It’s kind of hard to imagine any expectations that Prometheus met. I think the trailers were trying to lead us to believe that we were going to get something more front-loaded with intensity. Fans of the franchise from which Prometheus drew its DNA were expecting to have questions about its longest-standing mysteries answered.
In both regards, what audiences got was something different… and yet, on its own merits, still very good.
You know, I wonder about setting Prometheus in the Alien millieu. As much as Ridley Scott’s return to the genre and universe that he made his name in was trumpeted, Prometheus is, at its heart, a significantly different film from Alien.
The difference is this: Alien was about a bunch of day-wage working stiffs who didn’t like their job or each other, caught between two forces both far bigger than and incomprehensible to them: An alien lifeform inimically hostile to them and a Company who sees them as an expendable resource.
It was us at perhaps our most petty and detached; even the one exception wasn’t what you’d call a social creature. The only thing they’re passionate about is surviving, and the one exception to that, well, he was more an avatar of the Company than a human, for all his character. None of the people we’re meant to empathise with want to be there, they weren’t even going there in the first place; they just want out.
Prometheus, though, is all about big ideas. It opens with a huge one. From that opening on, it’s about people who willingly walk into the unknown to tackle those big ideas, to find answers. It restores that constant tug-of-war between wanting to run away from and needing to keep walking toward.
That’s why it’s also all about character. The first good chunk of the film is all about our intrepid crew, and even those with the hardest armour get to to give genuine smiles every now and again. We find ourselves empathising with everyone, even those we might not want to (yet it also makes sure to give even the guys we’d love to side with enough jerk to make us wonder).
And once again, Ridley gives some of the most complex character work to his androids whilst doing something new with them. In Alien, the android was the saboteur, the crewmember who, while untrustworthy, was only revealed to be inhuman when the chips were down. In Blade Runner, Roy Batty and his gang of replicants were children in adult bodies, bred to kill yet desperate to discover what it meant to live.
But David, brought to incredible life by actor Michael Fassbender, is something else entirely, a being superior to us yet in service to us, intelligent, witty, neglected yet faithful, emotional yet perhaps lacking in empathy. Not a child, not quite a human being as we know ourselves, yet still curious and wondering in his own way.
It’s he who is the most intriguing of the lot, a character who is consistent whilst still making us wonder just what he’s going to do to do next, and he works to throw humanity’s quest for answers into sharp relief: If we are searching for answers from our gods, what answers do we have for our own creations?
Though Noomi Rapace gets top billing – and deserves it; her Elizabeth Shaw is a perfect blend of drive and vulnerability – Fassbender pretty much steals the movie out from under her.
Then there are the monsters. Alien introduced a Big Mystery in the derelict vessel the crew discovers, but in short order it was all about the monster picking off the crew. While Prometheus has unsettling, deadly creatures, anyone expecting any similar kind of visceral thrill is likely to be disappointed. The horror is more cerebral than external and lunging from the shadows and crawl spaces.
See, the biggest idea Prometheus tackles is death. It’s probably more about death than even Alien. The plot, the characters, are infused with the kind of ponderings you have when facing your mortality. Where do we come from? What’s our purpose? How far are we willing to go to lay the greatest of mysteries bare, and what cost will we have to pay?
(And is it safe to assume the universe will give enough of a shit about us to bother answering our questions?)
Taking its time with its characters and action allows Prometheus to ask questions of faith without delving into specifics of religion, makes us think about how we keep going when the answers we seek aren’t necessarily the ones we hope they’ll be.
What makes it doubly interesting is this character of David, for whom the problem of immortality has supposedly been licked, though at the cost, according to one character, of having a soul.
Supporting the conceptual depth are the special effects. While the set and monster designs are fantastic, Scott takes full advantage of the big screen nature of this film; it’s almost a landscape documentary in space. Folks seeing this at IMAX are probably going to have their socks well and truly knocked off by the huge landscapes.
It has its flaws, of course. The twist two thirds of the way through is made so obvious that it’s not even really meant to be one; I think it was more of keeping a particular character out of the way until his part in the plot came time.
It will also bug those franchise fans who were hoping for a direct prequel that would tell us not just about the Space Jockeys but also the Aliens. Though set at some point prior to the events of Alien, Prometheus is its own self-contained story that uses elements from the existing mythos (although it uses them bloody well, in my opinion). The questions of why the derelict came to be on LV-426 or just what the Aliens are don’t get answered in this film.
Prometheus isn’t quite like its franchise-mates. It’s not quick-paced action entertainment like Aliens or a crafted horror-suspense machine like Alien. But what it is, though, is good science fiction about people struggling with some of the biggest, toughest concepts we’ve ever had to deal with – and what they do when the answers weren’t what they hoped. It’s well worth the ticket price, and if you can catch in Vmax or IMAX 3D, so much the better.
All images sourced from prometheus-movie.com