Someone has been waiting for Prometheus for 33 years. I hope they’re not disappointed. Me? Please, I’m only 26. Regardless, I’m satisfied. Others might not be so happy, but I don’t care: it’s my movie. They don’t need it, and they can’t have it.
Prometheus is kind of an entry in the Alien canon. It’s actually pretty unambiguous about that, but some people will want to ignore the various “clues” – that is, the names of entities featured in later Alien films, the designs inspired by Giger, the … Well, the everything. This is an Alien film, with echoes of the original and with something new besides. It’s not the evolution that Aliens represented, nor the declension of the latter two films. It’s its own film, and a hard film to classify at that.
But it’s good. It’s good.
Doctor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) finds evidence of an alien civilisation in several unrelated archaeological sites across the world. The Weyland Corporation (“Building better worlds”) bankrolls her to the tune of $3 trillion to lead an expedition to the star system that they have identified as the alien’s point of origin. When they locate a pyramid like structure on the planet’s surface, things aren’t precisely as Shaw predicted – no one on board the Prometheus could have bargained on what they found there.
Prometheus is a busy film – and it’s not a straight horror film, either. The tone is completely different to that which came before it, even in scenarios that are supposed to be familiar to viewers. From the start you’re supposed to be figuring out the links to the franchise that many have grown to love, because two bad films don’t exactly cancel out two good films (although three bad films can make the three films that came before them seem less significant, less meaningful). If you really wanted a descriptive name for this movie, like the very simple “Alien”, you’d call this one “[Redacted]”. Which would be a cool name for the movie but it would probably bring to mind a Clint Eastwood film.
The Prometheus name is one representing hubris on the characters’ parts: “the Titan Prometheus was punished for what he did, but we won’t be! We’ll do what he did and get away with it!”. It’s like naming your vessel the Icarus and believing that it’s not going to get consumed by the sun. Identifying your metaphors in the core of your text doesn’t explicitly make them any less lazy, just more transparent. As a name, Prometheus is a mouthful, and it’s going to confuse a lot of people. But they’re not our concern.
What is Prometheus? Would I have liked it if I didn’t care for Alien, if it weren’t one of my secret favourite movies? Does it work to replace Alien? For the former, it’s hard to tell; a friend that I saw it with hated it until I calmly explained how well it fits within the Alien mythos (all he remembered of Alien was that he liked it, which isn’t very helpful). As to the latter: well, no. Alien will never be replaced, just as whatever follows Blade Runner won’t overtake its predecessor – and, after Prometheus, it’s much easier to breathe about the prospect of more dances with replicants – but that doesn’t stop it from being a great complement.
That’s the truest beauty of genre hopping: if you use a base property and respect it, you can do anything with it. That’s why Aliens was so effective: it built on the established rules of Alien while turning it from a last-man-standing horror suspense film into a guns-blazing collection of ultimate badasses getting acid blood on their skin. It’s harder to say exactly what Prometheus is, as it never completely embraces its existential questions but never adequately discards them. Even as the action depicted on screen removes most of the ambiguity in the eyes of the viewers, it never deserts Shaw.
The viewer is treated to a deal more body horror than we’re used to seeing in these movies, despite the fact that they’re predicated on face huggers and chest bursters. Unlike the main Alien films, the rules are never firmly established, so it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen to any given character. This lack of consistency isn’t a burden, depending on how you choose to interpret the movie, and it ramps up the tension in several key sequences. Given time and repeat viewings these moments will become as comfortable as any vent crawling or nest storming, but that doesn’t dim the initial impact of desperate surgery, or of various swellings of I identified origin. Because there’s no known life cycle for any of the film’s extraterrestrial beings to adhere to, anything can happen.
The film’s strongest character is David, played with dignity and gravitas by Michael Fassbender. David is an android who spends the time that others are in stasis by watching Laurence of Arabia, learning dead languages, riding a bicycle and playing basketball (these last two simultaneously), and it’s impossible to get a bead on him. This is the most ambiguous (and ambitious) android the series has ever offered, and his arc is the best of the four of them. Noomi Rapace does well as Shaw, but it’s pointless to compare her to Ripley because, while she slowly becomes powered by desperation and contributes some of the best scenes to the film, she never really takes charge to wrest control of the situation. This is a film lacking “get away from her, you bitch!” scenarios, but it’s not weaker for that; to merely recreate Ripley would have been a fool’s errand.
The support cast are largely colourful characters who get a few lines here and there to make up numbers, and this is how these films work: everyone is there for a purpose, and their character serves that purpose, except when a character needs to do something specific to further the plot and acts in a wildly contradictory fashion to their established manner, which happens at least once, and is as frustrating as it sounds when it does. Idris Elba is great as the Captain, combining aloofness with dedication to his internal mission, and Charlize Theron is icy but human as Meredith Vickers, the Weyland representative on board. Guy Pearce also shows up as the elderly head of Weyland, a casting decision made sensical only in deleted scenes. For a film that is largely about special and make-up effects, the ageing technique isn’t particularly impressive.
What is impressive is the design work, which perfectly reflects the special effects progress that has been made in the intervening years while also being in-line with the original film. Those paying attention may notice that the Prometheus’s cockpit is largely the same as that of the Nostromo. And to the creatures themselves, while they’re largely not in the league of Gigeresque nightmares, there is one monster to be seen featuring no fewer than eight yonic openings.
Scott has combined this design savvy with his own means of balancing tension and mood to create one of the more perfect feels in recent movies, and the horror is genuinely horrific as a result, and the thoughtful moments are, for the most part, legitimately thoughtful. This is far and away much more than a cash-in, which is a good thing given how hard Scott has tried to downplay the flagrant Alien connections that run rampant in the film.
Prometheus raises more questions than it answers, but it’s not lazy about it. There is more than enough here to satisfy people who just want their blocks busted, but they may be left feeling malnourished if they don’t want to theorise about what happened, and what’s going to happen. While you could conceivably make a branching franchise of Prometheus, it might be better to leave it here, a giant screaming head on the mountain. But then, one could have said that about Alien, and then we would never have seen the Queen. After almost two decades of mistreating their intellectual property, 20th Century Fox has offered an entry worthy of the Alien franchise, and one discreet enough that those who choose to ignore it may do so.
Prometheus is likely to be one of my favourite films of the year, and in it Ridley Scott has shown that he doesn’t have to lean on Russell Crowe in period dress to make a film. He’s come home at last.