Although it’s named after a spacecraft filled with deviousness and curiosity, Prometheus could’ve easily been titled Alien: Evolution. Those who have followed this uneven franchise from the beginning and have often pondered the origins of these dark, phallic-headed, acid-hissing, double-mouthed predators will have to wait for the final scene to discover just how easy it is for one dominating species to merge with another. It’s some freaky shit, I tell ya.
About two hours before that cool moment arrives, though, we meet a handful of geologists who make a peculiar discovery. Not far from the entrance of a Scottish cave in 2089, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (lovely Swedish actress Noomi Rapace) excitedly summons her colleague/boyfriend, Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), through an intermediary, to check out a 5000-year-old drawing that is eeriely similiar to five other cave drawings they’ve found on previous expeditions in other parts of the world. All six of these artifacts have been made from people of six different ancient cultures who couldn’t have possibly known about each other which makes for a baffling coincidence.
Two years later, after being in hyper-sleep that entire time (and magically, not aging a day; too bad about the vomiting, though), the scientists and their team are awoken just in time for another important mission. The Prometheus is about to land on an alien moon that might elicit some compelling answers not only about those mysterious drawings but perhaps about the origins of man, as well. Maybe a creator other than humanity itself or even an invisible entity is the start of it all.
If this sounds a little like the plot of Star Trek V, rest assured this is a much better film with far creepier overtones. With Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien, at the helm this is the best film in the series since James Cameron’s Aliens. Trust me when I say that Prometheus is the furthest thing away from an empty-headed noisefest as you can get despite its occasional, unwelcome forays into excessive volume. As good as it is, though, you wish it went even further with its intelligence. Nonetheless, this is not the usual brain-dead action pic.
Like the first film, our band of heroes have no clue what they’re getting into. Remember that wonderful scene in Alien when John Hurt gets a little too close to that pod that opens up? Well, instead of looking like slimy cocoons, the pods in this prequel look like silver canisters. But they still ooze menace in the form of black fluid that somehow escapes the apparently not firmly sealed steel incubators.
When two of the scientists correctly realize it’s a much better idea to go back to the ship than go any further into the dark recesses of this expectedly doomed mission, they get horribly lost walking around in circles. If they had just stuck with the away team in the first place (who safely make it back on-board), these skeptical, skittish geologists would not have to come face to face with the concept of Darwinism itself. A nice bit of irony, that.
Meanwhile, there are hidden agendas being kept close to the vest by two characters who don’t even trust each other. A cold, deadpan Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron in a surprisingly effective performance), the mission’s restrictive leader, informs Dr. Shaw and Dr. Holloway that they mustn’t try to communicate or engage with any possible creatures they may find which disappoints the insatiable scientists who want to do that very thing. That’s the whole point of their risky expedition. Vickers counters that if it was their trillion dollars put into all of this, they’d get their way. His suspicion aroused, Holloway smartly asks if Vickers is secretly plotting. Her poker face gives nothing away.
Vickers’ servant, Dave (another great performance by Michael Fassbender), is a duplicitious, Aryan-looking android not unlike Ian Holm’s dark-haired character in the first Alien who we didn’t even realize wasn’t human at first. While the crew sleeps, he becomes a sponge for knowledge as he learns numerous alien languages (which comes in handy later on), sinks a basketball while riding a bike and apparently has a fascination with Peter O’Toole movies. (He quotes from Lawrence Of Arabia on occasion and apparently has modelled his look after him. Imagine if Julian Sands replaced David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth and acted like HAL from 2001.)
Despite his permanently even demeanour, he’s constantly up to no good. Blink and you’ll miss what he does to Dr. Holloway’s alcoholic beverage in the pool room. During the initial foray on the alien moon, unbeknownst to anyone else, he scoops up one of the silver canisters. And at one point, he has a secretive communication with someone Vickers knows very well. When she forcefully demands to know what this mysterious person said to him, Dave simply replies, “Keep trying.”.
Like the first Alien, nothing is what it seems in Prometheus, if you’ll excuse the cliche. The geologists are completely unprepared for what’s waiting for them on this distant moon, Vickers is more complicated than we realize, and the ancient founder of the self-interested Weyland Corporation might be the sneakiest bastard of them all. Played by a completely unrecognizable Guy Pearce (who is heavily concealed in make-up that ages him considerably and made me mistake him for Michael Wincott), without giving anything away let’s just say his narcissism far outweighs his common sense.
Despite being loaded with first-rate special effects (more old-school than CGI) and featuring exquisite set designs (purposefully reminiscent of the original 1979 movie), Prometheus is really a film of simple pleasures: the opening title sequence; Dave watching one of Dr. Shaw’s dreams; the superb, often breathtaking cinematography; the fascination the scientists have with the earth-shattering possibility of expanding the knowledge of humanity’s beginnings with the findings of their mission; Vickers’ cold looks; Fassbender’s masterful underplaying of Dave; Dr. Shaw’s agonizing dilemma; and the courage of numerous crew members to do what’s necessary in the heat of such scorching calamity.
Unlike the first Alien which was really a clever and scary creature feature, the unsettling Prometheus is more philosophical but not as deep as it should be. It wisely minimizes the more traditional elements of action and horror movies (although those sequences are mostly well done) in favour of creeping you out with ideas. Bad judgment is a running theme throughout as the unchecked selfishness of more than one character puts everybody in an unwelcome predicament. Survival of the fittest, indeed.
Director Scott has smartly assembled a strong international cast here, some of whom admirably don’t even speak in their native accent. Idris Elba, the British star of HBO’s The Wire, easily commands respect as the otherwise disinterested southern American Captain of the ship and provides one of the few moments of levity. The Swedish Rapace plays Dr. Shaw with a British accent and a whole lot of pluck, it must be said.
After suffering through unnecessary sequels and those lousy Alien Vs. Predator movies, what a relief to discover that it is possible to return to a franchise that was created more than 30 years ago and see it revived in just a little over two hours.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 10, 2012