“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” – Mary Shelley,
The earliest ventures of Ridley Scott in the realm of science fiction delved deeply into the relationship of creator and creation, the inclusion of android life as a reflection of human beings own potential to replicate the work of gods and of their creation’s ability to turn on them, to question them, or demand answers of them. It’s an element more prevalent and poetic in Scott’s BLADE RUNNER than in ALIEN, but his 2012 prequel to the latter borrows aspects of both to create a squirm inducing horror-fest that also reaches for loftier ideas, though is far more successful in the former. A return to the genre he defined in the late 70s and early 80s that generated ample excitement prior to release, and myriad questions upon viewing, it’s still one of Scott’s best outings in the last ten years. It struggles to find decent footing, and occasionally relies too heavily on previous tropes from the series thus creating scenes that are sometimes more predictable than frightening, but once the wheels start turning and foreign bodies start using the humans as hosts for future destruction, Scott’s knack for terrifying anatomical grisliness is put on dazzling display. Even upon revisiting, foreknowledge of what transpires is not enough to prevent one from partially shielding their eyes during the most gruesome and sickening moments. It certainly bites off a whole lot more than it can chew, especially in ways that still aren’t completely satisfying in their relation to the rest of the ALIEN universe, but the methodology of the chewing is nauseating and still greatly entertaining.
At a time predating human history, a statuesque figure is left behind on Earth by an alien spacecraft to consume a substance that will dissolve the humanoid being into genetic pieces that will make up human life on the planet. Centuries later, two human archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) come across an ancient cave painting of massive figures pointing to the stars. It is one of many, but this particular discovery predates the others they’ve found, inspiring them to use it as a map to the home-world of their creators. An expedition funded by the Weyland Corporation is embarked upon, arriving on the specified distant moon after years of travel. Monitored by an android, David (Michael Fassbender), the passengers eventually awake from stasis to explore the planet’s surface. Discovering a series of structures forming a straight line, several members of the crew go looking inside one to make contact with whatever life forms they may find. They quickly discover a mass grave of Engineers, the beings they were looking for, and a strange temple like location filled with containers of substances they dare not touch. Of course, David has ulterior motives, bringing some foreign substances back to the ship, and it isn’t long before various crew members start experiencing uncomfortable and irregular symptoms that may prove to be their undoing, and detrimental to the mission as a whole.
The crew of the Prometheus, as their vessel is so appropriately called, is a fine assemblage of performers of differing backgrounds and notability, yet with as much talking and exposition the narrative trundles through before launching into its thrills, the actors feel stranded in more ways than one. In her most recognizable performance in an English film, Noomi Rapace of Swedish Lisbeth Salander fame fills the role of the main protagonist, drawing an occasional parallel to the original’s Ripley. Rapace is clearly putting much of her blood, sweat, and tears into the trials of Elizabeth Shaw, and her palpable panic is what makes the film’s harrowing centerpiece more than simple body horror, but for all her effort, Shaw can’t help but feel underwritten. Alongside her as a romantic partner is Logan Marshall-Green, the very poor man’s Tom Hardy, and while he’s even more vaguely drawn, Marshall-Green brings practically nothing to Holloway’s frustrations or his strange animosity towards Fassbender’s android, David. But it seems Fassbender himself is having a delightful time playing with inky goos and slightly veiled hostility, and he’s really the main reason the film is worth watching. The sequence in which David wanders around the ship, occupying his time while the rest are asleep by shooting hoops or watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, is almost like a short film all too itself, entertaining for the embodiment by Fassbender alone. Others are hit or miss, including a fairly one-note Charlize Theron who may or may not also be an android herself (a question this film doesn’t choose to answer), the charming Idris Elba as a Stephen Stills loving pilot, and Guy Pearce in one of the oddest, most unnecessary bits of casting that relies far too heavily on prosthetics.
Most of the faults lie in the execution, though, as it stumbles to get strong footing for over half of the actual run-time. It’s clear from the start that Scott and writer Damon Lindelof are striving for something larger, grander, more mythical, but much of what they’re reaching for comes at the cost of efficiency and drive, not to mention an actual firm grasp on his smorgasbord of ideas. There’s so much philosophy and scientific or religious jargon thrown around, but it all feels meaningless without sources of conflict or even distinct relationships. Shaw and Holloway’s connection is the only one of note, and it still feels forced and unspecific. Scott is much more at home with finding new ways to tread old paths, and while the genetic ties to the ALIEN universe are a tad muddled to say the least, there’s still plenty helpings of scary stuff. The previously mentioned surgical procedure is a shining example of Scott’s ingenuity in re-framing the iconic and familiar in devilishly new ways. In that same vein, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shot the film with 3D cameras, allowing for considerable depth of visuals while also throwing the viewer into even closer proximity to some of the more terrifying moments. Using live video feed from the crew members’ helmets as they explore the ancient structure, it placed the audience in an uncomfortable and tense first person view, a choice that builds dread all on its own. And Wolski’s compositions are perfectly commendable, yet everything feels a tad too vibrant for the franchise’s grungy beginnings, though he definitely deserves a big hand the use of the helmets as creepy yellow light sources wandering through the dark like some school of deep sea fish. Even Marc Streitenfeld’s score feels frequently at odds with itself, eerie in some moments, yet strangely sweeping and out of place in others, making for a bit of mixed bag that parallels the film’s successes and pitfalls.
Five years on, and completely separated from its theatrical 3D release, PROMETHEUS hasn’t particularly aged well. It isn’t for lack of trying, as explorations of the mysteries of human existence are absolutely timeless, but are certainly a difficult jumping off point for setting up a franchise’s framework, especially when that franchise already has a particular aesthetic and through-line. The rumination on what it means to create and destroy is broad, though not out of line with the series thematically, but it doesn’t bring the thoughts to a profound or revealing conclusion, or really much of any conclusion at all. It’s essentially two films mashed into one, and the intent of each overshadows the strengths of the other. Once it devolves into frights and gore, the questions are practically abandoned, making for smaller, but ultimately more satisfying spectacle. Scott’s strengths are in the paranoia and terror, often muted by the loftier ambitions, but when they shine, they’re as unsettling as fresh blood splatter. As a whole, it’s a confusing conundrum, short on answers but also on natural payoff, and it’s protagonists’ enterprise mirrors Scott’s own. In search of meaningful answers to the most puzzling questions of all time, they eventually learn dark truths they wish they had no knowledge of, and that they probably should have never made the journey after all. Perhaps Scott could have afforded to learn a little bit from their example.
Re-watch rating: B-
(The Re-watch is a series of posts dedicated to revisiting previously viewed films and analyzing the ways they change, alter and sometimes grow upon repeated viewings and further reflection)