android David, a worthy addition to the Alien universe’s hall of synthetic fame. He’s like a less benign Data, essentially a highly intelligent child, but one with an insatiable urge to press buttons that say “Do Not Press” and pull wings off flies, just to see what happens. His true motives are kept neatly ambiguous throughout – or at least that appears to have been the intention.
Alien’s trump card was the element of surprise, but many of Prometheus’s story twists are obvious from miles away. That’s not entirely the filmmakers’ fault – off the back of a saturation promotional campaign, so much Prometheus footage has been released online that many key plot points are easily guessable. Even so, that doesn’t excuse the repeated use of “hit the nail on the head” signposting to make sure we really, definitely, absolutely understand what’s going on – at one point the script stops just short of saying, “You see that advanced piece of technology there? That may well come in handy later…”
Prometheus’s biggest problem is that it frequently leaves itself open to parody. As Lindelof’s history as a Lost writer starts to reveal itself, the movie asks far more questions than it answers – and sadly they’re not questions you’re desperate for answers to. Plenty is left open for a sequel, but the ending makes any potential follow-up seem inherently ridiculous – the most interesting thing about the climax is an internet meme in the making. (Look out for the zip-up bag.)
Prometheus is already one of the year’s most talked-about movies. It’s set to stay that way – but unfortunately having fanboys pick holes in it rather than debate its grand ambitions is probably not what the filmmakers intended.
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