Expectation can be a fickle mistress. If something lives up to or exceeds expectation, it can be glorious. If that thing disappoints, it can be devastating.
When Ridley Scott first announced he was intending to return to the universe of his 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien, I was uncharacteristically nervous. Alien is one of my favourite films (with Aliens close behind it), and I couldn’t see how anyone could manage to match its creativity, tension and atmosphere, especially given that at least two other great directors (David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) had so spectacularly failed to do so previously, and the poor AvP films had only diluted the Alien mythos yet further. But, I thought, if anyone can do it, Scott can – he is the Alien progenitor, after all.
Then the first trailer hit and my fears were alleviated further. It looked good. In fact, it looked really good. With warnings from friends that spoilers abounded, I managed to avoid all the trailers, virals, images and behind-the-scenes footage that followed, determined to see the film free from the influence of marketing spiel and anything else that could influence my experience. And yet, still I was excited, caught up in the animated chitter-chatter of friends and film critic colleagues. That the film would be shown in full IMAX and true 3D only added to my fervour. Prometheus quickly became the film I most wanted to see in 2012, so an invite to the London press screening was, as far as I was concerned, the hottest ticket in town. I arrived at the London Southbank IMAX, as Private Hudson would say, ready to get it on.
Just over two hours later, I left the cinema feeling deflated, disappointed and somewhat bewildered. That was not the film I had expected to see. Sometimes that can be a very good thing; sometimes, as in this case, it’s not. I knew that the film would not feature the aliens from the franchise, that instead it would be focusing on the other aliens, the Space Jockeys, known as the Engineers in Prometheus, who piloted the downed spaceship, with its deadly cargo, from Scott’s original film. I actively embraced this idea and was looking forward to seeing something unique, but with enough nods to the Alien franchise to keep the fan boys (myself included) happy.
Instead, what you get is a mess of ideas, which are interesting at best and befuddling at worst. It’s clear the story started out as a straight prequel to Alien, but when Scott announced he didn’t want to follow that particular route, a plethora of alternative story arcs seem to have been crowbarred into that existing tale, rather than start the whole thing again from scratch. And the result is a story that wanders all over the place, with plot threads that lead down inexplicable dead ends and motivations that are in desperate need of exposition. Unanswered story arcs can be no bad thing, especially if you’re watching something like a Michael Haneke film, but for a major blockbuster it’s wholly unsatisfactory.
One of the main reasons for Alien’s brilliance is its simplicity: astronauts find alien, alien hunts down astronauts, alien gets butt kicked by awesome heroine. At its most base level, it’s a straightforward slasher film, but this simple idea is then elevated by an excellence in production, script, acting and direction – all perfectly executed. Prometheus boasts many of these attributes too, but the plot is so muddled, not helped by an unremarkable script, it destabilises the whole film. It’s also lacking in genuine scares, instead relying on unsettling gore for its moments of horror – perhaps pandering to its 15 certificate audience bred on modern gornos like the Saw films.
The worst thing is that Prometheus is not a bad film. Taken as a completely unique project, it’s a pretty decent science fiction movie and probably worth at the very least three stars. As with all of Scott’s films, it looks stunning; the production values are impressive and the futuristic universe is brought spectacularly to life by incredible visuals, enhanced (for once) by the rather good 3D.
Equally, the performances are, on the whole, very impressive, particularly from Fassbender, Theron and Elba – although, as with many of the film’s characters, the latter two are underused and underdeveloped. The first half of the movie, the set-up, is also very well done, if a little ponderous at times, and even in the disappointing second half, there are some outstanding moments – the highlight being the scene set in a medbay (you’ll know it when you see it), which is brilliantly executed in terms of style, drama, terror and pace.
But ultimately, because the story has such resonance with the Alien films, including a diabolical final franchise-linking scene, it is almost impossible to view it as a separate entity, and, sadly, can’t help but disappoint. All the greatness in Prometheus, and there is some, simply underlines what’s missing from the rest of it. I went into the screening of Prometheus looking for a similar experience to watching Alien, not a similar story. I left having had neither.
Like the Alien Queen, expectation can be a bitch.
The above review has been deliberately left free of Prometheus’s story for fear of spoilers, but if you want to know a little more about the plot then read on …
In 2087, two archeologists, Shaw (Rapace) and Holloway (Marshall-Green), uncover ancient tribal paintings in a hidden cave on the Isle of Skye that indicates Earth’s ancestors may have been created by an unknown alien race, called the Engineers. To discover the truth, they sign on to the exploratory spaceship Prometheus and set off with 15 other crewmembers, including a synthetic, David (Fassbender), a Weyland executive (Theron) and an experienced spacefaring captain (Elba), to the Engineers’ homeworld on the distant planet, LV-223.
Once they reach the planet, they find a vast underground structure, which, after a cursory exploration, seems to have been abandoned by the Engineers long ago. But the place is far from empty, as two crewmembers, who have been left stranded by a violent storm in the structure overnight, soon discover. Not only that, but it seems the Engineers’ motives for creating life on Earth was less than altruistic, and the lives of the crew are in also put in danger by hidden agendas among the Weyland employees.
Prometheus’ expedition of hope quickly turns into a nightmare as the death toll mounts, with crewmembers falling one by one to the secrets hidden in the alien structure. Soon, the resourceful Shaw and a few of the other crewmembers are the only people left to stop the annihilation of the entire human race.