Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe with Prometheus

by Mark Burger

More than 30 years later, filmmaker Ridley Scott returns to the universe he was instrumental in creating with Prometheus , a film that takes place years before the events depicted in his seminal 1979 film Alien — the blockbuster hit that very much, and most deservedly, put him on the map.

The title of the film refers both to the character in Greek mythology but more directly to the vessel that carries a team of scientists to a distant planet on a mission whose outcome could have major consequences on determining the origins of humanity on Earth.

There’s a built-in formula to films of this kind: It’s inevitable that the lifeforms encountered by the explorers will turn out to be unfriendly, and it’s only a matter of time before the human contingent begins to diminish with violent regularity. This is the fifth Alien film — the seventh if you count the two Alien vs. Predator movies — and not once have the aliens been depicted as remotely friendly. (Nor, it should be noted, would audiences want them to be.)

With scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) leading the scientific contingent and Meredith Vickers (a chilly Charlize Theron) the corporate contingent, the Prometheus sets out to explore mankind’s origins and winds up encountering its doom. Try as they might, they just can’t help getting into trouble.

There are some fascinating sciencefiction concepts introduced here, only a few of which are satisfactorily explored. In many ways, Prometheus represents the best and worst of Ridley Scott: It’s extremely well made and visually spectacular. There’s a distrust of authority and disdain for for the corporate mindset, both of which turn out to be valid concerns (and plot points), and there’s a mounting sense of palpable dread to the proceedings, which Scott milks for all it’s worth… and for what it’s not. Prometheus is a film of many endings, not all of them good. Deeper aspirations or loftier ambitions aside, sometimes simpler is better.

The human factor is another story.

The film’s characters end up merely being figures dwarfed by this elaborate landscape, and rather one-dimensional figures at that. A number of the scientists and crew members are fairly interchangeable — and their ultimate fates only of cursory interest. Most of them are goners, which should come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the Alien franchise, but few are missed. (The original Alien had seven distinctive characters, each one’s loss enhancing the film’s ratcheting suspense.)

Some of the actors here — Theron, Rapace, Idris Elba (as the crusty captain of the Prometheus) — try to bring some shading to their roles, but only Michael Fassbender’s resident robot David stands out, primarily because he has the most of interest to do.

Casting Rapace as the lead continues the tradition of a female protagonist in an Alien film, but her character stands out only for the simple reason that she’s got the most time onscreen and stays alive the longest, although she does displays some remarkable recuperative powers given what transpires. Faring worst is Guy Pearce, in a terrible gimmick role that entails terrible old-age makeup (one of the film’s very few technical drawbacks).

The film’s visual effects are undeniably spectacular, even if the technology on display appears more advanced than that of the earlier Alien films (which of course took place later). Likewise, the alien form is more adaptable and elaborate than has been previously depicted. This adds some new wrinkles to the Alien mythos — although Prometheus is something of a self-contained work — but hardcore fans may wonder if those new wrinkles are necessary.

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