Whatever plot you’ve concocted in your head from reassembling scenes in the trailers, interview teasers, ingenious virals or behind-the-scenes featurettes, you’re half-wrong.
Despite a seemingly relentless promotional campaign, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has a greater capacity to surprise and astound than any other film in 2012 so far.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, or an unequivocal masterpiece – the direction is certainly masterful, the production design gorgeous, and its use of 3D raises the bar, helping the medium on its journey from over-promoted gimmick to genuine enhancement, as spaceships streak across vast alien vistas – a mixture of volcanic Iceland and seamless CGI.
As much post-Gladiator Ridley Scott, than the contrary young(er, at least) shit-kicker who wrote sci-fi history with 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner, his latter tropes are in full effect – sweeping, panoramic establishing shots, anonymous one-note supporting characters and unashamed Hollywood box-ticking. Yet, everything we – those poor souls who’ve debated whether or not the paper unicorn means Deckard is a Replicant (conclusion: yes) into the wee hours – want from the film is also gloriously present.
There’s an android with an agenda, but we go into this expecting one after Ian Holm’s twitchy, psychotic Ash, and so Michael Fassbender’s eerie waxwork douchebot David confounds us with his callous, offhand cruelty, cringing deference and inscrutable motives within motives. He’s the star, his barely repressed entitlement and arrogance linking the worlds of Blade Runner and Alien, his sly asides propelling him to the status of audience favourite.
We’re looking for an Ellen Ripley surrogate in Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw – but where Ripley was only co-incidentally Ellen and not Eric or Engelbert (the role was written to be gender neutral), Shaw is softer, more conventionally feminine – although no less capable – from the off.
Leading the team with her boyfriend Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan-Marshall Green), she’s a soft-spoken Christian haunted by the death of her father – definitely not one of the boys like her predecessor. As the body horrors of the Alien mythos are built around rape, birth, change and sexuality, these gain a resonance with Shaw that was absent previously. Ripley, after all, had to be driven into forced maternal bonding with Newt in order for the themes of James Cameron’s Aliens – motherhood, birth, creation and destruction – to work, and so Shaw’s character arc, and the nightmare she endures, chime with an extra level of stomach-churning squeamishness.
Contrasted with Shaw and David, the supporting characters are weak, even if their casting isn’t (there’s a definite Oscar-aware sensibility to the line-up), and their elaborately bad decisions are relied upon to impatiently hustle the plot forward.
In Alien we had Ash engineering the catastrophe against the better instincts of the surviving authority figures. In contrast, Prometheus gives us Jurassic Park-levels of hubristic silliness, three clumps of leadership – Idris Elba’s world-weary ship’s captain Janek, Charlize Theron’s icy corporate middle-manager Meredith Vickers, and then the team leaders, Shaw and Holloway.
None of them ever seems to know what anyone else is doing, or attempts to assert any real control over the escalating crisis beyond one scene of grandstanding from Vickers. Sans power or power struggle, David is left to go about his obviously nefarious business with slick transparency, and two glorified redshirts are allowed to “get lost” despite a 3D map showing their position and one of them being a geologist responsible for creating the map – both contrived manoeuvres that kick the narrative off in earnest.
While the story abandons sense in order to move things along, it does so with tremendous results. Prometheus is a mesmerising collision of theological angst, going further than Alien in beating on HP Lovecraft’s tentacle doorknocker, ‘ancient aliens’ conspiracy theories that fit Prometheus into the fringe science of our own world. Moreover, it is a good, honest, Hollywood action/thriller/mystery/horror romp; all explosions, screaming, and set-pieces.
As to whether it’s a true prequel or a new film in its own right, Prometheus serves the function of the former, but with the tone of the latter – containing more of the soaring, questioning spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey (complete with a ‘first age of man’ style prologue) than the oppressive grind of Alien, even beholden to an orchestral score that wouldn’t be out of place in Nineties Star Trek with its focus on horizon-scanning wonderment. Where Alien was about claustrophobia, loneliness and darkness, Prometheus is about open spaces, bustle and illumination, with even interiors boasting a scale that shares more with Blade Runner, despite the Giger-brand biomechanical set dressing.
More of a rebirth than a prequel or reboot, it openly echoes the structure and circumstances of Alien, and yet its conclusion is more in line with Scott’s despised Blade Runner theatrical ending than the bleak, fatalistic ambiguity of Ripley adrift in an escape pod, or Deckard and Rachael stepping out to an unknown fate and a painfully short life together.
It’s messy and muddled, and back-to-back with Alien or Aliens, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s part of the same oil-spitting, bolt-tightening, lived-in universe. But that doesn’t matter, as it’s just another of the many things that you’ll leave the cinema arguing about ferociously or chewing over thoughtfully after 124 minutes of exhilarating, brain-bursting sci-fi spectacle.