Ridley Scott's Alien prequel is long on visuals but short on logic.
Is Ridley Scott's new sci-fi thriller, Prometheus, a prequel to the Alien saga? The film's marketing campaign has been extravagantly coy on the question. Scott himself has allowed merely that "the keen fan will recognize strands of Alien's DNA." It's an odd, if calculated, reticence for an era in which nearly every cinematic undertaking is desperate to associate itself with a known "brand," however distant the relation. Forty-five-year-old naval board game reimagined as an alien-invasion movie? Check. Cult vampire soap opera flattened into a generic chapter of the ongoing Tim Burton-Johnny Depp weirdothon? Check. Blockbuster superhero franchise rebooted a mere five years after it was put on the shelf? Check back in a month.
In any case, notwithstanding Scott's disavowals, the answer is yes: Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, and one need hardly be a keen fan to notice. Although the connection is not made absolutely explicit until late in the film, it is evident almost from the opening frames. Following two prologues—one in which a humanoid alien seeds the primordial Earth with his own DNA, and another in which archaeologists discover ancient cave drawings that point to a distant planet—we again find ourselves on a spaceship, with a decidedly familiar cast of crewmates.
There's the tough-but-pretty female protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace); the corporate tool with a hidden agenda, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron); the mannered, creepy android, David (Michael Fassbender); and the likable-enough-that-he-is-almost-certainly-doomed crewmember, Janek (Idris Elba). Rounding out the cast is the usual alien-fodder of braggarts and cowards.
The year is 2093 and the ship is the Prometheus, just arriving at the planet in the cave drawings after a two-year voyage. The crew is gradually awakened from their long cryogenic sleep by Fassbender's David—who, if you've seen the actor in Shame and A Dangerous Method, is about the last fellow you'd want around while you spent several months unconscious. David, for his part, has spent the journey teaching himself a variety of ancient languages and obsessively re-watching Lawrence of Arabia. ("The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts," he mouths in sync with Peter O'Toole.)
The ship's mission—or at least the one we know about from the start—is to search the planet for signs of an alien race that Elizabeth and her partner/lover Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) call the "engineers." She suspects (and we, having seen the prologue, can confirm) that in the distant past these advanced beings created the human race using their own DNA.
The ship quickly finds a massive dome-like structure full of catacombs, and the crew duly sets out to explore it. If you have seen other installments of the Alien franchise, you can guess—at least in broad contours—what happens next: alien artifacts are discovered; slimy, viscous substances begin to ooze; crewmembers are separated and of necessity abandoned; unsavory things start going bump in the night. Those back on the ship detect something moving in the dark tunnels and warn those left behind, who reply (reasonably enough): "Pings? Clicks? Life forms? What the fuck!"
Prometheus is at its best at moments such as these, when extraterrestrial nightmares are slithering and undulating and finding novel ways to burrow into the bodies of their hapless human prey. (There is also the film's most queasily memorable sequence, in which Elizabeth is trying to get one out.) To this end, the film borrows liberally from the Alien saga (in particular the first and third installments), John Carpenter's The Thing, and David Cronenberg's "venereal horror" period.
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Alas, Scott is not content with such grotesque delights, and aims for something larger, a contemporary 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the director put it, "the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large, and provocative," and I suppose those terms more or less apply, provided one also appends hokey, shallow, and confused. Elizabeth's character is one of those rare creatures—more alien to Hollywood than any extraterrestrial—known as "practicing Christians." Perhaps inevitably, her faith is the source of a great deal of category confusion over the difference between belief in God and curiosity about the alien beings who manufactured humankind—the latter a subject that I suspect would interest Richard Dawkins as much as anyone.
Moreover, the script, by Jon Spaihts and Lost guru Damon Lindelof, is an utter mess. The twists that unspool in the movie's latter hour frequently adhere to no discernable logic, and character motivation is all but banished outright from the proceedings. Why does one member of the crew deliberately incubate not one but two alien monstrosities? Because otherwise the FX team wouldn't have anything to do! (In a similar vein, 45-year-old Guy Pearce is cast as a wizened nonagenarian for no apparent purpose other than to demonstrate the skill of the makeup crew.) It all leads up to a conclusion so false and off-key that it is borderline astonishing.
Which is a shame, because Prometheus is ravishing to look at, with exceptional art direction, set design, and cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski). The way the ship alights on the planet with engines pointed downward, like a crouching pit bull; the hurricane of silicate shards that rushes over the ship and its crew; a C-section of harrowing ferocity—if the film were merely the sum of its better parts, it would be a rare treat. (I should note, too, that the menagerie of slimy aliens is first rate, and Fassbender is just as good playing an irony-enabled android as one might hope.)
Alas, the movie gets lost in its philosophical meanderings and narrative cul de sacs. Scott had it right: Prometheus—like, in its telling, the human race itself—is a creation spliced from the DNA of superior forebears.