The following review contains mild SPOILERS - read on at your peril.
Ridley Scott’s return to the massively popular Alien franchise he helped launch in 1979 shoulders an enormous burden in audience expectations – this is his first science fiction film since Blade Runner, after all - and it’s little short of a miracle that he succeeds in delivering a worthy follow-up. It may not be the equal of its classic progenitor or his landmark 1982 future noir, but Scott proves he still has it in him to deliver a beautifully crafted, mature slice of sci-fi while keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. Raising as many questions as it does answers, the director and Twentieth Century Fox have successfully resuscitated one of the studio’s key properties by delving in to its origins (much as they did with last year’s X-Men and Planet of the Apes reboots) instead of churning out a redundant remake, managing the difficult act of keeping long time fans onboard without (ahem) alienating newcomers.
Towards the end of the 21st century, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers a series of ancient cave paintings from around the world, all from different eras, each of which points the way to the same remote star system. Concluding that humanity’s origins may well be connected with visitors from outer space, dying businessman Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) finances a deep space mission to investigate, with Shaw and partner Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) leading the team onboard the vessel Prometheus. Also part of the crew is company rep Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and android David (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender). Arriving at LV-223, the team discover an underground system of caves which contain the long dead bodies of an alien race – as well as a lifeform that’s not quite so dead.
Prometheus takes its name from the Greek myth about the Titan that stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mankind, thereby advancing their development. But a more pertinent connection might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’. Scott’s film is in essence a retelling of that story from the Creature’s point of view: the creation being rejected by its creator and wanting to know why. Scott plays this out on an infinitely larger canvas, but the questions are the same: who created us? Why are we here? And why have we been abandoned?
Stanley Kubrick tackled similar material in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as did Robert Zemeckis in his adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact. But though Prometheus may not exactly be breaking new ground, Scott’s take on the story is darker and more pessimistic in its approach, in keeping with the mood of the times, concerned more with weapons of planetary destruction than enlightened and benevolent alien visitors. The religion vs. science debate also rears its head, with Shaw as a Christian believer who refuses to accept that God is dead just because the human race might have received outside help during its evolution, while another scientist scoffs that Darwinism is dead if Shaw’s theory is proved correct.
It’s rather lofty thinking for a modern day Hollywood blockbuster, particularly one that springs from what is in essence a glorified 1970s B-movie. Scott, working with writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, rightly avoids over-explaining the plot, deliberately leaving some elements shrouded in mystery. The impression given is that of a storyteller who knows the outcome but chooses with great care which cards to play and which to hold back (neatly allowing the film to be debated by audiences while simultaneously saving key material for potential sequels).
Pleasing though it is to have big-budget science fiction that tickles the grey cells, setting a movie within the Alien universe also carries with it a responsibility to deliver some quality thrills, and Scott doesn’t disappoint. Prometheus is a slow-burner; it may take a while, but when things inevitably start to go wrong for the crew, they really do go wrong. The first half is akin to a whodunit – people searching for answers and finding clues; the second half sees all their work blow up in their faces. Those fans hoping to see something that faithfully follows the traditional Alien template may well be disappointed, but there are still a good few shocks that ought to appease them, as should the nods to the earlier movies. A major development in the final act injects serious urgency in to the crew’s mission, which gives Rapace the opportunity to pick up the action heroine baton from Sigourney Weaver. She does so capably, if less memorably than Weaver, and the rest of the cast are just as good, with a typically intense Fassbender being the highlight.
Scott’s films are well known for their lush visuals and production values, and Prometheus certainly looks the business. The ship itself has echoes of the Nostromo, though paradoxically looking far more advanced, while LV-223 is suitably brooding and barren (if not as oppressively dark as the rock that Ripley’s crew landed on). An impressively realised, explosive conclusion is marred only by a creature design that is too derivative and hokey-looking, the only technical flaw in an otherwise first rate production.
Elsewhere, Prometheus is not quite watertight. The usual problem that blights these “Ten Little Indians” thrillers is that several characters are sketched too lightly and are difficult to care about before they meet their sticky end. Scott studiously avoided this problem in Alien by devoting a good deal of screen time to the small-ish crew before the proverbial muck hit the fan, but fails to pay similar attention here. Certainly none of the characters, with the possible exception of David, are as memorable or engaging as the crew of the Nostromo. The dialogue and plotting occasionally feels sub-standard; anyone should be able to guess the secret that Vickers hides, and where were the rest of the crew when Shaw has her emergency operation? It remains to be seen whether a director’s cut might clean up some of these issues.
Still, these are not serious enough flaws to prevent enjoyment of the suspense that Scott otherwise builds up so ably. It’s an intense mix of the cerebral and the visceral, one that ties in with the Alien universe but also charts a very different trajectory to its predecessor. The question is: will the sequel make good on the tantalising promises Scott has made?