Post-Gladiator, Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career. For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.
While I’d level that charge at this, his latest, there’s a sense that at last the filmmaker has engaged with his material in a more than purely dispassionate manner. I don’t mean the garbled gubbins Scott has spouted in interviews about von Daniken. Rather, there’s a viscerality, a vitality, that has been lacking in the commodified Scott Free production line.
Quality-wise, there’s no danger of Prometheus being worthy to touch the hem of his previous forays in sci-fi. But that’s more a reflection of how his approach to filmmaking has changed than (necessarily) the subject he has chosen. Alien and Blade Runner have endured, at least partly, because Scott was willing to linger on the world he created. And that approach ensured the creation of atmosphere and resonance, heart even, something beyond obeisance to mechanically telling a story. Because Scott has become a technically proficient but uninvested director. I don’t think he really understands why his early films are so venerated. Hence his view that Alien wouldn’t be so “slow” if he made it today or his desire to draw a line under the “Deckard as Replicant” debate.
He is ill-suited to making a film with designs on the philosophical or thought-provoking. He’s no intellectual, and the depth he once achieved could almost be seen as a consequence of drenching his characters in glorious art direction. Which sounds like an insult, but it’s meant as a backhanded compliment. It’s slightly saddening to see Michael Fassbender’s David obsessing over Lawrence of Arabia, as the wonder and intelligence imbued in that film highlights that Scott won’t achieve profundity through characters talking about profundity.
Moving past Ridley of yesteryear, the film isn’t so far removed from what I hoped today’s Ridley Scott might be capable of at best; a solid event movie, accorded a return to a genre he’s given a wide berth. And by that I mean horror, more than sci-fi. The superbly edited trailer turns out not to have been a false tease of the final movie, except that it is consistently more dazzling in its snapshot. And perhaps through the conscious echoing of Alien in its score.
Because of his change in approach, the flaws in the scripts Scott picks are more unforgiving. You aren’t so immersed in the environment that problems don’t stand out. Aspiration becomes pretension. The lofty comparisons to 2001 by the filmmakers are so much bunkum. This script is no less cynical about its audience than a standard “monster in the dark” movie. The origin of mankind is little more than a MacGuffin to drive the plot. Except that it doesn’t have sufficient confidence in even that, divesting itself of mystery from the first (fortunately, there are other plot threads that elicit intrigue).
Lindelof/Spaihts are particularly at fault with film's opening and closing. The prologue is plain unnecessary. It spoon-feeds the audience a premise that is adequately explained when Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discuss the mission with the crew. Added to that, it’s not particularly impressive effects-wise (CG that never looks like anything other than CG). I don’t think we really needed the Isle of Skye sequence either. It doesn’t carry with it the impact of discovery that we will later experience on the alien planet.
Better to have begun with David, whose solitary activities are our first introduction to the Prometheus. (Perhaps this was resisted as it would evoke the opening of Alien.) You can tell Scott is engaged by the character. As with Roy Batty, it’s not the main protagonist with whom the audience most empathises.
Fassbender is riveting in the role, and the various comparisons that have been made to Jeeves, Bowie and Lawrence are all appropriate. He combines a slight effeteness with an unsettling stillness and the occasional reaction of delight. His motives are the most thought through of any character in the film, and comprehensible even when they are questionable. The character only stumbles on the occasions where he’s called upon to deliver crass stimulation to the motivation and background of Shaw.
Dr Shaw is a problem for the film, as she’s less interesting both in character and performance than a number of the cast given substantially lesser roles (including Theron, Elba, Marshall-Green). As far as I can tell the only reason to have David monitor the crew’s dreams is to give her backstory-by-committee. On the couple of occasions it is referenced you cringe at how ham-fistedly it’s been inserted. Noomi Rapace was such a formidable presence as Lisbeth Salander that I half-wondered if her failure to impress here was because she spent all her time trying to approximate an English accent. Her motivation is particularly rickety in the later stages of the film where, having endured some particularly emotionally wrenching and physically incapacitating experiences, she opts to head out of the Prometheus on another expedition.
Charlize Theron’s Weyland executive fares much better. There are a couple of scenes, one with Fassbender and the other with Elba, which are more memorable than any of the interactions between Rapace and Marshall-Green. Elba doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the blue-collar captain but he does it agreeably. For some reason he’s a much more commanding screen presence when he plays Americans. I cringed at his “weapons of mass destruction” line, though. I wonder if Ridley couldn’t get Tom Hardy so he cast look-a-like Logan Marshall-Green. He’s fine, though. Rapace is the only casting bum note (Theron apparently had the Shaw role originally, but fell out due to Fury Road; I have a feeling no one could have made her into a great character, but she’d have been a better fit).
The back and forth between locations has been criticised, but I wouldn’t agree that it diffuses tension as has been suggested by some reviewers. However, it does lend to the sense that there needed to be more structural finessing. There are more than enough twists and plot developments to maintain interest, but at times there isn’t enough care in laying them out. At one point I wondered where Theron’s character had disappeared to, as she hadn’t been seen for a significant period. There’s also an extended (quite nerve shredding) set piece involving an automatic medical unit where it dawns on you that the rest of the crew all seem to disappear when the plot requires it. I’m also not sure about the reasoning for picking a flamethrower to kill someone with (not the least painful of methods) when other weaponry is to hand. Because it’s a call back to Alien?
The lack of clear answers from the script has also been taken issue with, as either a cynical ploy to eke out a sequel or a fault of the Lindelof Lost factory-style. It’s not an aspect that bothered me (perhaps as I was reluctant to see a prequel and any demystification of the Space Jockey in the first place), nor was the alien “life cycle” as seen here (my assumption being that the rules for the xenomorphs have not kicked in).
I mentioned horror, and there’s enough body horror (or the implication thereof) to make David Cronenberg envious. This is where Scott is at his strongest, and it’s a more pervasive ingredient than in Alien (where, once released, the threat to the characters is from without). Rather than the limp Chariots of the Gods quest, what resonance the film has is in themes of infiltration and possession. The body is revealed as pathetically corruptible and, by extension, so is the soul (as Holloway realises). If the characterisation of Shaw weren’t so lazy, this would be even more effective. The themes of womanhood and fertility that are touched upon have more potential than was explored with Ripley, but there’s no substance to Shaw. She should provide a contrast to her “male” opposite, David, but we find ourselves identifying more with him. He cannot be possessed or defiled, sees clearly through the mystical longings of his human masters, and is imbued with nuances that (great characters though they were) both Ash and Bishop lacked.
On the technical side, the film looks gorgeous. This is Scott’s first film with frequent Gore Verbinski and Tim Burton cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and he brings out the best in the director (they are collaborating again on The Counselor). The production and costume design is striking and aesthetically appealing, if more self-consciously “designed” than the “lived-in future” look of Alien. For the most part the special effects are well-integrated, but the creature work is underwhelming. The humanoid aliens resemble Mark Strong in a muscle suit, while the more Lovecraftian element has presence but lacks a strong visual signature.
My most consistent issue with the film is Michael Streitenfeld’s score. This chap has composed for all of Scott’s films since A Good Year, and I can’t recall any of them. In this case his work is memorable for being inappropriate and derivative. He fares reasonably well when called upon to deliver suspense or action motifs, but every time his main theme appears it is intrusive in all the wrong ways. Sub-Star Trek and sub-JFK, the orchestration is designed to stir the emotions and evoke awe but instead distracts from the proceedings.
Prometheus attempts to strike out in its own direction in a way that the recent The Thing prequel didn’t (I make no apologies for enjoying that film), but the two are comparable as effective thrillers that can’t live up to their legacies. Taken on its own terms, this is is a flawed but fitfully first-rate movie and consistently more rewarding than the average summer blockbuster.
(SPOILERS) Regarding the climax of the film, the fates of Elba and Theron seemed ill-conceived. The former is righteously motivated, but his gung-ho attitude seemed far too broad. And having his co-pilots cheerfully accompany him to his doom for no good reason at all was a head-shaking moment. Theron’s exit was unnecessary and uninteresting after the effort made to get her to where she ended up. Her survival might have made Prometheus 2 an enticing prospect. I’m not that eager to see a sequel with Rapace (I have doubts that a film this expensive will make enough to warrant one anyway), but the potential conflict between Shaw and David over what he did earlier in the film has some juice to it. Add Theron into the mix and it becomes more compelling. As for the credits reveal of a not-quite xenomorph, it just made me want to see the original and best Giger design. This wasn’t the sacrilege of Alien Resurrection’s hybrid, but the wee fellow wasn’t that impressive either.