Warning: If you are pregnant or may become pregnant, stay the heck away from “Prometheus.” It’s for the best.
It’s remarkable, but the “Alien” franchise has been freaking out potential mothers and people with a touch of indigestion alike for over 30 years now. Discounting the schlocky “Alien vs. Predator” spin-offs (generally agreed to be non-canon), the first four Alien films are a curious beast when added up. An early training ground for directors like Ridley Scott (“Alien”), James Cameron (“Aliens”) and David Fincher (“Alien 3”), the series has constantly evolved in style and gradually devolved in quality. From a claustrophobic horror film to a space marine action flick to a steam-punk fantasy to whatever the hell “Alien: Resurrection” was, the franchise has shown little consistency besides its antagonist (the titular alien race also known as xenomorphs) and main heroine, the perpetually harassed Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
Original director Scott may be back at the helm for “Prometheus,” theoretically creating some kind of unified creative vision between projects at last, but both the xenomorphs and Ripley are out the window for this latest installment. So what is it that makes an “Alien” film? Going into “Prometheus,” that was the crucial question – how far could Scott expand this particular sci-fi universe and still have it be, well, Alien?
That question gets firmly answered around the half-hour mark, when a team of exploratory scientists descends into a cavernous extraterrestrial structure they have found on a barren moon somewhere in the vastness of space. The trillion-dollar expedition, fronted by that ever-suspicious Weyland Corporation, has arrived at this new world in search of the origins of humanity; according to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), a mysterious alien race is responsible for creating life on Earth. Are these two right? And if so, how will our enigmatic benefactors receive us? As prodigal sons or Frankenstein’s monster?
These are questions powerful enough to fling 20-odd people halfway across the galaxy, and then for that same group to hurriedly descend further and further into a series of unsettling, gloomy tunnels. And in those dark, claustrophobic spaces a sense of mounting dread begins to emerge: something is horribly wrong. Shaw’s theory appears to be correct, but our gods have abandoned us, in every sense of the word.
If the narrative winks and nods to the original film – Weyland Corp., threatening egg-like vases, androids, the Space Jockeys (called “Engineers” here) – aren’t enough to connect “Prometheus” to “Alien,” the atmosphere in those spooky tunnels will certainly do. Scott and his design team have crafted a stunning visual array of ships and screens, of rocks and runes. The very first shot of the film is a deliberate imitation of the opening of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and like Kubrick’s masterpiece “Prometheus” hopes to meld the primordial with a sleek, imagined future. The effect is that of a world out of time, an unnatural place where Shaw and the rest of her team are hopelessly, utterly alone.
Ah, but of course they’re not quite alone after all. The forces that created humanity are still at work here, and their exact motivations become a life-or-death conundrum for Shaw. With “Prometheus,” Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, dare to ask the question that can eat away at our souls if we let it: is the fundamental nature of the universe benevolent…or not?
I appreciate science-fiction that ultimately prefers to deal in ideas rather than cheap thrills. Ridley Scott was a pioneer of putting such works on film, in both the original “Alien” and the even-better “Blade Runner.” To be sure, there are sequences in “Prometheus” that will shock, disturb and terrify. But Scott is not afraid to raise big ideas, and brave enough not to answer them too tidily. The origins of life, the trauma of motherhood, the co-existence of science and religion – these are not issues that a two-hour film can ever solve (try as “Koyaanisqatsi” and Werner Herzog might).
Yet the lingering dissatisfaction that crept into my mind at the end of “Prometheus” was, unfortunately, far less existential. Scott clearly wants audiences to leave the theater pondering some of the film’s subtler choices – the significance of the film taking place at Christmas, perhaps, or the synethetic-or-not conundrum of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the expedition’s Weyland representative – but the screenplay is marred by inexplicable characterization and highly artificial plot twists. Too much of the narrative requires the characters to make phenomenally bone-headed life decisions in order to move forward. Theoretically prized scientists display less regard for the scientific method than 7th-grade boys with a Bunsen burner, and several members of the team appear to be missing whatever part of the brain houses our basic survival instincts. Individually any of these problems might be dismissed (I won’t get into them here, but this comic illustrates one quite succinctly), but collectively they are incredibly distracting. Without suitably empathetic characters on hand (Rapace gives a valiant effort, but Shaw lacks the no-nonsense determination that made Ripley such a great hero), the viewer gets yanked out of the gripping, atmospheric world that the production team so meticulously constructed.
So what we’re left with is the ability to observe events with a neutral, slightly mocking detachment. That might be why the film’s most intriguing character ends up being David, the team’s designated android. Played as an ingenious mix of Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” and HAL from “2001” by Michael Fassbender, David moves quietly through the film, stirring the pot just to see how fast it can boil. If Shaw, strongly influenced by her parents’ missionary work, sees the universe in terms of good vs. evil, David operates more on the scale between chaos and order. His presence represents one possibility of creation – utter disaffection.
Unlike the more recent editions of the Alien franchise, “Prometheus” is worthy of comparison to the moody, terrifying original. But ultimately, a hobbled and perhaps over-ambitious screenplay will make it suffer for that comparison. We can only pray that the implied prequel-sequel, in (hopefully) providing more resolution, will be more tightly wound.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 stars out of 4 for visual and creative design, ambition of ideas
2 1/2 stars out of 4 for narrative execution