Prometheus was a titan who stole fire from the Gods, gave it to the humans and prevented Zeus from obliterating the human race. In punishment God chained him to a rock and bade an eagle perpetually eat his liver.
In Ridley Scott’s new film we open with sweeping aerial shots over a steaming, blasted landscape that may be Icelandic and may be Martian. We alight on a waxen figure of titanic Grecian aspect, standing astride a great waterfall, who may be Prometheus himself, “chained” to his “rock”. Overhead, a higher power is concluding a visit. It does not appear to have been a cordial one.
I do not know this for sure, and Scott does not explain further. That mysteries are more potent unexploded is a significant theme of this motion picture.
We are pitched forward 35 millennia, to 2093, and into the face of Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an anthropologist out in the field, clawing at an aperture into a concealed cavern with cavalier disregard for that theme. Dr Shaw and her partner Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings suggestive of the intervention of an advanced civilisation. This is, of course, the stuff of Erich von Däniken, fashionable as long ago as the 1970s but long since discredited. Nonetheless, Shaw and Holloway propose a multi-billion dollar, ten year expedition to a remote star system to further investigate. Elderly philanthropist Weyland (a rubber-suited Guy Pierce) green-lights the proposal.
It must have been one hell of a business pitch.
We jump forward a further four years and 50 billion light years (the laws of physics being due an overhaul between now and 2090) to the spaceship Prometheus, which has arrived at that star system. Without ado the ship fetches up on a blasted, steaming landscape, adjacent to a quite von Dänikenesque archaeological complex.
House android David (an excellently Hal-like Michael Fassbinder) and ship commander Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) are busily waking up their scientists and nursing hidden agendas. It quickly becomes clear that the crew of scientists, shaken from their stupor, have their own agendas too. Thus do we conform to the deep space adventure playbook established by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and, well, Alien. Yet note a dissonance here: just as the dialogue starts in earnest, Scott shifts our gaze from the reverend contemplation of the immortal to the petty melodramas of some new characters with whom we cannot, yet, empathise. Naturally there are figurative parallels but, all the same, this shift in perspective risks rendering the cosmic mundane.
I mention this because but for the wonderful production design and those grand metaphysical thoughts there is really nothing really new about the first hour of Prometheus. It is to Alien what 2010: The Year We Make Contact was to 2001. In place of ineffable profundity there is talky exposition.
Ridley Scott renders the cosmic mundane in another way too: We are treated again to HR Giger’s stunning necro-organic architecture, rendered briefly in Alien and largely unexplained in the form of a ghastly skeleton with a blown out rib-cage. But this time Scott indulges in exposition: he begins to fill in the details of this race of Übermensch, ascribing them motives and agendas. We even meet one. It was better not knowing.
In Alien the titillating ambiguity of their remnants left the job of world construction to the viewer. In Prometheus Scott takes away the viewer’s autonomy, dictates a back story, and opens himself wide to plot illogicalities and non-sequiturs. Disappointingly the Engineers’ motivations are base, predictable, and not worthy of the phallic grandeur of Giger’s production design.
By half time in this two hour picture the studied monkishness of its opening has entirely given way to melodramatic space opera, rendered in haphazardly-directed action set pieces. As convention dictates, the dysfunctional crew must be picked off, but this is accompanied by none of the grimness of Scott’s original, because the characters are only caricatures of the real men and women we met aboard the Nostromo.
There are, generally, too many of them, and they spend too much of the picture gabbing at each other in the meter of stock Hollywood dialogue, depriving the screenplay of the air it needs to work up a genuine chill or to properly frame its grand eternal cogitations. There are about three false summits before the final denouement, which falls on an offbeat not quite accented enough to justify its build up.
This makes me sound too negative: I enjoyed Prometheus a great deal, but hoped to enjoy it immensely more still. It is a beautiful picture to look at, and many of the action set pieces are well executed (Noomi Rapace has her own John Hurt moment, self-inflicted, and it is in equal parts horrifying and (deliberately) hilarious.
Ridley Scott has famously railed against studio demands to tinker with the final edits of his pictures. Here, I suspect he had full autonomy. I left the cinema wondering what might have been had someone been more assiduous in that regard: this is a good movie which could have been made great had there been a director more prepared to cut.
Director: Ridley ScottCast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron, Kate Dickie and others.
Runtime: 126 min.