The Alien movies make up one of my favorite sci-fi series and two of the films (Alien & Aliens) are in my top all-time flicks of any genre. It’s a series with a mixed track record, at least gauging by general public opinion, yet it’s one that continues to fascinate me on multiple levels. As I prepped for watching Prometheus (and in the discussions with friends in the days since), I realized that, in some ways, the Alien template is essentially a blank slate.
Yes, you have the xenomorphs and Sigourney Weaver that collectively help bridge the gap between films. But consider this: the Alien series spans four decades (if you count the special edition of Alien Resurrection released in 2003) and four different directors with wildly different aesthetic approaches. Alien is essentially a horror film in space, Aliens is a war/action movie in space, Alien 3 is more of a psychological thriller, and Alien Resurrection is a weird mix of all of the above, appropriately filtered through Jeunet’s uniquely French sensibilities.
So what the hell does all of this have to do with Prometheus? Well, based on the feedback that I’ve already seen online from the European premiere and US early screenings, your enjoyment of Prometheus will likely hinge largely on the expectations that you bring into it. From here on out, this review probably risks dealing with what I would consider “light spoilers,” so for the sake of your viewing experience, I’ll warn you that I’ll be straying into that territory. Here’s my cliff notes-version of my impressions of the film:
Prometheus is visually stunning and it tells a fairly compelling story. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s ambitious in scope and deals with some pretty big thematic elements and questions. See it in 3-D if you can.
Ok, from here on out, you’re reading at your own risk. Got that?
All right, here we go…
Remember all those interviews with Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof where they said that Prometheus isn’t a prequel to Alien? They weren’t lying. I know that people often second guess what filmmakers say, simply because filmmakers can have a reputation for spinning and outright lying in order to preserve some semblance of surprise and secrecy about their films. And I know that that perception is especially strong for someone like Lindelof, who spent six years or so teasing LOST fans as the show developed. So naturally, the assumption that he and Scott were lying about Prometheus was essentially a foregone conclusion.
But here’s the truth of the matter: it’s not a prequel. Yes, it takes place chronologically before the Alien series. And yes, it definitely uses a lot of creative DNA from the Alien series. So in those two senses, you could consider a prequel. But it’s telling a different story. And it’s setting up a different series. In my mind, Prometheus is better thought of as a spin-off of Alien. Same sandbox, different castle.
As for my theory about the Alien universe being a bit of blank slate? I think that concept applies to how viewers should approach Prometheus. I know it’s Ridley Scott and obviously it has connections to the Alien series, but this is basically a whole new story. Scott is a different director now and he’s exploring the universe from a different angle. Whereas Alien was a full-on horror film, Prometheus is more of a grand scale sci-fi adventure, albeit one that is brimming with dread that bursts out in some truly horrific ways.
And when I say grand scale, I’m talking the very beginning of life as we know it on earth. Who or what created us? Where do we ultimately come from? Are we alone in this universe? If we found our creator(s) would we gain eternal life? These are the sorts of questions that the story asks. Your enjoyment of the film will probably depend on whether you need those questions answered directly or if you’re ok with ambiguity. In large part, there aren’t a whole lot of answers provided in Prometheus, beyond the basic axiom “Be careful what you wish for.” This is the opening of Pandora’s box.
In contrast with the rag-tag team of space workers that we meet in Alien, Prometheus (the ship) is filled with a mix of scientists, engineers, and a high-powered executive (Charlize Theron) from the Weyland Corporation (the company footing the bill for this expedition). In an interesting shift from Aliens, the corporation isn’t really at fault for what happens. The story essentially revolves around two scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who are so bent on answering those foundational questions of existence that they will risk everything to do so. In essence, it’s their relentless pursuit of knowledge that ultimately leads to the downfall of their team (and possibly humankind).
To be sure, this isn’t an anti-scientific film by any stretch, but there is a wantonness to the behavior of some of the characters when they encounter new life that could be taken warning for modern-day genetic experimentation. Perhaps that’s adding a layer of depth that’s not there in the story, but I couldn’t help but think about some of the weirder scenarios that we’re starting to hear in the news. From a cinematic standpoint, there’s an element of the Jurassic Park mentality, coupled with Ian Malcolm’s warning: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” Rather than focusing on a ton of gore, this is where the underlying horror resides. That being said, there are some choice moments in the film that had my skin crawling.
At any rate, I had a blast with the film. Michael Fassbender continues his streak of phenomenal roles, while Idris Elba was terrific as the blue-collar pilot of the Prometheus. I would have loved to have spent more time with him and his character, but I guess that’s what the eventual director’s cut will be for. The cinematography is beautiful across the board and, in some sequences is downright jaw dropping. I didn’t see this in IMAX (which I’m assuming would be incredible), but I did see it in 3-D. I’m happy to report that the 3-D is used to create an immersive world, and not as a cheap way of getting jump scares by throwing things through the screen at the audience.
The biggest potential weakness of the film is the story. Scott paints a picture with broad-brush strokes that might leave you frustrated, especially if you need to have everything explained. Personally? I loved it. But I could see how someone might be ticked off by the resolution of certain plot elements. It definitely closes with a deliberate opening for a sequel.
In the end, I hope Prometheus does well enough to warrant a sequel. I’d love to revisit this corner of the universe again soon.