First, let’s get one very big question answered, the question that has haunted this film since the first announcement. Is Prometheus a prequel to the Alien franchise? Yes. Yes, it is. But not directly. Like Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott have been telling eager journalists all the way through press tours, Prometheus has a DNA connection (a term which was very appropriate and very apt I might add), it is operating in the same universe (although crucially NOT the same planet) and I imagine that if they do sequels they will move further and further away from Alien. However, while it doesn’t fully connect to Alien, it does link its strands of DNA very neatly in with its predecessor.
Prometheus tells the story of two of scientists: Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who may have discovered that humankind was incepted on planet LV-223, far away from our solar system. With the backing of the Murdoch-like Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and under the supervision of a Weyland executive, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Holloway and Shaw are joined by a team of scientists and an android called David (Michael Fassbender) to investigate the planet to learn not just how, but also why we were born.
On the outside we could say this is a film which endeavours to tell the backstory of Space Jockey (or as they’re known here ‘the Engineers’), the big guy who we only fleetingly come across in Alien, who has more to him than just being the driver of the derelict ship. But Prometheus goes much further than that, it has its own explorations to make and it goes into one of the most hotly contested issues of our day: the nature of humankind on earth. Why did we get here and how? Prometheus is dealing with this issue and offers no answers, only speculation.
It is stunning to see a film which is a blockbuster and has very high expectations, deal with these kinds of issues. Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof are smart people and we were never going to get a stupid, hollow film, but, unlike Michael Bay and Peter Berg, they have taken a leaf out of Christopher Nolan‘s book, the thesis of which is: you don’t have to talk down to your audience in order to make a popular summer genre film.
Prometheus is a film of ideas, and these area ideas we don’t usually get in films that have $200 million price tags. We have scientists who believe in God promoting Darwinism vs Creationism, a meditation on the role of the creator & what it means to create a life (whether it be human or android) and it takes on big corporations & their CEO’s who lust for everlasting power, which for me is greatly ironic for a 20th Century Fox production.
Lindelof and Scott are also very aware of what people want and they do endeavour very strongly to give them that, whilst also subverting our expectations. Those expecting an experience like they had while watching Alien are going to be disappointed, this isn’t a horror film and it wasn’t intended to be. Alien was a stately horror film, a slow moving haunted house film that had a palpable and mounting sense of dread with the unique tag of ‘truckers in space’, in Prometheus we have scientists in a gigantic film of science fiction spectacle, that has more suspense than all out terror.
Despite being very intelligent and a fascinating piece of work, the film is not afraid of going into areas which one might say are Cronenbergian. In fact there is one sequence, a very intense sequence, which directly refers to a dream sequence in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Unlike the original Alien, it is very upfront about its monsters (which are very sickly and great creations) and they are shown regularly throughout the movie.
The spectacle is also really, really impressive and seamlessly melds CGI and real sets to great effect. Scott has always been a magnificent builder of worlds, he knows how to create a believable and organic environment which is a technique that he learned working closely with people like H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb and Lawrence Paull on Alien and Blade Runner, who worked with physical sets by making it feel organic and recognisable.
The production design, here done by Arthur Max who has worked with Ridley Scott since Gladiator, is beautiful and Oscar worthy, it brilliantly takes hints from the work of Giger but also builds a whole new world that we are there to enjoy. It is there for both the benefit of actors and the enjoyment of the audience. The CGI is never distracting because Scott only uses CGI when he needs to and when he does use it, it is impressive and very realistic. The sets are built to stunning effect and then the CGI builds on top of that to create this wholly satisfying world.
With science fiction it is very difficult to get decent performances, and here we don’t just get decent performances, we get great performances. Noomi Rapace is absolutely excellent and is doing her best with dialogue which isn’t as excellent are her delivery, she may not be a patch on Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley but she is a complete trooper with some very difficult scenes and she pulls it off convincingly. If there are sequels I fully expect her to completely match up to Weaver.
Elsewhere, Idris Elba makes a convincing captain, who neatly mixes the characters played by Tom Skerrit and Yaphet Kotto in Alien, Charlize Theron is a suitably steely and tough presence while Logan Marshall-Green does prove more than just being a pretty face. As for Guy Pearce, he’s an interesting case, he’s good but is stifled by thick make up which makes you think: why didn’t they just hire a really brilliant veteran actor, or Rupert Murdoch?
But head and shoulders above all of them is Michael Fassbender. The man is given the best material, the best character, the best scenes and he totally knows it. His interpretation of David neatly finds reference in Blade Runner, as well as HAL from 2001 and the similarly named android David from Spielberg’s AI, while also adding a smiling, Machiavellian air that makes him just a little more than creepy.
This is probably the closest we’ll get to Fassbender playing a villain, but he beautifully finds the right line in leaving the motives of David suitably oblique. The motivations of all the characters are very clearly spoken but David keeps his cards close to his chest, quietly moving around the ship and doing his own investigative work but to what end we do not know. In the end, Fassbender is so good that Prometheus becomes David’s story as opposed to Shaw’s.
Fassbender is quite simply the finest actor of his generation and he deserves Oscar attention now, it was criminal when he wasn’t nominated for Shame and if he isn’t nominated here it will be criminal again, but unsurprising. The Academy hardly ever notice science fiction performances, in fact the last time an actor got a nomination was Sigourney Weaver for Aliens funnily enough, but Fassbender deserves it, if anything he transcends the genre to give a truly great performance, not just a great science fiction performance.
It is true, Prometheus does have its shortcomings, but there is too much to enjoy to take against it and I find the recent critical backlash quite baffling. The expectations have rocketed due to really clever marketing and I think the film lives up to its promise.
Ridley Scott redefined this genre with two of the greatest films ever made and with Prometheus, he has made a very satisfying summer blockbuster of ideas, which rips along at a terrific pace giving us two hours of intense and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle.
Oh, and did I mention that Michael Fassbender is absolutely fantastic?