20th Century Fox
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland),Idris Elba (Janek), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Rafe Spall (Milburn), Sean Harris (Fiefield), Kate Dickie (Ford), Emun Elliot (Chance), Benedict Wong (Ravel)
Whether we’ve looked to God as inventor, invention or confluence, humanity has long been wary of her role in the relationship. None can agree who or what shaped us, if the signs and sigils we ourselves shape lead back to our true origins or propagate old fictions. Did We make him or did He make us? The hum of that old Ouroboros has propelled great thinkers toward progress and tumult alike for thousands of years. People die trying to unhinge those jaws for a peek inside, often not for themselves but to disprove others. Some want to touch the face of God, either to caress or to pop. Plenty more just want to stay away from those teeth, from that tail. They know what happened to Prometheus when Prometheus wanted to warm his hands over real flame, then came back for s’more. Is seeing the light of heavenly fire worth getting burnt?
That’s the kind of fire Ridley Scott plays with in Prometheus, a return to a world he hasn’t visited since 1979. Just as explorers Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway attempt a cosmic homecoming in this new story, Scott is meeting his maker here as well. The original Alien wasn’t just a breakthrough for science fiction films and progenitor to so much that came later; it also birthed Ridley Scott. It wasn’t the first feature he made, but it was certainly the one that made him. Space Jockey DNA streams through the director just as star residue streams through us. Prometheus is a study not just in origins, but in confronting parentage head-on. It just so happens that this well-spring is also the primordial pool from which all things spawned. To beleaguer the metaphor, Scott dives right in, head first.
The result is a film as beautiful as we have ever seen. Reverential, really. Shot in 3D and offered up on an IMAX canvas, Prometheus is a beatific vision befitting the gravity of its themes. Scott takes us to the origin of our species. It’s a grand and otherworldly event, our creation tainted by bleak beginnings. Writers Spaiht and Lindelof have essentially doomed us to a haunting from our conception. Contrary to any of our expectations, Prometheus isn’t just the riddle of the xenomorph solved. In fact it manages to sidestep that one. This is about us, where we came from, and whether or not we should follow the bread crumbs back.
Shaw and Holloway reside at the heart of Prometheus, two young lovers eager to unravel life’s greatest mystery through exploration. They starts in the deepest crevices of the wide world. As they unearth a series of cave paintings from remote locations throughout the globe, Shaw registers a remarkable pattern. The uncannily similar markings point both to humanity’s extraterrestrial origin and an invitation to a reunion between humans and their long-lost Engineers. Seventy years from tomorrow, they take their findings to the decrepit tycoon Peter Weyland, who agrees to facilitate the scientists’ journey to stars. It takes years to complete this interstellar homecoming, fueled by an impossible investment and led by a hugely theoretical carrot. As it turns out, Shaw and Holloway were right. At least partially. There was once something on this strange moon and something may yet remain. For as many answers as they find on this world, a dozen new questions arise from the muck. Which is why Prometheus emerges as a worthy prequel to something so iconic and game-changing as Alien.
The problem with many prequels is that their engineers become so concerned with presenting solutions that they deflate their source material of all its mystery. One film can never truly ruin another, but a franchise can certainly be corrupted by one false move. Here, the creators of Prometheus entice with a number of visual and thematic references to the films that came before (your H.R. Giger counter will start wailing in places and at frequencies you least suspect), but they only zoom out just enough to suggest a wider world without defining it. Some viewers might be frustrated that the story doesn’t present the kind of connections we’ve come to expect. If you’re anything like this reviewer, however, you’ll be glad that romance doesn’t just linger in the Space Jockey mythos, it abounds. I’m heartened that the film ends where it does, presenting an even more enticing call to adventure. Ripley’s story may have ended around 15 years ago, but the survivors of the Prometheus expedition live on. The promise of a forked story is a welcome one, as this particular world is rife with opportunity.
As is probably apparent, Prometheus is most closely related to the original Alien in style and tone and has little to do with its 1986 sequel Aliens. This is not a thriller or action vehicle, though it certainly has its share of graphic violence and explosive set-pieces. Just not to the extent that many viewers would probably like. In terms of structure, the best comparison might be Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a movie with similarly (space) operatic beginnings which eventually ratchets up to cosmic slasher. One might also take issue with the baldness of the film’s theme. Just as the original Alien series continually returned to its examination of maternal instinct and other psychosexual motifs, this one’s got whole heaps of mommy and daddy issues. The subtext often bubbles too close to the top, as with Shaw’s struggle with infertility and Vicker’s rivalry with David over Weyland’s affection and respect. The lack of subtlety in these exchanges are at odds with the sheer eloquence of Scott’s visual storytelling and the performances delivered by an astonishingly gifted ensemble. By and large, it’s a film as well shot and acted as Alien with the scope and grandeur of Cameron’s Avatar.
Once again, the android steals the show. Though briefly marred by a weirdly menacing turn, Fassbender’s David is a fascinating prototype. While his human companions slumber in their pods, David wanders about the ship learning new languages and engaging in terrific fetes of athletic prowess. With no electric sheep about, he monitors the crewmen’s dreams. Neither as cold as Ian Holm’s Ash or as deluded about his identity as Winona Ryder’s Call, he enjoys some wide-ranging relationships with the other characters. Once we see him develop a fascination with 1962′s Lawrence of Arabia, it’s impossible to shake his eery resemblance to Peter O’Toole.
When Fassbender isn’t on screen, it likely belongs to Idris Elba as ship’s captain Janek. As always, a rich presence. Here, he also provides some much needed levity, untethering some sandbags from a dauntingly heavy film.
Noomi Rapace makes for an ideal successor to Sigourney Weaver as torchbearer for the saga, still determined, but possessing a wholly different temperament. Ripley very reluctantly assumed maternal roles, always protective but rarely warm. Shaw wants to be a mother and derives great pain in her inability to conceive. Which makes her frantic self-guided surgery at the climax of the film all the more traumatic. Shaw’s journey is an excruciating one, but I’m heartened that her dire circumstances are ultimately unable to defeat her. Ripley just wanted to go home. Shaw wants to figure out what home means. She’s an explorer. Maybe that’s what Scott figured out. It’s not about going home again. It’s about figuring out what makes you great, makes you you, and then allowing that to propel you towards what’s next.
(Out of 5)
For more of Paul’s thoughts on the Alien film franchise, check out some recent episodes of his storytelling podcast Fuzzy Typewriter:
Fuzzy Typewriter: Alien
Fuzzy Typewriter: Aliens (with an s)
Fuzzy Typewriter: Alien 3 and What Could Have Been
Fuzzy Typewriter: Alien Resurrection
Fuzzy Typewriter: Aliens: The Drippings (AVP, toys, comics and more)
Fuzzy Typewriter: Prometheus
And stay tuned to iFanboy for a special edition podcast devoted to Prometheus.