It’s been a long time since there was an epic space film released in theaters. Avatar three years ago is probably the closest but it had the problem of not being a good film. Everything else in space has been intimate and narrowly focused. We’ve been lacking something large and smart like 2001: A Space Odyssey far too long. Ridley Scott heard our cries and made a movie that’s epic in scope and thematic ambition with the execution to match. Can Prometheus end the arguments about prequels being completely unnecessary now? Scott builds the universe he started with Alien by nearly remaking it with a mostly different focus. Where Alien was about working class people just trying to survive with some psychosexual thematic thrust thrown in for good measure Prometheus asks questions about the creation of life and what it means to be human through the prism of a journey to find our origins. It’s about how science works and what ends one could and should go to for the sake of discovery. It’s about religion and death and scaring the pants off you. It is a great film.
Noomi Rapace and her boyfriend (Logan Marshall-Green) are scientists that think they’ve found an “invitation” from the beings that created life on Earth pointing to a solar system much like ours far away in another galaxy. They go to an Earth-like planet in that solar system looking for these beings to ask them some questions about how and why they made us. It’s the question that drives much of our scientific inquiry, maybe the biggest question of all time with implications that are unknowable. Along for the ride is Charlize Theron as the liaison for the company that is paying for the trip, a company that is familiar to fans of the series. There are some other scientists on board as well, a geologist and biologist and the like. And a robot. Alien movies have to have a robot in them, and much like Aliens, Prometheus doesn’t keep it a secret that Michael Fassbender‘s David (a telling name, of course) is not a real boy. He’s there to talk to the aliens, having learned every language on Earth in hopes of using that bank of knowledge to communicate with them. Idris Elba is the pilot of the ship and represents the guy who’s just there to do his job. His costume underlines this, where everybody else looks quite futuristic, he seems like he would fit in quite well with the crew of the Nostromo in his jeans and a vest designed more for utility than looks.
When they arrive on the planet they see a structure that is certainly not natural and go investigating. Here the parallels to Alien become more apparent. Long hallways that look more organic than built, rooms of containers holding something insidious inside, waiting for an unfortunate soul to wake them. Much like the second season of Game of Thrones, Prometheus takes the text of the original film and tweaks it to its own ends. No scene is an exact replica and that is enough to make it quite different and shocking when something happens. In fact, much of the difference between the two films comes from the motivations of the characters, which is the best way to change a story. The crew isn’t on a salvage mission, they’re there to explore. Rapace is searching the ultimate answers, not just trying to get back to Earth. Fassbender isn’t there to bring an alien back to Earth he’s there to… well, that’d be telling. The mysteries of Prometheus are fun and interesting to consider and, again, they derive from the characters, not some plot necessity. The script is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the latter of which was one of the two primary writers for Lost, a show which thrived because each of the characters was interesting and well drawn so that they could drive the plot instead of the plot driving them. The script asks a lot of questions and answers some of them while leaving others for the audience to ponder after the film. It’s a thinker as well as a thriller and that’s wonderful to see.
Ridley Scott has had a long career of interesting if not perfect films, especially recently with good but flawed films like Kingdom of Heaven and Black Hawk Down. Here he returns to his beginnings (hey, that seems familiar!) and makes a smart, gorgeous, thrilling sci-fi film like Alien and Blade Runner, both of which appear in my top 10 of all time. It isn’t as good a film as either of those two, but I’m comfortable calling it his third best film. He began his career as a production designer and it shows in all of his films. Every world he creates is wholly realized. He reteamed with Alien designer H. R. Giger to design the new elements in Prometheus which ensures that the two films look and feel similar even though Prometheus has a much cleaner look to it, at least at the outset. The best decision Scott made in the direction of this film was to separate it from Alien in terms of scope. I already touched on this in the first paragraph of this review, but Prometheus really feels a lot larger than Alien ever did. We saw some wide shots of the Nostromo and the structure the crew investigates but Alien is mostly a film of interiors and cramped ones at that. This serves the tension of that film perfectly, but for a movie like Prometheus which is about exploration and adventure the scope needed to be grand and Scott accomplishes that perfectly. The ship Prometheus is often filmed from a great distance, showing its relative smallness and focusing more on the landscape of the new planet. The structure the team investigates is so large that some of the expedition crew gets lost within it. And the final setpeice is gigantic. Everything is big, which only fits a movie about where we came from and what it means to live and die.
The film works spectacularly as an exploration epic, but it also attempts to be a human story and that’s the only place where it doesn’t completely work. The Prometheus isn’t a working vessel like the Nostromo, there are some scenes where people talk about their feelings. These scenes aren’t bad or out of place or anything, they just aren’t perfectly integrated into the greater story. There’s a subplot about the two scientists that are leading the journey and their relationship issues which does connect to the grander themes but it just isn’t given enough time to develop as it could. Of the four Ridley Scott films mentioned in the previous paragraph, only one is best in its theatrical cut (Alien) the rest are improved in director’s cuts, so I hope that there are some scenes which can be included on the Blu-ray release which will enhance the interpersonal connections just a bit. It’s not a huge failing of the film, but it keeps it from being a masterpiece, unfortunately. This is a film that makes you think, not feel. That’s fine, but I could have used a bit more feeling, though I wouldn’t want to sacrifice any of the thinking.
In fact, the character that is the most interesting in terms of both thinking and feeling is David, the android. Here Scott draws not only upon the other Alien films for inspiration but Blade Runner as well. What makes us human and David un-human? How close can you get to humanity without being human? What happens when you know exactly how and why you were made? These are the questions posed by David’s existence and they are interesting. Michael Fassbender plays David perfectly, he fits right into that uncanny valley that the other androids in the series inhabit. He moves too smoothly, he tries to imitate human speech but it’s too perfect, almost like movie dialogue. His motives can’t be read on his face and he often questions why the humans are acting so human. It’s a remarkable performance, something we’ve come to expect from Fassbender in the past three years. He’s a fantastic talent and constantly impresses.
Finally, a quick word on how to see this movie. First, do it as soon as you can. Right after you read this, if you can manage it. Ambition needs to be rewarded, even more so when it actually reaches the heights it aspires to. Second, this movie actually works quite well in 3D. It was never distracting and it even added to the experience. I saw it at midnight in IMAX 3D and if you can manage that I’d recommend it. It’s a big, loud movie and it really benefits from the biggest screen you can see it on. An epic needs to be large. It’s worth the extra money for an experience like this one. I think I have a new movie to point to whenever I talk about experiences that only movies can provide. Something so grand and thought provoking at the same time. Showing worlds that don’t exist and exploring them thematically and through exciting action. It’s wonderful.