Cryo-sleep! Androids! A derelict structure! Strange organic matter in the structure! Body horror! Is there ANY doubt that Prometheus is an Alien movie? It’s got all the requisite parts. Why then has Ridley Scott fervently denied that Prometheus is an Alien prequel for the past several years? To make people judge it on its own merits, rather than on its merits as an Alien prequel? If that was his goal, then he made his own film far worse. Prometheus is a wonderful film as an Alien prequel, but as a standalone it fails under the weight of its own self-importance and apathy.
The film opens with a seemingly disconnected scene involving a humanoid creature and a biological mutagen, before shifting to a scene remarkably similar to the opening scenes of Alien – a mostly silent, sterile ship. What’s different is David, an android manufactured by the Weyland Corporation (hey! More Alien!). He’s walking around the ship, performing various tasks, and butting into people’s dreams. It’s a beautiful sequence, one of Scott’s classics – he shows us a place not wholly unfamiliar, and makes it very unsettling. This can in fact be said about most of Prometheus – Scott’s vision is, as always, incredibly grandiose. The haunted, derelict halls of the strange domes on the planet echo the alien surfaces we glimpsed in Alien – and there’s a pretty good reason for that! – and are no less awe-inspiring. Once the crew is awakened from suspended animation (with technology that is considerably more advanced than the technology in the original Alien – isn’t that strange?), they land on the planet and seek out the answers for which they came so far: what created humans, and why?
They don’t find these answers, and in fact, the film doesn’t offer any answers. It’s probably for the best that it doesn’t offer answers, but because it doesn’t, the film takes on a sense of self-importance. It’s not trying to answer these questions, but the hamfisted way in which Scott poses these questions makes them linger, and not in the ponderous sense, but in the “why didn’t they answer that?” sense. It is unfortunate, but it appears that Scott has forgotten the meaning of the word “subtlety”, one that he clearly understood well in his 1979 horror masterpiece.
But these grand questions aren’t all there is to Prometheus; it’s an Alien film, after all, so there’s a sizable dose of action and horror. Unlike most films in that genre, however, Prometheus often goes for the slow burn. It spends the first hour setting things up, and then spends the second hour blowing it all up in spectacular fashion. Even within that second hour, however, in most every case scenes of horror and action are enveloped by scenes of inaction and slow tension building. Rather than burning all its fuel in a tense, hour-long sequence of setpiece after setpiece, Prometheus is smart enough to burn bits at a time, and keep you on edge throughout. Of the most intense scenes in the film is one where protagonist and action girl Elizabeth Shaw finds herself in a strange maternal situation that she needs to abort, for lack of a better term, and pronto. This scene is where we can see that Scott still has that Alien sensibility about him, as her frantic running through the halls to the medical station is gripping like few other horror films have been.
The experience of viewing Prometheus is remarkably similar to David’s experience within the film. As an android, David, played by the excellent Michael Fassbender, doesn’t really care for the humans on the titular ship. He’s there to learn and to discover things, without getting emotionally attached whatsoever. There’s even a strand of the plot that sees David using one of the crew members in a pretty grisly way to further his research. Like David, the audience won’t get emotionally attached to the characters (with the possible exception of Captain Ianek, though there isn’t much depth there), and will allow the intrigue of the plot to drive them. It works fairly well, too – at least for fans of Alien. The mythology of the space jockeys is laid out very gradually, building up slowly to a moment where everything clicks together. For those who haven’t seen Alien, the film is interesting enough to hold your attention, but you may feel unfulfilled as the credits roll.
And that ultimately is the great failing of Prometheus, that is depends too much on its predecessor. There are great performances, particularly from Fassbender and Idris Elba and it’s visually spellbinding enough to instill a great sense of wonder in viewers; but Scott’s efforts to distance it from the original Alien ultimately doom the film, as it can’t stand on its own legs. As an addition to Alien and the already rich mythology of that universe, however, it’s a wonderful film that will satisfy fans, and probably thrill-seekers as well.
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