After one of the biggest and most hyperbolic marketing campaigns ever, which did all but suggest that Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi is a bigger deal than if Jesus returned, Prometheus is here. Ever since it was announced, there's been a lot of talk about exactly how it's related to Alien. Scott himself has distanced the film from his earlier effort, saying only that strands of ‘Alien DNA' would be apparent and that it only becomes a prequel in the last few minutes.
Well, the truth is that this doesn't just have ‘Alien DNA', it's a full-blown prequel. The reason for Scott distancing it is the same as it often is with marketing nowadays – the assumption the audience is stupid (which, to be honest, is often quite a fair assessment for a lot of cinemagoers). There aren't any xenomorphs (well, pretty much), and so it appears Scott wants to make sure audiences aren't expecting the iconic facehuggers and aliens and are then disappointed by their absence.
However one of the reasons for the lack of HR Giger's creatures are because parts of the film are essentially an origin story for the creatures that went on to bother Ripley 40 years after this is set. However the world it's set in is very much an Alien world, revealing more about things seen in Alien but which weren't explored in the 1979 sci-fi horror. The main one of these is the so-called ‘space jockey', a huge mummified creature seen relatively briefly in the alien ship Ripley and co. investigate before they come across the facehuggers, and which becomes more important here.
Two scientists, Elizabeth and Charlie (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), discover that different ancient civilisations across Earth have left clues that point to a particular star system. They're sent as part of a team to a moon orbiting a planet around this star. Elizabeth stills believes in a higher power while Charlie is less spiritual, but both believe the moon holds clues to mankind's origins, and the ‘engineers' they believe seeded human life on Earth.
Just after they arrive, they discover an enormous round structure, which seems too uniform to be natural. Exploring inside they soon come across the bodies of dead aliens, and it appears something has wiped the humanoid creatures out. Elizabeth and Charlie are keen to see what answers they can find – although sad that it appears all the engineers are dead – but this being the world of Alien, there are competing agendas. As franchise fans may suspect, those agendas come from the Weyland Corporation, with android David (Michael Fassbender) apparently doing their bidding.
There are also various other members of the team, from Idris Elba's captain to Charlize Theron's mysterious Meredith Vickers, who seems even more devoid of emotion than David is. As you may have guessed, quite a few of these people are there mainly so they can die as strange creatures start to appear and the truth behind what was going on in the alien installation is revealed.
While Alien was small and claustrophobic, Prometheus is a much more epic movie. Indeed one of the most impressive aspects of the film, as you'd expect from Scott, is the world-building, where they seem to have absorbed the lessons of Avatar, where creating a fully formed sci-fi universe doesn't just look cool, but doing it right actually helps make the 3D seem more integral than tacked on – and the 3D does work extremely well, adding to the experience without becoming distracting. It's an awesome looking movie with some great action set-pieces and should more than satisfy those looking for a well-made, good-looking, effects filled sci-fi flick.
My main reservations were thematic and with the fact there seem to be a lot of plot holes – well, kind of. To be honest a lot of the time it's difficult to tell whether certain things are holes or deliberately left unclear. After all, the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, who became the king of leaving things hanging with TV's Lost. His love of answering questions by raising more questions is very much in evidence here, with the script seeming to revel in only suggesting answers to things from the original Alien by suggesting 100 other things. However there are certain things that do appear to be major holes that have been papered over, which is kind of annoying when so much care has been taken elsewhere.
More frustrating for those into such things are its thematic failures. Prometheus is a movie that set out its stall to ask big questions – Why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there room for a God? What is the relationship between the creator and created? Early on in the films its big idea after big idea and the whole things builds as if it's going to be an interesting look into the possibilities of these things. However it eventually becomes apparent that the film feels asking the questions is enough and ought to be patted on the back just for that, as it doesn't really have much to say about these things that haven't been said 100 times before.
By about halfway through, its themes start tripping over one another until they become pretty meaningless. There's still the odd interesting idea, but these start to seem like small realisations in the script they've happened on something potentially intriguing rather than something that goes somewhere. Ultimately its thematic weaknesses and its love of leaving things open means that by the end it's tough to tell whether the movie was actually ‘about' anything, or if it's just been doing a big dance to try and get people to think it is.
To be honest it's not as big a problem as it could have been. The film does so much right around this, from the universe it's set in to the pacing to the slow reveal of how things piece together (and how they relate to Alien), all ensuring it's still very entertaining. Indeed I almost wish it hadn't bothered with all the initial thematic fireworks, as for me, who loves that sort of thing when done well, it became distracting when it started to falter. There are some themes it handles well though, and as with the earlier Alien movies, many of its most interesting ideas surround its android.
Michael Fassbender outdoes Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen on this score, with an eerie performance as David. The script seems far more interested in David than pretty much everything else in the film. He's far better developed and more fascinating than any of the other characters. Indeed, from the early scenes where he copies lines from Lawrence Of Arabia and apparently dyes his hair to look more like Peter O'Toole, it's clear this in an android we need to know more about.
While Noomi Rapace's Alien-style woman-in-peril act occasionally gets a little tiring, especially when it decides to go with the franchise stalwart of finding an excuse for her to run around in her underpants, David never stops being utterly fascinating. Admittedly some of the biggest plot holes/unexplained things swirl around him, but he's also the centre of its thematic strengths – particularly concerning his role as the creation of a species that has just discovered it was created itself – and Fassbender is utterly beguiling in the role.
Prometheus is a good film and much better than we've come to expect from the summer blockbuster season, but it's flawed. The ending suggests we could well be getting Prometheus 2, and there's a decent chance some of the things that appear to be problems could well be explained there (particularly the fact that what we see towards the end of Prometheus – and which on the surface appears to be setting things up for the arrival of the Nostromo and Ripley 40 years later – is different to what we see in Alien).
To be honest, those just looking for an extremely well-made, gorgeous looking sci-fi thriller are unlikely to have any problem with it at all. However if you're the type of person who likes big ideas in a movie, prepare to be promised a lot in the first hour only for it to fizzle out – with a few intriguing exceptions – in the second.
Overall Verdict: A beautiful looking and entertaining trip back into a world that contains more than just ‘Alien DNA', although it's a shame the script couldn't have been a little tighter and more thematically satisfying.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac