***originally written 2 June 2012***
***THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. BIG ONES***
Still here? Okay.
Hype. Hype and expectation can be funny things in the film industry. They can make or break a film. Creating them is the master craft of the marketing department. Product placement. Trailers. Tie-in promotions. Journo exclusives. And in the modern world, video virals, websites, apps and other tomfoolery. Ridley Scott, before he ever blazed a trail in science fiction with the original Alien movie, should know all about disseminating hype and expectation, having directed countless TV advertisements. And Prometheus has been everywhere. I know, because I’ve had the difficult task of avoiding it. I decided I wanted to come to this film knowing or expecting as little as possible. Alien is one of my top five films of all time; a perfect organism if you’ll indulge me. Afraid of how hype and expectation can undo a film, I thought it best to sidestep both.
Except it’s a catch-22. By sidestepping the build-up, I created my own. Everyone else knew more about this than me. Other people had an idea what to expect, maybe. Whereas I had only my own assumptions, guesses, hopes… Despite my best efforts, this became the biggest movie event for me personally since probably The Road.
Let’s start with the biggest question people have; is it a prequel to Alien? Well, not really. Not exactly. If you walk into the movie theatre expecting to see a xenomorph, a facehugger, even that ubiquitous egg from the first film’s poster… you’re going to be let down. Think of Prometheus more as a spin-off than a prequel. It exists in the same universe as Alien… but it’s adjacent-to rather than in-service-of.
Forgetting about the cool-yet-cryptic prologue for now (which is for the best it turns out), it begins on Earth. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers some extra-terrestrial significance in one of Werner Herzog’s caves of forgotten dreams, and, along with her love-interest/scientific partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) hops on-board exploratory spacecraft Prometheus to travel to the distant realms of space in the hopes of meeting our alien progenitors. The project is funded by Weyland Corp. Alarm bells should already be ringing. Thus we arrive not at LV-426, but LV-223 (if memory serves), and the crew of Prometheus, including token-sinister-robot David (Michael Fassbender) venture inside what looks like a giant dung heap in the hopes that God is home. Things don’t go very well for anyone.
What follows from here, at a surprisingly stodgy and jerky pace is what could most accurately be described as a mess. Prometheus’ scripting duties fell, in large part, to a man named Damon Lindelof, who thought up much of the twisting and turning plots of Lost. His imprint on Prometheus is felt even more strongly than Ridley Scott’s. Where in previous efforts in sci-fi Scott managed to completely overhaul the genre, here he seems content to cruise-control when it comes to ingenuity or invention. Leaving us with a pretty fucking shit script. Sci-fi clichés tumble out from every crevice, as characters we don’t much care for scurry back and forth between the ship and the alien temple-thingy. A variation on the face-hugger is attempted, and does give the film one of its few jumps, but is wasted on the film’s most obvious red-shirts. The premise of an alien-virus is dabbled with before it – literally – combusts. Worst of all, the alien-baby-routine gets fifteen minutes of fame as Prometheus dangles perilously close to AvP2 buffoonery.
Where the other Alien films – all of them – built their thrills by making the audience feel at one with the characters, sharing their experiences, Prometheus feels as though it serves a different agenda. This feels more like a film that serves its creators, allowing them to play in the genre’s toybox, dishing out different ideas to different characters, running with them for a bit, then seeing what might be good to have a go at next. Shaw becomes the lead character by default, but only because she survives the longest. She also shows an impressive athletic ability after going through a serious trauma.
Happily, though the plot quickly frays at the edges, the cast and production elements hold things together. Scott has always had an eye for aesthetics, and whilst he hasn’t re-written fashion rules or revolutionised sci-fi design concepts this time around he has given us one of the best looking genre movies in a very, very long time. In contrast to Alien’s claustrophobia, what strikes you about Prometheus is the grandness of nearly every space. The humans feel consumed by the vast spaces both aboard the ship and in the temple.
As for the players, the only bum note is Logan Marshall-Green (nowhere near up to snuff). Elsewhere, Idris Elba chews the scenery pleasingly as Captain Janek and Charlize Theron makes much out of little with chilly corporate figure Meredith Vickers. Best of all, unsurprisingly, is Fassbender, who seems to have suddenly made a career out of not just stealing every scene he’s in, but stealing every film. Think back fondly on a scene and you’ll probably find he was in it, smiling icily as the silly humans come-a-cropper again.
In fact, this is a film that has a pretty grim view of humanity. Rejected by our creators and sneered at by our creations, we’re truly the outcasts of the galaxy. And when your creator looks like Vin Diesel’s albino brother, it’s hard not to take it a little personally. No wonder Shaw makes the decision she does at the end.
I had my doubts about Prometheus, even as I hyped it in my mind, even as I layered on the expectation. Ridley Scott is a tricky fellow, largely because when not working in the realms of sci-fi (i.e. most of the time) he’s, well, shit. Coupled with the man’s ridiculously inflated ego, it makes his work difficult to hold dear. Alien and Blade Runner are the exceptions. They are both masterpieces. Prometheus is not. Yet it tries so hard to impress (often managing to), and that’s endearing in its own misguided way.
Ultimately however, if you’re looking for a rewarding sci-fi prequel, I’d first point you in the direction of last year’s The Thing. And I never thought I’d say that after this movie. Hype. Expectation. They can make or break a film. It all depends how good the film is. Prometheus has wow moments, quite a few, but it’s too slap-dash. The impression is not of a film that you’re struggling to make sense of, but of a film that’s struggling to make sense of itself, tentacles flailing.