Prometheus, presumably at this point, needs no introduction. It is Ridley Scott’s long awaited return to the sci-fi story telling that began his career with Blade Runner and Alien. It follows the titular spaceship and it’s crew embarking on a mission to explore a planet whose co-ordinates were divined from a series of art works occurring independently throughout early human civilisations. What they find there may have startling implications on the origins of human kind, and also on our future.
Scott and Lindeloff (and the rumour mill) have been skirting around the issue of Prometheus’s Alien franchise relationship since early production, originally it was reported that this would be a straight up prequel to Alien, then it was unrelated, then it related was but it would be distanced, perhaps a reboot, or a tangential storyline. What was clear was that Scott was trying to distance himself from repeating the use of the original H.R. Giger designed biomechanical xenomorph.
So is it a prequel to Alien or not? Here’s where it gets interesting, and occasionally irritatingly divergent; in reviewing The Book of Alien (HERE) I mentioned that it would be noteworthy to see what if any of the unused concepts and removed scenes from Alien would crop up in Prometheus. The answer of course is all of it, at least in some form. Prometheus is in part Scott going back to the same universe, with the budget, the tools, and the creative self indulgence to be able to explore things that he couldn’t in 1979. Without spoiling too much, there’s a fairly large sequence from Alien’s original script that, in addition to the derelict, explored the possible origins of the Alien itself and this whole concept has been taken verbatim, including Giger’s basic designs for it, and expanded into the basis of the movie with the addition a whole new, and debatably successful, slew of information.
Other similarities arise in the appearance of the ship Prometheus, which not only borrows heavily from how the Nostromo looked, in elements like doors, corridor panelling, and ceiling set monitors, but is actually akin to some of the concept artwork created by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss for Alien before they changed to become the more cramped Nostromo. But whilst these elements are all indicative of Alien, they come via the 21st Century and make no mistake there’s a lot of gloss, shine, and the transparent interactive projections that seem to be the sci-fi movie (or indeed any movie with a computer) CG cuisine de jour.
Parallels between Noomi Rapace’s character and Sigourney Weaver are also going to be completely unavoidable, though really she is the antithesis to Ripley. Elizabeth Shaw is an explorer, a ‘believer’; she wants to collect, to catalogue, to study, and bring back – all things Ripley decidedly does not want. Shaw, whilst showing a remarkable tenacity and lack of squeamishness, is not as independent as Ripley, being part of a pair with Logan Marshell-Green’s Charlie Holloway and whilst the movie doesn’t overplay their romantic relationship it is certainly present in a way that makes her a dependant character. She’s no Ellen T. Ripley, but this isn’t a bad thing. Also present is Charlize Theron playing an icy bitch-queen Meredith Vickers (not to be confused with her role as the bitch Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, also opening this week), and Theron plays the role well, if occasionally a bit too intensely. Idris Ebla also deserves a mention as the down to earth, gutsy ship Captain. But star of the show goes to Michael Fassbender as the disquieting android David. Fassbender’s portrayal of the emotionless, yet human mimicking, and ambiguously motivated David is bang on the money; it’s equal parts naivety, brilliance, and down right creepy.
Also breathtaking about this film is how it’s been made, the scenic views and vistas of baron or emergent worlds (particularly obvious in the opening sequence) are stunning, evoking a kind of extra terrestrial Icelandic landscape. The cinematography and the visuals are beautiful. The sets, both on the ship Prometheus and on the planet, are sprawling large scale masterpieces of design, thanks in no small way to the masterful work of Pinewood Studios. As are the costumes and props – there’s a level of detail in this movie that borders on obsessive (sadly a quality that was not shared with the narrative aspects that will come up shortly). There was not a single point where the CGI was tacky or flawed in a way that detracted from either the scene or the suspension of disbelief, and though the 3D is subtle, to the point of being unnoticeable in certain shots, what it does it create is a depth that is quite breathtaking (note I saw this at a large high quality 4K 3D projection screening that was for lack of a better description flawless, I would recommend you see it this way if possible, but again this is a movie that will be equally amazing in 2D).
Prometheus’s tone and pace is perhaps the most divergent quality to what the trailers led you to believe (the one I watched anyway, I avoided almost everything in the run up to release), it’s a far cry from the cramped terror of Alien and Aliens and it’s not without it’s faltering moments. There are times where calamity (the obvious kind) could have been avoided by a better script, allowances are made to create action rather than the calm yet terrifying build up that could have worked so well in it’s place. There are too many crew members in Prometheus, largely consisting of people who are blatantly around to meet an early exit – the hierarchy of faceless to memorable is not in their favour in this type of movie, we don’t know them and aren’t given any time to get to know them, and so swiftly they will perish. There’s a lack of humanism in this, we knew the cast of Alien because they were few in a small space, this movie is larger, both in scale and in cast, and so diluted. While constant comparison to Alien might be slightly unfair, the movie has more than brought it upon itself. The ‘doomed from the start’ survivalism present in Alien is somewhat present here but there is a more prevalent faith element, a quest for humanity’s maker that verges on creationism and skews the whole tone. It is however by no means a mess, or a failure, it is just slightly different to expectation.
Prometheus is fantastic, and maddening. It’s undoubtedly beautiful and well made but there are little niggles present in continuity if this is to be taken as a direct prequel to Alien – and there’s no denying that it is. It’s been stated before that Scott is primarily a visual director and that sometimes he doesn’t sweat the details (read plot) in order to achieve this, but I don’t accept that, if you’re going to do something do it right. Continuity errors are not the kind of thing that viewers, sci-fi ones in particular, appreciate. To argue that these continuity problems are inconsequential because this isn’t really a direct prequel to Alien assumes too much in the way of coincidence that it would border on monolithic stupidity (the planet is called LV-223 and not LV-426. Why when it is clearly the planet from the former film?). Do not make a movie within the Alien canon if you’re also going to make stylistic and narrative decisions that purposefully contradict established ground.
But ultimately the movie stands up on its own, is wonderfully entertaining, powerfully visual, and the problems in crossover elements can be forgiven (even though the viewer shouldn’t have to do so). Prometheus is perhaps not quite the genre standout, triumphant return to the Alien universe that was expected, and it doesn’t suffer well from the quasi-religious hype-marketing it’s received, but what would live up to Alien? The expectation is perhaps too great. What Prometheus does, it does successfully. It’s good, damned good in fact. And that should be, and is, enough.
Prometheus is in theatres from today.
Addendum (with spoilers)
I wanted to add to this review, written in the small hours of the morning having watched Prometheus at the midnight screenings, to correct my error in perpetuating the idea that the planet in the movie had to be the one from Alien. Of course it isn’t, it’s just remarkably similar – perhaps too bloody similar. LV-233 is so similar to 426 that it toys with viewers who have seen Alien, it unfortunately does play into the coincidence mentioned (and the stupidity therein). Moreover the significant similarities are likely a holdover from when the movie was in early production and was a direct prequel to Alien before a larger, tangential, and equally intriguing storyline was conceived. Accepting that this emergent planet, with a crashed ship the same as the derelict, a warning message to keep away, and it’s own xenomorph population is separate isn’t that difficult (after an initial knee-jerk reaction) and then opens up the film to it’s own mythology, sequels, and a possibility for answers to the new questions it posed. There are various strands leading away from Prometheus, one of those ends up being Alien, but what we get next is going to be something new and, hopefully, equally as intriguing.
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