Prometheus is not Alien. (In case that wasn’t obvious.) Ridley Scott directed them both and they share the same cinematic universe, but the 33-year span has changed the landscape the legendary filmmaker realized way back in 1979. Alien was and is a horror movie to its pulsating core, set in the claustrophobia and loneliness of space. James Cameron’s Aliens upped the ante and the artillery, and eventually others — namely David Fincher (Seven, The Social Network) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) — toyed with the environment in their own horrific ways, including two ill-advised, ill-fitting hybrids with the Predator galaxy. Shudder.
Scott, now 74, approaches the series as a changed man as well. As a result, his latest is an awe-inducing, star-gazing journey to understand and witness the origins of humanity, and the mission doesn’t quite go as planned. It’s about the hubris of challenging the gods by creating life, or a simulated version. It is an entirely different blend of science fiction and horror, with varied results, not necessarily focused on the birth of a terrifying creature that fans have grown to love. It is not a groundbreaking opus, just a fantastic movie. Flawed, but still fantastic.
If we learned anything from the late, great Ray Bradbury, it is this: good science fiction seeks to understand our world by peering into an exaggerated, often fantastical future. Prometheus is born from a concept that curiosity, faith, hubris and, perhaps, our manifest destiny has led this 17-person crew across the universe in 2093 to an uncharted moon to “meet our maker.” Their ship is even audaciously named Prometheus, a not-so-subtle reference to the mythological Greek hero who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to us mere mortals.
Visually, the film showcases a master at work in his own abandoned futurescape. It’s as though his Alien universe has been waiting, suspended in stasis, and Scott has re-awakened it for a curious revisit and a tech upgrade — even if that freshness seal has been broken so many times since by auteurs and opportunists alike. Spaceflight received a boost and the effects are noticeably enhanced, but the sterile, stark-white confines of the ship, its rusty, mechanical underbelly, and the ribbed tunnels of an alien world inspired by H.R. Giger are duly preserved. The environments are appropriately dazzling, made all the more seamless by subtle CGI and depth-producing 3D. That Scott was able to create something this ambitious in an industry this risk-averse speaks volumes about his pedigree.
Eagerly aboard the flight are archeologists Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the pair who discovered a group of vaguely similar cave drawings and connected the dots to this distant star system.
Shaw possesses the strong-willed resilience of Ripley 2.0, just scrawnier and scrappier. The series’ themes of birth and bloody abortion center on her. Only, like the rest of the crew, she has a nasty habit of touching things, wandering off, or breaking protocol once the ship lands in an ominous valley on LV-223. The most untrustworthy is David (played perfectly by Michael Fassbender), an android who takes his emotional cues from 1962′s Lawrence of Arabia. David has already met his maker, a mogul with a god complex named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce buried under pounds of make-up), and Weyland gave him a different set of instructions.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the common sci-fi conflict of knowledge versus spirituality, as Shaw discusses her devoutly Christian faith and fiddles with her father’s cross. Her unwavering divinity also provides a connection to audiences who may wonder why a summer movie is pursuing a higher being that isn’t already approximated in their own religion.
The progression is undoubtedly building to something sinister, that much is clear in the slither to first contact. A digital hologram shows massive beings fleeing from an unseen menace and there are oozing egg-shaped vessels placed before a monstrous sphinx. And, for those familiar with Alien, there is the uneasy expectation that something is lurking, waiting to emerge and prey on them. The same way we inherently know Jason Voorhees is about to give a blond and her college-age friends a serious case of steel poisoning.
Except, Prometheus screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (“Lost”, Star Trek) come with sci-fi credentials, not horror, and a knack for expansive, universe-building scope. These creative beginnings help explain why Scott’s seminal classic is all creepy, old-school horror and his new almost-prequel is an epic, mystifying odyssey. Ridley Scott has essentially directed two movies, skewed toward different genres, launched into the same universe.
Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof have been coy about calling Prometheus a prequel, even though the year (2093) precedes the existing chronology by roughly, coincidentally, thirty years. They are careful to say it runs “parallel” to satisfy questions about continuity, just as Lindelof and the Star Trek crew did with their re-launch. (No doubt 20th Century Fox executives want to save room for a saga, particularly since Scott has hinted at multiple revisits.) As Lindelof explained it to Entertainment Weekly, the original draft by Spaihts included many of the quadrilogy’s familiar elements (face-hugging, chest-bursting monsters with acidic blood). Lindelof’s subsequent rewrite introduced the cosmic crisis, the loose strands of unanswered bits that made his “Lost” conclusion so infamous. The culmination of their efforts amounts to a wealth of concepts connected by murky logic, amorphous structure and vaguely-drawn characters (17 of them).
Rapace has a slippery grasp of Shaw, until the storm rolls in. Marshall-Green struggles with Holloway, who morphs from inspired to sullen to a confused puddle. The arc of Idris Elba’s Captain Janek is a bumpy one. Charlize Theron’s character, a corporate officer named Vickers, is an enigma for all the wrong reasons. Sure, her near-naked push-ups look great, perfect for the relentless ad blitz, but the hardcore drive it takes to drop and do twenty (immediately after emerging from stasis) doesn’t match her pampered, impulsive bureaucrat and the only question Theron’s hard-shelled, gooey-centered vixen leaves is “what was her point again?”
However, while we puzzle over the missing pieces, here is some perspective. There is more wonder and dread in any single frame of Prometheus than the late Alien pretenders. It will leave you pondering, both the positive and the negative, but at least it warrants a discussion.