(c) 20th Century Fox
Following the previous entry on this blog, I’d like to continue the space theme by giving my thoughts on Ridley Scott’s recent science fiction movie Prometheus, which was released on DVD in the United Kingdom this week and is a prequel to the series of Alien films – the first of which was famously directed by Scott back in 1979.
I’d have liked to begin this review with a quote from Hamlet. The film comes laden with child-parent themes – there’s the relationship that Michael Fassbender’s android character has with his creator, and the dreams experienced by Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist where she recalls her childhood with her father, and a late-on revelation that provides a parental motive for the behaviour of the glacially unpleasant company executive played by Charlie Theron, and the fact that the film takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies, which feature the worst parenting experiences in the history of the cinema – and a few lines from Shakespeare’s play about the father-haunted, mother-fixated Dane would surely be appropriate. However, it’s actually a quote from another Shakespearean work, Macbeth, which bests sums up certain aspects of Prometheus: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
That’s not to say that the film’s basic premise isn’t sound. It begins with a scene set in the earth’s distant past that suggests life on our planet was the result of alien tampering. Subsequently, in the late 21st century, evidence of these aliens – who are nicknamed ‘the Engineers’ – and the planet they may have come from is uncovered by archaeologists and a mega-billionaire called Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce) is sufficiently inspired to launch a spaceship containing a team of cryogenically-frozen scientists towards the distant planet.
Arriving a couple of years later at their destination – having been looked after en route by an android called David (Fassbender) – the team thaw out and soon discover on the planet’s surface what appear to be the remains of a giant genetic laboratory once run by the Engineers. However, when David gets the lab’s holographic CCTV system operating again, it reveals ghostly footage of the Engineers in terrified flight from something they’d created. And as ghastly things begin to stir in the shadowy, cave-like tunnels of the abandoned lab, it becomes clear that the Engineers – no longer the benevolent species they were when they visited earth – were working on making genetic weapons here, weapons that are still, horribly, active.
In the original, Scott-directed Alien, the life-cycle of the hideous title star was fairly straightforward. It started off inside an egg, emerged as a claw-like face-hugger, incubated inside John Hurt, reappeared explosively as the phallic chest-burster and finally grew into the nightmarish, acid-blooded, adult alien that’d been designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger. The cycle was tweaked with but not dramatically altered in later films – James Cameron’s Aliens brought in the egg-laying alien queen, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection introduced the half-alien, half-human new-born (which unfortunately looked like it was about to burst into tears and ruined the film’s finale). Prometheus avoids the easy option of using the aliens we’ve been familiar with since 1979 as the biological weapons lurking in the Engineers’ laboratory. Instead, we get some new but equally unpleasant life-forms that might’ve been developed in parallel with the aliens, or developed as prototypes to them.
Unfortunately, the rules governing the life-cycle of the thingies in Prometheus are all over the place. (It doesn’t help that a couple of the humans are attacked too on a cellular level – they get infected by something viral and gruesome.) During the latter stages of the film, while horribleness piled on top of horribleness, I was asking myself an array of troubling questions. Where did that come from? Is that thing related to that other thing from half-an-hour ago or is it something new? And if it’s something new, what happened to the other thing from half-an-hour ago? Why did that happen to him when it didn’t happen to the other bloke? Why did he react that way when the last guy reacted a different way? Oh, what the f*** is going on?!! At a number of moments, such was the illogical sound and fury of Prometheus that it did indeed seem like a tale told by an idiot. (The script is by Damon Lindelof, who isn’t actually an idiot, but he’s perhaps the next worst thing: he’s a writer on the TV show Lost.)
However, having got that major gripe out of the way, I can say there was much in Prometheus that I enjoyed. The early stages of the film have a lovely 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to them and it’s refreshing to encounter a science fiction movie that isn’t afraid to engage with big questions such as where we come from and what we’re doing here – which the genre should do more of, but doesn’t (cinematically, at least). It also makes a change to have an Alien movie where the main characters are scientists and specialists who have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into (even if they’re not sure what exactly), as opposed to the hapless blue-collar and low-life characters who populated the earlier films: space-truckers in Alien, space-marines in Aliens, space-convicts in Alien 3 and space-mercenaries in Alien Resurrection. (That said, during the scene where the spaceship prepared to land on the Engineers’ planet, I was half-hoping that Bill Paxton would pop up and exclaim: “Stop your grinnin’, and drop your linen!”)
The cast are also good value, especially Noomi Rapace who, in the best Sigourney Weaver / Ripley tradition, becomes tougher and more proactive as her fellow crew-members are gradually whittled away around her; and Michael Fassbender as David, who’s an intriguing creation. Driven by a curiosity that’s sometimes child-like and sometimes ruthless, he’s morally positioned halfway between Ash, Ian Holm’s out-and-out bastard of an android in the original Alien, and Bishop, Lance Henrikson’s noble android in Aliens (who helped to save the day even after the alien queen had ripped him in half). The other actors and actresses do well too, although they have to cope with some wildly expository dialogue – it’s just a pity that the dialogue hadn’t been more expository when explaining what, precisely, was going on in the Engineers’ laboratory. The script also demands they do some very stupid things that only characters in horror films, and Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, are capable of doing. An alien life-form rears up in front of you… And how do you respond? You reach out and touch it. Duh.
Among the supporting cast, I particularly liked Sean Harris and Rafe Spall as a bickering geologist and biologist – although when the moment comes that they stop sniping and decide they actually like each other, you know that Something Bad Is Going To Happen.
The real star of the film, however, is Ridley Scott. His direction, coupled with the photography, set design and special effects, ensure that, visually, the films packs as much of a punch as any of his best movies did in the past. And it just feels good to have him making a film again that’s set in the Alien universe, the universe that he played a major role in creating 33 years ago. Prometheus doesn’t have the narrative thrust or the freshness of the first two films in the series, but it’s certainly superior to the third and fourth ones (although, directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet respectively, neither Alien 3 nor Alien Resurrection are without merit). So – welcome back, Ridley.
(You’ll notice that in the above review I have not mentioned the Alien vs Predator movies. I have no wish to. In fact, anyone who tries to argue with me that Alien vs Predator I and II are part of the canon deserves to have acidic alien blood dribbled over his or her head.)