Prometheus

Spoiler Warning: I’ve tried to keep this spoiler free, but proceed with caution.

It’s possible I’m not enough of a fan of the Alien franchise to really appreciate the problems with Prometheus. I didn’t know that the movie was happening until a couple of years ago, when Scott was reportedly working on a film that shared DNA and an universe with Alien but was otherwise a completely different animal.

As such, the project fascinated me. It was, for all intents and purposes, a new science fiction film from the director who had made my favourite science fiction film of all time – Blade Runner – as well as making my second favourite alien-themed horror movie of all time in Alien. Not that you’re asking, but my favourite is The Thing.

My focus at that point was that it was something new. That was what advance word promised. I could really get into the idea of something new in that general area from that director.

If I was more of a fan of the Alien franchise, I might have heard that Scott and Cameron where trying to develop a new Alien outing – prior to Aliens Vs Predator being made – and that that was what would eventually become Prometheus. Or I might have responded to the later growing attempts by Scott and the studio, as release approached, to market this film into alignment with the franchise with something other than disappointment and dread.

I wasn’t worried that they’d fuck up another Alien movie, you understand. I’m not enough of a fan to think they fucked up the others as much as a real fan would. I just thought it was a shame that what had sounded like being something new was going to end up just another version of something old.

I needn’t have worried. From the opening shots, Prometheus stands alone as a visionary work – a film that isn’t just there to exist or elicit a visceral response, but is about something more personal.

(It mostly delivers on that early promise, although it isn’t without missteps. It’s arguably at its weakest when Scott strays too close to invoking his earlier movie, not least because that’s when the audience’s expectations are most confused and aggravated.)

Those opening shots, by the way, are beautiful. We’re moving over a dramatic and varied landscape, broad and as alien and empty as it is familiar.

This is when my usual loathing of 3D faltered – the film is fully shot with 3D cameras, and I can’t honestly say that these vistas, and some of the scenes later, would have looked as spectacular without the effect. This broke down somewhat later on, when on occasion Scott used the whole frame to deliver information, and the image frazzled slightly at the fringes, but that was a limitation of the viewing technology, not the filmmaker.

We see a perfectly realised humanoid alien by a rushing body of water – the uncanny valley chased after and achieved in his features deliberately and to chilling and oddly beautiful effect – and he does something… alien. It’s potent and mysterious, and immediately more reflective than in any of the movies this one is supposed to be related to. We’re told by this scene, compellingly, that this film is going to be about DNA, and about playing God. And it all looks pretty, so isn’t nearly as dull as I’ve made it sound.

Following this cold-open, we’re introduced to our key human protagonists. They’re archaeologists and lovers, Elizabeth Shaw – played by Noomi Rapace – and Charlie Holloway – Logan Marshall-Green – who have found what amounts to a map, hidden in the wall art of ancient and unconnected civilisations, to a distant star-system, guided by giants. Driven by conflicted but steady faith, Shaw leaps to the desire to meet these giants, who she believes are the key to finding the origins of our species, and Holloway concurs, seemingly driven more by ego of discovery.

And then we cut to an undisclosed time later, and essentially our third opening sequence, but this time one that will stick. We’re aboard a spaceship – the titular Prometheus – and we follow a lone figure that we quickly realise may be more than human, left alone to care for a crew in cryogenic suspension. This is David, played by Michael Fassbender, and it’s another in what seems to be becoming a series of understated but show-stealing performances by the actor.

David is an android – seemingly incapable of emotion, but at the very least programmed to show inquisitiveness, humour and empathy – and Fassbender plays him perfectly. One thing that ties this movie to both Alien and Aliens is the skill with which the android character is played – Holm and Henricksen each did a great job of delivering these complex constructs, and Fassbender doesn’t disappoint.

This ship and its crew is the mission, funded by eccentric, aging industrialist Peter Weyland – inexplicably played in old-face by Guy Pearce – to find the planet that Shaw and Holloway’s maps point to. Weyland is probably the richest person on the planet and facing his own mortality, and as such is susceptible to big causes like the one Shaw presents.

It’s here, in a mission briefing session, that themes and agendas are raised and will play out. One crew-member mocks Shaw with the suggestion that she is willing to throw over Darwinism in search of a creator, and this is a conflict we see throughout in her character. These are also a pair of character traits that don’t naturally sit well with an audience – spiritual faith seeming incompatible with scientific discovery – but in history they actually aren’t that alien to each other, and it’s a rich thematic seam.

We also start to get to know the crew here, although only a few points are worth taking away from it:

The mission commander Meredith Vickers is played with fierce focus and coldness by Charlize Theron, and she doesn’t believe in the mission, or particularly like Shaw and Holloway.
Idris Elba’s captain Janek still manages to be likeable even though in this instance Elba misses his chosen American accent by a mile.
And there’s jovial but cruel attention from Holloway to David.

It’s these scenes on the ship that establish the players and their relationships, before sending them down onto an alien planet’s surface that fits their mission parameters, and where something or someone has built structures ripe for exploring.

And then… other things start to happen. Some incredibly beautiful and incredibly horrible things. But I’m not going to tell you what they are.

At this point, it’s probably obvious that I loved this movie. The scale and scope of it, the world-building, the establishment of a rich but ultimately very accessible mythology – these things very much satisfied my desire for a new science-fiction narrative to emotionally engage with. The themes, of the act of creation, the search for meaning and the discovery that the truth isn’t always what you want to hear, and that God or your gods aren’t always kind, are ones that I’m fascinated by, and those muscles are given lots to work with here.

(An aside: at times Scott, Rapace and her character seemed to be making a subtly different film, an adaptation of a wonderful science fiction book called The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell. These are two very different worlds, but there’s enough there to make me really want to see a version of that book and it’s sequel.)

But there is also a lot of stuff in here about identity and the relationship between child and parent, and these two linked themes come together nowhere better than in Fassbender’s performance in several important scenes. It’s no accident that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. These narratives are intimately, intricately thematically linked. There’s a cute literary reference to the original Prometheus as well, though I only just realised it.

In fact, this film isn’t, despite the marketing and audience’s protestations, a science fiction movie by “Ridley Scott, director of Alien”, it’s the one made by the Scott who directed Blade Runner, and then went on to fine-tune a populist vision that – for the most part – he has thankfully stepped away from here.

The two real substantive flaws with the film – and it is flawed – are that though Scott’s instinct to go large and epic has been developed in the years since his last big science fiction movie – and this film is inevitably epic – the bad habits that come from angling after the audience’s immediate response sometimes insinuate themselves here, and aren’t compatible with the subject matter. The pacing suffers from this a bit – scenes are allowed to breathe early on, but at the three-quarters mark suddenly the narrative kicks up a notch and too much visual and story information seems to get lost in the shuffle. Some big reveals in the final act have much of their potential drama sacrificed to the needs of the plot, which is jarring – when the finish line is in sight, the film kind of rushes hard toward it, and spunks a lot of finesse in the process.

There’s still an impressive working movie there, but this is the rarest of things – a two hour movie that could have stood to have another fifteen to thirty minutes added. A few more weeks on the edit could have smoothed off the jagged edges in those last twenty minutes.

And the other thing is that though Lindelof was aboard as co-writer, the super-competent humanising and juggling of a large group of characters present in that first season of Lost didn’t influence the movie as much as Scott’s comfort zone of mechanical cyphers in supporting positions. There’s something in the complaint I’ve heard levelled at the film that one “doesn’t care about the characters”, and though I don’t believe some characters need a full back-story or personality sketch on screen to serve their purpose, we’ve seen the “ragtag crew” motif enough times that if we’re going to remember the people who make up this large group, we need more from some of them to sink our teeth into. Away from the trinity of Rapace/Fassbender/Theron, the only real standout personality is Janek, duff accent and all.

That latter issue would be more devastating if this was another stalk-and-slash haunted-house story like Alien, which it isn’t – this isn’t a film about survival, so we don’t spend much of it foccussing on the dwindling numbers of the crew – but alongside its larger scope the film does tread in that familiar territory later on, so a little more attention to the bit players would’ve given it more bite.

The only point where a performance really hobbles the movie is the case of Holloway. The character is underplayed or underwritten to the point where at times it feels as if Rapace is dragging him around and at others seems over-dramatic by comparison, when actually she delivers a strong take on a complicated role.

Despite all this, Scott et al get way more right than they get wrong, with a very ambitious film. As I’ve said before, this film owes far more to Blade Runner than Alien thematically and in terms of how reflective it is. I want to mention the movie Sunshine – for no other reason than I think it’s a red herring to keep tying this into Scott’s earlier work – but even that feels a little cheap. This story plays out more like a marriage between Phillip K Dick and Euro-comics – our way in is very much about the human experience, but we’re touching the edge of a mythology that is vast and alien enough that it wouldn’t be out of place filling thousands of pages drawn by Moebius.

Aesthetically there are several nods and tiny details that tie it into the original Alien almost more than any movie in the franchise since – this is much more of a love letter to Giger’s work than anything Cameron or those that followed delivered. Rather than offering steadily diluted iterations on HR’s original vision, this movie goes right back to the source, with whole set-pieces looking like his most famous paintings. There are also a few gloriously grotesque moments of body horror that are tonally in keeping, but the underlying theme of invasion and rape there are replaced here with those themes of progeny and procreation I mentioned.

There’s a contrast in Prometheus, hard-coded into it’s DNA from the start, that isn’t present in a lot of the other movies we’ll end up discussing alongside it, between bright open spaces and dark secret ones. Of going looking for things larger than us and asking questions of them, rather than stumbling upon them in the dark and having to cope with the consequences. Of feeling in control and finding that you’ve overestimated your position in the run of things. Dropships don’t crash to earth in barely controlled chaotic fall, they coast in to a backdrop of beautiful blue skies, but the environment can catch you unawares. And God is in there too, and is as huge and alien and scary as you’d expect. Hope isn’t already dead in this particular version of the future, and that leaves Scott’s protagonists in a position of weakness when they start to reach out to the rest of the universe.

I reckon that for something to be real science fiction, it has to be impossible for the narrative to function without the science fiction elements. For a film to be a prequel, the events in it have to not only precede events in later entries, but have to be required to make those events happen, or at least inform them. This isn’t a prequel to Alien at all; it’s Scott doing science fiction, and doing it well. Not as well as he did in Blade Runner, but I’m taking comfort in the fact that that film didn’t find it’s audience straight away, and that there’s bound to be a director’s cut at some point that does something about that final act – it feels really obvious to me that there are important seconds lost there for the sake of running time, and I’d like to love those climactic scenes a little more.