With Prometheus, legendary director Ridley Scott makes his long-awaited return to the science fiction genre, his bread and butter. I know many of his dearest fans have been anticipating this release like the Second Coming, but I held my enthusiasm. To these eyes, the director hasn’t made a great film since Blade Runner 30 years ago. For a one-time genius of the form, he’s quite rusty. Prometheus, about an interstellar space expedition aboard the titular vessel, where the crew of deep space explorers stumbles on the scary inhabitants of some distant planet, is not Scott’s expected return to the annals of sci-fi mastery, but little more than an effectively executed and exhilarating piece of 70’s style science-fiction-horror filmmaking. Any stabs Scott makes at intellectualism or deeper meaning hardly resonate. Prometheus is a well-made, big-budget creature-feature—no more, no less.
The year is 2089 and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archeologists and lovers digging through caves in Scotland when they discover a pictogram with a map directing them toward a constellation of stars thousands of light years away. The two opine that these galactic coordinates will hold the secrets to humanity’s origins. Two years later, cut to the Prometheus spacecraft, where android David (a brilliant Michael Fassbender) maintains the ship, peeps in on the dreams of the slumbering crew, and plays Lawrence of Arabia on repeat. Fitting David with the flamboyant elegance of a starchy English butler, the underhandedness of surreptitious villain, and the muted emotion of his namesake robot from A.I., Fassbender makes David the most interesting character in the film. When someone harshly points out his inherent soullessness, the magnificent Irish actor reacts with the perfect amount of concealed heartbreak. Even if it’s true, intellectually, David understands exactly what it means.
A terminally ill billionaire named Weyland (Guy Pearce in old man makeup) has funded the mission and assembled a crew including the scientists Shaw and Holloway, the no-nonsense ship overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the captain (Idris Elba), and a number of skeptics and clashing personalities. As the team enters a mysterious planet’s toxic atmosphere and then sets down on its rocky and desolate surface, we already know where this ship’s headed. The pre-humans—or “Engineers”—that Shaw and Holloway hope to find aren’t necessarily friendly, and Prometheus, at times, becomes the kind of don’t-leave-the-group slasher flick we’ve seen a thousand times already. When some slithery alien life form, that looks like an eel mixed with a giant parasitic inchworm, makes contact with one of our unwitting crewmembers, he decides to approach the thing as one might approach a stray puppy. The audience bellows in unison, “What the hell are you doing?” right before it leaps through his mask and down his throat. We’d never be so stupid. We’ve seen this movie before.
Although Ridley Scott did not invent the science fiction horror film—just watch anything from the 1950’s that involved Vincent Price or Roger Corman—he certainly modernized it, gave it grit, and raised the fright-factor to levels no one had ever experienced in a movie theater. When that gnarling little monstrosity burst out of John Hurt’s chest halfway through 1979’s Alien, audiences knew they were watching a different kind of horror film; it was an amalgam of classic haunted house clichés and atmospherics and new school sci-fi blood and gore effects. The combination was incendiary. It launched dozens of copycats and helped inspire the remakes of The Thing and The Fly by Scott’s contemporaneous sick-puppies John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. As expertly designed and imagined as Prometheus might be, one never gets the feeling that they’re watching something special or unique. The film’s centerpiece scene—involving Shaw, an alien fetus, and a surgery machine that looks like a futuristic tanning bed—is truly terrifying, disgustingly squirm-inducing, and all too palpable. But the scene is also, in so many ways, just a more explicit reimagining of the alien-violating-human chest-buster scene from the original Alien.
Many have deemed Prometheus a prequel to that aforementioned game-changer, and, having now seen the film, I can say it lends itself to that analysis, but Scott isn’t entirely up-front about it. It exists in the same universe as Alien, but the two films aren’t necessarily connected. Whatever the case—prequel or not—Prometheus certainly doesn’t improve upon Alien. Anyone hoping that this picture would take the genre to the next level will be disappointed.