Ridley Scott’s Prometheus returns to the dread of his finest movie, 1979’s Alien. The series he created about gruesome monsters that terrorize spaceships and wombs moved along with different directors and the movies went away from the quiet doom, dark shadows and the fascinating creations of hard science fiction and became, progressively, more and more routine creature features. Prometheus, the prequel of the series, harkens back to the original film and is similarly spectacular. In fact, the biggest problem with the movie is how closely it resembles the 1979 picture, it’s almost a remake as much as a prequel. Scott’s filmography is littered with diverse subject matter but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the man who is constantly tinkering and rereleasing different “final versions” of his Blade Runner (1982) couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remake his own film with all the technological tricks that were denied him 33 years ago.
It is 2089 and scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover in a cave drawings and markings of a similar nature created by ancient civilizations that should have had nothing to do with each other. They’ve discovered that all humanity has a common launching point and through the drawings, which are a star map, they can pinpoint where that launching point originated from. Shaw and Holloway have a theory that beings from the point of the star map created life on Earth and that if they could get there they might be able to answer the question of why we are here. Funded by the wealthy but dying Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) the two scientists join the crew of the Prometheus which will take a four year journey to the distant moon LV-223. Once there, the team discovers that advanced aliens, called Engineers by Shaw and Holloway, did in fact inseminate Earth with life but on LV-223, they’re all dead, some coming to rather nasty ends. Shaw and Holloway bring back the head of one of humanoid Engineers to discover they are almost identical DNA matches to human beings. From there Holloway becomes infected with a destructive alien disease, two other scientists are separated from the group and attacked by snakelike creatures, and it is discovered that Shaw is pregnant with what the ship’s doctor refers to as “not exactly a traditional fetus.” You can say that again.
The doctor is David (Michael Fassbender), an android created by Weyland, who monitors the ships activity. Between the original Alien and Blade Runner, Scott has made it clear that he finds the idea of artificial intelligence interesting, especially when it can be exploited for danger. In Alien the android played by Ian Holm malfunctions, endangering the lives of the rest of the crew. Despite being an older model, David appears to be free of such glitches but as played by Fassbender with a cool mix of 2001’s HAL and Hannibal Lector, you never can quite trust him. We are introduced to him during the ship’s journey, when the human passengers are fast asleep in stasis. He navigates the empty ship in eerie moments that remind us of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), attempting to learn human behavior by watching Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). His superior on the ship is Mission Director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who exudes demeanor and rigidity. More laid back is the captain of Prometheus, Janek (Idris Elba), in the mold of the workaday, blue-collar professionals in Alien.
The first half of the movie is a study in mood and art direction. The Alien movies have long used reproductive imagery to further punctuate the invasive nature of the creatures. Ships are long, rod-like spectres, the aliens themselves have pulsating, leaking appendages, even the pods for stasis have a feeling of accouchement. In Prometheus, along with the classic Alien visuals, the crew wears space suits that have egg shaped helmets as if their heads are ready to hatch and be free. At start of the second half, the set-ups are dutifully paid off and while the action ramps up it avoids turning into a pop-out movie. In fact, I was shocked thinking back how little monster action there is. Prometheus is a mostly still movie, the action comes in bursts and there’s time to think about the consequences of the frenetic scenes. The pregnant Shaw enters a medical pod demanding a cesarian for the progressively aggressive creature growing inside her. In a series noted for its scenes of creatures bursting out of human bodies, Prometheus gives us the best one, a potent cocktail of what we fear the most; violence from within, the unknown, and a little bit of being buried alive.
The last act of the movie raises a lot of questions, certainly about the origin and motivations of the Engineers, who we find out were the creators of the destructive monsters in the first place. That we aren’t given answers is fine, mystery has a place in sci-fi and horror. However, the vagueness of the motiviations for some on board the ship is less desirable, we are often asking ourselves why people are doing things. Theron’s character, so sharply defined in her introduction as a stern professional, becomes wishy-washy in final moments, and she spends too much time not in heated discussions that we would expect the Mission Director to be a part of. The movie’s sinister reveal is also ambiguous, which takes some of the bite out of it.
I read in an interview that Scott doesn’t believe that the movie is not a prequel to Alien and that Prometheus merely shares “strands of Alien’s DNA.” I can’t speak from a story level though there are more than a few indications that they are linked, but in every visual sense Prometheus belongs in the series. Numerous devices are used to remind us of the original film and some whole characters and scenes are direct quotes. The title reveals itself in the same way. Characters are repeated or are cast because of resemblances to their 1979 counterparts. Look at Noomi Rapace, her hair is done very much to look like Sigourney Weaver, who, as Ellen Ripley, is as responsible for the success of the series as anyone. How can you not, as Rapace runs through the ship in her white medical two-piece, not think of Weaver? This is slightly bothersome but doesn’t fully sink the movie because of how great the source material is. It seems like an encore more than a retread. Besides, James Cameron sequel Aliens (1986), while a fine picture, diverted largely from Scott’s original and effectively reset the mold and the subsequent iterations have taken more after it. After such a long time, it’s welcome to see a more quiet, truly disturbing thriller, as opposed to a big action movie with monsters.
What Prometheus adds is an underlining of one of the cruxes of the original film; the idea of violence of one generation against its older counterpart. The movies are about aliens that must kill their hosts to be born, and in Prometheus that idea is further explored, first with the curious behavior of the Engineers, who created life and then created its demise, and then on a personal level. “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead,” David asks. The mind immediately answers no, but one can see how an android, by observing behavior only, could come to that conclusion. Theron’s character briefly argues that such is the nature of things, that it is the parents’ job to make way for the children and even the movie itself, as a reimagining of its predessor, is a certain rebuke to the original’s dated special effects. Prometheus of Greek mythology spent eternity in exile and punishment for giving man fire, for furthering his knowledge. He advanced the next generation but also gave them the power to lay waste. The creatures in Alien have always been a metaphor for the destructive power of discovery and Prometheus, by taking after the original, is one of the best in the series.