By Shane M. Dallmann
Well, it’s finally time for my uncharacteristically late review of PROMETHEUS… but I DO have a valid excuse. Not only did the movie leave me with a lot to think about, but it inevitably led to screenings of the four original ALIEN movies (the AVP movies do NOT count in this universe, sorry) in the special edition Blu-Ray set.
I’ve always admired the ALIEN series, not least at all for the fact that each and every entry dares to be different… there’s no rehash to be found here. The original, of course, was one of the most lavish, visually overwhelming and flat-out scary haunted house movies ever. ALIENS took the “motherhood” underpinnings of the original and brought them front and center in the guise of a slam-bang, blow-em-up action ride. ALIEN 3 had the audacity to destroy much of what viewers loved from the last time around and plunge them into a religious funeral (if you hated this movie, I would humbly suggest that when it comes to “Special Editions,” the 2003 revision is MUCH better than the theatrical version). And yes, ALIEN RESURRECTION is in many ways my favorite of the sequels because it never would have occured to ME to apply the fairytale visuals of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (CITY OF LOST CHILDREN) to an ALIEN sequel of any description… it was surreal, it was “out there,” and I simply loved what he did with it (oh, and I also quite liked Sigourney Weaver’s new take on Ripley).
So now we’re back to “the man who started it all,” well, at least, the DIRECTOR who started it all. Ridley Scott intended PROMETHEUS to stand on its own (which it does), but “everybody” recognized it as an official prequel to ALIEN as soon as they saw the ship of the Engineers in the promotional artwork. Yes, it certainly qualifies as a prequel, but there’s far more to PROMETHEUS than a mere setup for ALIEN.
Of course you’re stepping into hot water when you tackle the origin of Man on Earth in a science fiction context. You’re well aware of the “Intelligent Design” debate in the public school arena. The scientific community says that ID is nothing more than religious “creationism” disguised as science. And an ID proponent will usually respond that the “designer” (let’s say “Engineer” from now on) doesn’t necessarily have to be God. If not God, then who? “Aliens, maybe” comes the response (their words, not mine). PROMETHEUS takes that response and establishes it as a premise: in the future, Earthbound archaeologists and astronomers find proof that the origin of human life can be traced to a massively distant planet, and an expedition is organized by the pre-Yutani Weyland Corporation (represented by Guy Pearce in ill-becoming old age makeup).
The events of the subsequent story need not be spelled out in detail: scientists and officers alike encounter wonder and extreme danger once they reach their destination, but our main characters are Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw (is the DOCTOR WHO character name a mere coincidence?), an eager explorer who embodies the themes of religious faith and motherhood alike; Charlize Theron as Vickers, fiercely determined to reserve the discovery for the exclusive use of her employer (yep, the dream of eternal life) and Michael Fassbender as David, the “artificial person” who’s there specifically to “make things happen.”
And from beginning to end, Ridley Scott “makes things happen” in an overwhelmingly absorbing fashion. I went whole-hog into PROMETHEUS with high expectations… I splurged on the full IMAX 3-D treatment and highly recommend you do the same if you want this film to play with full impact whether it’s doling out wonder, action, or on occasion, literally gut-wrenching horror.
I’ve read complaints that the script leaves the most fascinating questions unexplored in favor of knocking off stock characters in typical “body count” fashion. It’s true that the fairly large cast keeps us from getting to know the various members of the crew as much as we’d like to (we don’t get supporting players as endearing and enjoyable as Parker and Brett from ALIEN, for instance), but their actions and attitudes still remain believable in the context of this story: for instance, as much as you’d want to scream at the “idiot” biologist for getting too close to a creature he discovers, you’ve got to remember that this is his life’s work and obsession and that he’s seeing an extra-terrestrial life form for the very first time… of COURSE he’s going to be mesmerized (you might as well have yelled “Don’t touch the egg” to Kane in the original film).
Fassbender gives us one of the most intriguing “synthetics” to be found in the entire series: he’s not supposed to have emotional feelings, but he still seems hurt at the suggestion that he CAN’T be hurt. He’s programmed to carry out appalling actions in the name of his company, but what accounts for his own sense of wonder (be it screening LAWRENCE OF ARABIA while everyone else on the ship is in cryo-stasis or, in one of the best scenes–especially in 3-D–developing a rapturous expression as he’s surrounded by a star-chart he activates at the helm of the Engineer)?
And then there’s Shaw’s unshakable religious faith. Again, I’ve encountered critics who complained that the conclusive evidence that the Engineers created Man in their image should have led her to question her beliefs and doubt the existence of God. Ah, but true faith transcends the need for concrete evidence or literal translations. Okay, the Engineers made us. Next question: who made THEM? There’s always another question… always another mystery.
Science fiction is never going to confirm or deny the existence of God to universal satisfaction… perhaps the closest we’ve come is the transcendent finale of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, or even the more straightforward follow-up 2010, which simply promised “something wonderful.” And let’s not forget the much-maligned STAR TREK V, which also refuses to literalize the concept. Kirk: “Question–why does God need a starship?” McCoy: “YOU DON’T ASK THE ALMIGHTY FOR HIS I.D.!”
The last two “real” ALIEN films confronted religion in their own way: there was the fundamentalist brotherhood that allowed the “double-Y” prisoners in ALIEN 3 to bond as the end of their world approached, and the moment in ALIEN RESURRECTION when the android Call (Winona Ryder) genuflected before a crucifix, prompting Ripley to marvel “You’re programmed for THAT?” Make of that what you will. As far as I’m concerned, PROMETHEUS takes the concept exactly where it needs to be taken–and leaves it for the viewer to think about.
It’s not Douglas Adams, but it’s life, the universe and everything all the same, and its employment of the more standard “monster” action inherent to the very genre doesn’t stand as any sort of cheat or betrayal from where I was sitting. The film is not “perfect,” but it’s visionary SCIENCE FICTION of the highest order all the same, and it comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.