Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green
Running time: 124 minutes
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a film that will instantly divide audiences. On the one hand, it’s a slightly bloated, loosely-devised prequel to a far superior film; on the other, it’s a visually compelling feast of ideas that raises questions about the origins of human life and is not afraid to leave them unanswered. Whichever side of the spaceship you fall down on – and I’m firmly aligned with the latter – judging the film in relation to Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien, is neither fair nor worthwhile. Sure, Prometheus is set within the world of the Alien franchise, and the film does contain many (some might say, too many) allusions and references to Scott’s survival-horror benchmark. However, Prometheus is a far more ambitious film; one that jettisons the dark corridors and claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo in favour of a beautifully-realised science fiction landscape where scale and grandeur combine to leave a lasting impression. It’s not Alien, and if this bothers you, you’ve missed the point.
The film opens with some of the most memorable cinematography in recent years; a wonderfully-photographed series of landscape shots that eventually settle on a rocky outcrop of rivers and waterfalls. We’re not sure of the location; it could be Earth, but it feels older, more archaic. A hooded figure tentatively traverses the lonely terrain, before removing his cloak and revealing an alien form that looks distinctly human in its characteristics. The figure kneels to drink from an arcane device, and in an instant, he’s falling into the water, melting away into nothing but strands of DNA and floating blood cells. This opening deliberately foreshadows a number of the themes and ideas that are crucial to the film; we understand the scale of events through a simple scene that intentionally juxtaposes the awe-inspiring qualities of the natural landscape with the simple building blocks of human life.
A few scenes later and we’re on-board an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art space vessel named Prometheus. We witness an android called David (Michael Fassbender), performing his daily routine; he eats breakfast whilst deconstructing ancient languages and spends time dropping in on the dreams of his cryogenically-frozen ‘space mates’. Before long, the crew have been roused from their two year sleep-cycle and are gathered for a briefing by the ship’s financier, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). A holographic representation of Vickers’s father, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), along with two of the scientists chosen to lead the mission, explains to the crew the purpose behind their trip; ancient cave drawings have been discovered that point towards the possibilities of life in a distant part of space. The crew of Prometheus are here to explore the possibility of life on another planet, and to prove that these beings are responsible for the entire creation of life on earth. More to the point; they’re here to literally meet their makers.
If it all sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s designed to be. Science fiction cinema never got anywhere by thinking small, and the ideas contained in Prometheus are as big as they come. The premise is an intriguing prospect, and it provides Scott with a great foundation on which to build a number of awe-inspiring visual representations. The plot develops as you would expect; the crew are initially disheartened to find no sign of life on the strange planet, but conventional patterns in the earth (remember, God never builds in straight lines) prompt them to investigate anyway. Before you know it, something’s amiss, and the combination of duelling agendas on-board Prometheus, and hostile life-forms off of it, leads to an all-out battle for survival.
Where Prometheus completely succeeds is in its ‘look’. Ridley Scott is director who, above all others, knows how to create a unique and compelling visual location. From the darkened corridors of Alien, to the rain-soaked, culturally-jarring metropolis of Blade Runner, Scott’s fictional worlds are like no others. In Prometheus, the ancient landscape of our supposed creators feels so believable that the film’s plot becomes secondary. As the crew members traverse the chambers of a gigantic structure, we are treated to some truly memorable cinematography, where history and technology are juxtaposed to create a unique and lasting visual impression. The exploratory scenes are some of the film’s best, and demonstrate man’s hunger for answers regardless of the costs. The ultra-modern surroundings of the crew’s vessel provide a necessary counterpoint to the grandiose monoliths of the outside locations, and Scott cuts between the two on a regular basis. If films were judged on their look alone, this one would be a giant, and although I’m not sure the film needed to be presented in 3D, it did little to detract (as 3D so often does) from an otherwise visually-beautiful piece of cinema.
Fortunately, Prometheus isn’t all about its visuals, and the film provides us with a narrative that, although at times, may feel a little predictable and plodding, nevertheless offers us more than simply another example of the overused ‘explorers in peril’ formula. The questions asked are so large, and so important, that ultimately, there can be no answer. Yet the film is not afraid to admit this; instead, it simply supposes its ideas and runs with them. The need to tie events up with a neat conclusion is one of the most frustrating traits of modern cinema, and doubt and uncertainty can be as powerful as any form of closure.
Prometheus also benefits from an impressive cast. Noomi Rapace is a standout as the film’s heroine, Elizabeth Shaw, and she is involved in many of the film’s most memorable sequences. The similarities to Sigourney Weaver’s, Ripley, are impossible to miss (even down to the white briefs), yet Rapace feels just as vulnerable and just as determined as her legendary screen inspiration. Michael Fassbender is also great as the genius android, David, and with a performance that is a world away from his all-consuming role in Steve McQueen’s Shame, Fassbender lends the character a necessary degree of subtlety. Idris Elba is on form as the ship’s wise-cracking captain, and Charlize Theron is adept at depicting the cold and business-like, Meredith Vickers. There isn’t a bad performance to be found, and, as a result, the characters feel rounded and believable throughout.
Despite the overwhelming number of things that Prometheus gets right, there are still a number of problems with the film. The majority of these arise from the complicated, and often contrived, connections that the film tries to foster between itself and the Alien franchise. Scott initially planned for the film to be a straight prequel to Alien; a film that would endeavour to explain the events leading up to Ripley’s heroics aboard the Nostromo. Having abandoned this idea halfway through, Scott has settled on simply setting the film within the landscape of the Alien films. It’s a problem for a number of reasons: firstly, there are instances where the film tries too hard to establish these connections; the film’s ending is one such scene, and, to a degree, it somewhat undermines the good work that has come before. Secondly, the film has seemingly fallen prey to unfair comparisons between itself and its inspiration; many viewers seem disappointed that Prometheus is not simply another Alien, and Scott is partly to blame for these inevitable, if wholly unfair, criticisms. A standalone film may well have gone a long way to alleviating this burden.
There are also other problems with the film; it feels a little bloated at times, as if the writers are trying to pack in too many ideas, with little thought as to their development. Also, the onscreen characters often act completely irrational, and a number of events – including a medical operation that tentatively walks the line between genius and farce – are glossed over with only a passing reference.
Yet, in the end, none of these problems matter, and the film should be judged on its own merits and free of the burdens of its cinematic inspirations. Prometheus is a truly memorable work of science fiction with a visual style and an aesthetic look to rival some of Scott’s earlier work. It’s a film of ideas and suppositions; of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘why-nots’. It raises questions about the origins of human life and demonstrates man’s quest for the greatest of answers. You’ll get no closer to obtaining these answers by watching the film, but that’s not the point. Like all great questions, understanding lies in the asking.