Prior to Prometheus, Ridley Scott had made two science fiction movies: Blade Runner and Alien. Each (in their own way) is a seminal film. Blade Runner was sci-fi noir; a wonderful exercise in atmosphere. Alien put a horror movie in space. It was tight and truly frightening; in space, no one can hear you scream, but they sure could in the movie theater. It spawned one excellent sequel – James Cameron’s Aliens – and two other sequels that are best forgotten.
Now Scott has once again returned to the science fiction realm with his highly-anticipated movie Prometheus. There was a lot of speculation that it was a prequel to Alien. It is, in a mish-mash sort of way, for where Alien was focused and a story well told, Prometheus is bland. It aims to deal with big ideas but does it in such a way you need a primer to understand the movie.
Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie begins with a prelude set in the distance past. It may be on Earth or on another planet; that’s never made clear. Rather than the intelligence change in 2001, what happens is a biological infection. The movie then jumps seventy years into our future. Archeologists and lovers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings scattered through ancient cultures that feature a large humanoid figure pointing at a solar system. Since the cultures had no contact with each other, the archeologists postulate that it is a message from a race that helped establish life on Earth, whom they name the Engineers. With a trillion dollar investment from the Weyland Corporation, an expedition is mounted to travel to a solar system that matches the picture.
The crew of the space ship Prometheus is put in stasis for the long trip while an android named David (Michael Fassbender) stays awake, watching over the ship. He uses the time to learn all manner of ancient languages as well as indulge his obsession with Lawrence of Arabia, to the point that he looks and sounds like a clone of Peter O’Toole. Once the ship arrives at its destination, the crew awakens, starting with the mission commander, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Except for her and the two archeologists, the crew is in the dark about the mission. They are briefed by a holographic image of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the elderly CEO of Weyland Industries.
They land on planet LV-223 (not the same planet where Alien took place). It is a world of violent storms and an atmosphere that is deadly after exposure of more than a couple of minutes. They “just happen” to enter the atmosphere at the location of a hive-like structure. After setting down, several of the crew set off immediately to explore the hive, which they find contains a breathable atmosphere. They also find the body of a long-dead alien, a monolithic sculpture that looks like it was lifted from Easter Island, and a number of urn-like pods that begin to leak once they’re exposed to the humans. Chaos ensues.
The script is by first-time scribe John Spaihts working with Damon Lindelof, who created Lost. Rather than just being a prequel to Alien, the movie feels more like a remake of the plot, but without the prior movie’s originality and claustrophobic tension. It walks over the same ground as other movies, such as 2001, but in the end the discoveries do not pay off the setting up of such a major theme. It’s like an adopted child going in search of his birth parents and finding out they’re white trash of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre variety.
Noomi Rapace, who originated the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish language version of the Millennium trilogy, does a good job as Shaw, who is the Ripley of the story. Her will to survive, even to the point of undergoing major surgery, gives the movie its real spark of energy and humanity. Idris Elba, as Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, is effective. You identify with him which gives resonance to his fate. However, the rest of the crew appears to be there mostly as cannon fodder.
Fassbender’s David is a lighter version of Ash, the android from Alien played by Ian Holm. While he has his creepy moments, by the end the role devolves into parody. Charlize Theron’s role is the basic ice queen, which she does effectively. Unfortunately the climax for her character will have you screaming at the screen, “Run sideways!” Guy Pearce is completely wasted under layers of old age makeup and prosthetics. It makes no sense to have cast him in the role when dozens of older actors are available who could have nailed the character.
The film does look good on the screen, but one expects that from Ridley Scott. After Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, you also expect an engaging story well told. That is missing from Prometheus.