Scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover the same star map among several ancient unrelated cultures (Egyptian, Sumerian, Mesolithic etc.), despite none of them being in contact. Believing the co-ordinates lead to a higher cosmic authority, Shaw and Holloway are employed by the Weyland Corporation to lead an expedition on-board the scientific vessel Prometheus to find mankind’s forerunners – a mysterious race Shaw has dubbed the “Engineers”. Unsurprisingly, in their quest to find God, the crew discover God is not so eager to meet them.
Being a Ridley Scott film, Prometheus of course looks stunning, crafting a look similar to Alien but still with its own identity. The titular starship resembles the kind of space vehicle Apple would have made when they inevitably set about conquering the great beyond. H. R. Giger’s biomechanical designs make a welcome return, with the Engineer’s ship filled with space-age skeletal detail on the walls and corridors resembling ribcages. Scott makes good use of the 3D, using it for depth of field and for the many, many holographic interfaces the film likes to show off.
Handsome though the film is, the characters are disappointingly thin. The crew of the Nostromo seemed more human, although that may be because they were intergalactic blue-collar workers and there were only seven. Of the 17 people on-board the Prometheus, you’ll only give a tuppenny toss about four of them – maybe five, at a stretch. Rapace struggles with her British accent, and Shaw herself isn’t characterised beyond “is a Christian”, but remains a likeable enough heroine, alternately strong and vulnerable. Idris Elba’s stalwart captain Janek manages to do a lot with very little, and Charlize Theron’s company executive has some interesting revelations, but they come too late towards the end and she ends up a poor man’s Ellen Ripley.
The real standout is Michael Fassbender as android David, the ship’s butler and, ironically enough, the most human of the crew. Early on, while the crew are in stasis, David spends the two years of travel wandering around the ship – he plays basketball, learns languages, and dyes his hair to look more like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Not quite as villainous as Ash in Alien, or as benevolent as Bishop in Aliens, David is more amoral, following an unknown directive, alternately helping the crew and using them as experiments. It’s a magnificent performance of the most intriguing character in the film.
For all of Scott’s denial that this isn’t a straightforward Alien prequel, it follows the same basic plot. People enter alien environment, poke their nose around where they shouldn’t, bring back hostile element, battle with alien creature, robot has secret agenda, Weyland Corporation has idiotic plan. That said, the more important cue Prometheus takes from Alien is the idea that humanity is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The corridors of the Engineer’s ship are immense and, decorated with rib cages, give the impression they’re little more than germs in a much larger entity. The Engineers themselves dwarf their progeny, and the first shot of the Prometheus shows it as a mere pinprick of light against the sheer vastness of space. Shaw desperately wants to believe that life is more than just an accident, that there’s some greater purpose…
…but there is none. Questions lead to more questions, and “where did we come from?” gives way to “why are we here?” and “who is it that created us?” The ultimate reveal of what the Engineer/Space Jockey actually looks like, while disappointing, makes sense in relation to this idea – they’re so close to being understood, yet so much of them remains untouchable, even when Shaw literally meets her maker. Prometheus is probably the first summer blockbuster since Men in Black to tell the audience that they’re utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things, like a gigantic neon sign reading “YOU ARE NOTHING”.
Sadly, that’s about all the philosophy you get for your £8+. It feels like Prometheus wants to say more, but never does. Writer Damon Lindelof is one of the gentlemen responsible for Lost, which also asked big questions, but denied answers because ‘you can NEVER know the answers!’ It brings to mind Tim Minchin’s poem ‘Storm’:
Life is full of mysteries, yeah
But there are answers out there
And they won’t be found by people sitting around looking serious and saying ‘Isn’t life mysterious?
‘Let’s sit here and hope.
‘Let’s call up the f*****g Pope.
‘Let’s go watch Oprah interview Deepak Chopra.’
After a solidly atmospheric first hour, the plot becomes a frantic mess to get to the end. Mysteries are answered, motivations are revealed, but there’s no narrative connect between them, with revelations happening one after the other like ducks at a shooting range. So much goes on that only one scene, where Shaw deals with an (*ahem*) unwelcome passenger, really hits home, because of how uniquely gruesome and nerve-shattering it is, and how it puts a new spin on Alien‘s fear of sexual contamination.
Prometheus also commits the cardinal sin of having its characters act like idiots to move the story forward. This is a world where qualified scientists feel the need to reach out to try and pet an alien snake like it’s a faithful old Labrador, and where nobody mentions they may have been infected by an unknown pathogen. It’s just disappointing for something with such grand designs to turn into a dumb B-movie.
For all my gripes about it, Prometheus is still worth your time. I’d much rather watch a film with too much ambition than one that has none, and – like its mythological namesake – Prometheus certainly reaches for the heavens. It’s probably not going to be a sci-fi classic like Blade Runner, but as sci-fi pulp, something that excites and tries to provoke philosophical thought in the audience, it works well enough. I can’t call Prometheus a great film, but it’s a blockbuster with brains and drive, and when it works, it really works.