director Ridley Scott
One of the most anticipated films of the year, as if you didn’t know, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the famed and successful director’s return to science fiction, the genre in which he made his initial splash and arguably his most important and influential films in his young career. But it’s not only a return to the genre, it’s a return to his specific movie, Alien (1979) (the first R-rated film that me and my sister were taken to in the theater), and the progenitor of a number of sequels and ultimately a franchise.
Prometheus is sort of a prequel, set in the same universe and timeline as the original film and its offspring, but decades before the events of those Sigourney Weaver-starring films. Scott had somewhat coyly remarked that Prometheus bears Alien‘s DNA, as the stoked masses on the Internet curiously wondered at what this film would be, what the story would be that brought the English director, so commercially successful since, back to a genre that he had completely left behind for 30 years.
The coyness was less coy than it seemed. The whole of Prometheus is infused with DNA from the opening sequence in which a marble-like hairless humanoid stands on a cliff, as a massive spacecraft flies away overhead. The humanoid drinks some digitally activated concoction from a bowl and starts to have his DNA pulled apart (as we are shown through the magic of digital special effects). He eventually tumbles down a waterfall into the depths below, being rended asunder at the mitochondrial level.
Millennia later in 2089, a team of researchers, led by Noomi Rapace, discover cave paintings that suggest giant beings had left a message all over the primordial world about a location enormously far away. This inspires an expedition, founded by a corporation, to seek out the possibility that these beings are the engineers of the human race. And the goal of the mission is to find them and find out why.
Though the film plays significantly with “the big questions” about human origins, it doesn’t necessarily do so with great depth. Rapace’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, brings sincerity to the spiritually-infused seekers in the film, but if anything, the quest for answers only raises more questions, namely in the order of the built-in need for a sequel. Still, in some ways, this is a gloomy, violent non-humanistic, non-spiritual The Tree of Life (2011).
While Scott cleverly asked his screenwriters Damon Lindelhof and Jon Spaihts not to tread down the same tropes and paths of his original film (or its overly trod tropes played out in its sequels), the film does have elements that echo the Alien series, namely an important, dubious android character (this time played by Michael Fassbender) and then a sort of reverse on the monster bursting from the sternum sequence. I don’t want to ruin it for you but it’s the film’s most intense and gory (and titillating) sequence.
Frankly, as the film began, I was deeply engrossed. It’s beautifully shot and while it’s been criticized as slow, I found it more than compelling. Really, the first three quarters of the film felt like truly classic science fiction at its contemporary best — meaning a genre film that actually follows traditions and tropes while feeling fresh and modern, but with that question, that curiosity of “where is this going?” ”what’s going to happen?” constantly pulling you forward.
My disappointment only came in toward the final 20 minutes or so, in which the quest for answers is boiled back into one of the oldest cliches in the book: the aging rich looking for a means of sustaining life eternally. It’s not so much the simple, cheap answer of that as the motivation of the human endeavor, the corporately-funded endeavor is disappointing, but that the film teases at so much more depth before this disheartening reveal.
Still, it’s a ridiculously thrilling ride for the most part. Rapace and Fassbender are the standouts in the film. And not to ruin it all for you but it’s clear that in a sequel, they’ll be the only ones coming back.
But that’s part of the bait-and-switch of the film.
Alien was a stand-alone movie, and even though I utterly recall contemplating sequels long before James Cameron came back with Aliens (1986), it wasn’t so crass as to build in (not even its DNA but rather its guaranteed template for) a sequel. That said, I’m on board for Prometheus Two or whatever they call it. I honestly enjoyed this film more than anything else new that I’ve seen all year, no matter how critical I’m sounding of it.
It’s still curious to me as to what really brought Ridley Scott back to not just science fiction but to Alien and Blade Runner (1982) (you know he’s working on some sort of sequel to that as well, right?). No matter how positive one feels about Themla & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), or Black Hawk Down (2001) or any of the many commercially successful films that he’s made in the 30 years since he dabbled in genre, it’s clear from both fan base, cultural influence, and even critical studies that Alien and Blade Runner have been his most significant cinematic contributions. Still, why? Why now? From what I’ve read, it took a while for the Alien franchise to die back down to make way for something like this, but to follow it up with a whatever he does with his other contribution to the genre, hot on its heels? And will he do the promised sequel to Prometheus?
Much like the questions of the origins of humanity that are played with in the film, we’ll just have to wait and see.
For a full, extensive archive of movie reviews by Ken, please see kennelco.com/film_diary