Ridley Scott returns to the science fiction genre for the first time in three decades with a film that’s partly a companion piece to his 1979 classic, Alien, and partly something quite different. The result is his best film in a very long time.
Archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that human life was created by aliens they call Engineers, and discover a star map showing where to find them. Funded by trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), they set off on an expedition aboard the scientific space vessel Prometheus to find the Engineers. The expedition also includes corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Prometheus Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and an android named David (Michael Fassbender).
Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator) has made an intriguing film. He’s always been an incredibly visual filmmaker, and this film is no exception. There’s a cold beauty to Prometheus that recalls Stanley Kubrick. Scott’s problem has sometimes been taking more interest in crafting the visuals than in telling a compelling story or directing actors, but that isn’t the case here. This is his tightest film in years. Some of his best work has been in science fiction, and a return to the genre marks an addition to his best work. There are some well-staged action scenes late in the film but, unlike many contemporary genre films, it’s not primarily an action film. Like Blade Runner, it’s an idea film which just happens to have some action scenes.
It’s also Scott’s first foray into the world of 3D, which he uses very effectively to add depth to the frame without overdoing it. I’m not a big fan of 3D, but this film is worth seeing the way it was filmed. It was natively shot in 3D with the ultra-high definition RED Epic digital camera system and the Element Technica Atom 3D rig.
Written by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (co-creator/co-showrunner of television’s Lost), the film is a throwback to the best genre films of the 1960s and 1970s, when sf films strived to be about something, and there are some big ideas here. It’s a companion piece to Alien rather than a true prequel, taking a few strands of Alien‘s DNA and a few strands from Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, mixing them with echoes of Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and H. P. Lovecraft to construct a different cinematic mythology with a rich symbolism underlying it all. Not to say there aren’t some predictable plot beats or an occasional plot hole, because there are, but overall it’s an absorbing story. Its strength is what lies beneath the surface of the plot.
Does it answer all of the questions it raises? Not even close. Lindelof’s fingerprints as co-creator and co-showrunner of Lost are easy to spot, with an intriguing mythology being constructed while answers are teased more than forthcoming. It’s clearly intended as a setup for further films, which I look forward to, especially if Scott directs them. Also, I think this may be one of those films where multiple viewings are necessary in order to peel away the layers.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (a veteran of all four Pirates of the Caribbean films) and production designer Arthur Max (Gladiator, Robin Hood) are in tune with Scott’s visual inclinations. It feels familiar to Alien fans, demonstrating a contrast between bright technological environments and dark organic ones. It was shot on location in Iceland, Jordan, and Scotland, with studio work in England and Spain. Costume designer Janty Yates (Gladiator, Robin Hood) delivers futuristic yet believable costumes. Marc Streitenfeld (Robin Hood, The Grey) provides a tense, atmospheric score. The visual effects are uniformly excellent, and take full advantage of the depth of 3D.
Fassbender (Hunger, X-Men: First Class) absolutely steals the film as the android David, an artificial intelligence who’s cunning, even manipulative, as he carries out a dangerous agenda and yearns to become a creator rather than merely a creation. His performance brings to mind David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth with an androgynous, otherworldly quality, with hints of HAL 9000 in a humanoid form.
Rapace (the Swedish original of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) provides a strong female lead without ever coming close to being a Ripley clone. Marshall-Green plays well off of her as her research and romantic partner. Theron stays more in the background as Vickers, but brings an icy focus to the role. Elba always gives his best effort as an actor, and shines even in smaller but key roles in genre films. Pearce is effective in limited screen time.
The cast also includes Rafe Spall and Sean Harris as scientists in the expedition, Kate Dickey as the ship’s medic, Emun Elliott and Benedict Wong as the ship’s pilots, and Patrick Wilson in a flashback as Shaw’s father. Ridley Scott has a reputation as a visual stylist rather than a director of actors, but he gets uniformly solid performances from his cast here.
Prometheus is a quality film. If it doesn’t always follow through on the ideas it presents, it at least has the ambition to present them, which immediately sets it above many other contemporary genre films. This is a far bolder film than it may at first appear on the surface, because underneath there’s a rich vein of symbolism and allusion that can be overlooked if one narrowly focuses on the plot. It’s certainly going to be a divisive film. People are going to be arguing over it for a long time. Highly recommended.
[4.5 out of 5 stars]