Prometheus! It’s the Alien prequel we’ve all been waiting for lo these many months. Just don’t go into it expecting facehuggers and chestbursters and game over, man, and nuking the site from orbit* or pretty much any sort of sci-fi horror and humor and tension and gore. This ain’t that sort of flick. Instead, it’s an ambitious science fiction drama about humanity’s place in the universe that deconstructs our ideas about God and religion and life and death and babies and parents and–
Well, except, no: It seems like Prometheus may want to be that ambitious SF drama. It’s just that somewhere along the way, the provocative speculation and the seriocomic tragedy got lost. Oh, and the characters got forgotten, too. Plus there’s precious little authentic drama.
Maybe Ridley Scott has been punking us all along. Maybe he only hoped we’d be fooled into thinking that Prometheus was gonna open up the Alien backstory. So let’s completely forget that there might be any connection whatsover to any pre-existing films. Prometheus works on that level, then, surely?
Gorgeous visuals of prehuman Earth in the distant past — when something Vitally Important to human development happened — melt into gorgeous visuals of near-future scientists unraveling clues to that Vitally Important thing — a hint of a Chariots of the Gods (ie, aliens done it!) scenario driving human evolution — melt into gorgeous visuals of a deep-space mission to find our ET parents. Such promise! We haven’t seen a science fiction film like this in a long time, one that’s big and brawny and space-travel-y and full of the same sort of robust industrial authenticity that Scott (Robin Hood, Body of Lies) brought to Alien — this feels real, and not like fantasy at all, from a spacefaring ship that looks technologically just a few steps beyond today’s aircraft carriers to the hominess of a pool table and a Christmas tree in the crew’s common room. On top of that screenwriters Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (Cowboys & Aliens, Lost) seed their setup with all manner of mindblowing ideas that tickle with their potential: we are not alone and we are not an accident; humanoid robot who tries to be human; religious belief coming into conflict with scientific fact.
It had me at hello, Prometheus did, and for a fair while, and I’m still in awe of it visually, for moments like this one: Scott draws out the sequence in which the ship Prometheus approaches the planet it has been aiming at in a way that’s like cinematic lovemaking, one that lets our eyes and our minds luxuriate in the notion that this is a whole ’nother planet, the ship deorbiting unhurriedly from the huge emptiness of black space into a brand new sky and descending into a new world that is so totally amazing in and of itself, just by its sheer existence and the fact that we’re there, that it barely matters what else might be found there.
And then Prometheus lost me quickly after that, and never won me back again. Even if we had no thought that this might be connected to Alien, it ends up feeling like an Alien retread, as if it feels it must hit the same general notes: there’s a derelict ship! there’s the saps sent out to investigate! there’s the infected one we can’t let back onboard! there’s the infection onboard anyway! Yet while Alien worked on a pure monster-movie basis, Prometheus had promised so much more before this point, and then never delivers on it… while also not indulging in pure monster-movie scares, either. There are only the ideas here, and the more exploring we do in this story, the more nonsensical the ideas turn out to be. There’s Noomi Rapace’s (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) scientist, Elizabeth Shaw, who believes the aliens she calls “Engineers” engineered we humans, and then left a map for us to come and find them on this very planet at which Prometheus has arrived… but what she and her team find (no spoilers!) certainly does not seem to be anything the Engineers would have or even could have pointed us to. And then when we think back to that opening sequence on prehuman Earth, it’s hard to even find room to have fun thinking about how Shaw may have misinterpreted the clues she found, because, wait a sec, how did the clues even get left at all?
Shaw is the central character here, and it’s around her that so many questions are briefly posited and then quickly forgotten about. Her religious faith is played up early on, and then just as her faith should be getting rocked by the avalanche of her scientific discoveries, or subject to reconsideration or even possibly a sort of confirmation, it’s dropped. Where Alien was content to allow examination of the power and horror of biological reproduction arise from its subtext, Prometheus tries to make it text — via Shaw’s personal romantic relationship with her partner in science (Logan Marshall-Green: Devil, Brooklyn’s Finest) — but then that gets thrown out the airlock, too.
The other characters are hardly more than spearcarriers: Michael Fassbender (Haywire, Shame) is allowed to do little more than a tepid impersonation of Data as David the android; Charlize Theron’s (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Road) company exec, the money behind the mission, stalks around being coolly, randomly bitchy, and that’s it; Idris Elba (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Thor) as the ship’s captain is even more underutilized. Like the film itself, they look good, but appear to have no reason to be around at all.
There is a certainly geeky pleasure — even if it is hugely accidental — in rehashing what little stuff of actual substance we’re offered here to see how we can make it work within the narrative framework we are already intimately familiar with. (The tacked-on coda seems designed to infuriate such fannish analysis.) But that has a certain desperation to it, as if we’re trying to force Prometheus to measure up to Alien (and Aliens). Which we, sadly, cannot do.
*Please do not write in to tell me that Ridley Scott did not direct ‘Aliens.’ I know this. I also know that I see a few nods to James Cameron’s take on this universe in ‘Prometheus,’ and we can certainly rest assured that Scott knows that we all know ‘Aliens’ by heart, too.