Nearly all the bits and pieces in director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus come from other movies—either one of Scott’s or someone else’s. More and more, though, I appreciate Scott’s fundamental squareness as a filmmaker. Prometheus may be the Gladiator director’s first picture shot digitally and in 3-D, but there’s an old-school assurance in the pacing and the design.
“Elegant” and “stately” are two adjectives that won’t mean a thing to the potential teen audience for Prometheus, but they’re the most apt.
Phrases such as “not especially well-written” and “sort of a prequel to Alien but not really” also apply here. This is Scott’s first straight-up science fiction outing since Blade Runner in 1982, three years after he became a Hollywood force with the success of Alien. The new film does not, in fact, require any firsthand knowledge of the thing that burst out of John Hurt’s chest 33 years ago.
Yet there is no doubt that Prometheus, set about a hundred years from now and starring Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as an archaeologist leading a space mission to capital-T Trouble, is an Alien-derived life form.
Dan O’Bannon, the writer of Alien, said it loud and proud: “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody,” he told one interviewer. “I stole it from everybody!” Prometheus has that same magpie quality, on a bigger, more sprawling scale.
The film’s most vivid single element—Michael Fassbender’s turn as a humanlike android with the fishy obsequiousness of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey—cashes in on our collective memories of Kubrick’s troublesome computer, with a side order of Jude Law’s metallic gigolo in the Kubrick/Steven Spielberg amalgam, A.I. The robot with the classy diction and ambiguous intentions is nothing new. (In fact, Ian Holm played one in Alien). And yet, it seems so here, partly because Fassbender’s variation on a familiar archetype is so meticulous and witty, and partly because our relationships with attractive devices of all kinds have become the stuff of daily waking nightmares. Or maybe that’s just my inner Amish guy talking.
The idea in Prometheus is that Earth, long ago on the Isle of Skye, received a visit from an alien race and our DNA got shmershed together with theirs. A powerful corporation run by Guy Pearce in hundreds of pounds of ancient-industrialist makeup finances the mission to find these beings.
Rapace embodies true, questing belief, and she yearns for the answers to Life’s riddles. Charlize Theron, as the unblinking, tougher-than-Sigourney Weaver company flunky overseeing the mission, plays her opposite number. Idris Elba portrays the ship’s captain.
Prometheus sends one rather generic set of characters poking around in the space-caves as part of their field work, which leads to encounters with invasive snakelike monsters, while the others hang back and wait for Trouble to come to them.
“Invasive” is the key descriptor here. In a shameless but undeniably effective remix of the most notorious scene from the ’79 picture, Rapace’s character resolves her own private alien invasion in such a way as to inspire both awe and ugh at what might be medically possible, insurance issues aside, a few decades from now. It’s a nerve-racking set piece. But the shock and peals of nervous laughter that bit provoked so many summers ago cannot be replicated, only self-imitated.
The new movie’s rooting interests are muted. Scott tells a tale of hubris and human naiveté. The best of Prometheus is nonverbal and purely atmospheric: Fassbender’s Lawrence of Arabia-loving character bouncing a basketball as he patrols the spaceship while his human cohorts finish up their two-year nap. Or the sight of the nifty red probes, shaped like tennis balls, scooting through the air on Planet X or wherever it is the Prometheus gang finds themselves. God (or Alien) knows this movie is derivative. But as someone else once said, originality isn’t everything.