I’ve been a fan of the Alien film series since my first encounter of catching glimpses of Jim Cameron‘s sequel. Between finger-shielded eyes, transfixed from across the room, I was likely much too young to be watching these scary, vicious creatures on VHS. In the years to come, I’d find their genesis in Ridley Scott‘s original, Alien, and then eagerly anticipating the opening nights of Alien³ and Alien Resurrection. Even the Alien vs. Predator comic-fan mash-up detours have claimed their running times from my life. To this day, I’m a dedicated fan. I’m writing this review wearing a Weyland-Yutani t-shirt. I’ve poured through hours of commentaries and behind the scenes features; from the Special Edition Laserdisc, to the DVD Quadrilogy, and the latest Blu-ray Anthology.
The common thread through it all has been the horrific H.R. Giger creature design and its environments – from my impressionable young age to adulthood – striking me as beautiful and intricate as they are the origins of nightmares. As dedicated as ever, Scott’s love of visual storytelling in cinema bring these ghastly, yet gorgeous visions to our sight once again in Prometheus - but probably not in the way you’d expect.
We’ve come to find as human beings that explaining the unanswered questions tend to either intrigue us, cause intense debate, or bring us to arms to defend our beliefs. While Prometheus attempts to answer some of these questions, it also parallels us – as the audience – with our seemingly unquenchable desires to have spotlights illuminating the things better left unknown. Are we a species of divine creation, or are we products of evolution – pointing to our perceived knowledge of science as the proof we need? The first characters we meet, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have this same dichotomy, but are eager and willing to venture out into the darkness of space and explore the unknown in search of answers – on the company’s dime, of course. As you might expect, it turns out they may have not wanted to find them after all.
The visual splendor is expertly delivered by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark City, The Crow) through long, sweeping vistas across the alien planet the crew travels to, the biomechanoid corridors they discover there, to the interiors of the Prometheus ship itself. It’s worth noting, too, that viewing the film in both 3D and IMAX seemed well-tailored to the scope and depth of what the visuals, and story, were reaching for. Unfortunately for the writing team of Damon Lindelof (Lost, Star Trek) and newcomer Jon Spaihts, they never quite achieved the level of mastery of the spectacle on display.
Just as Lindelof and Scott have hinted at in all promotions and interviews leading up to the film’s release, the connection to Alien is one of “DNA” – both figuratively and quite literally, as you’ll come to realize. Lindelof (like J.J. Abrams, and many other modern storytellers) gravitate strongly towards the idea of the “mystery box” – where allowing the imagination to fill the contents can almost always exceed that which you might find if you simply opened the box.
The problem with Prometheus lies not with the open questions it leaves to the audience, but the ways in which they’re left languishing to the periphery almost entirely without cause or imperative. You’ll likely find yourself either disappointed, confused, or irritated at the many ways the characters are decidedly one-dimensional, like Charlize Theron‘s role of the corporate suit, Meredith Vickers, or the hollow ship’s captain (Idris Elba) utilized mostly as a exposition delivery mechanism – a plot chestburster trying to gnaw its way out, if you will.
It’s also a trying endeavor to care about anyone else on the crew, the often comically absurd choices they make, or the machinations of plot dragged down by uneven pacing, curiously bad editing, and a seemingly unending lack of focus on any real goal for the story. Even Guy Pearce seems woefully underused and poorly written compared to his turn at TED. The only real standouts are Michael Fassbender‘s pitch-perfect David (a synthetic android easily standing tall alongside Lance Henriksen‘s Bishop or Ian Holm‘s Ash) and Noomi Rapace, clearly comfortable and confident in delivering a physical, demanding performance following in the footsteps of her other acclaimed role as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Most of the things that brought such acclaim to Alien and Aliens were almost nowhere to be found; people who seem like real people with histories and personal agendas of their own, a cinematic score that adds and supports rather than tonally distracting and getting in the way, or careful, specific timing of scenes for any kind of real emotional impact. It’s an Alien movie, but it’s also not an Alien movie in many ways – plot components notwithstanding.
For all of its flaws though, it’s unquestionably evident that everything on-screen looks spectacular – from the planet’s storms, to the dark corridors, to the alien technologies, or even when we finally see the aliens themselves in all their permutations. There’s a lot for your eyes to love when viewing this film. The geek in me also appreciates the attempts to deconstruct what makes the Alien mythos tick and expose some of its inner workings, regardless of how successful the result. It might sound like I’m being hypercritical of the film, but I assure you there’s still much to be enjoyed and the discussions it will inevitably lead to are controversial at worst and profound at best. The new questions you’ll have will be good ones.
Will you have some understanding of the quasi-fan-fiction exploration of the set piece “Space Jockey” from Scott’s original film? Yes.
Will you see a relatively clear evolution and origin of what we’ve come to know as the Alien? Certainly.
Will you be pleased with the way it’s packaged and presented to you? If you have enough faith in Ridley Scott’s use of the movie screen as art – definitely.