Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba & Charlize Theron
Before I start this, if you haven’t see Prometheus and don’t want to know the score, then look away now. The spoilers start below. And there are lots of them.
Lets get this straight out there: Prometheus is NOT a direct prequel to the Alien series of films. It is the name of the spacecraft that the characters travel on and a mythological hint as to the nature of the film. For that purpose, I will rename all the Alien franchise films to Nostromo, Sulaco, Fury and Auriga (or Betty to be more precise). This should help detach each individual film from the other and allow them to be judged on their own merits. So, I reiterate, Prometheus is NOT a direct prequel to Nostromo. Only in the same way that the Model T Ford indirectly led to the Ford Mondeo is it a prequel. If you want a Nostromo prequel, write one, get it financed and make it yourself. If you want a Nostromo prequel, don’t watch Prometheus. Go back to your Quadrology boxset, watch the first two, shoot down Fury like you normally do and then go on a rampage at how bad Auriga is. If you want a Nostomo prequel but want to see Prometheus, leave your pre-judgement at home.
Over the last few years I have tried to close my ears to anything related to what was originally going to be an Alien prequel and which later evolved into a film set in the same universe. I happened to read one brief synopsis, which, whilst falling far short of the mark, was actually very close to what Prometheus actually is. I’m not one to avoid trailers and I can happily say that they don’t reveal a great deal – a few choice scenes and shots and that is it. I was just happy that a) Ridley Scott had returned to sci-fi and b) that he was returning to the universe of Nostromo et al.
I went for the 2D option – which I would normally do, despite the fact that this was shot in 3D rather than retrofitted with it. I also had some guy sat behind me that didn’t know the volume of his own voice whispering to his partner what was going on. He was so wrong. About a number of things. At least he got the Batman trailer right…
I’ll start with the short verdict: Prometheus is good, but not great.
So, if it’s not a prequel to Nostromo, then what exactly is it? It’s an origin story, but primarily that of mankind rather than where the Xenomorph comes from (more about that later). It is quickly established that aliens visited Earth and through a sacrifice of one of “The Engineers” mankind on Earth is seeded. We don’t know exactly when this takes place and we really don’t need to at this point. We soon learn that these “Engineers” have been visiting different cultures over the course of time since then, each time leaving a starmap, which is assumed to be an invitation. Like any self respecting curious culture, once we have the technology off we go to discover.
Once on board the titular Prometheus, we’re introduced to Michael Fassbender’s “David” – a creepy and clinical synthetic that strives to be more humanlike and is seen “hacking” into the dreams/thoughts of Noomi Rapace’s “Shaw” whilst she is in hypersleep. Once the crew wake from hypersleep, there follows a few clunky scenes introducing some of the peripheral characters. Admittedly, this could have been handled a lot better but it’s over and done with rather quickly.
Then comes the clincher that any observant person should spot – the planet they are going to is NOT the planet from Nostromo and Sulaco, despite what Mr Chatty behind me said to his partner. The film takes place on LV-223 and not LV-426. Quite a fundamental difference that I’ve not seen mentioned in any of the scathingly negative reviews I’ve read so far. If you’re going to spend half your review comparing Prometheus to Nostromo, then at least point this out. Oh what, it doesn’t serve your negativity any purpose to point this out….ah, gotcha.
Once the Prometheus lands near a curious pyramid/dome structure, that’s when the film can begin in earnest. Already there have been some different agendas laid out, whilst it is clear that some are just there for the pay cheque. We know that Rapace’s “Shaw” and her partner, Marshall-Green’s “Holloway” have differing views on the meaning behind the visitations – Shaw’s being a more spiritual one wanting to meet our makers and Holloway’s is scientific and he merely wants to see the culture that visited Earth. David’s motives at this point aren’t clear, but we don’t have to wait long to find out.
Needless to say, the science crew cannot wait to get out and begin their voyage of discovery. As does ours. This is the last point at where pre-conceived expectations should be left behind and the point at where Prometheus’ own merits and flaws should be taken within the confines of this film and this film only.
The story and the themes they’re derived from are themes that have been explored before. The idea that humans were given a genetic kickstart by something extraterrestrial in the past, a “god” if you will, is one that is not alien in the realms of sci-fi and has even wormed itself into some realms of science and religion. Likewise, once it becomes clear that an aging Peter Weyland is on this mission with David acting as a proxy for his instructions, the age-old quest for eternal life rears its head. These are two solid thematic grounds to build a story about discovery on. Likewise, the theme of species annihilation is firmly embedded into sci-fi. The engineers seemingly seeded life on Earth, but also left the “invite” to tempt future civilisations into triggering their own doom. What were their motives for seeding human life on Earth? That is an unanswered question, but is a tantalising carrot at the end of the film. It’s not vital to the scope of this film and will lead to plenty of speculation.
The conflicting motives of the leading characters also worked well. There is no collective motive on display and with the differing agendas, it is a case of keeping track of what is going on. This may not be ideal for some people, but it is how it is. You could use The Apprentice as a suitable comparison for this – the facade of teamwork is just that in The Apprentice. Everyone is out for themselves. In Prometheus, the same is true – they want their own questions answered and they go about this their own way – or, in David’s case, by Weyland’s way. Damon Lindelof did the same in “Lost”, though on a much more sprawling scale. In Prometheus, he has scaled this down. There are no huge backstories as to why each character has their motive, they are largely dealt with in the first few minutes. Clarity comes during the film.
The speculative technology on display is also a large plus point. From the “dream viewer” to the mapping orbs, there is a feast of technology on display that are not out of the realms of possibility but are certainly at home within the confines of a science fiction film.
The story development is well paced. After a rather sedate introduction, the story proceeds at a balanced pace. Once the team have ventured forth into the pyramid structure, the pace ramps up and all the motives become clear. You’re given glimpses of little things that don’t exactly seem important at the time but become relevant later on. Some have criticised these hints but would have criticised the quantum leap of a gaping plot hole had they not been there. These little glimpses are necessary to the story. The opening hour has a large focus on David and you always assume that he is up to something that is at odds with the rest of the crew. This is only truly confirmed when he deliberately infects Holloway with the genetic goo that is found in urns within the pyramid. The consequences of this take a while to come to fruition, but when they do they do so in the film’s most graphic and gruesome scene.
The aforementioned genetic goo. The goo seems to serve two purposes – it seeds life when it combines with existing life and also has the ability to destroy it. It’s not clear whether the goo that the Engineer at the start drinks is the same goo that is in the pyramid structure in droves, but I’m working to the assumption that it is. I think it’s also safe to say that the goo is the “Macguffin” of Prometheus. It is the item that drives and moulds the story. What is the goo? It is a genetic catalyst that has devestating effects on an individual when imbibed in large quantities. It invokes rapid change when it comes into contact with genetic materials. It is as a result of this change that the genetic link between Prometheus and Nostromo are apparent. The creature that Shaw removes from her body eventually grows into what is basically a giant facehugger.
Naturally, the effects and scenery are fanastic. There is a clear preference towards sets and models rather than green screen, which is to the benefit of the story. It could easily have been a huge CGI fest, but Scott has been very restrained in that area. It would have been to the ultimate detriment if green screen was the norm rather than the exception in this film. There are some truly impressive effects on display that just add to the wonder of the film.
What doesn’t work?
The script. As I’ve said, the story and the development thereof are fine. The script is largely clunky and the characters say and, occasionally, do things that you would not expect from them. The most criminal scene here is the Idris Elba and Chrlize Theron scene – it’s awful and tears apart two strong characters with a moment of weakness. I’d rather they were in an existing relationship than have that scene. Two clunky scenes involve Rafe Spall and Sean Harris, one when they first meet and the second when they are forced to spend the night in the pyramid structure. As has been pointed out, there is no way a biologist would approach a strange looking phallic creature the way he did. These are just a few examples and they are sadly not alone.
The storm. Totally uneccesary. I can’t really say more than that, but it just wasn’t needed. The only purpose it served was to force the crew back to the ship and cut off the two lost characters. Having the storm would have been fine in one respect, but to create a false moment of tension where, surprise surprise, Shaw drops a head of one of The Engineers and gets blown away trying to retrieve it was just a waste of a couple of million dollars.
The awakening of the engineer. Although I have no problem with the purpose of the scene – to show the hostility towards humans and to ensure that he can go about his mission to destroy humans on Earth. The execution of the scene is poor. From the moment that David’s head is ripped off it just doesn’t work as a supposedly tense moment. In fact, it is devoid of any tension whatsoever. For such an important scene it is so cursory that it’s almost rendered entirely irrelevant. It should have been so much more and would have been an ideal point for some kind of revelation, but nothing comes. You have to accept the engineer’s hostility based on the consequential reasonings that the crew make – that he is going to travel to Earth to destroy life.
The ending. Now, I don’t mean the part where Shaw, the sole survivor, makes her way back to the lifeboat ejected from Prometheus upon its impact with the alien vessel. I mean the scene after Shaw and a surviving David leave the planet in search of more answers. After managing to be almost entirely detached from Nostromo, it decides to play a rotten joker at the end that is from the Nostromo pack of cards. It shows an full grown alien being birthed from The Engineer that tracked Shaw down to the lifeboat and fell victim to the giant facehugger. What was implied suddenly became unnecessarily explicit. It was literally rammed down our throat in such a tacked on way that I almost think that they made the scene as a laugh without any intention of it being included and then someone, on their first day, accidentally left it in the final cut. It’s a scene completely at odds with the rest of the film that has been its own thing. It illogically strips away some of the sense of wonder and answers a question so late in the game that didn’t need answering.
Why did The Engineers seed human life on Earth? Is it just what they do or are we one big science project a la Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Microcosmic God” or “The Genesis Pot” from The Simpsons?
Why do they want to destroy us? Is it simply a case that now we are starfaring race we are a threat, or is it something greater than that? Were we a mistake?
Are there different factions of engineers? Given the amount of time that passed between the seeding of life to the landing on LV-223, has a more sinister faction taken over that want to wipe out those that take the bait of the invitation?
Why not just come back to Earth and wipe us out? Were we meant to find them? Were they a dying race that knew what they were inherently like so assumed that life they seeded would have similar goals so decided to destroy us?
Is the goo at the start the same as the goo in the pyramid structure? I’ve assumed that it is, but what if it isn’t? It’s not illogical to think that perhaps one faction uses one goo to seed life and another faction uses another goo as a bio-weapon to destroy life.
What exactly happened in the alien structure that left the ghostly recordings? We have to assume that the something turned on them, but what exactly? There’s no remains (that we know of) of any aliens and the phallic alien that rapidly evolves from a worm was born within this film. Something turned on the engineers, but was it another faction or was it something else?
What is the relevance of the picture of the familiar xenomorph? The Engineers obviously encountered the xenomorph before – on LV-426? Did they find it, did they create it, were they trying to replicate it through genetic manipulation? Sure, the ending goes some way to suggest that they created it, but why have a picture of something up on the walls of your craft?
Unanswered question from Nostromo: how did the engineer vessel and “Space Jockey” end up on LV-426? Was it a separate mission, scientific outpost etc. Perhaps this one should not be explicitly answered…
Yes, it’s (almost) inevitable. I would expect several of the questions above to be answered in some capacity in a sequel. I would also expect more links between the Prometheus strand and the Nostromo strand of films to become apparent. These are impossible to avoid when you set contrasting stories with similar DNA in the same fictional universe. Recently, I’ve viewed the trailer for “The Bourne Legacy” which actually takes place at the same time as one of the Matt Damon “Bourne” films yet it appears to have it’s own story running through it. Nostromo takes place in 2122 and Sulaco in 2179 – 28 and 85 years after the ending of Prometheus. Depending on the timeline of events and the extent of any hypersleep, it’s not entirely out of the question that the events will crossover at some point – perhaps slap bang in the middle of the two films. Remember, in Sulaco, Hicks says “It’s a bughunt”. It’s easy to assume now that perhaps space marines have been on some sort of bughunt that may have something to do with the Prometheus thread.
Pure speculation of course, but the message that Shaw left at the end of Prometheus will no doubt get picked up and the you would then naturally assume that the response to any perceived threat to humanity would be of the military variety.
As already mentioned, Prometheus is good, but not great. It is also hugely enjoyable, despite the flaws. It could have been so much more, but what we are left with is more than satisfactory. Though many people will not like the unanswered questions, I firmly believe that a film that is setting itself up for a sequel should only answer the questions that it needs to in order to conclude the story that it is telling. The unanswered questions are part of a wider tapestry and are not detrimental to Prometheus itself.
The flaws do not get in the way of the story, though I would expect something better in the way of a script for the sequel. It is the film’s most consistent failing and it does seem that perhaps the focus was primarily on telling the story rather than delivering believable dialogue and actions.
Prometheus may deliver more punch in some areas on a second viewing and I am positive that I have missed some of the nuances and hints that may have led to perceived leaps of logic. As such, I have avoided including these in the flaws until I can be certain that I have not missed anything. Leaps of logic or not, sometimes, like in real life, characters in films can have a Eureka moment that isn’t visual and perhaps these Eureka moments were missed or poorly portrayed.
Ultimately though, Prometheus is worth the wait to see a different story get told in a familiar universe. Whether you take it as a direct prequel or an equal is up to you and your ability to detach the stories. I for one am looking forward to exploring the Prometheus story further in years to come.
Naturally, there are some things I have overlooked and upon reading other analytical reviews, I felt that perhaps other things needed to be mentioned. Rather than subsume them into what has already been written, they will be added here.
1. About that sequel
Shaw leaves a message as a warning and then leaves. Any response will presumably be directed to LV-223. So, what will they find? The alien that burst out of the engineer will no doubt do something – is it a queen or is it a mere soldier? Will the goo that was in the spacecraft heading to Earth spill out and provoke rapid evolution in any rudimentary lifeforms that happen to be on the planet? Will a sequel even return to LV-223?
2. Another unaswered question
When David is analysing the vial of goo that he sneakily took from the chamber in the pyramid, is that a little worm in the goo? We later see something wormlike appear to pop its head out of Holloway’s eye after David has infected him. This begs the question, what exactly is in the goo? Has this goo been cross contaminated with the worms, hence the reactions that Holloway and Fifield suffer?