In the year 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a star map amongst a series of ancient cave paintings connecting cultures around the world. The pair interpret this as a message left by an alien race they dub the Engineers, who may be responsible for creating human life, inviting mankind to make contact. Some years later, the spaceship Prometheus reaches a distant moon known as LV-223 with Shaw and Holloway aboard as part of a science team. As funded by ailing industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce - in old geezer makeup), commanded by glam but no-nonsense mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and including inquisitive but morally ambiguous android David (Michael Fassbinder), their mission is to unlock the secrets of creation itself. What they uncover exceeds their darkest nightmares and could spell the end for life on Earth.
To say this semi-prequel to the seminal Alien (1979) was eagerly anticipated would be a gross understatement. First off, Ridley Scott deserves some credit for attempting to expand the Alien mythos beyond the realms of simple shock-horror or worse, self-referential fanboy-pandering, towards tackling bigger themes. The origins of life, the nature of the universe and what it means to be human are some of the meaty morsels Scott serves up as part of an ambitious stew, at long last tapping the portentous Lovecraftian-by-way-of-Erich von Daeniken undertones hinted at in the first film. Ambiguous is the byword for the approach adopted by Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts (who penned Russian-produced alien invasion pic The Darkest Hour (2011)) and Damon Lindelhof, as underlined by the slightly unsettling ideological shift away from the series’ traditional spirited, emotionally-driven female lead onto the cerebral, morally ambivalent android character.
Despite the presence of strong actresses Rapace and Theron, it is Fassbinder who essays the key character and delivers the most notable performance. Herein lies part of the problem. Whereas before the franchise concerned itself with Ellen Ripley, a gutsy, certainly smart but identifiably ordinary woman caught in the midst of unfathomable alien terror, here the plot revolves around someone whose intellectual curiosity compels them to tamper with the unknowable then cock a quizzical eyebrow at the ensuing chaos. Simply put, Prometheus is all ideas with no follow-through and sorely lacking in heart. Ridley Scott invests so much time posing the big questions (and make no mistake, the film is all questions with zero answers) he fails to notice the myriad of niggling, little questions that wriggle out and, like an infestation of alien parasites, collectively burrow inside this unwieldy leviathan until it sinks in its own primordial swamp.
Why does Charlie behave like such an antagonistic jerk? For what reason does one character infect someone with an alien parasite? Why does the surly punk rock geologist (Sean Harris) sensibly refuse to risk his life delving into a danger spot only to linger around its corridors like a suicidal idiot? What is an accomplished actress like Charlize Theron doing here when her character contributes next to nothing to the plot, besides looking fantastic in a skin-tight space suit? These are only a few among the many earthly inconsistencies that bubble annoyingly away in the back of one’s brain when we are meant to be pondering the film’s weightier, metaphysical themes. Scott, Spaihts and Lindlehof try to things both ways by positing the existence of man is a cosmic mistake yet seeking solace in Shaw’s unswavering belief in a higher power. It is less than convincing, further undone by Rapace’s disappointingly tepid turn.
On a visual level, naturally, the film does not disappoint. Scott’s reputation as a creator of vivid, exquisitely realised worlds remains indisputible while he also pulls off a nightmarish caesarean sequence that proves a visceral, suspenseful, grippingly gross highpoint. Amidst an array of slithery, slimy, Lovecraftian terrors, the Engineers rather undermine the impact of Alien’s legendary “Space Jockey”, reducing something that was once an awe-inspiring harbringer of cosmic menace to a Star Trek level purple meanie of the week. Despite some individually compelling and intellectually stimulating sequences, Prometheus fails to weave any of its tantalising threads into anything remotely resembling a coherent narrative.
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.