Prometheus, veteran director Ridley Scott’s return to the universe of unspeakably hostile and corporeally invasive entities that he set up over thirty years ago in Alien, has apparently been marketed and trailed mercilessly over the last few months, with whole suites of teaser videos and trailers being unleashed upon its target audience via the internet. Despite Alien being one of my very favourite movies (certainly both the greatest science-fiction and the best horror film I’ve ever seen) I’ve caught none of this wave of hype, and have formed no expectations at all about Scott’s new project – this franchise fell foul of the law of diminishing returns a long time ago, and there didn’t seem to be any particular virtue in reactivating it now.
Nevertheless, I thought I ought to see this one on a big screen while I had the chance, and before I heard any spoilers. Ridley Scott may come over as a bit of a hack at times, but I can’t think of any director with a better track record of presenting alien, historical and fantastical worlds credibly and in minute detail, and he’s generally pretty good at keeping the narrative under control and holding your attention for the whole running time. Plus I haven’t been to see a big budget Summer blockbuster for a while. It turns out that Prometheus is set in a time frame not long before the events of Alien, although it’s not strictly speaking a prequel (it features no characters from the first film, and doesn’t explain all the circumstances of it), and thankfully it’s also not a slack-brained re-boot (as in throw out all the continuity, and re-imagine the cool monsters and hardware). The story concerns an exhibition by a small team of scientists to a planet in deep space, from which lead character Dr Elizabeth Shaw* (played by Noomi Rapace) has hypothesised a race of powerful beings responsible for the development of the human race originate. It’s a sound enough scenario, even if it’s not completely original, and it’s certainly not obvious exactly how it’s going to play out. There’s nothing of the all-pervasive sense of dread that characterised the early scenes in Alien, and nothing to give the audience a clue whether this is going to turn out well or ill – for a good hour or so, it’s perfectly conceivable that this will indeed be a successful and historic enterprise and that every crew member is going to get home intact. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to reveal that this doesn’t exactly come to pass.
This is in fact a highly watchable movie, despite some of the driving ideas in it feeling a bit secondhand and others remaining frustratingly unresolved. The design of the spaceship and the various forbidding alien environments is just beautiful (and pleasingly consistent with the first film, despite the decades-long gap between them), and while the individual crew members tend to have off-the-peg characterisation (nerdy scientist, hardbitten cynic, icy company representative, worldweary heart-of-gold captain, and so on), the interplay between them is entertaining and intriguing enough to fill the time before things start happening. The most interesting character by far is the ship’s android David, played by the workaholic Michael Fassbender, who we initially see singlehandedly tending the ship while the crew is asleep during their long journey. David fills his time by learning ancient languages and watching Lawrence Of Arabia, and his impeccably polite but borderline creepy manner and appearance seem to have been directly drawn from Peter O’Toole’s otherworldly performance in that film.
After landing on the planet and some initial explorations of an imposing structure and the chambers beneath it we’re just about ready for something horrible to kick off, and it duly does, though not perhaps in the way that long time observers of this series of films might imagine. In fact, at roughly the same time as the mission starts coming apart so do the various themes of the film: it all starts to feel a bit choppy, as though a longer and more coherent edit has been cut down in order to come in below particular time and certification constraints. Some actions aren’t properly explained, motivations stay murky and the origins of certain phenomena still seemed a bit mysterious to me by the end. It’s not actually that irritating, and the ideas involved are developed enough to make for good debating points, but I suspect Scott will unveil a director’s cut at some point that will prove a lot more definitive.
What the film does deliver however is a whole dollop of the suspenseful ickiness that its audience presumably paid their money for and a spectacular climactic action sequence. Here we have several new twists on slimy Giger-esque body-horror, and one bit involving an emergency medical procedure that I can’t quite believe the BBFC thought was appropriate for a 15 certificate. I really wouldn’t advise going to see Prometheus if you happen to be pregnant. I was clutching my armrest and covering my eyes quite a lot in the second half of the film and you can’t say fairer than that.
Prometheus is kind of patchy, I suppose, but I ended up liking it quite a lot. If there’s a fuller version on the DVD I’ll definitely give it another go. The best Alien film in over twenty years, and a cut above the average Hollywood action extravaganza – but you might want to give the popcorn a miss if you’re of a sensitive disposition. You might end up losing it, one way or another.
* With apologies for shoehorning a Doctor Who reference into every review I write at the minute, but is this a deliberate reference to one of Jon Pertwee’s assistants?