Prometheus has finally landed in the UK, highly anticipated not just because of the thought of Ridley Scott returning to the Alien universe, but also thanks to its aggressive and ubiquitous viral campaign. It was originally touted as a sequel to Scott’s 1979 first instalment of the franchise, but that claim was later scaled back by the director. He insisted, in an interview with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo last week, that it was more an attempt to answer the unanswered question of how the massive humanoid creature, popularly known as ‘the space jockey’, came to be killed by an alien on planet LV-426 – a plot detail never expanded on in his original. He was keen to emphasise that Prometheus was ‘asking some more significant questions’ than his first movie, and that this was a ‘new universe [with] new experiences’. A more straight sci fi (with disaster, action and horror elements), to Alien’s sci fi/horror, Scott appears to have been true to his word.
The film follows the work of two young doctors, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who, while on an archaeological dig on the Isle of Skye in the year 2089, discover some mysterious cave paintings. These paintings tantalisingly hint that the key to the origin of humankind may exist in a distant galaxy. The action cuts forward to 2093, aboard the spaceship Prometheus, where android David (Michael Fassbender) is in control, attending to the other crew members, who are being kept in cryogenic suspension. As Prometheus approaches the planet LV-223, the other crew members and captain are woken up by David and learn the mission’s objective: to investigate the planet and try to uncover the origin of their species. We also learn that the imposing Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is ostensibly in charge and that the dubious-sounding Weyland Corporation has paid $1 trillion for the mission, as the dying wish of owner Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).
Where Alien was all visceral thrills and horror, Prometheus, with the help of a booming orchestral score, is more portentous (and some have said pretentious). The ‘significant questions’ Scott spoke of relate to the very meaning of life and, without wishing to give too much away, to ideas similar to those raised in his 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner.
One of the first things that strikes the viewer on entering Prometheus’s fictional universe is just how beautiful everything looks – another common theme in Ridley Scott movies. The design of the ship and the classical underground world of the humanoid creatures are especially good. The cinematography is excellent, as both the widescreen images of space and the alien landscape are rendered with as much delicacy as those inside the Prometheus. And the acting is universally excellent- the icy remove of Fassbender’s Michael and wide-eyed suffering of Rapace’s Shaw are especially noteworthy.
Many reviewers have complained about plot-holes or flaws but, if anything, my main complaint would be that it suffers from a case of being too short (not a common criticism of today’s blockbusters), as there is not sufficient time for total exposition of all plot points. It seems to be coherent but much is merely hinted at and never referred to – just like in the 1979 film. Similarly, some of the minor characters only appear on screen for a short period of time and have extremely minor roles, making them confusable in a crew of just seventeen. The surfeit of ideas presented in the script is the kernel of all of Prometheus’s problems and the plot could have done with some streamlining; though it seems churlish to complain when a movie is this fun. Some overall satisfaction is lost in the lack of analysis of themes like, say, Shaw’s Christianity and the impact alien life has on this, but for every clumsy line about humanity, there is expert suspense and manifold white-knuckle action sequences. The meaning of life is never easy to talk about without pretension.
In any case, the history of popular cinema is littered with cases of films (especially in the world of science fiction) that have plots that do not entirely make sense but are saved by the strength of the entertainment. The excellent Source Code is a recent case-in-point and Prometheus is another to add to that long list. The sheer force of the action, suspense and beauty of Prometheus is ultimately enough for most film fans. Just don’t expect anything quite as cerebral as it thinks it is, or listen to fanboys.
There is still much material left to explore and one gets the impression that the production team left things that way for the ‘two or three’ sequels Ridley Scott envisaged it would take to get to the time of the original Alien. I, for one, hope they do and the box-office buzz suggests they will get their wish. More fun, intelligent, non-comic-book-based blockbusters cannot be a bad thing.
Illustration by John Mcloughlin