When George Lucas started planning the scenes in Jabba The Hutt’s palace in Return Of The Jedi, he saw an opportunity to improve on his own work. He had never been happy with the low-tech cantina scene in Star Wars, with its rubber-suit aliens and fuzzy wolfman. Equipped with a bigger budget and better technology—the rewards of success—he set out to turn Jabba’s surroundings into the riot of chaotic, colorful, creepy alien life he’d envisioned the first time around. The results possibly swung too far in the opposite direction—the original cantina scene (before Lucas’ special-edition digital tinkering) is dark and crude, but brief enough to not get in the way of the storytelling. Whereas the sequences in Jabba’s palace feel like one of Lucas’ significant steps toward being more interested in spectacle than story.
It’s tempting to ascribe some of the same revisionist spirit and love of technology and spectacle to Ridley Scott as he returns to science fiction with Prometheus. While Scott has said the film began as a prequel to his 1979 classic Alien, then evolved into a stand-alone film, it still feels like a prequel, given how hard it works to place all the Alien pieces on the board by the end of the story. (All but one, anyway, but that’s a matter for Spoiler Space.) Even more so, though, it feels like an Alien remake for a new era of filmmaking. So many of the characters, plot beats, and design elements are familiar from Alien, it’s actively distracting. But where Alien was grimy and claustrophobic, Prometheus is polished, expansive, and at times breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a similar series of plot points, on a vastly larger and cleaner visual scale. Still, while Scott is as obsessed with visuals as Lucas, he clearly wants Prometheus to be an intellectual experience, too.
Noomi Rapace (star of the original, Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptation) and Logan Marshall-Green launch the story as a pair of scientists who’ve drawn parallels between ancient artworks from around the globe, each depicting the same specific star cluster. In that cluster, they’ve found a moon capable of sustaining life, and on that moon, they believe they’ll find whatever force created life on Earth. A few years after their latest cave-painting discovery, they’re the key crewmembers in a trillion-dollar excursion to that moon, on a ship unsubtly named Prometheus, after the god who gave fire to humanity, then paid a terrible price. But as much as the explorers would like the journey to be about their beliefs—Rapace’s religious ones, Marshall-Green’s scientific ones—they’re firmly under the thumb of a severe corporate overseer (Charlize Theron) and a placid android (Michael Fassbender), each with their own agendas.
Initially, the Prometheus’ crew doesn’t seem much like the Nostromo’s in Alien, apart from Idris Elba, whose low-key, wryly funny working-man take on captaining a spaceship somewhat echoes Tom Skerritt’s in the original. But once the crew is revived from suspended animation, it becomes clear that most of them weren’t briefed on their hush-hush mission, which starts to look like yet another of the nakedly profit-driven, amoral corporate projects that always enable the horror in Alien franchise stories. (In past Alien franchise installments, the hubristic evil came from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; here, it’s just the Weyland Corporation, with Guy Pearce as the doddering company founder who bankrolled the expedition.) And as the mission begins to go awry, various major and minor characters step up to take familiar roles in Alien’s cast-attrition-thriller dynamic, while encountering similarly familiar Alien-esque elements.
Before that, though, Prometheus spends an admirably detail-oriented, long, sleepy period just exploring its own spaces, from the ship’s interior to the various structures that may or may not prove Rapace and Marshall-Green’s theory. At times, the film hits near-Solaris levels of hushed contemplation, as it focuses on serving up a long, chilly visual feast. It’s clear that Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Lost veteran Damon Lindelof (who also co-produced), aren’t feeling any particular time pressure, or a need to move the plot forward. Theron and Fassbender in particular play their cards close to their chests, coming across as villains largely due to their coldness and competence rather than any overt gestures. Here, as in past Alien stories, anything warm, soft, and organic is a rare comfort in a universe primarily composed of lethal environments and creatures, and Theron and Fassbender’s hardness marks them as the enemy, particularly by comparison with Rapace’s physical and emotional vulnerability.
They may also come across as villains because Prometheus could use a couple. Alien mined tension from its cramped setting, which left its small crew with nowhere to run once things got bad. It kept the scale small and the drama personal, giving a face and personality to every victim. Prometheus is far more diffuse, with a much larger cast and a focus that wanders between Rapace and Marshall-Green, Theron, Fassbender, a pair of support crew played by Sean Harris and Rafe Spall, and various others. In effect, for much of the film, the mission rather than the people is the star, which makes it hard to connect emotionally when things fall apart for some of those people. Fassbender stands out above the rest of the cast, partially because he gets more solo screen time and takes more idiosyncratic, specific actions, but his distanced remove is more designed to provoke curiosity than empathy. It’s as though the entire film is designed to keep viewers at arm’s length.
From a technical standpoint, though, Prometheus is an unqualified success. The design is gorgeous, to the point where much of that slow-paced exploration seems designed solely to let the filmmakers show off their accomplishments and their imagination. The ship and its environs are flawlessly executed, and a lovely opening sequence on an unidentified alien world is so visually rich, it resembles an IMAX nature documentary. Again, where Alien was about cramped, wet, oppressive interiors, Prometheus revels in the immaculate glow of CGI holograms and pristine digital displays. The 3-D is crystal-clear, well-integrated, and vivid, without being overt. It’s the first Alien franchise movie to imply that the technology of its future can be beautiful and artistic, not merely worn and weary. And it’s the first in the franchise to work at making humans feel tiny to the point of cosmic insignificance, rather than merely physically fragile.
The human element proves problematic, though, as the characters’ decisions are often foolish, even comically unbelievable. People in extreme situations often make poor choices, but Prometheus’ characters are routinely fundamentally incompetent in ways difficult to reconcile with their qualifications. Their disregard for common sense and their own safety tends to be distancing and frustrating, and lead to the feeling that they deserve what they get, much like the one-dimensional characters in slasher films who exist only to exhibit annoying behaviors, then get killed for viewers’ amusement. Also frustrating: the film’s tendency to introduce intriguing ideas, then leave them unexplained, unexplored, or unresolved. Some of that is deliberate and thematic—one of the story’s central ideas is that it’s unwise for mere humans to seek out gods, because they might be unimaginable or incomprehensible. But even the humanity-based concepts, like the monitor that lets Fassbender watch Rapace’s dreams as she sleeps, or the conflict between Rapace’s beliefs and Marshall-Green’s, are introduced, then dropped in a way that’s strikingly at odds with the film’s otherwise careful, thoughtful sense of craft.
And by the end, when it breaks down into a standard blockbuster action thriller, Prometheus sometimes gets damn silly, particularly during an impromptu medical procedure that seems intended as a Cronenbergian body-horror moment, but heads so far into unlikely territory that it’s difficult to take seriously. The film’s early solemnity and its big, important ideas about the relationship between humanity and its possible creators are often directly at odds with the dumb things it does to service its ultimate goals.
And though Prometheus follows Alien’s story beats, it’s a looser and less satisfying story, more intellectual than visceral, and not fully satisfying on either level. But in part, that’s because it’s trying to do so much more. Like Scott’s Blade Runner, Prometheus questions the relationship between life and its creators, and whether the two have any responsibility to each other. It finds parallels between Rapace’s questions about humanity’s gods, Fassbender’s curiosity about his own purpose and potential, and Theron’s troubled relationship with her father. It asks large questions about humanity’s origins and destiny, about life before life on Earth, and what happens after death. And while it doesn’t offer any answers, that feels like a more mature decision than wrapping everything up neatly. Apparently the 30-plus years since Alien has given Scott time to expand his already-impressive range: Until that frantic last act, Prometheus is essentially an abstract remake of Alien for contemplative grown-ups. If only Lucas had matured this well.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Prometheus' Spoiler Space.