Release Date: 01st June 2012 (UK)
Running Time: 124 mins.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Jon Spahits (Original Script), Damon Lindelof (Re-write)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Rafe Spall, Guy Pearce, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Patrick Wilson
When Kane, Dallas, and Lambert stumbled across the melancholy and creepy bio-mechanical corpse of Space Jockey in the Derelict on the barren planet of LV-426 in the film Alien (1979), I was gripped by the sight of it. There was a story there and I wanted to see it. Ridley Scott was also fascinated by it, even drafting a prequel story but he went on to work on the classic film Blade Runner. Fast-forward thirty plus years and we finally get an idea of what Space Jockey was however this is a film that Scott claims is not a direct prequel to Alien but is set in the same universe and aims to create its own mythology. Warning: Spoilers Ahoy!
2089, Isle of Skye, Scotland: scientist/archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) believe that aliens have made contact with humanity’s ancient ancestors. A cave painting dating back 35,000 years matches up with similar ones from different cultures and they seem to be star-maps which have been left by these aliens. In the words of Elizabeth: “They want us to come and find them.”
2093, Scientific Exploratory Vessel Prometheus: Elizabeth’s maps have impressed, Peter Weyland, head of Weyland Corporation, and now Shaw and Holloway are part of a crew of seventeen people who have been hired to head to LV-223, the place which the maps points to. They are under the direct command of Ms. Meredith Vickers (Theron), a corporate overseer, who has misgivings about the mission. Also on board is the android, David (Fassbender), Captain Janek (Elba), biologist Milburn (Spall). Vickers wants to keep a tight rein on the operation while Janek and his crew want to earn money but once they reach LV-223 they will have more to worry about than getting paid.
Cards on the table… I’m a major fan of Alien and its sequel Aliens. I had little idea what to expect from Prometheus because I shielded myself from all media (apart from one trailer) and went into the cinema with an open mind. What I got was an enjoyable sci-fi adventure that deliberately pulled away from the Alien franchise but featured familiar references to the earlier films (DAVID, WE ARE LEAVING!). The biggest mistake when going into Prometheus is expecting another Alien because Scott has engaged in some genetic manipulation of the film to make it different from a franchise which has fallen from grace thanks to wayward sequels.
Weyland Corporation – Building Better Worlds
Anybody familiar with Ridley Scott will know that he can build detailed and gorgeous visuals¹. It is never just eye-candy because the aesthetics usually carry a message informing the audience of themes at play. The way that the Nostromo is filmed in Alien, with its under-lit and smoky cramped mechanical living space and prominent industrial fixtures that the crew have to climb about in visually gives us a chilling picture of a future dominated by corporations where humans are just part of a balance sheet and a means to an end². Visually and thematically Alien was a million miles away from the idealised fantasy worlds imagined in Star Trek.
Prometheus is visually different Alien. It’s lighter for one thing. Also, gone are the cramped confines of ships and blizzard wracked LV-426 and in its place is the desolate, haunted and vast landscape of LV-223 and a highly functional and highly comfortable Prometheus.
Compared to the sumptuous splendour on offer in Avatar the visuals of Prometheus may initially underwhelm but the wintery tone of the film with its gunmetal greys and cobalt blues is gorgeous and it fits the themes and events of the film: LV-223 is a tomb for many things. 3D is used effectively to capture stunning landscapes which speak of an inhuman remoteness and a misleading ancientness. It is very impressive in the initial exploration sequences when the crew are scanning interiors of archaeological sites with ‘pups’ which use infra-red beams to map organic looking corridors. The hologram briefings and 3D mapping sequence unfolding via computer give a real sense of depth in shots.
The message the visuals impart is change and exploration. Scott knows his return to the franchise he helped create is highly anticipated and he cannot repeat himself so he has taken a different tack. The film explores who Space Jockey was and adds bigger themes as it establishes new frontiers for the franchise rather than revisiting old themes. The music of the film with its positive soaring score also put me in mind of exploration especially when compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s off-kilter pieces that are disquieting. Did I like Prometheus’s score? It was okay.
Things may be different but like Alien, the set-design and costumes, the details on the ship and the vehicles are intoxicating and you can geek out on them. Gone are the functional and lived-in NASA hand-me downs that the Nostromo crew were using and in their place are super high-tech but realistic accoutrements that reflect the change in design over the years. I loved taking in the details of the spacesuits, the helmet HUDs of Shaw et al with the cameras and ECGs. Humanity may be out in space but this time there is a degree of comfort added to that functionality.
Also impressive are the Aliens that are encountered. Not as memorable as that phallic horror that stalked the corridors of the Nostromo but an interesting variation. I did not buy the CG but I found the threats on the planet skin-crawling and chilling in equal measure.
Is there an agenda you’re not telling us about?
Now we come to the rocky part. The star-studded cast is mostly wasted due to the script which has left everybody from minor characters like Rafe Spall’s appallingly stupid scientist Milburn to major characters like Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers thinly sketched. If it was not for the strength and charisma of the actors these characters would be all-too forgettable. Theron’s role is the biggest tragedy of the film as she is fantastic as an icily efficient bad-ass corporate hawk but she is under-developed and unexplored. There is one cute scene with Idris Elba’s Captain Janek but that is it. Elba is also wasted as he is given an accordion instead of a character but like Theron his performance outshines the writing.
The best performances come from Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace. Fassbender, who dazzled in Shame, has become my favourite western actor by far and his performance as the android David in Prometheus has cemented that fact. With his handsome features and clipped English accent he captures the perfection and artificiality of the character but an interesting dimension is opened up when a human’s distaste for their android creations is brought up and we see that slight look of disappointment. It pains one especially when we see the boyish-interest with which he pursues the secrets of LV-223. Then it gets menacing when he confronts his creators. Needless to say he gets the best lines. Noomi Rapace as Shaw brings the toughness of her performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo over to Prometheus and mixes it with a curiosity, warmness and earnest spirituality that forms a good contrast to Charlize Theron and part-powers the script. The writing short-changes her at points when we can get interesting character development but Rapace imbues the role with enough humanity that she remains sympathetic. Is she a replacement for Ellen Ripley? No, it would be a mistake to think in terms of replacements. She is her own character, tough and sensitive, and if the script was better she would have become just as legendary.
Mortal after all
The problems come with the writing. The only way I can describe it is adequate. The characters are adequately constructed but are only made compelling because of the actors. The plot is adequate at getting us from beginning to end and linking the universe of Prometheus to Alien and while it allows some build up the rush between different plot-points undercuts tension. Space Jockey and the Engineers are adequately explained and explored. All talk about religion, God, the origins of humanity is adequately incorporated into the narrative. There is nothing special or ground-breaking so don’t go in expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think the point is to explore Space Jockey and take the franchise in a new direction and the film achieves that but at the cost of characterisation, atmosphere, and realism which Alien excelled at.
Fans expecting quality on the level of Alien will be disappointed but this is a different film to Alien, one where science fiction is allowed to dominate and the thriller/horror elements are kept in check. What made the script for Alien special was the gestation period where Dan O’Bannon’s sci-fi heavy original was worked on by David Giler and Walter Hill (eight rewrites which included adding female characters and stripping away sci-fi dialogue). One look at Hill’s filmography (The Warriors, The Driver) and you can see where the noir/realistic aspect of the writing came from and it is this gave Alien and its characters that special human dynamic and made the body-horror even more powerful.
The script for Prometheus is going in a totally different, non-gritty direction as a sci-fi adventure which explores wider themes that Scott and his writers (neither of whom have any works that can compare to Walter Hill³) kept adding to so they could differentiate Prometheus from the franchise but it is too heavy on the sci-fi clichés and too light on characterisation. Maybe we needed a re-write from someone outside of the sci-fi genre. That said, there are some great lines, particularly from David, and there is a nice twist and overall I found the writing good enough as a fan who was in this to find out who Space Jockey was.
It’s time for us to go home
Where the film truly succeeds and justifies its existence is in every other area other than writing. The acting is excellent (even if the script means that actors are underused), set-design is perfect and Ridley Scott delivers the visuals, tone, and pace of a film that suits an action adventure. It is different for the franchise and that is good because the sequels and spin-offs to Alien have shown diminishing returns. I found this a fun film with memorable visuals and performances. Where does it come in the franchise? Alien, Aliens, Prometheus and then a wide gap before we get to the other franchise instalments.
¹He was instrumental in the making of Alien whether it was story-boarding the entire film himself, selecting H.R. Geiger’s designs for the Xenomorph, getting pitch-perfect performances from the actors or (SPOILER) using his hand for the initial fluttering of the Facehugger in the egg that Kane gazes into, Scott crafted a true masterpiece.
² So does the Xenomorph.
³ The two writers connected to the project don’t have any work that screams of the quality of O’Bannon, Giler, and Hill. Jon Spahits, writer of the original version, is best known for Hour of Darkness while Damon Lindelof, who was brought in by Scott to develop the story in a different direction away from the franchise, is best known for Lost.