3 June 2012
In space no-one can hear you scream, but thirty years on the dominating echoes of Alien ring all too loudly for its prequel...
So, this is the one we've been waiting for all year... and in some cases three decades. Expectations for Ridley Scott's return to a silent screaming universe not so far away was always going to breed unrealistic expectations, but there was the hope that it could catch some kind of ungodly fire in a bottle once more. After all, say what you want, Scott may have had some misfires, but when he's been at his best, he's created milestone cinematic entries that still remain as resilient today as when they first burst forth.
Scott's original Alien, way back in 1979, was a template for good tension-building monster movies - though plenty of bad ones subsequently stole from it; James Cameron's later Aliens outing was a change of pace, a well-drilled and executed war film that worked on the assumption that if one monster was scary, a whole colony of them would be trouser-changingly awesome. In their own way those first two chapters set benchmarks that the franchise has never reattained. Charitably, let's try to forget that any of the other later films existed, the 'Alien' in their title a faux passport for devolving, opportunistic ventures. Instead, let's jump forward - or backward - to Prometheus and what is, quite clearly and inarguably (as we all already knew despite the denials) a prequel to the original.
It's the tail-end of this century and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green - but a spitting image of Tom Hardy) - are archaeologists who discover an ancient rock-painting in the Isle fo Skye. It's depiction of humans looking at the stars shows yet another version of a star-system pattern that isn't able to be seen from Earth by the naked eye. Several years later, and with a trillion dollar investment from the Weyland Corporation, a ship called the Prometheus carries Shaw, Holloway and a scientific team to that faraway system to see if they can find the answers as to where humanity came from. Also on board are icy Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), next-generation android David (Michael Fassbender), the weathered captain Janek (Idris Elba).
Of course, various agendas are at work here and ultimately find themselves on a collision course. The Prometheus finds an ancient moutainous structure on the planet's surface and though there appears to be no life on the surface other than their own, the cavernous interior slowly begins to give up its secrets... even if they raise more questions and dangers. Who were these 'Engineers' of the past and what is their conenction to Earth? What still lurks on the surface and how will this legacy shape the future?
The very title 'Prometheus' screams of referencing the mythological theft of fire from the Gods and sadly there's a case to be made that such a nod is the most subtle part of a film that is all about reaching for the stars (literally), but which then spends far too much time fascinated with its own navel. Sadly, fluff is all it finds there. After a monster and then machine-guns, the new chapter goes the anthropoligical, archaeological, philisophical, theologiical route... which is a fancy way of saying that it's 'The Logical Song' without the logic. Here is an awkward mash of genres - one always welcomes the injection of some deep thought into action films, but the result with Prometheus is that when you come out into the daylight, you suddenly realise how LITTLE action there's been amongst the furrowed brows and heated conversations. This isn't an action movie, it's a reaction movie. Essentially the film is a group of not very professional people wandering around a planet, pondering the nature of life, making a series of unfathomably bad decisions and talking a lot about their sheer surprise that things go 'splodey. The sort of movie that when a tall long spaceship crashes down towards them, people vainly run forwards to avoid it, rather than merely step sideways. There's probably another worthy metaphor in there somewhere...
While there's an undeniable sense of fantastic scale in the cinematography and the technical/visual side of the equation is out in force (for the ship itself, think 'Serenity' on steroids), almost every other department is lacking. There's also some great actors involved, but they're too often reduced to acting in a way the story demands, rather than in ways that are consistent. Despite scenes alluding to greater (and more interesting) backstories, almost none of these are ultimately addressed as the story unfolds and even then the main plot feels like cod-religious fan-fiction... imagine 'Close Encounters of the Scientology Kind'. From the very first scene - visually nice but, in hindsight, absolutely abstract and superfluous to the plot - there's simply no cohesive whole to the outing... just an array of jumbled vignettes, personality conflicts and half-explained ideas that crumble under cross-examination or vaporise on contact. Rapace makes the best of being cast in an underwritten Ripley-esque role, Fassbender is good as David (though the character's motivations are never fully understandable) and Guy Pearce is wasted under aging prosthetics. You'll be hard-pressed to remember any of the junior supporting roles - I'm not convinced every one we see even HAD names. Most appear to be waiting for their allotment of acid-stained away-team red-shirts.
The most annoying thing here is that the look of the universe is superb and the ingredients are all ready present to be mixed in together... so most of the blame for this disappointing cosmic souffle must lie at Scott's own feet and the editing suite. He's had three decades to fine-tune any revisting and the wait wasn't worth it. The pace is poor - whole swathes make no real sense - the plotting far too uneven and the depth of subject betrayed by the shallow script and cookie-cutter characters. Those looking for all-out action will only have a few scenes to interest them (all in the trailer) and the best moments have a sense of deja-vu. Some sequels/prequels are hindered by the baggage they acquire, but Prometheus positively trades on them, using them as punctuation in dialogue and scene-setting.
Prometheus promises us the universe and while it looks pretty and comes with a pedigree you can't easily dismiss, it simply doesn't have the specific gravity it needs to stand on its own terms. Been there. Done that. Go rent or buy the original Alien - it remains, thirty years on, the far superior and less self-indulgent journey.
Prometheus (15) is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox and is out now...
~ Thanks to Vue: The Light, Leeds