A lone figure stands on a dead planet, gazing solemnly at the spacecraft which brought him here, now flying away. As the mothership soars into the stratosphere, the being—a tall, hairless biped with chalk-white skin and uncannily human features—removes his cloak and drinks an oozing, shifting black liquid. In seconds, the compound brings him to his knees, painfully rending him apart at the molecular level until the humanoid tumbles down the adjacent waterfall and dissolves among the rocks below. But from this individual’s agonizing death comes a glimpse of something new. Decayed DNA strands reanimate, one cell splits into another, then another. Like seeds cast into the wind, life spreads.
So begins Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s semiprequel to his 1979 blockbuster—and my all time favourite movie—Alien. I specify “semiprequel” because Scott himself has been wishy-washy about where it sits in the Alien continuum. While it’s set in the same fictional universe, it focuses not on the series’ eponymous monsters but on a species only glimpsed in the original film. It’s a much grander movie, featuring a more cosmic and existential brand of horror than that of its darkly sexual proto-slasher progenitor. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft to boot; in other words, everything I could ever ask for, give or take some concerns I have with the finished product.
A few years after Shaw’s discovery, she and her colleague/lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) emerge from hypersleep aboard the exploratory vessel Prometheus, just a scant few light years away from the star system shown in the pictograms. They land on a seemingly uninhabited world and, with several scientists and the ship’s crew, make their way into a monolithic structure, with winding corridors and echoing chambers that no natural formation could have produced. I can’t spoil much of what happens from here on in, but needless to say what they find is not nearly anything like what they expected. In fact, it’s far worse.
Where Alien and its two sequels (Alien: Resurrection never existed as far as I’m concerned) had Lt. Ellen Ripley, Prometheus has Elizabeth Shaw. She’s not cut from the same cloth as Ripley, being a scientist rather than an officer, but is an interesting character nevertheless and is perhaps better suited to the movie’s themes than a more action-oriented protagonist would be. Unlike many heroes in the realm of sci fi, she is not secular but a devout Christian, influenced by her missionary father and who, as the film progresses, finds a way of reconciling her beliefs with the staggering revelations she and her team uncover. And her pixie-ish appearance disguises an almost primordial survival instinct. There’s an especially good example of this bridging the middle and final acts of the movie, but it’s a sequence I don’t want to spoil for anybody. It’s also perhaps the most horrifying scene ever put to film. You won’t miss it when you see it. Trust me.
Though it’s been said in practically every other review of the film, I have to impress just how excellent Michael Fassbender is as David, the titular ship’s android and the film’s secondary protagonist. By the time the audience is introduced to Prometheus’ congenial robot he’s already at a highly advanced stage of his virtual development. While the crew slumbers in cryogenic hibernation, David has been absorbing inconceivable quantities of information, effectively turning him into an expert in every field. He even manages to extrapolate the Engineers’ language based off of the syntax and phonetics of several primitive human dialects. Every action he takes, every move he makes is calculated, but not stiff, and though his precision is inhuman it’s carried out with undeniable elegance: in one particularly humorous moment, he rides his bicycle in circles along the perimeter of the ship’s gymnasium, while simultaneously and effortlessly tossing a basketball into the net one-handed.
But beneath his efficient motions and immaculately-groomed features—based heavily on those of T.E. Lawrence, whose fictionalized depiction in Lawrence of Arabia David adores—is a complex mind with its own agenda. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert compares David to a walking HAL 9000 from 2001, and while this is a fair juxtaposition it doesn’t do the former character justice. Hal’s story is about ethical conflicts triggering a psychological breakdown; David’s motivations, however, are much more elusive and can only be gleamed here and there from snippets of dialogue, his interactions with the environment, and from one monumental deception on his part that sets up much of the second half of the film. After two viewings and countless discussions with friends, I think the robot has ascended his hierarchy of needs and now only has to achieve self-actualization, which he does, like his creators before him, by playing God.
While I’m giving Rapace and Fassbender a lot of—admittedly well-deserved—praise, they stand out rather than overshadow. I don’t think there’s a single bad or even weak performance in the film. Idris Elba is hilarious as Janek, the ship’s casually cheeky and Stephen Stills-obsessed captain. Marshall-Green’s Holloway acts as a nice counterbalance to Shaw, mediating her faith with scepticism and her excitement with well-intentioned frustration. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the mission director, is initially cold and mechanical but the events of the film peel away her layers, exposing a soul as rife with feelings of inferiority and even regret as it is with unrelenting drive. And in spite of being sheathed in Benjamin Button-worthy old age makeup—really the movie’s only poor special effect—Guy Pearce is oddly charming as the venture’s funder Peter Weyland. Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie and Benedict Wong round out the ship’s crew with characters that, while pretty stock, are nevertheless witty and engaging.
Aesthetically speaking, this is an unquestionably beautiful film. Taking cues from Syd Mead and H.R. Giger’s old designs for Alien, the artistic directors have crafted a detailed yet fully functional world. Like the Nostromo before (well, after) it, every corner, every switch and every bulkhead in the Prometheus looks functional rather than stylistic. Best of all, Scott has refrained from using an overabundance of computer generated imagery, as most blockbuster directors are wont to do. Nearly every set has been physically built, and every creature has been brought to life through practical effects, be it puppetry or animatronics or, in the case of the Engineers themselves, by guys in suits. The whole affair looks and feels more tangible than James Cameron’s Avatar could ever have hoped to be. Visually and musically, this movie is perfect.
Where the film actually falters is not in its characters or design or even the story as a whole, but the connecting tissue—the very tendons of the plot—weakening and even disappearing between scenes. The issue is rather sparse in the first and middle acts, though a few eyebrows might be cocked at the sight of a couple of scientists getting lost for no reason at all, but it comes to the fore as the movie hurtles toward its climax. The Horrifying Sequence I hinted at earlier is not even mentioned in the following scene, the characters and audience’s attention quickly shifting to another plot point without a clutch. It’s jarring, and it feels as though entire swaths of necessary dialogue were left on the cutting room floor, and given how much Scott is likely to shave off his films during the editing process—the original cut of Alien reportedly ran over four hours—I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. It feels like he or some studio executive felt the final act wasn’t moving fast enough and decided to cut several minutes off the running time, regardless of how it affected the plot. Ironically, this tripped up both me and much of the audience I’ve spoken with during the most pivotal moments of the movie.
As well, it’s a little more open ended than I would like. I wouldn’t say the trailers tricked me into thinking the events of this film would directly set up everything in Alien but they gave me that impression anyway. Without spoiling anything, the final few minutes set up not one but two plotlines to be explored in a later film, and while I want to see where both lead I can’t help but feel there’s something to be said for a self-contained film. Both Alien and the original Star Wars can be appreciated in and of themselves without needing sequels, but Prometheus’ ending only really allows for one option: forward. And unless the movie brings in a fair bit of cash, I have doubts of seeing a second part in theatres a few years from now.
But in spite of these stumbles, at no point for me did the film ever fall flat on its face. It is, in Gestalt fashion, greater than the sum of its parts, an elegant essay in need of one more revision—or at least a few more transition sentences between its later paragraphs. I’m not holding out for an extended cut, though the notion of one does please me; Scott’s preferred versions of Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven are far and away superior to their theatrical cuts. But for now, Prometheus is for the large part what I hoped it to be and my favourite film of the year thus far (no doubt The Dark Knight Rises will knock it out of the top spot a few weeks from now). I just kind of wish the writers had hit spell check once or twice before they handed it in.