It seems that there are (generally) two ways to go about making a sequel to a well regarded movie. One is to regroup as much of the cast and crew as possible and try to recapture the magic as best as one can while also making the movie bigger and better. This method works more often than you’d think, but it’s also risky. Sometimes you just can’t come back to the well again and expect the same result. Another approach is to go in a radically different direction with each sequel and use the same characters or environment to make a radically different film from its predecessor. This is the approach that the Alien series took, when it ditched the methodical horror movie approach of Ridley Scott’s Alien in favor of a young James Cameron’s vision of large scale action movie that pitted dozens of angry Xenomorphs against a crew of determined space marines. The results were, to put it bluntly, fucking awesome. Aliens is an extremely fun and gripping action movie and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Still, fans of the series have long wondered just what would have happened if the series had stuck to Ridley Scott’s original vision in its successive installments rather than going off in divergent directions. Now, some thirty three years later, we’ve finally got an answer to that question and we’ve got none other than Ridley Scott himself helming the project, an in-cannon prequel called Prometheus which seeks to better explore the wider world of the series rather than continuing the adventures of Ellen Ripley.
Set twenty-some years before the events of Alien, Prometheus centers on a pair of archeologists named Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who have discovered a pattern within ancient artwork and cave paintings across cultures in which men look up toward the sky toward a pattern of stars in the sky. Believing this pattern to be a map to a distant solar system they’ve arranged, with the financial assistance of a trillionaire named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in heavy makeup, for some reason), a mission on the titular space vessel to this solar system in the hopes that they may unlock the answers to age old questions like “who are we” and “where did we come from.” They arrive at the planet after two years in stasis, accompanied by an eclectic crew including: an icy representative of Weyland’s corporation named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an android named David (Michael Fassbender) programmed in language algorithms that may help with potential first contacts, and a hardy captain named Janek (Idris Elba) who just wants to make sure the mission goes smoothly. As they land they see structures on the surface that seem to be constructed by sentient beings, but once they investigate they soon realize that they may have gotten more than they bargained for.
Visually, Prometheus is everything that a large-scale science fiction movie should be and is a return to form for Ridley Scott, who in recent years has been more interested in making things big than making them grand. One of the most striking things about Alien was it’s sharp cinematography and brilliant set design, both elements that hold up very well to this day, were it not for the hair styles and computer monitor readouts a modern viewer would hardly be able to tell that it was made in 1979. Consequently, Scott is able to stay very true to the look and feel of Alien and simply expand upon it in order to make a movie that feels both true to its source material and also quite modern. The Prometheus itself feels very much like it’s from the same time period and culture as the Nostromo, though built on a bigger budget and for a more important mission. Scott has also expanded on H.R. Geiger’s legendary designs for the Alien vessel found in the original film to strong effect, giving a better idea of the species that built it and what they’re all about. Most importantly, Scott hasn’t turned the film into a wild CGI fest. Make no mistake, there are computer generated shots to be found here (lots of them actually), but the film retains a tactile and “built” look. He shoots on actual odd looking locations and has built actual sets, it doesn’t feel like it was shot in front of a green screen and the film maintains a mature tone throughout, retaining much of the speed and rhythm of his original film.
For all the visual continuity that Scott has maintained, Prometheus is actually a very different movie from Alien both in genre and objectives. At the end of the day, Alien was a monster movie, albeit a very well executed one. It was about a monster that found its way aboard a ship and killed a bunch of people before finally being killed itself. That’s not exactly profound stuff, but Prometheus deals with significantly more weighty science fiction and is in many ways trying to be something more akin to Blade Runner than Alien. The film opens with a beautiful (yet macabre) scene in which a vaguely humanoid alien creating life as we know it on earth by drinking a black liquid and then having his body dissolve into the genetic material that would one day turn into humanity. Sort of like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with more gore. Later we see the characters struggle with this concept and its implications, and also with what the quest for answers can lead to ruin. It also deals with the differences between man and machine, the nature of family and reproduction, and also what humanity’s relationship with a deity would be if we aren’t the only intelligent life forms in the universe.
Those are some really heavy themes, and on some level I want to praise Ridley Scott for even trying to deal with any of them in a big budget Hollywood movie, but I also can’t help but think that the movie sort of bites off more than it can chew by trying to deal with them all. The material about familial relationships, for example, is sort of interesting but it seems like kind of an unnecessary diversion in a movie that’s already trying to explain the goddamn meaning of life. I also thought the material with David the android was a bridge too far, it was interesting, but it could have been its own movie rather than an element stuffed into an already packed movie. Still, the basic idea of humanity being created by these aliens dubbed the Engineers (and the Xenomorphs being created by them as a sort of accidental byproduct) is interesting, but I’ve got to wonder if a fucking Alien movie was the best vessel for exploring any of these things. There’s no way in hell that Scott had any idea when he was making a movie about a chest bursting monster back in ’79 that he was making the follow-up to a story with 2001: A Space Odyssey-like ambitions.
This brings me to the film’s biggest flaw, a weak second act in which it realizes that it does sort of need to give the audience some of the monster thrills that it expects but never really seems quite sure how it wants to do it. I’ll say right now (and this could be inching into spoiler territory), through the entirety of the movie the crew of the Prometheus never sees a single one of the Xenomorphs that we know and love, but they do deal with an assortment of other creepy-crawlies. These secondary monster attacks that occur through much of the film’s middle portion are the film’s weakest moments. Firstly, they seem perfunctory, and secondly they aren’t particularly impressive monster attacks in the first place. One of these scenes involves a rather poorly staged attack/gunfight, another involves a slithering monster reminiscent of the face huggers from the original film but without really matching that original scene. The film probably would have been better served sticking to what I will vaguely call the “drop of ink/cesarean” sequence of events.
It also doesn’t help that most of the Prometheus’ crew doesn’t feel particularly well developed. We get some idea of what Elizabeth Shaw is like and we get a decent amount of material about David the android, but most of the other characters are either relegated to types (Vickers/Janek) or they seem to be little more than disposable cannon fodder. Of course the characters from the original Alien were probably even less deep, but that wasn’t a movie that claimed to explore the nature of humanity, when your movie does try to do that the bar sort of gets raised on the type of people you choose to populate your movie with. What’s worse, it sort of feels like there actually is a lot more to these people that simply goes unexplored. The film almost gets away with this if only because Scott has hired a talented cast that’s able to bring a lot out of some of these characters that isn’t necessarily on the page, but the film still could have benefited if it had just taken a little more time to get to know some of these people before killing them. One wonders if there’s yet another Ridley Scott extended cut we’ve yet to see that fleshes some of these characters out more and maybe gives Elizabeth Shaw more of a complete arc.
What I’m left with from Prometheus are a lot of mixed feelings. I absolutely love its ambition, its scope, its visual style, its continuity within the Alien series, and I feel like some of its best scenes really set it apart from much of everything I’m likely to see in a multi-plex all summer. In spite of all that there are just too many nagging flaws in the film that keep me from fully embracing it. It’s in many ways the opposite of a movie like The Avengers which managed to be perfectly solid throughout its running time if only because it was devoid of any true ambition. Prometheus, whose very title is rich with thematic intrigue, has infinitely more potential and even though it doesn’t really achieve all of it, it’s still achieves enough to be every bit as successful if not much more.
***1/2 out of Four