That could very well be the tagline for Ridley Scott’s new “is it a prequel to Alien or what?”, and the answer — spoiler alert! — is yes, definitely. There was never any question that the film was aping Alien in its trailer, not to mention the overall look of the film. The production design and cinematography both clearly harken back to the 1979 sci-fi classic that put Scott on the map. But it remained a bit unclear how much of Prometheus‘ story would connect to the tale of the ill-fated Nostromo. In fact, it was pretty unclear what Prometheus was about at all, thanks to coy marketing. (Not that I’m complaining about that. The less I know a bit film walking into it, the better.) I went into Prometheus not knowing what to expect. What I got? Everything.
Everything but the kitchen sink, that is. I’ll avoid going into too much detail about the plot for those who haven’t yet seen it, and because it would take many, many paragraphs to sum up all that happens here. It’s a lot. And even if I tried, I’m not sure I could make sense of it all, since many elements of the story are either ambiguous or flat-out don’t add up. Prometheus assaults us with dots but connects few of them. Suffice to say, it’s about an expedition of scientists aboard a ship called Prometheus, searching for life in the far reaches of the universe — funded by Weyland Industries (that never bodes well).
The early scenes contain a sense of awe and wonder that could only be delivered by a master like Ridley Scott. The prologue is a nice “WTF?” moment featuring a mysteriously bad-for-you beverage, then we meet two scientists — sweethearts Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw, played by Logan Marshall-Green and, in a nice bit of casting, the Swedish Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace. (Is there a more Sigourney Weaver-esque young actress working today?) The year is 2094, but those moderately creepy robot-people have already been invented. This story’s is David (played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, ever the chameleon, who steals the movie). The group is led by Weyland’s resident bitch, Meredith Vickers, who doesn’t even try to hide that she has some sort of secret, sinister corporate agenda. She’s played by Charlize Theron, basically reprising her her character from Young Adult (if Mavis had been in charge of a spaceship).
From there, Prometheus doesn’t rush to deliver action or horror; it’s a slow-building tension. You know, the kinds of movies Hollywood made, say, in the late 70’s.
But then things go a little wrong.
For a good stretch, Prometheus feels fresh. There’s something vital and alive about Ridley Scott’s direction; it’s confident but patient, not ostentatious. I was reminded of Spielberg’s A.I., another film dealing with an android named David, and all the care and detail he utilized to bring that futuristic world to life. There is similar imagination here, an attention to detail that masterfully sets up the story. It doesn’t feel like other sci-fi flicks. But then where does it go? Well, that’s the problem.Prometheus has big ideas at its core, but it’s also careful not to piss off the people who came to see another Alien, and those two elements never gel. It’s like we’re watching two separate movies stitched together, and one of them is markedly worse. There are enough ideas here for three entirely separate sci-fi horror films, but Prometheus remains undecided about which story to tell. Is it a contagion thriller? An Alien movie? A zombie flick? Or a more ponderous think-piece? All these, and more. Prometheus feels like a script rewritten so many times, it’s lost its soul; unsure of which direction to take it, Scott and company decide to explore every possibility. Thus, we get corporate intrigue, but not really; bad space beasties, for a little while; Alien-style shenanigans, in a scene or two; a character returning from the dead, but without fanfare; and, worst of all, an odd scene where a zombified member of the crew returns for a brief scare aboard Prometheus — yet nothing before or after suggests how this happened, and the idea is abandoned in favor of other thrills.
There is one sequence guaranteed to make you squeamish, a brilliant twist on the gestation horror of the original Alien. It’s great. But then everyone forgets about it pretty quickly — no one in this movie properly reacts to anything. A simultaneously phallic and vaginal space snake appearing out of the ooze? Let’s pet it! A tiny worm crawling into my eye? Eh, I’ll just go about my day and pretend nothing happened! A gazillionaire returning from the dead searching for the key to eternal life? No biggie! You infected my boyfriend with an alien virus and nearly killed me in the process? All’s forgiven, I’m over it! Is this how people behave in 2094, or just lazy screenwriting? An extraterrestrial growing inside of you, trying to kill you from the inside out, used to be a pretty big deal. Enough to build a whole movie around. Now, it’s a mere blip on the radar, and then — onward!
The trouble is, that original Alien stuff is still the best thing about Prometheus. I don’t mind that the prequel goes in a different direction — ultimately, a more grandiose and thoughtful one — but I wish it had taken the time to explore one or two of its many elements thoroughly, saving the rest for sequels. In many ways, Ridley Scott still has the same steady hand he had back in 1979, but he forgot the main thing that made the original Alien work so well — simplicity. It was a slasher movie set in space. Prometheus is exponentially more complicated, a curio of potential sci-fi movies in search of a narrative to string them all together. It’s Ridley’s Believe-It-Or-Not — and sometimes, I did believe it. Other times? Not.
Perhaps it sounds like I’m being harsh on Prometheus, or even that I flat-out didn’t like it. That’s not the case. The film casts a memorable spell; the atmosphere and mood work just as well now as they did in the 70’s. And it leaves you with something to think about as you leave the theater. It’s not hollow, as so many other sci-fi entertainments these days can be. It’s unfortunate that the script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof needs to so bluntly hammer home the spiritual theme in the film’s messy final act; after a nice setup (with a strangely brief cameo from Patrick Wilson), the film’s thoughts on faith versus science come across about as subtle as an acid-blooded beastie bursting out of your chest.
Despite my reservations, I welcome any more Prometheus/Alien movies, provided some new screenwriters are hired for the next go round. As Prometheus amply proves, there’s still a lot of fun to be mined out of this franchise, as long as the Predator stays home.