Yes, Prometheus is technically a prequel to Ridley Scott‘s Alien (1978). It is not, however, necessary to have seen the first movie to appreciate what an incredible piece of filmmaking this is. I can say that with authority because I have, in fact, never seen the original. Well, not all of it. I know that makes me a bad person (and a substandard movie buff), and will likely have the missus questioning her decision to marry me, but there it is. I know the story, mainly through its ubiquity in pop culture, and of course I’ve seen the clips of things exploding out of people’s chests. My entry into the Alien franchise, though, was 1986’s Aliens, directed by James Cameron of Titanic infamy. From what I’m told, where Aliens was a science fiction action adventure piece, large in scale and full of explosions and special effects, Alien was an old-fashioned horror film, albeit one that took place in a spaceship instead of a secluded cabin in the woods. Prometheus, I’m happy to report, owes a bit of its DNA to both.
Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green play Elizabeth and Charlie, two archaeologists who discover a number of cave paintings at different locations on Earth, all predating our earliest civilizations and all showing a humanoid figure pointing at a collection of far-off stars. He sees the paintings as proof of his skeptical position that life here came from somewhere else. She’s more circumspect, not quite ready to abandon her faith in something greater until she has a little more information. Both see it as an invitation. Four years later, they’re part of a team onboard the spaceship Prometheus, headed where the star-map pointed, the Earth-like moon of a far-off ringed planet. What they find there is clearly not what we’d recognize as human, but maybe not quite as removed as we’d like an alien life-form to be.
Before we get too far afield, though, the real surprise here is how strong the supporting characters are, especially Michael Fassbender. As David, an android with a Lawrence of Arabia fetish, he manages to make a character with no soul the most engaging of the film. While he is obviously just a glorified tool to be used as his owner sees fit, he is not without a sense of wonder, a dry wit, and a bit of a vindictive streak. He is, I think, also the most sympathetic character here. He’s creepy, sure, and always seems to know more than we or the humans in the film do, but he’s just so… ‘Charming’ isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close. Much of the story is told from his point of view, and it’s difficult not to feel hurt when he’s insulted, whether he “feels” the slight or not. There’s something in the way his eye twitches that makes me think he’s more capable of emotion than an android should be. Isn’t it interesting that these machines who are supposed to be devoid of feelings so often get them trampled on by humans? Charlize Theron is also good as the representative of the Weyland Corporation, the people financing the exploration. Much like Paul Reiser‘s Carter Burke in Aliens, she could’ve been but a caricature, but instead, her motives are fully fleshed out and not without inner conflict. I hope it’s not inappropriate to also note that she is stunningly beautiful with a wardrobe that proves a suggestion of sexuality is almost always more attractive than blatant, obvious, exposed flesh. Even Idris Elba (The Wire‘s Stringer Bell) manages to be more than just the captain of the ship. That there are five solid characters here with more depth than the leads of many films is a testament to the writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Prometheus shows that a compelling plot, well-written characters, and stunning special effects are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms.
Scott’s best movies are those where he’s able to use modern filmmaking technology in a way that doesn’t overpower the characters, using special effects in the service of good storytelling, not as a substitute therefor. He displayed this ability well in Alien and Blade Runner, and to a slightly lesser extent, the under-appreciated Kingdom of Heaven. What’s also nice here is Scott’s pacing. He never seems in a rush to get from one action set piece to the next. He knows we’re going to get to the murder and mayhem and explosions eventually, so why not get a little invested in some characters first? It’s a great strategy because by the time people start dying, we’ve grown close to them, gotten invested in their hopes and dreams, and we feel the loss of them all the more for it.
Even though I’m loathe to admit it, I did see Prometheus in 3D. It. Is. Beautiful. There weren’t any obvious moments, nothing being virtually thrust into my face, even though those familiar with the Alien franchise know why this might be tempting. The effect was far less intrusive than Avatar, the only other 3D film I’ve seen since 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. Instead, the scenes, especially the landscapes, had a bit of depth that really made me feel like I was immersed in the environment. There’s one scene in particular involving a three dimensional map of the universe that was so breathtaking it had me literally grinning like an imbecile. Ridley Scott has a reputation for quality production design, and this film shows why he deserves it. The spacecraft and suits all have a functionality to them that rings authentic and look used and lived in. The alien interiors have an organic quality that manages to simultaneously seem more advanced and more primitive than our own. I do have one small quibble with them. I would think that properties like aerodynamics would be universal, so it’s puzzling to me that a craft designed to travel billions of miles through space would be shaped like a donut with a bite taken out of it, rather than something more sleek. Then again, maybe an advanced civilization would have figured out a way around such pesky things as Newtonian physics. It wasn’t a major annoyance, just a small distraction in an otherwise thoroughly engrossing film.
The action and special effects also don’t take away from the broader philosophical commentary. Some may fault the film for not fully exploring the ideas of human origins or attempting to slap on an infinite regress or “turtles all the way down” solution to the questions it does raise. What it doesn’t do is gloss over how Elizabeth and Charlie, people who hold widely disparate positions on the origins of life on Earth, can both be passionate about their position without denigrating each other. They are both scientists, and it’s perfectly plausible that they’d be able to put aside their different views on religion in pursuit of a greater knowledge they both obviously value. Could the film have gone further in explaining the conflict between the two world views? Sure, but in my mind, it’s enough that it merely raises those questions. We don’t need to be hammered over the head about who’s right or wrong, and the fact remains that both believers in a higher power and skeptics both have their views treated with respect here. If you’re being told that it’s not a good film because it pushes this religious agenda or that, you are being misled.
All told, though, Prometheus is an incredible adventure, filmed by a director very good at balancing the large action sequences with character development, expertly acted by some of this generation’s best, that also manages to be more thoughtful than most other films at the multiplex. I highly recommend it, and though I’ll deny aging this if I’m ever asked, see it in 3D if at all possible.
[Prometheus is currently showing in theaters nationwide.]