by Matt Smith
Ridley Scott’s quasi-prequel to his genre-defining 1979 hit Alien opened in the U.S. two weekends ago and was immediately beset with detractors. It isn’t an Alien prequel, they said. It doesn’t answer any of the questions it sets up. It devolves into a monster movie. And those are some of the semi-logical complaints. Perhaps most egregiously, as a result of opinions like these, the film is being judged by the same critics for what it does as much as what it doesn’t do. How one can reconcile such seemingly contradictory viewpoints is beyond me. But to the task at hand: to provide my own, untainted thoughts on Prometheus and explain why I think it is the ambitious sci-fi blockbuster we need, even if it’s not as good as its predecessor. How many films can claim to be as good as or better than Alien anyway?
Prometheus follows a scientific exploration expedition to a distant star system in search of the being responsible for creating all life on Earth. The film’s plot not only winds the clock back on the Alien mythos, it also approaches it at a right-angle, providing only brief mentions of any ties to the saga of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. This time our focus is on Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist convinced she has discovered a map to the origins of our existence. The voyage, as well as the ship Prometheus, the film’s namesake, is funded by the Weyland Corporation, which fans of the series will know well as a nefarious organization with its own agenda in space.
Shaw is accompanied by her boyfriend, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), Weyland Corp.’s Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an android named David (Michael Fassbender), and a motley crew of scientists as well as the ship’s navigation team, led by Idris Elba as the captain of the Prometheus, Janek. They arrive on Planet LV-223, the planet the maps discovered by Shaw indicate is where they will find the race of Engineers. Without getting into the specifics of their discovery, I will say that what the crew of the Prometheus finds is, much like what the Nostromo found in Alien, a very hostile and bleak fate. As Shaw becomes more and more sure of what they have actually found, the exuberant, buoyant and hopeful tone with which she started out becomes more downtrodden and horrified. We haven’t found our creators, but have given birth to our end. We have reached to far into the heavens and we will be punished for it. As Shaw realizes much too late in the film, “we were so wrong” about what we might find if we started searching the heavens. Not a dissimilar message from that of Battleship, oddly enough, but executed in a much better fashion and vastly more enjoyable and memorable as science fiction.
Which brings me to a point of divergence with how we might normally consider a Summer blockbuster. In a movie-going season awash in candy-colored spandex and armor, and military might versus alien invasion bravado, Prometheus is kind of a downer, at least as far as its subject matter is concerned. With its heart and mind firmly planted in the perhaps terrifying and increasingly realistic scientific probability that we are not alone in the universe (as well as the absurd theory that not only have we been visited at some point in the distant past, but actually created by an extraterrestrial race), the film is at times philosophically inconsistent. Being heavily invested in the seriousness of these ideas, it is somewhat surprising that its inconsistencies actually ends up successfully marrying its quandaries with the beats and rhythms of the haunted house creature-feature, much as the original Alien did. I personally stand with the belief that the film is a triumph of mood and beauty, even if the story’s execution leaves some of its audience a bit cold and wanting for more concrete explanations.
But I digress. The film’s broad thematic structure holds up underneath the sturm and drang of the monster movie which comes to dominate the plot. And I found myself, perhaps in spite of the horror elements, constantly referring events in the latter half of the film to their philosophical set-up at the beginning. I didn’t mind that the lofty questions were never fully answered, mostly because providing concrete confirmation of our beginnings on Earth (is the film’s prologue even meant to be on Earth?) would get in the way of the wonderful ambiguity with which, Prometheus and Rapace’s spiritual and religious portrayal of Shaw emphasize, we must approach our own lives. We might ask questions beyond our comprehension, but the only answer to be had is a complete unknown. When asked why she still believes in God after she knows that life on Earth came from the Engineers, Shaw simply replies, “Who created them?”
The philosophical, high-minded serious science-fiction is only part of the film, however, and the rest–the monster movie, the action-thriller–holds up just as well. It’s often an exhilarating film, and the set pieces are suspenseful and disturbing, expanding upon what we already know of the Xenomorph species encountered in the other films. When Shaw, Charlie and David discover a chamber containing a large number of military ordinance pods which resemble the familiar eggs, those old pangs of dread start to drum up in the pit of our stomachs. Noomi Rapace, channeling just enough of Ripley’s spirit into Shaw, though not enough to ruin her own character, proves to be another strong woman in the face of pure terror. Try not to squirm during the emergency medical procedure she performs on herself. Rapace totally owns this moment, showing yet again why she caught on like wildfire in the role of Lisbeth Salander and why I’m so very glad she’s decided to work in a mixture of mainstream work and smaller, international films. I’ll follow this actress to the ends of the earth, and I’m really hoping for that Shaw/David Prometheus sequel.
The similarities and links to Alien continue when, later in the film, two members of the expedition stumble upon strange worm-/snake-like creatures slithering among the sludge that has started to pool on the chamber floor, we notice that they look somewhat like the face-huggers, though less evolved, and we know that these two are not long for the world. And then there is the ending, which admittedly goes a bit far in envisioning the roots of the Alien series, and also is totally unnecessary. Honestly, if we had been left with the image of the Engineer chasing Shaw and being overcome by a gigantic, fully-formed face-hugger, we would already know enough and even then possibly too much.
This isn’t enough to fell the movie, however. There are plenty of redemptive qualities, not the least of which is the gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, who shot all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and is responsible for the sci-noir look of Dark City. That the movie looks great (absolutely stunning would be a better descriptive of its photography) should be no surprise to anyone who has followed Ridley Scott’s career as he often seems more interested in epic landscapes and painterly compositions than subject matter and strong scripts–look no further than his middling take on the Robin Hood legend for proof of this–no doubt because his formal education was in the arts. And the accusation that he spent more time considering the look of Prometheus than its content could be considered a fair one except for the fact that here I am, a week and a half after seeing the film and I can’t get it out of my head.
I also can’t forget the performances of Theron and Fassbender, whose Vickers and David are adversarial but seem to nonetheless be working toward the same end: take account of any life forms and unlock the secrets of life and death and bring them back for the benefit of Weyland Corp. Vickers, of course, is more cautious, and is played by Theron with a hint of conscience that keeps her from embracing the dangerous mission she has been put in charge of. There’s a fear of the unknown in her demeanor, perhaps brought on by a lifetime of neglect and hard work to obtain her current status within Weylan, and that fear comes to be fully justified. So terrified is she of contamination that she is responsible for the first known fatality suffered by the team, burning Charlie alive to kill whatever is growing inside of him.
And of course David put it in him, sly bastard. Keeping with a long line of androids with ulterior motives, Fassbender plays David exactly as one might imagine an earlier model (much earlier than those played by Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen), a slightly less human glaze of wonder permanently slapped on his face and learned behavior from one too many viewings of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s honestly the kind of cult performance of a lifetime. Just like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, it will be engrained deeply in the character-love-centers of cinephiles everywhere.
Theron may well be the best actress working in mainstream Hollywood today. Along with her performance as the Queen in the otherwise wait-til-DVD Snow White and the Huntsman, she demonstrates a keen set of acting skills which can somehow contain both very human pathos and comedy as well as sell herself as the most frigid, icy woman in motion pictures. Here, as in Snow White, she plays a character who could very easily be uncontrollable and irredeemably over-the-top. Instead, she wrangles the character into a performance that even Prometheus’s detractors have taken notice of.
Prometheus, for all its faults, is a movie of such expansive and stunning vision that it couldn’t help but disappoint a segment of its audience. The performances are all top-notch, and it has a slow, studied visual style that really amplifies the grandeur of its space operatics. Honestly, it’s worth seeing just to see Theron, Fassbender and Rapace in a picture together. Three of the best actors of their generation (one recently, thankfully discovered here in the U.S.) in a big budget slam-bang blockbuster. Who doesn’t want to see that? And one competently made on every level (except for maybe the script, which has some faults, the blame for which I’ll lay squarely at the feet of Lost scribe Damon Lindelof). I don’t know what those viewers who hated Prometheus were expecting, but it managed to hit the right balance of head-in-the-clouds awe and sci-fi horror that is sorely missing from the blockbuster slate for me.
5 out of 5 stars.