Fans have eagerly anticipated Prometheus largely because of its relationship to the original Alien and because of the questions it promises to answer. For over thirty years, we’ve wondered about the identity of the space jockey, the purpose of that sinister ship, and its connection to HR Giger’s beautiful, horrifying extraterrestrial. Rest assured that Prometheus answers those questions… or rather, allows us to infer the answers with a reasonable amount of confidence. And yet it’s not strictly a prequel, in that it doesn’t tie in to the storylines presented in the Alien films. It’s set in the same universe, it utilizes a similar structure to the original, but it has a different agenda on its mind. That turns out to be a remarkably good thing.
Specifically, it details the quest for our origins, and the very scary corners of the universe to which that quest takes us. A scientist couple discover a series of coordinates spread across ancient hieroglyphics from half a dozen Terran cultures. With a generous grant from the Weyland Corporation (which might grow up to become the Weyland-Yutani Corporation if it isn’t careful), they lead an expedition into the reaches of deep space to locate those coordinates. What they find should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the previews. There’s something no one can hear you do in space… and the same principle applies to primordial planets containing colossal inhuman structures.
With veteran director Ridley Scott at the helm, Prometheus functions most effectively as pure spectacle. I haven’t seen a film this hauntingly gorgeous all year, augmented by the director’s obsession with detail and the careful mapping of every possible inch of the environment. The ship itself is sleeker and more elegant than the intergalactic tramp steamer from Alien, yet it comes from the same basic design school. (The connection is impressive, considering that real-life effects technology has advanced by three decades, but the same universe has regressed by quite some time.) The planet they land on displays a similar technique, slightly more inviting than the one in Alien, but full of considerable peril nonetheless.
As for the inhuman structure they find, it bears Giger’s expected hallmarks, including one room that fans of the series will most definitely recognize. Scott plays up the designer’s disturbing sexuality, both in the subtle visual cues and in the film’s more overt perils – one of which becomes an absolute showstopper of body horror. Prometheus also joins the bare handful of films that actually make effective use of 3D, and if you can see the film in IMAX, I urge you to do so. For pure eye candy, the film simply can’t be beat.
It does equally well in the realm of philosophical musing. As with Alien, Scott turns to H.P. Lovecraft for inspiration, positing a cold and unfriendly cosmos that spawned us more as a mistake or an afterthought than for any grand benevolent purpose. So eager is our desire to meet our makers that we never stop to consider whether our makers want to meet us… or whether such a meeting will drive us mad. Scott offers no definitive answers here, leaving us to deliberate and debate amongst ourselves. That alone puts Prometheus head and shoulders above most films this year: interested in engaging us intellectually rather than coddling us with shallow narrative comforts
The theme finds more overt manifestations throughout the film, mostly in the android David (Michael Fassbender), who serves the human crew the way an enlightened child might. He routinely muses on the relationship between creator and created, while the flesh-and-blood parents and would-be parents on board provide considerable data to chew on. If you’re familiar with the series, you can guess that David has more than simple service in his programming, but to say more would be telling.
Suffice it to say that the deeper context helps drive Prometheus past a few narrative kinks that hinder it from time to time. One of the big showstoppers appears seemingly free of narrative logic, and other moments arrive more out of the need to keep things moving than any sensible means of telling a story. Though unfortunate, it doesn’t derail the film’s impressive strengths. Scott follows a pattern similar to Alien’s, complete with a welcome heroine (Noomi Rapace) who makes fine company for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Prometheus expertly advances the implications from that earlier film, coupled with unsettling body horror, incredible visuals and a sense of the genre’s possibilities that only a true master could grasp. Not everyone will like it – it defies too many expectations and the prerelease hype sets the bar higher than any film can match – but that division will only add to the conversation around it. Regardless of its box office performance, Prometheus has a long life ahead of it, as we ponder, puzzle and discuss the ideas it delivers to us.