For those not in the know, Prometheus was developed as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science ficition / horror classic Alien. While it still is that, Scott admitted a long time ago that it evolved into something more than that. After seeing the film, I certainly see the broader canvas that this story is told upon, and how it can branch out beyond that far more narrow storyline of Alien. I can’t say I was expecting anything specific with this film, just that I anticipated something amazing. It’s hard to say if I exactly got that, overall, but let’s break it down a little at a time.
In the late twenty-first century, a team of scientists lead by Drs. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover clues to the origins of mankind on Earth. With the aid of the Weyland Corporation, headed by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), they launch a journey into deep space aboard the spaceship Prometheus. Cave paintings from various ancient civilizations that had no contact with one another point to a distant star system where these scientists believe the answer to our origins lie. Among the ship’s crew and other specialists in various scientific fields, the voyage is aided by the advanced Weyland Corporation android David (Michael Fassbender) who is caretaker of the craft who has been learning countless languages in order to potentially communicate with these alien “engineers,” if and when they find them. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a liaison for the Weyland Corporation itself, and is overseeing the mission to make sure its interests are maintained. As they explore this alien planet, dubbed LV-223, they face discoveries both amazing and frightening. Eventually, what they seek becomes not what they hoped for, and they must battle a horrifying reality in order to save the future of the human race.
Before the review starts, which is in the next paragraph, two things about my theatre experience to note are that, one, there were no trailers screened ahead of this. It went right into the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and that was it. No time was given to let the audience settle in and get ready for the movie once the lights went down. It was exceptionally strange, and it took several minutes beyond the opening credits to sink myself into the movie. Why the theatre did this, I have no idea. I’m very interested to know if this was an isolated incident or more wide spread. Someone even had to run out of the theatre to grab a theatre employee because the curtains were drawn for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio when this was the wider 2.40:1 format. So, for part of the opening credits, the partially drawn curtains were distracting. The second thing is that I like sitting all the way in the back of the theatre. Last row, top of the stadium seating. When I saw The Avengers, the sound was a little low even sitting further down into the theatre. This time, the surround sound speaker right next to me was very loud, and at times, the film’s score was louder than the dialogue. And with all the reverb rich environments in the film, it made for a strange audio experience at times. This certainly got better as the film went on, but early on, it was difficult to understand all of the dialogue sitting where I was. Because of this, it took a long time to actually catch all of the main character’s names. Thankfully, for this review, I have website resources to inform me better. So, now, on with the review of Prometheus.
This is a film with a deliberate, methodical pace. It certainly takes a while for the film to really get into the meat of the story. It will certainly require your patience. I surely do not mind a slow build, but the first act of a story is designed for you to get to know the characters and connect with them. However, learning their names or not, I really didn’t start feeling much of a connection or distinction with anyone until the final act. I think this is partly because there are so many characters populating the early half of the film that no one really stands out, aside from David, and so, it’s hard for the film to spend a lot of time with any particular character for long. For at least the first hour of the film, no one is an obvious protagonist. In Alien, it felt more like an ensemble piece, and you generally latched onto and cared about all of these characters. Here, it’s not at all handled that way. The film feels like it’s waiting for the heard to thin out before giving anyone a moment of prominence, and that contributes to a lack of character driven focus.
Something that contributes to this issue is that no one is explored in any real depth until the panic starts driving the story. For instance, Dr. Shaw states what she believes this mission is all about, but at no time does she tells us why she believes this. We’re just supposed to take it for granted that she does, and not ask those questions, yet the entire purpose of the movie is to ask questions. It’s a scientific exploration, and science is all about being inquisitive. She wears a holy cross necklace, and I’m not sure if that’s meant to imply that her scientific beliefs should have no more definite explanation than religious faith. Scientists should be able to explain what they believe, especially when you’re dragging a good dozen or more people on a two year voyage into deep space. It would add so much more depth and purpose to the character if she actually explained why she believes that the human race was birthed from an alien species to justify this large expedition.
On the stronger side, Michael Fassbender’s android character of David is remarkable. His performance is the real highlight here. In him, you see wonder, awe, foreboding, sinister intent, and child-like innocence. He maintains a nice through line with the performances of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen as the other droids of the Alien series, but makes David all his own. He is clearly not human with a unique off-center performance. No authentic emotion comes from him, but he can still appear personable, thoughtful, and courteous. He is designed to be indistinguishable from humans, but over time, he clearly becomes well aware of his superior brilliance, making him truly feel superior to them in every way. He has fascination with everything he observes and consumes. He is, partially, a character we can see things through, experience them through his sense of amazement. However, as the film goes on, you see ulterior motives surface in him, and that kept me highly intrigued as I did not know where they were coming from. Were they his own personal twisted perversions, or part of someone else’s agenda? The answer was quite satisfying to me, and cohesively tied in with the overall storyline. Fassbender is truly the standout talent in this film, and David is an impressive creative achievement.
Now, I was rather put off by the fact that Guy Pearce appears here as only an elderly Peter Weyland. He is only ever seen under heavy make-up and prosthetics to make him appear to be of advanced age. It seems like an odd choice, but putting that aside, Pearce is excellent. He has remained a captivating talent through the years, and really brings some poignant gravitas to the role. Weyland’s motives behind supporting this expedition are entirely relatable, and Pearce’s grounded strength keeps it from being anything obsessive or off-kilter. When he enters the story, he gives it an injection of weight and dread as his agenda motives everything forward from then on.
Again, later in the film, I really came to enjoy and connect with Idris Elba’s Captain Janek. The actor himself described the characters as, “a longshoreman and a sailor, with a military background,” and that sums it up nicely. He has that laid back style of confidence while also only minding the business of the ship and its crew, but clearly has the experience to make decisions like a military man. As he forms a friendship with Dr. Shaw, you get to see some of his heart and soul, and that’s what clicked for me with him.
Noomi Rapace is the lead of the film as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. I don’t want to say she’s a Ripley allegory. She’s definitely her own character with her own strengths and vulnerabilities, but I’m sure there will be those that try to make that comparison. Again, it would have drawn me into the character earlier on if I had gained an understanding of her scientific beliefs, and why she is so committed to this expedition. Just get more into her heart and mind a little. However, when things start to become unhinged and chaotic, that is when Shaw becomes truly sympathetic and a powerful standout. She comes to understand the truth of what they have discovered, but few others care about that except Janek. She’s put through some hell when she has to cut an alien organism out of her own body in an intensely frightening and unsettling scene. I love what that organism evolves into later on, and you certainly cannot put the pieces together until that later point. Rapace brings a very compassionate, likeable quality to Elizabeth Shaw. She’s fascinated by this discovery, at first, and continues to show enthusiasm and curiosity until things go awry. Rapace is solid in this role showing heartfelt moments with Charlie, and carrying the more intense sections of the film with great skill and composure. She fights through the maddening fear and physical strain, not giving up at any point. She’s going to see everything through to the end, and that is the real gravitas Rapace brings to the film. A very solid lead that does take a while to move into the forefront of the film, but when she does, she easily becomes someone to invest yourself into.
What didn’t grip me much was Logan Marshall-Green’s Dr. Charlie Holloway. He seems either a little one dimensional or too concerned with himself to allow an audience to get into his character. It’s partly how the character is written, but still, the actor doesn’t do much to show a real dimensional performance that could make him accessible. We never come to know much about him, and all we know is what he hopes to find, not why he’s fascinated or compelled by the prospect of it. We get the evidence that sparks the intrigue, but not why it means so much to him personally. There’s no context given to Dr. Holloway to make him anything to think much of, and that’s definitely a big negative considering all that happens to him later on in the movie and how it affects Elizabeth. Much of the supporting cast is the same. Maybe a little quirk added to them here or there, but ultimately, they are nothing more than what the script needs them to be for the benefit of the story. Again, there are so many characters in the first half of the film that it would be impossible to dig deeply into all of them, but sometimes, it doesn’t take too much. Just the right hint of an endearing character trait, and the right actor to convey those elements of humanity. However, I’m not going to mark this as a negative critical element. Just a thought that could be used to enhance them further, but considering this is a horror film where much of the supporting cast is going to not survive, anyway, I can give it that concession.
Moving on, the production design maintains aesthetic touchstones with the Alien films, but upgrades them. Considering we’ve never truly seen a state of the art vessel meant for scientific exploration, this makes sense. The Nostromo was a freighter, requiring nothing more than the bare minimum technology to do its job. The Sulaco was a military transport ship which didn’t need anything special to complete its missions. However, the Prometheus is a science vessel needing the most sophisticated technology available to thoroughly accomplish its mission. That is a welcomed way for the filmmakers to take advantage of modern day technological advances, and apply them to what a vessel of this sort would be like in eighty years without betraying what was established in the other films (which chronologically take place after this film). The ship’s interiors as very reminiscent of the Nostromo, but with a little better living conditions and a generally more inviting appearance. All of the alien technology and architecture is definitely in line with the franchise as H.R. Giger was brought back to expand upon some of his ideas and world. That absolutely helped to create a wider and richer culture for this species, and yes, the Space Jockeys are extremely integral and vital to the story here. That had always been one of the big things Ridley Scott had wanted to explore about this mythos, and I’m glad that is the major focus of Prometheus.
The visual effects are truly awe-inspiring. Nothing low grade here. They can be very enveloping, and key sequences are likely stunning in a 3D presentation. As usual, I stick with the standard 2D theatrical experience. Ridley Scott really allowed the visual effects to live up to his more than three decade long standards. The more intense effects are immensely effective. The various life forms they encounter are startling, frightening, and impressive. They share some design elements with the franchise’s facehuggers and Xenomorphs themselves, but they keep it subtle. This is clearly a different ship with a different engineering of these creatures. So, that gave the filmmakers freedom to do more with their ideas, and present something more varied, yet still related to what is familiar. The more environmental effects of space and the planet LV-223 greatly add to the film’s atmosphere setting the tone for the entire film. Ridley’s not afraid to make the visuals dark and very shadowy lighted really only with flashlights, and that only enhances the creepy, unsettling nature of the alien structure’s interior.
The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski is very much in line with Ridley Scott’s visual sensibilities. It’s even more surprising since he’s never worked with Ridley before, but has done some notable work. He was cinematographer on The Crow, Dark City, Crimson Tide, and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The lighting and camera is very solid, atmospheric, and effective. Light and shadow mixed with some of Ridley’s signature smoky environments make for an incredible visual tone. They create the sense of danger and mystery that these characters are engulfed, but it doesn’t stop with just the visual aspects.
The musical score by Marc Streitenfeld was amazing and enveloping, much like some of the visual effects. The theme he composed for Prometheus is heard quite often, and it is haunting, enchanting, mysterious, and wondrous. It sets a perfect tone for the film, and the remainder of the score is equally as rich and effective. I would highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack which contains nearly an hour of the film’s amazing music. This really feels like a musical masterpiece as it complements the complex tone of the film so well.
Now, the big question is if this really is a good prequel to Alien. I believe it is an excellent pseudo-prequel, and I use that terminology because Prometheus is so much more than just a prequel to Alien. As you’ve probably figured out by now, Prometheus does have more than its fair share of graphic horror and scares. While Ridley Scott has made a film that has a far larger scope than Alien, he entirely keeps it within the same tone as that film while adding to and expanding upon it. It’s even more frightening of a film at times because it’s not just alien organisms using human bodies for gestation, we’re dealing with genetic engineering. Things that can infect your body and transform you into something inhuman. The film does explore the origins of humanity as a species created by a far more advanced race of beings, and the desire for answers as to why. This opens the film up to some philosophical discussions amongst its characters that are decently explored, but don’t weigh down the film. Prometheus is a film that can stand on its own aside from the franchise. It has its own strength, its own direction, and its own motivations to follow through on that are bigger than the franchise has ever explored. This could easily branch out into a whole other franchise leaving the facehuggers, chestbursters, aliens, and so forth to their own machinations.
The other question is, well, does this answer the questions one would have walking into this film knowing it is an Alien prequel. Partially. It answers a few questions, but leaves many hanging in suspense, capturing, at least, my compelling interest. Let it be known that this film does not have a definitive ending. It is truly setup for another dangerous and fascinating adventure with the surviving characters which is far more likely to explore the ideas and questions raised in this film, and hopefully, bring us many of those answers. I knew this walking in, and that took the edge off an ending which could’ve been a little sour and cheated in my mind. It’s not an abrupt end as it does segue way nicely into a conclusion, but getting there does feel a little rushed. In a film that took a gradual pace with establishing everything, the setup for the sequel segue ending is run through with a much faster pace than expected. It works well mixed in with some frightening action, and maintains character motivation and determination. The pace was just a little throwing. This might’ve been because I kept expecting a hanging conclusion to the film, and feared for an abrupt cutaway to credits every so often. Thankfully, that did not happen. The ending does have me enraptured to know where this storyline can go, and how a further fleshed out exploration of these ideas and characters can be enhanced through another film. I surely think a second viewing, more evenly positioned in the theatre, will feel smoother for me. I have no doubt that a sequel would answer these questions, and not leave the Alien prequel connection unsatisfied.
The only truly spoiler section of this review will be this paragraph, and so, skip over it if you wish to remain free of them. The film reveals that the human race was created and descended from the Space Jockeys, who have a very pale and human appearance beneath the “exoskeleton” style space suits we saw in Alien. It is eventually learned that they decided to eradicate humanity with ships full of organisms designed for that very purpose. It is not answered why they decided on this course of action, which was halted two millennia ago when these organisms broke loose and killed the crew. However, the thought that ran through my head was echoing Ash’s statement in Scott’s original film – “perfect organism.” Perhaps, the Space Jockeys finally achieved perfection in genetic engineering, and decided that all inferior life forms they engineered should be wiped out to make way for their ultimate creation. Still, there does seem to be more rage, more visceral determination with this motive from just how the one still living Jockey acts. He’s violent, murderous at the sight of human beings, and immediately begins to kill them all. He appears dead-set determined to complete this mission at all costs, and leave no human living anywhere. So, while my speculation might have some validity, there certainly appears to be a more personal, primal motivation to their agenda. And while we don’t get to see the classic title character of the Alien franchise, the Space Jockey does give birth to a similar being. I would likely call it a prototype Alien. There are similarities in the design, but it’s much less developed and more angular. This is the image that closes out the movie, and gives a little fan service that is nicely placed. Like much of the film, it leaves you hungering for more. It would have been amazing to see the original creature appear on screen, but if Ridley Scott wants to save that for a sequel to give that film the big pay-off, I can subscribe to that idea.
I think the best compliment I can give Prometheus is that, even sixteen hours after seeing it, my mind is still alive thinking about it. Synapses are still sparking, and I think I need to see this again. There is so much to absorb and process that additional viewings are certainly needed to let it all settle into my mind. Even as long as this review is, I don’t think it thoroughly covers every thought I should have about it. However, for allowing a reader to determine whether it’s worth their while, I’m sure I’ve said plenty. While there are aspects that could have been done better in terms of making the characters stand out more and allow the audience to get to know them better sooner, overall, I think this is an exceptionally successful film. It is a very intelligent work of science fiction and horror that screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof and producer / director Ridley Scott should be commended for. It’s been too long since we’ve gotten a science fiction film of this caliber with some sophistication, artistry, imagination, and intellect. I’m sure there will be many mixed reactions out there, and again, I’m still uncertain of my final perception on it, but I am definitely hooked into what Prometheus has to offer. It’s only unfortunate that it appears to be only one half of a whole, and with Ridley Scott already having two other film productions upcoming, including the sequel to Blade Runner, it’s going to be a good couple of years before we get a continuation for Prometheus. Thankfully, Ridley seems to churn out films pretty quickly. There’s rarely more than a two year gap between his films, sometimes all of a single year, but by no means, do I desire for him to rush anything along. Prometheus was a film a long time coming, and I think it was a generally worthwhile wait. We’ll just have to see if that second half of the whole makes good on the potential shown here.