Prometheus was always going to be the victim of hype. Despite his recent track record, including duds such as A Good Year and Body of Lies, a new film by Ridley Scott is always likely to be an event. Excitement grew when the news came that the film would be connected in some way to the Alien franchise that Scott began in 1979. Then the amazing trailers and viral marketing were released on the internet, and suddenly Prometheus became one of the biggest and most anticipated films of this summer. In fact, the only way in which it could have met expectations would have been if it was actually the much promised ‘game-changer’. The finished product fails to meet these hopes but is kept from being just another monsters-in-space movie by some very interesting ideas and a couple of breathtaking action set-pieces.
The film begins when a team of explorers, including Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover ancient cave drawings that appear to be a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth. Years later, Shaw and Holloway join a crew of scientists on board the spaceship ‘Prometheus’. They are on a mission, financed by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and overseen by the steely Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), to investigate these clues and the Alien life forms they seem to lead to. Once they reach their destination, however, their struggle to survive appears to form a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.
One thing that is immediately noticeable about the film is that it looks absolutely stunning. Dariusz Wolski’s expansive cinematography and Scott’s vision of a bare but intimidating planet come together to create a fully realised world that is a joy to spend time in. While Alien was all about creating tension by confining the action to the Nostromo, Scott seems keen here to do everything on a much larger scale and the film’s reported $130 million budget is certainly not wasted. Scott is also incredibly adept at constructing action scenes and there are a couple in Prometheus that work so well because the audience feels unsure as to where he is going to take us next. One particular moment of body horror is very effective in this respect.
As with the rest of the films in the franchise, Prometheus is an ensemble piece with substantial focus on the leading lady. The problem here is that the characters and performances that make up the ship’s crew are largely hit and miss, and the central couple of Shaw and Holloway fall in the latter camp. Rapace comes across as miscast and neither of the characters feels fleshed out, leading to problems with the audience’s sympathies when something significant happens to one of them. Better realised is Idris Elba’s Janek, the cocky and charismatic captain of the ship who has some choice lines. The film, however, is stolen by Michael Fassbender as David, the seemingly faithful android who turns out to have questionable motivations. Fassbender is an actor everyone seems to be talking about at the moment, something that isn’t surprising on the evidence of his measured performance here.
Where the majority of the film’s problems lie is with the script, and this can be better explained with a look at the history of the production process. An initial script was written by Jon Spaihts that apparently had much more of a connection with the Alien franchise. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, was then brought in to rewrite the script, and it appears to be at this point that the decision was made to try to create a standalone film with loose connections to the mythology of Alien. The issue is that the resultant script raises a number of really fascinating questions, concerning the origins of mankind and faith/religion, and then fails to address some of them in the pursuit of providing a prequel to the events of Alien. Another problem is that a lot of the dialogue is clunky and misplaced, making some characters appear even more unconvincing.
The impact of the shortcomings of Prometheus is lessened when it is considered how beautiful it looks and how certain bits of action are truly breathless. With the recent announcement that Scott is to return to the world of Blade Runner, it is at least comforting to know that he can still make stimulating and provocative sci-fi films. There is, however, a sense in which the attempts to make Prometheus fit in with the world of the Alien franchise have resulted in a troublesome script that distracts the audience from truly appreciating the spectacle before them.