It's a little embarrassing how the core idea behind Alien prequel Prometheus was used in the abhorrent Alien Vs Predator (to explain the background of the warrior-like Predator species), although it goes without saying that screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof do a better job appropriating Erich von Däniken's Chariots Of The Gods, which is used to demystify arcane elements of Scott's '70s masterpiece. Where did that crescent-shaped alien ship come from? Who or what was the so-called "Space Jockey" creature, seated inside what appeared to be a colossal telescope? These are questions most Alien fans have long since pondered—although it's hardly been a hot topic of fanboy debate. Regardless, Scott has chosen to answer these niggling questions in the form of a canonical prequel to his 1979 phenomenon (surely the birth of the modern sci-fi horror blockbuster), and the good news is that Prometheus mostly enriches the beloved Alien mythos rather than erode it.
In 2093 A.D, science vessel Prometheus is dispatched to the distant moon of LV-233 (a voyage requiring two years of suspended animation), part of a multi-trillion dollar investment by Weyland Corporation, to investigate the theory of archaeologist couple Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) that mankind was created millennia ago by advanced aliens known as "Engineers". (The first scene of the film basically answers this 2001: A Space Odyssey-tinged question before it's even been posed, weirdly.) Along for the ride are the customary mix of bookish and boorish shipmates: ice queen company rep Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), on-hand to stubbornly monitor the expedition; tranquil android David (Michael Fassbender channeling Pete O'Toole), the ship's eerie maintenance man and invaluable polyglot; ex-military captain Janek (Idris Elba); sociable botanist Millburn (Rafe Spall); antisocial geologist Fifield (a ratty Sean Harris), Scottish medic Ford (Kate Dickie), and pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong, adding this to a filmography that already includes Sunshine and Moon).
Arriving on the barren rock, the crew are soon investigating an enormous dome containing familiar H.R Giger-y corridors and large humanoid head sculptures, before slowly coming to unravel parts of the mystery behind the alien Engineers and their relationship with humanity. As a lifelong fan of the Alien franchise, Prometheus is effective at what it's trying to achieve. We certainly get satisfying and plausible answers about how the aliens were created, alongside the film's own grander concerns. Indeed, compared to the quartet of existing Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver, Prometheus is on an entirely different scale—with ambitions and concerns that are truly Epic. For that reason alone, this movie feels like a different beast (less intense monster horror, more existential action-adventure), but there are nevertheless enough antecedents to Alien to get fanboy hearts racing—most notably the return of familiar set designs and primordial versions of the classic "facehugger" and "chestburster" critters.
If Prometheus has a key problem it's that the plot is largely by-the-numbers, and its ideas aren't as fresh and innovative as it seems to believe they are. It's just the "was God an ancient astronaut seeding planets?" theory, adapted to service a pop-culture favourite. In some ways Prometheus performs the trick Dan Brown played on the literary world with The Da Vinci Code, which took established ideas presented decades earlier in an academic thesis, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and made them popular via airport novel fiction. Still, if Scott's latest gets more people thinking about life, the universe, and everything, why complain?
You can't wholeheartedly discredit Prometheus for stapling this bold theory to the Alien mythos, because it works well and there's ample room for unexpected flourishes. Despite having so many promo's, virals, and trailers flooding the internet this year, Prometheus still has surprises up its sleeve, while Scott proves he's still without equal when it comes to breathing life into fake movie universes. This is a considerably more advanced-looking film than the Alien's that follow it chronologically, but the disparity isn't too jarring. That's a testament to how ultramodern Alien was in 1979, because many of its designs are replicated for 2012 and don't look or feel antiquated. That said; wow, the Nostromo had some seriously retro computers compared to what trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) was able to fund years earlier, right?
I don't really want to say much more, for fear or giving too much away. Suffice to say, Prometheus looks and sounds sublime (even the 3D was immersive and gave the sets greater tangibility), and the acting was on the whole very good—particularly from man-of-the-moment Fassbender, who bests Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen's versions of a "synthetic" character, with his courteous yet disquieting performance as David. Rapace was also very charismatic as a correlative of Ripley (even wearing the same white underwear at one point) and provides the movie with another of the saga's strong female characters.
There are perhaps a few too many times when Prometheus owes a debt to the previous movies, and not just as fan-pleasing nods we expect or demand. There are moments where the characters and even some plot-developments are in sync with things seen in Alien/Aliens (and even AVP!). Plus, it's not too much of a spoiler to say Prometheus cues up sequels that could have been avoided, although such knowledge does excuse the fact this film doesn't get around to answering a great many things. If you have a problem with something hours after leaving the cinema, when the buzz of the film's aesthetic has started to wane and common sense reasserts itself, for now Scott and his team can blithely assure you Prometheus 2's got everything covered (even if it hasn't, yet).
Still, this is a strong start that hasn't done the unthinkable and exhumed Alien's corpse to rewrite movie history for the worse. Co-writer Lindelof is a confirmed hater of how George Lucas desecrated Star Wars with CGI-enhanced Special Editions and emotionally hollow prequels, so he's avoided fiddling so much that Prometheus unravels the magic and portentousness of Alien. That classic movie still works after seeing this prequel... although you'll perhaps now watch all the Alien movies with a deeper understanding of The Company's perspective, and, perhaps more regrettably, with a less puzzled expression over that "elephant man and his telescope".
And that's the thing with prequels: in explaining unspoken back-story, you lay bare what some of the audience found compelling and thought-provoking to begin with. Fortunately, it's a tricky balance act that Prometheus mostly pulls off without sullying Alien's good name.
directed by Ridley Scott / written by Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof / starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green & Charlize Theron / 20th Century Fox / 124 mins.