While this summer sees its share of highly-anticipated, high-minded blockbusters such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, there is no film that has evoked wild speculation and intrigue like Ridley Scott’s much-ballyhooed sci-fi Prometheus. Played down as something of a spiritual predecessor to his masterful Alien, one cannot help but feel that Scott’s thinking was simply to avoid fanboys rabidly comparing his newly-gestating creation to their precious 1979 baby. Make no mistake, this is a sure-fire, full-tilt prequel to Alien in every imaginable sense, yet also stands on its own two feet as a thrilling sci-fi spectacle that should have series fans discussing it for years to come.
Scott’s film opens in the late 21st century, as archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map during an expedition to Scotland. This map has been previously discovered all over the world countless times, created by civilisations centuries apart, leading the two to believe that it might point to extraterrestrial life, and even perhaps the progenitors of the human race. The Weyland corporation funds an expedition for the vessel Prometheus to follow the star map to planet LV-223 with an express warning from on-board Weyland envoy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) that they are not to interact with any life they encounter. Naturally, all Hell soon enough breaks loose and the consequences aren’t particularly good for anyone involved.
Much like Scott’s beloved original, Prometheus dares to build slowly, beginning with a mystifying opening scene before dealing with the usual suiting-up preambles. Small touches, like having Shaw vomit from the shock of being in stasis, keep the film grounded as a prequel – what with the stasis technology being less-developed than in the other Alien films – despite the fact that it is in production terms obviously the most sophisticated of the bunch. Those not acquainted with the previous films – shame on them – might take umbrage with the slow burn plot and its talkier, less action-based nature than any of the other entries, but it is unquestionably consistent with their style and tone. There is a more pragmatic feel to Scott’s filmmaking here, however; gorgeous, lingering shots of the Prometheus hovering in space and grand, vast set-pieces amid the barren LV-223 give the film a more pronounced – albeit less claustrophobic – sense of space. While there are several suspense sequences of nail-biting tension that are typical Scott, there is also, with the use of transport vehicles and fiery weaponry, a vague air of the militaristic fetishism that characterised James Cameron’s Aliens.
Still, to persistently compare the pic to the most-lauded entries into the series and, indeed, the genre, seems patently unfair. After all, Prometheus is easily the most thematically ambitious of any film in the Alien universe, riffing lithely on – to name just a few – where we come from, what happens when we die, the notion of the soul, the conflict between science and religion, and the idea of shifting belief systems. The concept of the Engineers – the giant, chest-bursted creature encountered in the first act of Alien, commonly referred to as the “Space Jockey” by fans – having possibly spawned the human race is introduced right off the bat, a surprising and brave choice; also one which proves shrewdly economic. Dr. Shaw’s desperate search for these beings helps form the crux of the film’s internal conflict; Shaw is a believer in God – after all, someone must have created the Engineers – but what happens if you encounter something so damning to your belief system that it is irreparably damaged? Throw into the blender looming prospects of motherhood, and the questionable nature of the ship’s child-like android David (Michael Fassbender), and you have what is unmistakable deep-dish blockbuster storytelling, bursting with ambition that carries through to that spectacular final shot.
The vagueness of some aspects of the story are sure to prove divisive, however, particularly as it pertains to characterisation. While Shaw and David are immaculately fleshed-out, many peripheral characters are relegated to mere alien fodder, painted broadly as tokens, such as “the geek”, “the co-pilot” and “the medic”. Perhaps the enlarged crew roster is to blame for this – for several characters will likely never be remembered by name – but the important ones – including Idris Elba’s matter-of-fact pilot Captain Janek – are rendered so well that it is all things considered a very minor quibble. As far as its spareness relates to the story, the film has no intention of being a closed-off, cut-and-dried prequel to Alien. There are at least two pertinent questions left unanswered when the credits roll, but fans who don’t expect a breadcrumb trail, and are prepared to draw their own barmy conclusions are likely to have a lot of fun with it. Again, it is an act of pragmatism on Scott’s part; we get enough answers to make the film fantastically functional as a prequel, while holding us at enough of an arm’s length that there is further room still to expand the universe.
Something that won’t divide the fan community, however, is the picture’s technical credentials; Scott has concocted his most alive and enthusiastic film in years, girded by not only the live-wire script, but inscrutable visual effects and impeccable production design, the latter two worthy of Academy Award consideration. Dariusz Wolski’s exceptional cinematography captures both the literally awesome scale of LV-223’s expansive desolation and the tight claustrophobia of Prometheus’ imposing hallways. What ties it all together, is Marc Streitenfeld’s chilling score, unquestionably indebted to Jerry Goldsmith’s classic work on Alien, while also boasting enough of its own potentially iconic zingers – especially its closing one. All this said, the 3D is fairly underwhelming – even when viewed on an IMAX screen – and at times close to invisible.
For all of the temptation to gush, it is simply a film best sought out with minimum exposure. The overboard marketing campaign has given away much more than it should have, but there remains plenty still left to discover, particularly in its rollercoaster of a third act. Some of Scott’s creative decisions are going to divide fans straight down the middle, but the confidence of his vision, the exuberance of his craft, is undeniable, as are the efforts of his cast, particularly Fassbender – who steals several scenes – Theron, Elba and Rapace (despite an occasionally shifting accent). In terms of sheer overwhelming spectacle, this certainly feels like Scott’s most well-rounded and accomplished feature since his classic Blade Runner thirty years ago. Seek it out for yourself and again remember that imaginative, daring sci-fi is out there for the finding.
Prometheus is released in UK cinemas from Friday June 1st and in US cinemas from June 8th.