REN ZELEN reviews Prometheus – the eagerly-awaited prequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, Alien
“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic” Charles Darwin
In ‘Prometheus’ Ridley Scott, director of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’, returns to the genre he helped to define, and again he seems to be concerned with giving us a slice of speculative fiction – one that concerns a key question, that of the creation of life. In ‘Blade Runner’ a gifted human runs a corporation that creates ‘replicants’ – clones engineered to be physically indistinguishable from their human counterparts, if anything, their physical characteristics are superior, but they are not allowed to developed emotionally, due to the ‘fail-safe’ device of a lifespan of merely four years, installed in case they get ‘uppity’ with their creators. But of course, they do get uppity, and a handful of them risk everything to go in search of their ‘creator’ to get some answers to the questions they feel compelled to ask. Although ‘Prometheus’ is ostensibly a sister film (supposedly a prequel) to Ridley Scott’s other ground-breaking sci-fi ‘Alien’, its characters are on the same quest as Roy Batty and his band of ‘replicants’ – they are in search of their creator and they are looking for answers.
In the Greek legend, Prometheus comes to a sticky end for delving into the secrets of the Gods. Clearly, the crew of the eponymous spaceship that sets off to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, in their eagerness and idealism, choose to gloss over that small detail. Not so the director, who remembers the Prometheus story only too well, and god-like, metes out an appropriately monstrous ‘sticky end’ to almost all of his cast.
Set around 40 years prior to the original movie, the movie features ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’’s Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba. The story begins when two scientists believe they have discovered a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth and, finding private funding, they lead a team on a journey into the depths of the universe but, inevitably, they discover rather more than they bargained for. With a budget reportedly of around $130m (£84m), the new 3D blockbuster is on a much grander scale than Scott’s original ‘Alien’ movie (his second feature film) and its shoestring budget.
In the original ‘Alien’, the ship was a claustrophobic warren, whose crew were seen in the stark up-light that bounced off every antiseptic, white surface or were half hidden, cowering in the shadows of the dark, grubby tunnels of the industrial vessel. In this movie, the characters immediately make an excursion outside the ship into a colossal CGI landscape, a digital universe unavailable to Scott 30 years ago. Though strangely, this alien landscape seems to have a somewhat retro sci-fi look, reminiscent of the designs of strange worlds on seventies’ SF paperbacks and album covers. Technically, ’Prometheus’ is marvellous – visually stunning. Ridley Scott can still masterfully ‘paint’ a film. Shot in 3D but without letting the process dominate the movie in conception or execution, the film uses the process to enhance rather than overwhelm. The effects, supervised by Richard Stammers, build upon the outstanding production design by Arthur Max. Dariusz Wolski’s graceful cinematography synthesizes all the elements expertly and I was glad to note echoes of HR Giger’s original ground-breaking designs throughout. The race the crew encounters even had a touch of the muscular titans found in the apocalyptic etchings of William Blake.
In this movie, however, Scott has no stand-out charismatic character, such as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty – ruthless, thwarted and ultimately tragic – who offered us one of the most poetic deaths in cinema history. It has an ‘Ellen Ripley’ of sorts, but here it seems she has been split between the two lead actresses. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth is a more emotional character by far, but has the same relentless instinct of survival. In fact, her stamina is the most miraculous aspect of the movie. One must only assume that surgical procedures have advanced considerably in the future, as she is up, running and jumping almost immediately after a particularly gruesome major surgical procedure which normally requires considerable recuperation. I personally, stood amazed.
It is Charlize Theron who demonstrates Ripley’s cool-headed efficiency, calculation and attention to detail, admittedly, taken to a different level. The most delightful performance comes from Michael Fassbender, who plays David, the synthetic creation of another corporation head carried away by his own hubris. Being an earlier model of the latter synthetics of the ‘Alien’ franchise, he manages to appear more unnatural, while stealing the film with a chilling unctuousness rather like a knowing and slightly amused robotic ‘Jeeves’. He models his eerily Aryan look and slightly supercilious manner on Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and otherwise seems to be channelling the cold detachment of David Bowie’s ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’.
Unfortunately, gorgeous and exciting as it is, ‘Prometheus’ doesn’t have the impact of either ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner’ because it offers philosophical ground that has already been well-trodden by Ridley Scott. Although it shares those films’ willingness to play with ideas and concepts, it merely expands on the ‘space-jockey’ mystery of the first ‘Alien’ movie and marries it to the ‘panspermia’ notion posited by Erich von Däniken’s 1968 notorious bestseller ‘Chariots of the Gods’ (a book my father related to me on his knee) which asserted that humankind was bred on Earth aeons ago by spaceman-aliens. (No-one mentions Von Däniken much anymore, his notion fell into disfavour and has been largely ignored). Here, the philosophy of the movie runs into several dead ends: So, did the aliens create all life on Earth, and if so, why did they spend so much time on the dinosaurs? (Though presumably, even they had teenagers to amuse.) How long ago did this happen – because the aliens’ map of Earth has the layout of continents as they appear today, post-Pangea ? Lindelof’s script is laced with inconsistencies and tends to nip every good idea in the bud or kill off a character just as things get interesting. The justifications are not particularly helpful in themselves and only serve to obscure one layer of mystery with another.
This movie is backed by a huge orchestral surge of a score, which meant that it conspicuously lacked the long, drawn-out silences and sense of menace and breath-holding tension that made the original ‘Alien’ movie so elegantly unnerving. This was a pity.
But Scott’s skill as a director makes sure that there is a driving narrative impulse throughout the film, as well as an endearing idealism regarding mankind’s drive to find answers. There is, as in his previous movies, an abiding interest in man’s connection to his technology and the responsibility he has towards it – the idea that we can learn about ourselves through that which we sometimes inadvertently create – and that is a fitting notion for any artist or engineer to contemplate.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.
Guest writer REN ZELEN describes herself as “a writer, academic editor, reviewer, pop culture junkie, movie buff, rock music enthusiast, science nerd and Sandra Bullock lookalike”. Her fiction can be found on Kindle and her own website. Click here to purchase her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘The HATHOR DIARIES’. Her book/film/TV reviews can be found on various sites on the web. Information and contact on twitter @RenZelen
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