The titan Prometheus was forever punished for defying the gods and advancing the human race. It’s an appropriate name for both Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel and the ship within the film that is carrying a scientific team into the depths of space on a mission to find the race of alien beings known as the Engineers. The Engineers are believed to have created the human race so are also Promethean figures, and like the human characters trying to find them, the Engineers have acted in a way that subverts the natural order and are heavily punished for their sins.
The most frustrating thing about Prometheus is how close it comes to being a brilliant film. Part of the problem is it seems to be unsure to what extent it is completely removed from the original four Alien films (the Alien vs. Predator crossover films don’t count) and to what extent it is part of the mythology that Scott began in his original 1979 science-fiction/horror masterpiece. The idea is that Prometheus depicts the events that happened on the planetoid LV-426 before the crew of the Nostromo landed there and made their deadly discovery in Alien (it has since been pointed out to me in comments such as this one that this is incorrect). The film therefore takes place within the Alien universe, but without being an actual Alien film. The resulting tension between being a completely original story and giving enough nods to the other films means that it doesn’t quite work as either a stand-alone film or an Alien prequel.
Prometheus certainly begins differently to the Alien films with a sequence on the Engineers’ home planet that evokes the climatic journey to the alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sweeping shots of landscapes that looks similar to that of Earth, but are also otherworldly. The sequence introduces the themes of creation and destruction with a close up of a DNA strand breaking down, before cutting to a brief scene on Earth, which is something that has never been done before in the franchise. Everything suggests that this is an origins story that contains the familiar themes of artificial and monstrous creation where nature is made nightmarish. Through the horrific idea of the parasitic alien creatures being violently born from with the chest of humans, the uncanny androids and the theme of the corporate and military interest in using the creatures for biological warfare, the original films explored a range of anxieties about motherhood and birth. Prometheus continues these themes, but adds the new idea that with the discovery of the Engineers, humans also now have a creator, making them not unlike the androids they have created. Not only is motherhood and nature being challenged in Prometheus, but this time God is also undermined.
Prometheus very quickly then moves into the mode of Alien and while it is not a borderline remake, as with the case of The Thing prequel, it still adopts a very similar narrative structure. By doing so, its deviations from that structure stand out. Part of what makes the first four films so compelling is that they are about a close knit group of people, whether it be the crews of ships in Alien and Alien Resurrection, the marines in Aliens or the prisoners in Alien 3. In Prometheus the characters are travelling together and on the same mission, but they are all detached from each other to only ever substantially interact in groups of twos or threes. When one of the leading characters, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), goes through an extremely traumatic experience – in a wonderfully grotesque and disturbing play on the destructive motherhood theme – she does it alone and it barely gets a mention. There are great individual characters such as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the ships enigmatic android David (Michael Fassbender) and the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba), but there is too little interaction between them. Without the close-knit dynamic between the characters, what happens to them is of little consequence as far as audience sympathies are concerned.
Impressively Prometheus does incorporate the design of Alien and Aliens, although some of the technology seems more advanced than the films it is supposedly set before. Minor quibbles aside, it is great to see the same military hardware, vehicles and video transmitter displays from Aliens and the spacecraft and space suit designs from Alien. Most impressive is the use of HR Giger’s original designs for the Engineers and their technology, which visually link Prometheus to Alien in a way that is difficult for admirers of the original films not to be excited by. And while the score for Prometheus is overall unremarkable, the moments where it repeats some of the signature cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score do send a shiver down the spine.
Prometheus is a visual triumph and if nothing else it deserves credit for the moments when it does evoke the early scenes in Alien with the same degree of sinister wonder. However, there’s never the same sense of dread or excitement as the previous films and it does strange things like use a ridiculously made-up Guy Pearce to play an elderly man rather than simply cast an elderly man. Most perplexing is how close it comes to tying into Alien to then completely disregard a key detail at the very end. In fact, Prometheus would have benefited from removing one of its final scenes so that the audience could fill in the gaps themselves to make the films correlate rather than be presented with a scene that flatly denies correlation. For what it is Prometheus is a lot better than it could have been, but it also displays so much missed potential.