Set twenty-seven years before the events of Ridley Scott’s 1979 iconic sci-fi thriller, Alien, Prometheus sees a team of scientists, employed by the sinister Weyland-Yutani Corporation; accept an ancient invitation from a mysterious star map which appears to promise the answers to some of mankind’s most profound questions. In search of the origins of man, the crew of Prometheus (including Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic cyborg and Charlize Theron’s unscrupulous corporate rep) discover something on a remote alien planet that could spell disaster for humanity.
Ask Ridley Scott what motivated him to return to the genre he redefined with his 1982 Blade Runner and he’ll tell you that Prometheus “opens a whole different door, a much bigger door, away from monsters and demons” in a attempt to deal with some seriously existential stuff — an ambitious claim, to say the least. The idea to revisit the world he imagined for us in Alien was for Scott more about “themes” and “ideas” than about extending a ridiculously overblown and much blighted sci-fi franchise which dwindled after the excellence of the first two films and descended into farce with the inception of the Alien vs Predator debacle.
So the prospect of another Ridley Scott Sci-fi in the form of a quasi-Alien prequel (which Scott insists Prometheus is not) both excited and worried fans of the Alien legacy, who so badly wanted the film to deliver on the promise of a well made trailer which offered a tantalizing glimpse of what a new-age sci-fi might look like, in which Scott appeared to have combined the philosophizing of his existential epic Blade Runner with the elegant horror of Alien.
The catalyst for Prometheus came, Scott has reportedly said, from something an iconic image from 1979’s Alien inspired in him. In one sequence during the sci-fi classic, the intrepid crew of deep space mining ship The Nostromo stumble across the wreck of a crashed alien spaceship after responding to what at first appears to be a distress beacon. It’s not really much of a spoiler at this stage to say that the signal the team picked up was not a distress beacon but a warning signal, but against what and from whom?
Upon inspecting the crash site further the crew discover (amongst other things) the enormous relic of a dead alien astride a huge, strangely shaped chair — halfway between a deep space telescope and a giant death ray – hitherto referred to in fan-lore as “the space-jockey”. In spite of the now infamous goings on as a result of the perhaps ill-advised curiosity of the crew of the Nostromo, this same curiosity born of the very human desire to “know” has apparently been gnawing away at Scott throughout his career, asking questions of him which Prometheus appears to address.“This film walks around the truth of what may be out there”, Scott says. It plays with some of humanity’s most fundamental mysteries: Who made us? Where do we come from? Scott’s premise for the script poses the hypothetical question: What if the origins of life on earth were seeded by extra-terrestrials?
Working on this fantastical assumption the Alien director delves into what can only be described as a modern mythology for mankind; fusing his trademark visionary design with some frankly unsettling slapstick theology. Take a few long-established cultural myths (such as widespread speculation as to whether various ancient civilizations were visited by aliens), mix in the odd old-school sci-fi reference and you have something closer to new-age philosophy than science; more akin to fantasy than fiction.
Prometheus’ two redeeming features are its cast, all of whom show their quality throughout, and its visual effects, which are striking and original, something particularly tricky to achieve with sci-fi. Noomi Rapace puts in a strong performance as the young scientist struggling to reconcile her beliefs with Prometheus’ discoveries. Michael Fassbender threatens to steal the show, lending the film’s resident cyborg the shadow of humanity, and Charlize Theron is in imperious form as the single-minded corporate exec whose interests are more business than existential.
But in spite of the performances, good as they are, and the action set-pieces, which are thrilling, Prometheus simply fails to deliver on its promise. Scott breaks the golden rule for the sci-fi genre; in attempting to challenge us with some worthy themes he forgets the most important element of any movie: the audience is always right, especially when we’re wrong, and we won’t swallow any grand or lofty ideas unless you wrap them around a decent premise and an entertaining script.
Prometheus tries hard to be more than just another sparkly distraction, toying with the notions of fear and wonder (themes that it never manages to properly explore) like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun. Ultimately, the only thing the audience “wonders” is how much more of the film there is to endure, while grappling with the “fear” of a seemingly inevitable sequel.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.