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Starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron
Writers: Jim Spaights and Damon Lindelof
Director: Ridley Scott
In this “first cousin” to Scott’s influential and innovative Alien, a 2093 expedition to a faraway planet is intended to answer questions about who or what made mankind, but becomes instead more or less the state-of-the-art sci-fi/horror spectacular most people were expecting.
Original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star Rapace is Elizabeth Shaw, who with her lover and fellow scientist Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green), believe they have tracked the inspiration for several cultures’ cave paintings back to its source in deep space. The Prometheus expedition is funded by Weyland Corp, its founder (Pearce, in old man makeup) dead but said by the Weyland rep, Vickers (Theron) to be a superstitious, curious man. Vickers makes it known that the scientists are merely employees and not free to make any call on their own. Prior to all this set-up, we have already seen a strange, pale, humanoid infected with some sort of organism, mutating as he falls into a waterfall, and we’ve also gotten to know David (Fassbender), the preening android who keeps the ship running and reports to Vickers and a mysterious other party, but who also has spent the past two years learning about humanity while the others were in status, watching old movies, learning languages, and somehow tapping into their dreams and memories.
Both the humanoid and android are signs early on that Scott and his writers have other things on their minds besides gooey, chest-bursting alien action, and all credit to them for exploring the origin of humanity, and what it really means to be human. The problem with the film, then, or at least the biggest problem, is that ultimately, one question is provided an answer but not a meaningful one, and the other question is left unanswered. Instead, we do get a suspenseful film with one good shock after another, especially in the third act, when the film becomes cluttered with action and an unnecessary and obvious development for Vickers, as well as bits that, while good on their own, also feel a bit like Scott playing to what the audience expects. Yes, you’ll see a recognizable, early version of H.R. Giger’s famous alien. Yes, you apparently can’t have an android without eventually decapitating him. And yes, one or two women will run around in their underwear, wet and vulnerable.
Still, the design work is always impressive (not just Giger but Moebius seems to have inspired some of the architecture), and Scott still has the capacity to surprise, especially in a horrific, unsettling scene inside a cramped surgical pod, a perversion of the act of birth (and depending on your views, it’s even a perversion of abortion). The performances are mostly good, depending of course on how much the script gives the actors to work with. Rapace doesn’t have the fire and grit of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but she’s not supposed to. She’s very resourceful, but she’s also a believer; she’s one of the few people on the expedition who are hoping for answers of a spiritual nature. To some extent, that might even be true of Fassbender’s David, but whether an android can find religion aside, it’s a sly, magnetic performance that contains a lot of the humor of the film. David is about the only character here I would like to get to know better. The same could possibly be said for Janek (Elba), where the British actor once again plays against type as a gruff but warm, no-nonsense pilot who has a taste for old, old rock and roll, but with reserves of compassion and heroism that come into play later. Theron is good in a chillier role than she’s used to, but the plot mechanism to warm her up is rote. It’s a case where the writers either should have left the character unexplored or beefed it up, but her motivation here is half-baked. Pearce is also dealt an unfortunate blow, all the technology at Scott & Co’s disposal not able to sell an actor in his 40s as a dying old man. Why a real actor in his 70s or 80s wasn’t case instead is a mystery.
It was appropriate to bring Damon Lindelof into the Alien franchise. The other films share a common theme of human beings as pawns of immoral/amoral corporations and military complexes, whereas Lindelof’s major work, Lost, found human beings as pawns of gods. He transfers that theme here, tying it into the Greek myth of the Titans, Prometheus bringing fire to humanity and being eternally punished for it. But here, there are hints that even these cold, superior Titans are perhaps experiments themselves, that they are but pawns of an even higher power. There are some tantalizing elements in the film that suggest Scott wanted to make a film of ideas. Perhaps the only way to get this made was to tie it into his greatest success. In this way, Prometheus is closer to Blade Runner, in that it’s actually about something. It doesn’t get a pass because it asks questions and few big budget films do. It succeeds somewhat despite these questions, because of the great skill and imagination employed. The headier elements are what disappoint, what gnaw at you after it’s over and the popcorn thrills are fading.