Humanity is threatened by its own penchant for exploration in Prometheus, a prequel to Alien that really isn’t (but totally is).
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS! SHUT UP, RIDLEY SCOTT!
(NOTE: This review refers to the 2D version of the film.)
In the year 2089, scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered a series of images spanning centuries and continents depicting a far-off star cluster. Three years later, Shaw and Holloway are aboard the ship Prometheus on a mission to explore LV-223, a moon in the cluster that could contain life. Financed by the corporate megalith Weyland Industries, the exploration is overseen by secretive Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and assisted by David (Michael Fassbender), one of Weyland’s top-of-the-line androids. The team finds not only signs of life on LV-223, but signs of something horrible and destructive that they may have inadvertently awakened and brought back to the ship with them.
Prometheus famously began life as an official prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien and to the franchise that followed. The lowest-common-denominator Alien Vs. Predator films put those plans on hold, as Scott didn’t want his film associated with the AvP series (and understandably so). Resurrecting itself as a prequel-in-everything-but-name, Scott has claimed repeatedly that Prometheus may take place in the same universe as Alien but is its own story. And if you believe that, you’ll also believe that in space, everybody can hear you scream.
Welcome to LV-233. Explore at your own risk.
All the elements of Alien are in place here, from the heroine drafted into becoming an action hero by the forces around her to the “here there be dragons” approach to space exploration to the intriguingly perverse bio-technic designs of H.R. Giger. Weyland Industries (here before their merger with the Yutani Corporation) proves to be as shady and amoral as ever, despite their veneer of philanthropy. An android again appears as a radically true-neutral entity, seeming to owe allegiance to nobody and to everybody all at once. Just like in Alien, humans are depicted as woefully unprepared for the results of the discoveries they so actively seek.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and familiarity with the Alien franchise isn’t necessary. Familiarity is as much a blessing as it is a curse, as is the lack of it. No matter what Ridley Scott or anyone else says, Prometheus seems to go out of its way to set up what happens in Alien, while also not doing that at all. Elements that would logically lead to parts of Alien are apparent, but they don’t necessarily come together in the expected ways. That disconnect can be frustrating for fans of the franchise, but it wouldn’t likely upset newbies. On the same level, it’s great to see those elements on the screen and to finally get some kind of context for Alien‘s beginning—the “space jockey”, the crashed ship, etc.—no matter how loose the context might be.
Searching for signs of intelligent—and pacifist—life.
Prometheus also shares Alien‘s cerebral, insidious space-horror DNA. It’s clear from the first scenes in the Prometheus itself that the mission isn’t going to be without its problems. The thought that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be blindly poking about the far reaches of space never crosses anyone’s mind, even if it might be all the audience can think about. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was the titan who fashioned humans out of clay and then later gave them fire in defiance of the gods. For his role in human advancement, he was punished by Zeus to be chained to a mountain where a giant bird would pluck out his liver each day, which would then regenerate so the bird could pluck it out again. It’s a reminder that every advancement and discovery comes with a steep price, at times almost impossible to pay.
There seem to be two primary modes of science-fiction cinema. On one side is the optimism and derring-do of space operas like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, and on the other is the darkness and Lovecraftian horror of films like Alien and Event Horizon. The crew of the Prometheus begin the film in one mode, confident in their mission and excited to explore the unexplored, but soon slide head-first into the other extreme of the spectrum, as they scramble to escape the inevitable chaos and impenetrable logic of the monsters they find.
Five-year mission? Not on my watch, mister.
Scott is excellent at building up this tension quite slowly. While the aura of dread might be present from the first frame, it’s not brought to the surface until much later in the film. In ways subtle and not-so-subtle, Scott previews what might be waiting for the ship’s crew and of the enormity of their discovery. The opening scenes of the film echo some of the most iconic moments from 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the planetary alignment of its opening to the alien landscapes Dave Bowman sees when he enters the star gate. New revelations on the planet are almost always underscored with a discordant choir that sounds highly reminiscent of the unearthly voices of the music used for 2001‘s monolith (from Gyorgy Ligeti‘s hypnotic Requiem). Like that film, Prometheus questions the nature of humanity and its future, placing both in the hands of an unknowable alien intelligence, although Scott’s vision is an apocalypse (in the word’s true definition as a “revelation”) of the communal instead of the personal. The true fear comes with the realization that humans are not, in the end, the masters of their own fate.
Scott’s cast does an excellent job of helping to ramp up the terror, with nobody seeming to be ill-cast. Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green are a very believable couple, their seeming incompatible philosophies working well in tandem. Rapace approaches the mission with a kind of naive idealism, a faith in the positive that at times seems to short-circuit the common sense centers of her brain. She’s extremely sympathetic, because who among us doesn’t hope that the darkness of space holds the answers to our problems? When things turn, however, Rapace is excellent at portraying Shaw’s confusion and genuine terror as her fragile worldview comes crashing down around her. Marshall-Green, on the other hand, is the atheist to Rapace’s true believer, a kind of extreme-sports scientist who leaps before he looks and throws himself so fully into his perceived outcome that he’s forced to, perhaps for the first time, realize that he’s taken on more than he can handle.
Into every life, a little killer alien must fall.
Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender are cast as villains almost by default. In the Alien franchise, Weyland is shorthand for corporate depersonalization and manipulation. If Rapace and Marshall-Green are our protagonists, because they seem the most accessible and recognizable, Theron and Fassbender are the antagonists, simply because they are the least accessible of the crew. Theron’s Vickers is cold and tyrannical, but there are hints of her humanity that occasionally poke through. It’s clear that her demeanor is a defensive mechanism, a way to shield herself and compartmentalize her emotions in service to her employers. She may not fully believe in the mission, but she’ll be damned if that will get in her way or make her look weak. In a way, it’s a bit too similar to Theron’s role as Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s not her fault that the movies opened within a week of each other, and this is a role she does exceedingly well. Fassbender is probably the most fascinating figure in the cast, perhaps the first human who has successfully crossed into the Uncanny Valley. David is too perfect, from his impossibly athletic body to his near-incomprehensible level of intelligence. In trying to mimic human emotion, David only serves to distance himself further from the people he’s designed to assist and resemble.
The many faces (sort of) of David.
The lack of clear villains is one of the film’s few flaws. Without any clear forces to root against, the film seems to lack a sense of momentum. A few genuinely terrifying scenes help to ramp up the energy, however, but it takes some time to determine if what the crew finds on LV-223 is a genuine threat or a misunderstood menace. Once that’s made clear, the film falls into place a little too quickly, the stately-but-tense quiet of the first half replaced by a relentless race to the climax. But, hell, what a climax it is, genuinely pulse-pounding and exciting. It’s almost enough to make you forget about all the things in the film that don’t make sense or that seem to be left unresolved only to justify a second film, a “prequel-sequel” if you will. There’s a bit of smugness in Scott’s unwillingness to explain some things. Although full disclosure would surely ruin the terror aspect of the film, since things are almost always less terrifying when they can be properly named and categorized, several parts seem frustratingly, intentionally left exceedingly oblique.
The plot has to be around her SOMEwhere…
Does Prometheus solve the mystery behind the origin of Alien? Not entirely. It raises as many questions as it answers. Does it speak to some theories on the origin of humanity? Again, yes and no. The idea that ancient astronauts created or instructed early humanity is an intriguing (if unlikely) idea, but Scott adds a bit of life to it by taking a decidedly much more sinister take on it than most. However, little of this might matter, since the film is first and foremost a well-made, immersive piece of sci-fi/horror that serves as a perfect addition to Scott’s other black space classic. What happens when the void looks back at you? Screams, of course.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and needs to find his power loader. Like, right now.