Ridley Scott revisits the Alien universe with Prometheus. But can his new film deliver?
It’s hard to think of another recent movie as eagerly anticipated as Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Prometheus.
Blessed with a marketing hook trumpeting Scott’s return to both the Alien franchise and sci-fi filmmaking in general, ever since its initial announcement in 2009, Prometheus has been the recipient of a seemingly endless tide of goodwill from fans and critics alike.
However, it was with the release of Prometheus’ first trailer at the end of last year that the temperature was truly raised in terms of hype, buzz and expectation. Evocative, moody and – perhaps key to its initial impact – reminiscent of the original Alien trailer, it opened the floodgates for a slew of excellent and imaginative viral videos, TV spots and behind the scenes featurettes that expertly ratcheted up expectation for the films summer release.
It’s therefore a shame to report that Prometheus: The Movie doesn’t come close to delivering anywhere near the thrills, excitement and clarity of Prometheus: The Marketing Exercise.
Sadly, the warning signs are there from the opening sequence which, for better or worse, attempts to fuse together a montage of the primordial Earth, an alien spacecraft floating above a roaring waterfall and a mysterious hooded figure painfully sacrificing himself to initiate the beginning of life on Earth.
As mash ups go, this pot-pourri of The Tree of Life, 2001 and The Seventh Seal is at least visually arresting. But from a story point of view, it encapsulates the contradictions that lurk at the heart of Prometheus.
From this von-Daniken-esque vision of the past we jump forward to the year 2089 where archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are discovering a star map engraved on a cave wall in Scotland, similar to ones found in other unconnected sites around the world. This discovery leads to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the aged owner of the Weyland Corporation, funding a deep-space expedition aboard the research vessel Prometheus to follow the maps co-ordinates, and potentially find these outer-space Engineers who created life on Earth.
While the various crewmembers have slept soundly in their cryo-tubes during their two-year journey, David (Michael Fassbender), the on-ship android has been busying himself with various maintenance tasks and boning up on his alien linguistics. In his downtime he’s also been watching endless re-runs of Lawrence Of Arabia and has seemingly developed something of a Peter O’Toole fetish along the way.
Easily the best performance in the film, David is a wonderfully ambiguous and nuanced creation who earns his place alongside fellow synthetics Ash (Ian Holm) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen) with aplomb. That he manages to make this much of an impression while working with palpably inferior material than either Holm or Henriksen were ever given speaks volumes for Fassbender’s quality as an actor.
After a masterfully composed introduction to the interior of the ship from David’s POV, we quickly meet the rest of the crew. Speedily revived from hypersleep, this near 20 strong cohort briskly settle into the groove in a fashion that’s more reminiscent of Aliens – or even Alien: Resurrection – than Scott’s original trip into space.
Unfortunately, it’s after all of these characters are brought out of cold storage – and as the ship lands on the surface of planet LV-223 – that Prometheus really starts to come unstuck. With a script that’s both baggy, confusing and filled with way too many non-essential speaking parts, it simply fails to develop a clear focus.
His mind clearly on matters of a higher nature, Scott seems to neglect the underlying problems with the screenplay, and instead seems content to fill his epic canvas with a variety of elements, and populate it with cyphers instead of fully rounded characters.
On one hand you have Milburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), who in another life could have been a Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Koto) style double-act. Instead, they end up filling the screen with so many forced eccentricities that even Nicolas Cage might blush. At the other end of the scale, the two actors who are crying out for more pivotal roles are Idris Elba and Charlize Theron. When not being forced to deliver bland exposition or to stare blankly at various monitor screens, Elba and Theron light up the screen with their natural charisma, and together manage to conjure up a far more convincing on-screen relationship than the underpowered co-leads Rapace and Marshall-Green ever come close to portraying.
That said, Prometheus isn’t a total washout and there are moments where Scott manages to shake off his chains and allows the film to come to life.
Throughout, the veteran director’s eye for set design and scene composition is never less than top of the line and, most effectively in the scenes set on the titular ship, he manages to effectively paint a believable and credible future world with ease and economy. Apart from the scenes aboard the Prometheus, several of the other set pieces are also effective. The maiden expedition is a solidly creepy sequence, while there are later moments that are deliciously nasty. But for real lasting impact it’s the aftermath of a trip to the medi-pod that lingers in the mind, delivering the one truly memorable and disturbing image in the film.
However, despite the quality of these moments, they are just that and, overall, Prometheus flounders under the accumulated weight of some decidedly iffy story logic, a palpable lack of tension, an anti-climactic finale and an inability to effectively bridge the gap between its thematic pretensions and the conventions of a sci-fi franchise picture.
On reflection, it’s hard not to conclude that the decision by Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof to rework what was originally a more traditional Alien prequel into something with only the most tangential link to the original movie was a mistake.
As it stands what replaces Giger’s iconic creature are a series of hand-me-down images and concepts that never really gel with Scott’s ‘Chariot of the Gods’ high-concept and – with one notable exception – falls some way short of the visceral potency that made the first two Alien pictures such unforgettable experiences.