Directed by: Ridley Scott
Produced by: Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron
“The fire that danced at the end of that match was a gift from the Titan Prometheus, a gift that he stole from the gods.”
After the months of patiently waiting and dodging the intensive hype machine, after all the last gasp dashes out of the cinema for fear of falling victim to ‘trailer rape’, it was more than a little disheartening to finally make it to release time with a clear mind only to find that Prometheus had generally met with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.
Surely people were mistaken? This is Ridley Scott we’re talking about here; the director who gifted us with dark science fiction masterpieces throughout the 80s. Prometheus even comes from the hallowed ground of the much revered Alien series (the first two at least) with which it shares its science fiction mythology. Surely to even think of the great man taking a misstep with these solid footholds is entirely unthinkable?
Well, unfortunately not.
Prometheus is a big budget prequel to the Alien franchise (no matter how coy Scott is on the matter) and sets out to answer some of the questions which have long fascinated fans, while attempting to reboot the franchise. More often than not it does this well, forgiving one or two unfortunate slips (a flute being used to start a space ship? Rubber egg control buttons?? Really!!?). What we are given is a fascinating, albeit vague, glimpse at the wider universe which exists beyond the Xenomorph’s and face huggers. We come into contact with the mystery giant alien’s who piloted the crashed spaceship and their incredibly advanced technology. We are given bread crumb clues as to their relationship to humans and why they had the xenomorph monster onboard.
The plot bounces between genres: horror, intrigue, action, and blockbuster. It could be said that Promethues doesn’t really know what kind of genre film it wants to be but having this varied approach needn’t be a bad thing. Claustrophobic horror and balls to the wall military action have already been perfected in this series so there is no sense in trying to recreate them. The bar has been set unimaginably high and other pretenders to the series have already come a cropper trying to square up to them. It is true that Prometheus does not come away with its own distinctive sense of identity but this strange mixture of ideas does make for an entertaining whole which can stand up by itself.
Revisiting an old idea is always a difficult nut to crack. It has to be expected that the interests of the director will most likely have moved on from the ideas which originally enraptured the fans, and rarely is this for the best. It also opens the door to the original source material being contradicted and undermined. On the other hand fans will always expect something which harks back to their youths and somehow captures exactly what they have been imagining for years. It is a difficult balancing act to get right, and one which Prometheus negotiates quite well. Nods to the old films are not as forced (or as laughably shit) as in recent Terminator and Predator films, while the original ideas remain unsullied. The answers to questions so long craved are broadened out into interesting concepts, taking in themes such as DNA, evolution, and genetic engineering. And, true to form, the answers are given in such a cryptic way they are left tantalisingly open for further exploration and interpretation.
The visuals are typical of modern day blockbusters with big, bold, elaborate action sequences built for 3D theatres, splashing generally impressive but occasionally suspect CGI all over the screen. Adults raised on hand made models and prosthetics will never know if CGI is capable of inspiring the same sense of fear in the modern youth– the kind of fear which lasts a life time – but there are some dark moments along with tense and edgy sequences.
Disappointingly Scott has for some reason decided to abandon the dark and brooding post-industrial decay which featured heavily in his 80s films, and was a particular feature of the Alien universe. One of the things which set Alien apart from other science fiction is the brutal realism it brought to space travel and life amongst the stars. It wasn’t the usual swashbuckling fantasy place which you dreamed of being a part of. Space travel was hard and took decades spent entombed in cold silent ships. The working classes toiled in the claustrophobic engine room underbellies of ships, where steaming pipes and dank dripping walls created an oppressive reality. Humans and their feeble biology struggled to survive out in the harsh environments of space, and death was always a common companion. Perplexingly this unique and highly influential take on the future has been abandoned in its entirety in favour of the common sterilized plastic look reminiscent of Star Trek.
The problems do not end there. The Prometheus crew is full of largely forgettable characters which receive little screen time and make scant contribution to the plot. Even a major star such as Charlize Theron comes across as superfluous and any detail her character brings to the mission could have been achieved through second hand knowledge. Together with the ships captain (played by Stringer Bell), the ‘comedy’ pilots, and the bland clothes store model boyfriend character, they contribute nothing of substance. That said Fassbender excels as the creepy and emotionless android, and provides a good insight as to why humans in the earlier films are always so uncomfortable and paranoid around synthetics. In the central role Noomi Repace doesn’t quite create same the draw as the Ripley character but she does enough to stand out despite the half baked religious motivations she has to work with.
At times there is the suggestion of a secondary plot line involving a political battle to gain control of the mission, an idea with some promise given the vague nature of the science mission, but under the weight of the mythology and the central story this plot strand is almost entirely submerged. Perhaps in a few years a directors cut could give more weight to this idea but currently it is wasted, along with many of the characters.
It is no surprise then to hear that Prometheus is full of plot holes which will dominate most criticisms. Without giving away spoilers it is suffice to say that most of them are minor mistakes made out of laziness, perhaps a sign that Scott is more concerned with the grand ideas of science fiction rather than thoroughly working them through. These mistakes can easily be explained away with a bit of imagination, yet others are more integral and difficult to forgive even for the non-pedant. It is not enough to spoil the main point of the film but it does stop it from becoming the classic it should have been.
During the finale Prometheus cuts loose and veers toward the kind of silly blockbuster it really should be better than; suffering a total loss of control and the weakest part of the film. It smacks of Scott not really having a way to neatly tie up the many ideas flying around and instead opts for a bizarre set up for a sequel which is unintentionally comical.
It’s easy to want to hate Prometheus, after everything it promised, and everything it failed to deliver. And this is not all down to high expectation, or shattered childhood hopes. Much of the time it is simply due to rough edges and careless lapses in concentration. Prometheus is a good enough film in its own right, providing some very memorable scenes and visualising some interesting science fiction concepts, even if it doesn’t go to great lengths to explain them. But it is hard to escape the fact that it doesn’t really achieve the standards set by the two classics it shares its DNA with.