Warning: This review discusses the film’s plot and reveals the fate of major characters.
Ridley Scott was being disingenuous when he said that, though not a strict prequel to Alien, Prometheus contained strands of the 1979 film’s DNA. In fact, this was a coded description of the new film’s plot; an investigation into the genetic origins of two species – it and us. The surprise for xenomorph fans is a focus on our beginnings. This is used as a point of differentiation; the film justifies itself this way. It opens up the Alien universe. Out pour the questions. To begin with there’s every reason to suppose Scott and his writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts know the answers but later I was reminded of my Mother’s stance on learning to cook, “son, don’t count on it”.
In a film where one’s inheritance is problematic, we’re invited to consider how classic movies pose problems for the next generation of films. Prometheus gains a little weight by making call backs to some strong themes from the Alien series. Disease, hybridisation, religious faith – yes space-boys and girls, we’ve ploughed this furrow before. You think of the original Alien, but also a strong showing for terminal illness in Fincher’s Alien3, that sequel’s deistic bent and God help us, the gene splice boredom of Alien Resurrection. But that first entry is also the albatross around the new film’s neck. Scott is bound by its structure, its look. It’s reverential and a jolly good thing too, you say, after all, a forerunner that abandoned the tone and style of its parent might look something like The Phantom Menace, but Alien was a simple beast; an ornate yet fundamentally straight-forward monster movie in space. Prometheus wants to do more, be more, but audience expectations, though not unreasonable, straightjacket that ambition. The result is a fudge in which philosophy trumps tension.
Not that there isn’t tension, though it’s less in-story, more in said story’s construction. Scott’s new opus can’t quite get its head. Fassbender’s David, a welcome inductee to the guild of sinister androids, acts on orders from the fuckin’ company to study, then preserve the biological threat. This is the familiar gambit from the first two Alien pictures, but the revelation that company boss Weyland (Guy Pearce made up to look like the aged David Bowman from 2010) is on board and covets the Space Engineers’ product in a bid for immortality, with David acting as his synthetic gopher, is senseless. By the time Weyland is ready to hear what our progenitors have to say, it’s clear that the Engineers’ bio-agent is a killer.
David has tested it on the archaeologist, Holloway, who subsequently becomes a poster boy for decrepitude, begging for his own incineration. The synthetic’s also aware that Shaw, a somewhat guileless Noomi Rapace, was subsequently impregnated with an alien parasite, which she risks death to remove rather than waiting to find out what the bairn will do to her bod. Yet the wizened CEO, briefed by David, still holds out for rejuvenation. This, ladies and genitals, isn’t an irrelevant sub-plot, it’s ultimately, when the ontological questions are stowed, the main event. Here you see the join between the tale that Scott and his scribes fleshed out in development and the one we know. New is overlaid upon classic yet, like us and that space-mutagen, the two aren’t strictly compatible.
In fact, long before the inexplicable (though arguably unavoidable) conclusion, in which Rapace’s waif of a scientist opts not to return to Earth and warn its people, rather head off in search of the Space Engineer’s home world, a species that she now knows to be highly aggressive and committed to mankind’s destruction, with just David’s HEAD for company, Prometheus has lost its shape. It becomes the kind of movie that tells you what you’re supposed to feel rather than engendering those emotions, and prone to telling you what’s going on, rather than showing you. The first, gripping hour, with its shading for Fassbender’s murder-droid, gives way to a film in which events just occur, one after the other, without due preparation or payoff.
Shaw’s sterility adds pathos to her alien pregnancy; its cruel, ironic, or at least it would be if the scene in which her barren nature popped up hadn’t preceded her impregnation by a mere ten minutes. Why wasn’t that scene an hour earlier? Where’s the arc for that character? Here, it’s more of a spike and spikes don’t give audiences the space to invest in individual plights. No preparation, no payoff.
When Idris Elba’s hitherto feckless captain, a grunt as Paul Reiser might say, joins the dots and explains the alien installation is likely a military base and its stored gunk, a bio-weapon, you’re at a loss to explain why this hasn’t occurred to the scientists in the group, but more than that, why the audience weren’t given enough information to make that connection themselves. Really, you think, THIS is how we find out? From a driver who’s spent all the important moments in the movie somewhere else? Has he read the script notes, and why can’t Scott and co. find a more organic means of integrating salient plot points into the unfolding drama?
What’s so frustrating about these deficiencies is that Prometheus has more than half a brain and the desire to use it. It’s an ambitious movie, both visually, it truly is a dish, and thematically: a substantial new myth to be dissected. Like the best science fiction it wants to talk about the big questions of the day and there’s few larger than where do we come from and what part, if any, did God play in it all?
Scott’s film uses the language of science and the iconography of religion; we’re seeded by an alien dressed as a monk and our progenitors like a good bit of idolatry. That’s provocative. Provocative is welcome. Most summer movies are brain dead. But Scott’s lapses in technique – the absence of real fear, genuine shocks, palpable suspense – the qualities that made Alien worth expanding upon in the first place, leave his 2012 audience far too much time to ponder the film’s piecemeal existentialism. The conclusion? It’s all a bit woolly-minded. Shock horror indeed.