It was doomed, in a way.
Having weathered the Grand Guignol misfire of 1997’s Alien Resurrection, and ran the gauntlet of the insipid (non-canon) Alien vs Predator movies of the mid-2000s, xenomorph fans needed something to believe in. Word that the Godfather of Alien himself – Ridley Scott – was returning to the series set expectations sky-high for Prometheus. His prequel would buck the franchise trend of ever-decreasing circles. This would be terrifying, like his 1979 original. It would course-correct the series so that a new generation of filmmakers could explore the ferociousness of H.R. Giger’s nightmare creation.
Co-written by Jon Spaihts and – importantly, one feels – Damon Lindelof (fresh off of LOST), the film that emerged from the extra-terrestrial mist was a confused and seemingly misshapen mishmash. With no xenomorphs to speak of. This wasn’t what we wanted! What’s all this about Engineers? And God? What were they thinking?
Prometheus is not well liked, but now, eight years down the line, it’s worth giving another shot, with the weight of expectation lifted from it’s shoulders. You still won’t find the taught thrills of the Alien movie you may have been dreaming of, but there’s plenty to enjoy once you let go of preconceived notions.
For one thing, it’s quite easily the most beautifully designed and shot of Scott’s films since 1982’s Blade Runner. His mid-to-late career is defined by its workmanlike quality. Scott punches films out quickly and while he’s always been a keen aestheticist, that hasn’t always translated into great movies. In fact, it rarely has. The production design of Prometheus, however, is drop-dead gorgeous. From it’s spacesuits to its spaceships, eye-candy rarely comes this sickly sweet. The film is all immaculate surfaces ready to get bloodied.
Lindelof had spent six seasons of LOST exploring the polemics of science and faith, and this preoccupation flowed freely into the Prometheus script. Set at Christmas (it’s a Christmas film!), our sensitive protagonist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a scientist literally in search of her maker. Instead she finds chaos, as she and the titular ship’s crew touch down on the origin planet of human’s great progenitors… stumbling face-first into an ancient bio-hazard facility shaped like a giant dung heap. Woops!
A colossal example of tripping over one’s shoelaces, the grim humour of Shaw’s seemingly misplaced faith should have keyed us in to the twisted smirk worn throughout Prometheus. It’s a darkly funny film, more successfully so that Alien Resurrection. Said humour is the glint in the eye of malevolent mandroid David (Michael Fassbender). He finds merciless amusement in the predicaments his shipmates find themselves in, particularly Shaw. He is the architect of several downfalls; treating all living species – human and otherwise – as immaterial subjects for his own experiments. He’s a grim reflection of our own propensity for morbid curiosity and our often sociopathic lack of empathy for other species. Created by man, David is just as characteristically flawed. He’s an indictment of us… and he knows it.
The cast is, actually, phenomenal. Rapace is a great lead (done so dirty by Scott’s dismal follow-up Alien Covenant), but elsewhere they are numerous gems. Charlize Theron is deliciously icy as the neat and sanitary Vickers. She is so perfectly officious and condescending to the cretins that make up this team and, as such, perfectly set up for a fall. Her interactions with Idris Elba’s earthen Captain Janek are insubstantial but joyous; further evidence of the film’s wry sense of humour. Isolated on the ship and bored, things are even allowed to get sexy.
Viewed as a darkly comic romp, Prometheus suddenly gets lots of passes. “I’m just a geologist. I like rocks. I love rocks!” – a line delivered with gruff zeal by Sean Harris as Fifield – was the source of much derision around the time of the film’s release, but its a neat example of its gummy, camp leanings. Fifield calls the expedition a freak show, and this is something gleefully delivered in the film’s doolally second half.
Consider the jaw-drop cesarean bit. Both a) an attempt from Scott to out-do his original film’s ‘chest-burster’ scene and b) a blatant effort from the creatives here to give Prometheus a shocking talking point for viewers tumbling out of theatres. It’s the kind of hysterical oddity that occasionally makes Scott films worth watching, akin to the crazed finale of the otherwise moribund Hannibal. Everything heightens for this stretch of the movie. David is never more of a bastard. It’s the very definition of “that escalated quickly” – bold, bloody and brilliant because of just how gratuitous it is. And it’s not the only sequence to achieve this sense of the preposterous co-mingled with the horrifying. At the time it was difficult to get a read on this skewed humour; expectation had us seeking something else. I’ve come to love the violent silliness of Prometheus. It’s what I come back for.
Come the end – spoiler alert – Shaw is the lone survivor of the mission; all others having met a variety of sticky ends. They were doomed from the start, in a way. But even in spite of all that has happened she still has her faith. In narration she signs off noting the date “in the year of Our Lord”. Discovering the potential root of all human civilisation hasn’t curbed her belief in the existence of God. A real God. Faith in the face of bewildering adversity – something Lindelof would go on to really explore in HBO series The Leftovers.
Prometheus feels more like a step in his journey than a key milestone for the Alien franchise. That’s fine. The series has perpetuated so far on dramatic gear-shifts and tonal changes. It’s kept it nimble, for the most part.
Perhaps in time I’ll find similar good-humour for Alien Covenant, though I doubt it. In the meantime, Prometheus is one of the most enjoyable ‘failures’ that the last decade has afforded us. An operatic film about folly, not necessarily a folly in and of itself.
Simply, it’s a whole lot of fun.