Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall
Running Time: 124 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The term "meet your maker" is interpreted literally in Ridley Scott's polarizing Prometheus, his quasi-prequel to Alien that has both less and more in common with that series than you'd imagine. From the get-go it's clear exactly what kind of science fiction this will be. The smart kind, with big ideas. Whether all the ideas presented are fully explored is a separate issue, but at least enough are, even as I lost count of how many movies those ideas seemed to reference. It's territory we've been in before and there's never much doubt where the story's going, but fortunately this still manages to be effective on its own terms. The film looks great, employing practical style special effects and set design that goes a step further than we're used to seeing in most big budget sci-fi blockbusters. Even just the opening title sequence confirms that. But the story exists in this weird gray area between being presented directly as an Alien prequel and setting up its own philosophical mythology that draws heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's sequel, 2010, and even something like Mission To Mars. Anyone approaching this looking for extremely deep insights into human existence might be disappointed, but as far as relentless sci-fi, horror adventures go, it ranks high.
The year is 2089 and archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered an ancient map in Scotland that connects many cultures and is interpreted by them as an invitation by humanity's "Engineers," or creators, to travel to their distant moon. The mission's funded by the late Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in old age make-up), the Weyland Corporation's founder and CEO. After traveling in a state of suspended stasis, Shaw, Holloway and the rest of their Prometheus crew led by Captain Janek (Idris Elba) awaken at their destination in 2093. They meet the mission's director, the emotionally vacant Dr. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and its monitor, an android named David (Fassbender) who allegedly has no feelings, but whose behavior and appearance is patterned after Peter O' Toole's T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia. During their investigation they get get much more than they bargained for, with a discovery that puts not only their lives in jeopardy, but could potentially threatens the survival of the entire human race. They wanted answers and get them, but it don't come without a price.
If there's an issue it's in the film's inability to completely break free from the Alien franchise and fully establish itself as its own standalone entity. Of course the pressure was on (at least from a studio marketing perspective) to push this as a "prequel to Alien." In a sense it is, without Scott going so far as to completely acknowledge that. Basically he wants to have his cake and eat it too, which is problematic only when certain Alien elements are jammed into the second and third acts of the film, giving it a different feel than it started with. Scott would have just been better off severing all ties and influence to that franchise, saving the audience some confusion and making for a cleaner finished product. Even the very last shot of the film feels more like a shout-out to fans than anything that organically sprung from the narrative. But if that's the worst problem the film has, I'd still say it's in pretty good shape, especially considering the number of ways this could have gone wrong and come off indistinguishable from the usual big budget sc-fi devoid of ideas. It definitely doesn't deserve to be lumped into that category and nothing about the story or its presentation seems at any point to be unsophisticated, or worse yet, dumbed down to make it more accessible.
The idea of future explorers searching for the human race's origins makes for an engaging start point and it's held together by a couple of really strong performances and fantastic effects work (not to mention a cool 80's throwback sci-fi miniseries-style score from Marc Streitenfeld). Fassbender's performance as David the android already starts as something interesting but only becomes more fascinating when the other characters start pushing him and his true motivations boil to the surface. Jealousy, paranoia and even a certain level of arrogance start to seep through his robotic facade. This is the most obvious homage to 2001's HAL, as a computer begins to show obvious signs of a soul and personality, but with disastrous results for the rest of the crew. Fassbender's meticulousness keeps you wondering whether there is more to this android than just circuits while also making it subtly clear he could just be programmed to follow order and preserve the mission. Either option seems equally disturbing whenever he's on screen. The real emotional android just might be Theron's Dr.Vickers whom she plays as detached ice queen and non-believer to her core, backing the mission strictly as a business decision and nothing more. The faith and belief is supplied by the protagonist, Noomi Rapace's Shaw, who can hang with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley only in so far as the amount of physical punishment she endures. While it isn't fair, the movie seems to want to invite a comparison between the two, making Rapace's performance seem more underwhelming than it actually is. If nothing else, she endures the grossest C-Section you've ever seen performed on film. Idris Elba could have been given more to do as the ships captain, but he's memorable in his few big scenes opposite Theron.
You have to wonder how the public would have reacted to this film had they not known it was in any way tied to the Alien franchise or co-written by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. Given how some have still inexplicably not gotten over how he ended that series, it's likely many were foaming at the mouth to blame him for any perceived problems with this project. That his script balances issues of faith and science thematically similar to the show's controversial, unfairly maligned finale only gives fans more ammunition to complain, no matter how off-base they are. While the script does definitely lag behind the directing and visual effects, it's only problem is the "been there, done that feel of its premise" and its inability to step out of Alien's shadow despite the film's initial ideas suggesting it could have possibly surpassed it. The jaw-dropping visuals and performances from Fassbender and Theron really stand out as the biggest reasons why it's a success. At the very least, Prometheus is Ridley Scott's best effort in ages and seems more than a worthy of a sequel that can hopefully deviate even more from the original material it's inspired by.