Why is Prometheus the most anticipated movie of the year? On one hand, it’s been thirty years since Ridley Scott last directed science fiction, a genre in which he created not one but two all-time classics. On the other hand, it’s also a prequel to Alien that promises a return from the crash-bang nonsense of the Aliens vs. Predator franchise, co-written by Lost’s Damon Lindelof. On the face of it, Prometheus has everything going in its favour. But we all know what can often happen to the best laid plans. The last time we saw a visionary director return after decades to make a prequel to his much loved space classic, we ended up with the trifecta of cinematic effluence that was the Star Wars prequels. Are viewers in for a similar disappointment with Prometheus?
Scott has insisted that Prometheus is not a prequel to Alien, however the action takes place in the same universe decades before the events of the 1979 classic. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who discovers a number of cave paintings on Earth that feature an identical constellation. Interpreting these glyphs as an extra-terrestrial invitation, she mounts a mission to this far off system, hoping to discover the secret of man’s origin on Earth. Along for the ride is an expansive crew that includes Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, a corporate employee sent to monitor the mission; Logan Marshall-Green as Charlie, a fellow archaeologist and love interest to Rapace’s Shaw; Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, a grizzled blue collar type that recalls Alien’s Captain Dallas; and Michael Fassbender as David, a life-like android in the vein of Lance Henriksen’s robot character Bishop from Aliens.
To avoid dropping any spoilers, we’ll won’t reveal too much of the plot. The important point to take from the story is that Scott and his writers have decided to focus the story on the search for the origins of man. The premise poses a possibility that millions of years ago, aliens came to Earth and planted the first seeds of sentient life; that humans did not evolve per se, but were intelligently designed by higher beings. This theory is not particularly new. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation used a similar story to explain why all the alien races in the Star Trek universe looked kind of human. But the way in which this idea is tackled in Prometheus is a little baffling and unclear. Rapace’s character, a devout Christian, seems to be on a mission to find God. One can only assume though, that if she found God in a scary spaceship at the end of the universe, he would not resemble any deity from the Judeo-Christian mould. (Nerd Alert: Finding God at the end of the universe was also the plot of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) Another character appears to be seeking these aliens so that they can live forever while the rest of them don’t seem majorly fussed by all the crazy things happening.
The main problem with Prometheus lies in the fact that just about every character isn’t terrifically well written. Certain crew members who are brought on the mission would never have passed basic psychological evaluations on account of being idiots and cowards; Rapace’s character is burdened with a conflict of faith, oscillating between despair and devotion at the drop of a hat; and Theron’s character is hiding a secret that becomes obvious a full hour before it’s finally revealed. The cast do what they can with the material they’re given, but by the time everyone starts dropping like flies (or do they?), the audience isn’t invested enough in the characters to care whether they live or die. Fassbender’s David is by far the most interesting character but even he suffers from motivational inconsistency.
But it would be unfair to call Prometheus a dud; it’s a pretty good film that was given the impossible task of improving on a classic. There is much to like in the production design and direction; there’s even a central sequence that might rival the chest-burster scene from the original. But above all, Scott’s intellectual and conceptual ambition is what makes this a noble effort.
The Star Wars prequels were an opportunity for George Lucas to revisit a universe he had created and work it over with the technology that had developed in the intervening years. But instead of embellishing the dark, dirty, mythology of The Empire, Lucas created kids’ films; a Wonka’s factory of colour and shapes, populated by offensive caricatures designed to be converted into toys. With Prometheus, Ridley Scott shows a will to tackle his old films from a fresh perspective which makes his speculated sequel to Blade Runner a very tantalising prospect indeed.
Despite the general tone of this review, we quite enjoyed Prometheus. If you haven’t seen it yet, we recommend that you catch it in the cinema. But to get the most out of it, you should probably start lowering your expectations immediately.