Prometheus is perhaps the best blend of thoughtful science fiction with classic genre thrills since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. However, much like Sunshine, Prometheus will likely amass detractors disappointed by the final act. Whereas I believe the extremely intense finale of Boyle’s film is earned, it’s harder to support the choices made by director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof in the last minutes of their Alien prequel. Though the first two thirds are fantastically compelling – particularly in the way they ponder some fairly big questions amidst a gradually increasing CO2-filled atmosphere of genetically-modified dread – the movie eventually runs out of oxygen and suffocates under the gravitational weight of its own set-up. Until we reach that point, Prometheus astounds. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
One century from now, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are driven to discover the origin of man, inspired by inscriptions found in the 32,000-year-old Chauvet caves pointing them towards an unexplored intergalactic system. Their thesis is that we were engineered by some kind of higher power (a theory affirmed in the sumptuous and perplexing opening), and they’d very much like to ask those engineers what their goal was. They convince ancient multibillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund their two-year trip to the cosmos, and they’re joined for the ride by captain Janek (Idris Elba), Weyland’s stern surrogate Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and an android named David (Michael Fassbender), modelled – quite literally – after Peter O’Toole. There are more aboard the good ship Prometheus, but learning names is a task for those less familiar with the Alien series and horror flicks in general. Brace yourselves – they ain’t gonna make it.
Lindelof was one of the creators of Lost, and as much as this project has been purported to feature the DNA of the Alien franchise, the genetic material of that now-defunct TV show has clearly been added to the strain too. There is much Christian imagery, religious allusions, and the protagonists’ quest to discover the meaning of life – or even the afterlife – is practically torn from the scripts of Lost’s final season. The title is similarly taken from Greek mythology; specifically that of the deity who stole fire from the Gods and gifted it to humanity, affording them previously inconceivable power. In the aforementioned first scene, we get to glimpse the engineers/deities building life on Earth, never really determining if it’s intentional, accidental, or experimental. When the ship’s crew arrive at their destination, they’re not greeted by Titans, but rather canisters of black goop that evolves into the xenomorphs and face-huggers we know and love. Have the engineers, fearing our ability to evolve and replicate their power, set for themselves a fail-safe? Do they summon people with the ability to travel through space and build humanoids of their own – like David – to a planet where they will be wiped out indiscriminately by these weapons of mass destruction? Why does God create, only to destroy?
These are the questions that make Prometheus so rich. To consider and recontextualise the opening moments; to ponder the motivations of the engineers; to debate the origins of the alien matter once the credits have rolled is what elevates it above all other recent blockbuster fare. It’s an impressive feat setting up such a confounding, mind-bending, and captivating mystery. That being said, it doesn’t amount to much at all if the filmmakers can’t stick the landing. The final confrontations seem to disregard much of the intelligent groundwork laid earlier. Characters that have been hinted as being significant to the plot are brushed aside without much of a second thought, while we are asked to forget questionable actions made by others so that the table can be set for a follow-up instalment.
There is so much to like in Prometheus, however. Fans of the saga will be pleased to see the mythos expanded (oh, hai Space Jockey!). It’s absolutely gorgeous to behold, and Scott still knows how to maintain tension just as he did 33 years earlier in the original Alien. Composer Marc Streitenfeld’s score recalls Star Trek, which is fitting considering the sense of discovery at the tale’s core. Rapace is a decent Ripley 2.0, successfully carrying off the movie’s most outrageously creepy – and also hilariously gory – set-piece (think of the chest-burster sequence, turned up to 11). Elba almost steals the show, overshadowed slightly by Fassbender’s marvellously mannered and imposing turn as the not-quite-right David; it’s a shame his character is written into a corner in the picture’s miscalculated ending. Theron and Pearce are also intriguing, despite having to battle the lack of a resolution to their storyline, and in the latter case, being buttered in enough layers of old-age make-up to drown both Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer.
Prometheus is easily Scott’s best effort in years, offering food for thought along with your typical popcorn delights. But, if we can stretch the nutrition metaphor further, the film doesn’t finish its meal before moving onto dessert; abandoning a satisfying conclusion in favour of starting work on the inevitable sequel. Naughty Hollywood! Eat your greens!
Prometheus opens in Australian cinemas June 7, 2012.