The first step in this review must address the elephant in the room. Prometheus (2012) is intended as one of this year’s major blockbusters, but it’s not a prequel to Alien (1979). It’s a separate science fiction film set in the same fictional universe some thirty years before before the events we see in Alien. Indeed, if my memory is not wholly at fault, the planet we see in this film is not the same planet visited by the Nostromo. Ridley Scott has done well with Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof to avoid this being a simple origin film. The opening scenes set on Earth reveal the central theme. In essence, it proposes that to create life, one must first destroy life. The science of a race that can construct a craft capable of flying between the stars can easily plant seeds in the oceans of Earth without having to kill one of the crew (assuming, of course, that the being we see die is actually one of the crew rather than a being specially constructed for the purpose — it appears to be a different kind of spaceship from the craft we saw in Alien and later see in this film. The intention of showing us this death is to reinforce the centrality of mortality. In all nature, there’s a cycle of life as the newly born first grow under the care of their parents, then take the first steps to an independent existence. This will usually involve mating and producing the next generation. At some point, the original parents die and, through this death, the children positively achieve independence. There’s no-one with the right or power to tell them what to do. While they have the health and strength, they guide their own young until death passes on the mantle of leadership to the next generation. So, in a way, the theme is almost oedipal in asserting the death of at least one parent is necessary for the next generation to accept responsibility for its own future.
In human terms, any child of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) would be waiting for him to die so that ownership and control of the corporation could pass. Similarly, David (Michael Fassbender), a robot created by Peter Weyland, would not have any wishes or desires of its own unless its creator dies or otherwise stops giving it mandatory instructions. Perhaps, at a metaphorical level, that’s why Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) has to die immediately after Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers she’s apparently pregnant. If we scale this up to the human race, we may not truly be able to achieve independence and realise whatever represents our true potential unless our “creators” are dead.
At this point, we need to refer back to the title of the film because, self-evidently, Prometheus doesn’t seem to fit into this theme. Except, of course, it does. In the myth, Prometheus steals a vital piece of knowledge from the Gods. It’s the difference in the level of knowledge and understanding that gives Gods their power and demonstrates their superiority over humanity. For this theft, he’s punished. So the question you have to ask is what motive underpins this expedition. In an altruistic world, the intention would probably be pure scientific research. They are going simply to see what’s there. Elizabeth Shaw herself has a more religious view of the quest for knowledge. Yes, she’s a scientist, but she also believes in the right of the children to meet, if not confront, their Creator. She believes we will be proved worthy by accepting our Creator’s invitation to visit. Peter Weyland, the man funding the expedition, will have a different agenda. For him, there’s only one thing it would be worth stealing from the gods. Indeed, he would pay any amount of money and endure any hardship to make his dream real. That it would disturb the balance of nature is not something that will deflect his ambition. Not for him the desire to bring back technology for the benefit of humanity. He’s rather more selfish. Perhaps, like the original Prometheus, he deserves to be punished.
So let’s put a little flesh on the bones. Captain Janek (Idris Elba) is the quiet man of steady purpose. He sees it as his job to get everyone safely home subject to the wishes of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who’s the representative of the Weyland Corporation and nominally in charge of the expedition. There’s steady friction between Meredith and David because the robot is working through the programming given by Peter Weyland before leaving Earth. When there’s conflict, David shuts her out of the loop. As in the original Alien, the robot is the pivotal catalyst by independently investigating what the crew finds after landing, i.e. before it can engage in the theft required by Peter Weyland, it must first find the relevant technology. This means active exploration and experimentation. There’s a further difference. In the original Alien series, the hero is clearly Sigourney Weaver’s character because she will stop at nothing to protect the Earth from infection. The true measure of the heroism is her willingness to sacrifice her life. Our new hero played by Noomi Rapace must survive. Yes, this is the first in what’s intended as a new series to fill out the general background detail to this fictional universe. That means she cannot have quite the same qualities of heroism as Sigourney Weaver. She obviously knows what has to be done and can tell others what to do, but there must be at least one other hero in the right mould and prepared to act.
So does Prometheus work? The answer is a measured yes, although there’s one feature which is absurd. No matter how good the local anaesthetics of the time, no human body could possibly come through that surgical procedure and then run around normally for the remainder of the film. In justification, all we can say is that it’s necessary for the final sequence to work out. As another aside, the body at the end is left in the wrong place. This may confirm my recollection that this is a different planet and, therefore, the crew of the Nostromo finds a different ship with another alien in the command chair. But putting the problems to one side, the general flow of the narrative is compulsively strong. It takes its time to explain what’s happening and for the crew to exchange ideas. The creatures slowly returning to life in their underground storage facility are sufficiently different to create a whole new sense of excitement except one result of human interaction is the ultimately hack cliché and so a waste of a crew member who could have been disposed of in a more creative way.
Ridley Scott uses the big screen well to create a sense of wonder as the Prometheus enters the planet’s atmosphere and explores. He also manages the ensemble cast well with everyone turning in quality performances. While many of the cast are cannon fodder, it’s good to see the director taking time with accents and attitudes to distinguish the individuals from the crowd. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are excellent with Charlize Theron and Idris Elba allowed a reasonable amount of screen time to establish themselves. Logan Marshall-Green is a bit pallid and Guy Pearce submerged under prosthetics which reduces the opportunity to act. The only thing that stops this from being a great film is the lack of reaction to events. When the crew is in danger or circumstances require painful decisions, you don’t see the crew taking a moment to express relief they survived or telling themselves the decisions were necessary, if not actually right. Stuff happens and then more stuff happens. This leaves the level of characterisation at a rather primitive level. That said, I enjoyed Prometheus and sincerely hope at least one more film can be made to develop the theme.