More Kubrickian Than Alien
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
In his first science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982, Ridley Scott has returned to the genre with Prometheus, the sort-of prequel to Scott's much beloved 1979 film, Alien. There's been a lot of anticipation for this film, as well as a lot of speculation as to just how much of a prequel this film really is. It's safe to say that this film takes place in the same universe as Alien, as Scott has said in numerous interviews, but it is not a direct prequel. It's also safe to say that despite the film's flaws (and there are a few), Prometheus worked for me.
The "sort-of" nature to the sequel should also be applied to people's expectations of what genre of film this is. Prometheus has many elements of being a horror film - it even includes a "birthing" scene not unlike that of the chest-burster scene in Alien - but is more in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else. It deals with man's desire to find out where we come from, traveling to the furthest reaches of space to get those answers, even though maybe we were never meant to understand.
One of the most obvious homages to 2001 is in the character of David (played perfectly by Michael Fassbender), an android who, like HAL, studies humans and along the way develops his own personality and curiosity. He's both creepy and a joy to watch in every scene he's in. Fassbender nails that quality of not quite being human enough for the characters to ever believe he's anything other than robotic, which is no easy task. Looking at the previous androids in the franchise, Ian Holm played Ash with more of an evil persona making it obvious that he was hiding something, and Lance Henriksen played Bishop so innocently that it was clear he was an android who wanted to be thought of as human instead of "a synthetic". Fassbender falls right into the middle and successfully creates and maintains a character of his own delivering the most memorable performance of the entire film.
I'll admit that the feeling of 2001 from the very beginning was slightly off-putting at first, given that I was one of many expecting a horror film from the onset, but once I realized what the film was doing and surrendered myself to it, I was happily along for the ride. It's the ambition of Prometheus that I respect more than anything else. It takes the standpoint that Star Trek did in the late sixties: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." (Immediately fans of the Alien franchise are up in arms upon reading this review and discovering that I have, and will continue to, make many references to Star Trek with regard to Prometheus.) For the first half of the movie the wonderment of space and the optimism of exploration is very much at the forefront, especially in the character of Elizabeth Shaw, played by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace. She's an archeologist who, with her colleague and lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), has discovered star maps all over the world that all point to the same place. Shaw is a woman of faith, despite the fact that the mission itself could prove that there's no such thing as God, simply what are known in the film as Engineers who created us. It's through Shaw that the film's initial tone takes on this sense of excitement at what the universe holds in very much the same way that Star Trek always did.
Even the musical score to the film, composed by Marc Streitenfeld, has a Trekian-like sound to it (specifically Star Trek: Generations), which further conveys to the audience that we may not necessarily be in for the same ride that we got in Alien. I like the fact that Ridley Scott returned not only to the genre itself, but to the universe of Alien and created an entirely separate tone for Prometheus. It shows that Scott had a story he wanted to tell and that he did not want to cash in on the same tricks he's done so successfully before. It's because of this different approach that some people, like myself, will feel a sense of refreshment (especially after six Alien films) and others might feel a bit betrayed.
Once the crew arrives on the moon, LV-223, we know that bad things are going to happen and it's at this point that the film's tone gets slightly lost in the shuffle. It manages to maintain its own eagerness and hopeful optimism, but also gives us scenes that come across as "eye-candy". It's as if Scott knew that he wanted to try something different, but along the way realized that audience would have certain expectations and therefore it was his job to satisfy them with bits and pieces at a time. I'm not against audience satisfaction but if you're going for something new, stick with it. It's during these horror moments that the film, surprisingly is at its weakest. Not because these scenes are bad (they're actually quite mesmerizing) but because with the tone established in the first half of the movie, they feel out of place and almost unwelcome. The script is uneven and it's clear that Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) wrote it separately, Spaihts having more horror elements (he wrote the first draft which was more of a direct prequel and very much like the original Alien) and Lindelof taking the more philosophical approach.
With Lindelof's spin on the original concept for Prometheus, the film unfortunately veers a bit too much into Lost territory by posing more questions than it cares to answer and setting up many of those questions to be answered in a potential sequel. One of the things Lindelof is famous for saying is that with each answer to one question several more will arise. In some ways that's a fair statement and in others it's simply a cop-out. I happened to be a fan of Lost and didn't mind it's open ended nature as much as others did. After seeing Lindelof's work on Prometheus, however, it's clear that this is a man only interested in asking questions instead of trying to explore their answers, which isn't groundbreaking, it's just lazy writing. Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, connects the film to Lost and argues in her review that Prometheus is "deep without being particularly smart, although the dazzling design and special effects keep you from noticing that basic flaw until at least an hour in." I agree with this argument but somehow still found myself won over enough to maintain my enjoyment until the very end.
Yes, the script needs work; Yes, the film's tone is mix-matched at certain points; And yes, there will never be a way to replicate that same feeling of dread that Alien did all those years ago. But it's because of Scott's acceptance of that fact and willingness to try something new that I enjoyed Prometheus; Fassbender's performance, it's homages to 2001 and Star Trek (intended or not), and its philosophical questions (answered or not) make it an interesting addition to the science fiction genre and also worthy of its own sub-category somewhere between Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and Gene Roddenberry.