I’ll be honest; I’ve never really cared about the Alien mythology. I saw the first film when I was a kid, but I barely remembered its mysterious opening scenes when all of the buzz around Prometheus began. I had seen the other films bits and pieces at a time, stretched out over my adolescence, but the importance of the insidious Weyland Industries had never struck me. It wasn’t until re-watching Ridley Scott’s original in its entirety a few weeks ago that I realized what questions Prometheus was supposed to answer. And, under the direction of co-screenwriter (and co-show runner on LOST) Damon Lindelof, those answers are vaguely answered, in weird, but not particularly fascinating ways. What Prometheus really accomplishes is proving Ridley Scott can still offer up sickening, splattterific thrills, even when the narrative lets him down.
Not entirely unlike Alien, Prometheus starts with a simple idea – a young academic couple find ancient hieroglyphs that seem to prove man once worshipped giant beings from a far off planet. They use this evidence as a way of getting the Weyland Industries to finance a trip to a distant solar system and search for extraterrestrial life. Not shockingly, things don’t go smoothly when they reach their destination (and Weyland Industries may also have a more complex agenda…)
And if the filmmakers had been willing to just let the film be that simple, they probably would have ended up with something much more effective. The film’s best moments are ones of a very abject terror, beholding the grotesque alien designs or becoming unnerved at Michael Fassbender’s creepily adept performance as an early android model named David. But the more we find out about the Weyland Industries, the blander the answers become, leading to some painfully melodramatic twists in the film’s final third. The film fares a little better as we get a peak into the “engineers” who may be responsible for both the human race and the infamous alien xenomorphs. Unfortunately, this reveal also suffers from some of the worst of Lindelof’s LOST writing, to the point that you might even see LOST problems throughout the whole film; a lot of *big* metaphorical moments that don’t seem to add up to a whole lot of logical thought. Lindelof has argued that explaining too much ruins things. While that can be true, Prometheus, at its core, is a movie about explanations, and if the answers aren’t that interesting, the whole project loses some of its impact.
That said, what Prometheus does well is akin to what Alien initially did well – offer up a bizarre, grandiose new world full of monstrous beings, mysterious technology, and numerous ways to die. Give Scott credit for the fact that in a world where low-budget B-movie monster shows are a staple of Hollywood (Pitch Black, The Cave, Splice, stuff like that), Prometheus still manages to stand out. That’s partially due to excellent performances from most of the cast. As the leading female role, Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes 2) doesn’t provide quite the same tough sensibility as Sigourney Weaver, but she has a depth and intelligence that makes her situation seem painfully real. Charlize Theron plays an ice queen for the second week in a row, and she’s solid as the ship’s no-bullshit captain. And once again, Idris Elba proves himself the reigning king of cool. Only Tom Hardy-lookalike Logan Marshall-Green, as Rapace’s partner, turns in a middling performance, as an academic obsessed with the alien hieroglyphics. But all of them pale in comparison to Michael Fassbender as the early model android, David. As David, Fassbender is disturbing, mastering the steely, robotic delivery, but hinting it with an underlying sneer and condescension toward all the things mankind. When the monsters come out to play, it’s still David who can make you feel the most ill at ease.
That’s not to take away from the creatures on display here, even if they aren’t quite the visual revelation that we got from H.R. Giger in 1979. If nothing else, Scott seems to know that people show up to an Alien movie for displays of mutation and mutilation, and Prometheus largely delivers. It takes times getting to the squishy things living on this new planet (and the things they do to human bodies), but once you get there, you can expect numerous bodily invasions, erupting flesh, and slimy things that screech and scratch. Not all of these monstrosities might make perfect sense with the other alien designs, and at times the sexual imagery the Alien films utilize gets laughably blunt, but these creatures will still make you twitch, shudder, and shiver.
Amidst the hype around Prometheus, though, I kept telling my friends I was hesitant, mainly because Scott hadn’t made a really good movie in ten years, and he hadn’t made a great one in over twenty. He’s obviously a skilled, accomplished director, but anymore, I can’t shake the feeling he doesn’t know exactly what to do with his talents. He’s not an auteur, and often he doesn’t seem to know why he’s doing what he’s doing (see American Gangster for an example of this.) And that’s exactly how I felt after Prometheus. Scott can ratchet up the tension, scare and shock you, and deliver action-horror sequences you feel in your spine. But he can’t turn Prometheus into a smarter, more complete addition to the Alien films than it actually is.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).