Warning: I’ve left the ending out, but watch out for spoilers.
In 1968 Erich Von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods, and I remember reading enthusiastically his theory of how the technologies and religions of ancient civilizations were handed down to them by highly advanced astronaut-aliens. I read this title, as well as more of his later publications around the same time that I saw Alien (1979), the first film of many in a lengthy franchise. I was immediately entranced by the idea of a dark, corporate controlled future awaiting us (Yes, I had quite unique likings as a child), where exploration was conducted by a blue collar spacetuckers amid confined, claustrophobic environments, where everyone constantly looks tense and unwell, waiting for payday. In aesthetic terms, Alien featured some of the most iconic and memorable creations of science fiction horror cinema, the Oscar-winning biomechanical set designs of H.R. Giger.
Alien was followed by James Cameron’s action packed sequel Aliens (1986), which immediately became an iconic continuation and development of the original idea. Today both films are regarded as exemplary works of sci-fi cinema, and have inspired two more sequels and numerous filmic spin-offs, computer games, and low-quality byproducts. Over the decades these texts have etched themselves into the minds and spirits of film enthusiasts, and have created a great love of and nostalgia for the universe first conceived by Ridley Scott. It is exactly this nostalgia and longing that has created such great hype around Sir Scott’s return to his original idea. I do not visit the cinema often, but when I do, it is always to see something that I expect to be special. As soon as I saw the teaser trailers for Prometheus, I knew that it was something I would not miss. The experience of seeing the film was special, in that it not only satisfied my thirst for something new and answered many questions that I had in the back of my mind, but that it also opened up a new bombastic storyline that introduces new mysteries and problems which, even after watching the extended trailers, one simply does not expect.
The plot of Prometheus is about as straightforward as Alien, but the ideas and themes that are touched upon are surprisingly deep and philosophical. Matters of belief are confronted, and big questions are raised. It is a story of mankind meeting its makers, and discovering why and how we came to be. The film begins with a fantastical image of how life began on our planet many millennia ago, with an immense Blakean titan figure standing on primordial Earth, reaching for and drinking a potion, before suddenly disintegrating and in effect introducing his genetic material into the environment. This God-DNA is what becomes part of the soup from which mankind emerges. What can only be eons later a group of geologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover ancient signs on earth that suggest that the origins of humanity may be very different from the explanation that widely accepted Darwinist theory offers. A group of scientists is quickly assembled and put in hypersleep for two years aboard an interstellar exploratory vessel, and sent off to solve the great mystery. Not surprisingly, their mission is no stroll in the proverbial park. The crew is comprised of 17 (!) members, a much greater number of individuals than in any previous film from the franchise, and apart from the geologist couple introduced in the beginning, only a few significant characters are introduced, the most significant being the synthetic human, David (Michael Fassbender), and the compulsory corporate scumbag Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). The team begins their exploration of the cryptic structures they find, and quickly wind up wallowing in all kinds of nasty business. The story that follows confronts many meaningful questions that have been in a state of suspension since the last film of the franchise Alien: Resurrection (1997), answering only some of them, while raising quite an assortment of fresh ones.
What both impressed and disappointed me most in the film were the characters. As mentioned, the creators decided to cast quite a large group of actors, and this comes at a price. The faces are easily confused and misplaced, and there are many points during the movie where you find it hard to tell who’s talking, screaming, dying; they seem to be just bland one-dimensional plot devices, without any human qualities, filling up the screen and wasting time. There are, however, two characters that do stand out, and stand out marvellously. The film’s very special gift happens to be Michael Fassbender who gives a terrifically appealing performance in role that is, to say the least, tricky. He plays David, an onboard synthetic human whose purpose on the mission is, apart from performing regular housekeeping duties, training as a linguist by learning every language that is known to mankind so he can communicate in case the team does come in contact with an alien civilization (he also enjoys shooting hoops and dyeing his hair blond). The inclusion of a synthetic human is a pleasant little homage to each episode of the Alien quadrilogy. Fassbender’s Aryan creation is best described as a hybrid mix of David Bowie, Draco Malfoy, and Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, with a chilling, genuinely creepy demeanour that is somehow lovable and detestable at the same time. It is almost paradoxical that Fassbender’s robotic, cold performance is what redeems the character deficiencies that pervade throughout the film.
Noomi Rapace, who plays Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the other memorable character who we have the pleasure of meeting (and looking at) on screen is very emotional and expressive, but succeeds in creating a complex and strong female authority which easily evokes thoughts of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley Allen. Rapace brings together her character’s religious inclinations, scientific professionalism, and violent determination in a way that makes her believable and true. Overall, Rapace shows solid range as an actress and displays intensity, sincerity, and action in a well-rounded performance. If I were to choose one reason to see this film, it would be for the performances of Rapace and Fassbender.
Without revealing too much, I move on to the good stuff: the beloved element of horror. In the original Alien, we follow the story with a sense of brooding dread and constant anxiety. We never really see in detail what happens to the crew members and this is precisely what creates the unforgettable atmosphere. In Prometheus the characters are not limited by the claustrophobic enclosures known from the previous film and move about freely in a huge otherworldly landscape. What I liked about this film is that it opens up the screen to gives us wide, breathtaking shots. Of course, theme of hidden dread has its presence, but much of it is substituted by in-your-face gore accompanied by loud screechy noises. It is a different mix from what we are used to, but it is something I enjoyed. The now classic mother/pregnancy motif is present throughout the entire film and is complimented by a mix of Giger’s infernal biomechanical otherness in an environment comprised of futuristic medical engineering. I found myself sucking on a partially bitten off fingernail during a scene where the ‘impregnated’ heroine undergoes an emergency caesarean section performed by an automated robotic medical pod, “every woman’s worst nightmare”, as Rapace described it in a recent interview. It is evidently an attempt to outcaliber the original chestburster scene in Alien, but it is hard to say if it succeeds in this regard. It is a truly a grisly moment in the film, executed perfectly, and I would recommend visiting the cinema just to see this jaw-dropping bloody little morsel of scene. The computer graphic rendering of the dark gore and goo is superb and creates a very natural and organic feel. The attack of a huge tentacle monster, probably the predecessor of the facehugger with a fully fledged vagina dentata for a mouth is so comical and nerve-shredding at the same time that one finds it hard to sit still. Talk about castration anxiety!
The visual effects are some of the most impressive I’ve seen in the last few years, and though I do not approve of 3D cinematography, in this film the technique was implemented particularly well. The graceful shots of Dariusz Wolski brings together all on screen elements smoothly, and Mark Streitenfeld’s musical score is as big and epic as the rest of the film, at times giving of a very Star-Trecky vibe. The movie is loud, and at one point, I thought I heard for a short moment a fragment of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for Alien. Nice touch.
Although, there are also many flaws in the film, I remained gripped and engrossed all the way through it. Unfortunately it is rather difficult to define the film in black and white. There is no doubt that it is a big proper science fiction horror film that deals with great ideas. Tension and intrigue drive the screenplay and the experience of watching it was intense most of the time, but there area few moments that are somewhat average and lack a certain “something”. The film does leave many of its deeper questions unanswered, and many people think of this as a great disappointment. Instead of offering the best ending possible, I felt that we are given the blueprints for sequels to follow. As a viewer I was constantly trying to decipher how the entire story fits into the Alien mythos, and I had the feeling that the closer we got to the climactic finale, the more the filmmakers were pulling the story away from us. The film gives the overall impression of being intense, violent, and original, but very watchable and intricate enough that it should be seen more that once in order for all the details to seep in nicely.
Prometheus is not predictable, it is easy on the eyes, expertly shot, and intelligently assembled. I do not understand those who rate it as “a complete and utter mess of a film”, as these people were obviously expecting something along the lines of the first Alien, something that can never really be remade. We have been waiting 30 years for more background & depth to the story since the first chestburster jumped out of its cake, and in this regard Prometheus surely does not disappoint. It is not our old friend Alien, but something new. Go see it, and if you don’t enjoy it, then maybe Snow White and the Huntsman would be the better choice.
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