Let's not call Prometheus a prequel, though it technically is. Let's call it an inciting event, like the seemingly unrelated incident that sets off the action in a slasher movie — the accidental death of a child, maybe, or a busload of cheerleaders getting filleted in the woods. In the universe of the Alien movies, Prometheus is that initial cheerleader massacre.
Technically, it's neither a remake nor a reboot nor even a franchise extension of the original Alien — "shared DNA" is how the filmmakers have characterized the curious bond between the two movies. They do share the same parent: director Ridley Scott, taking care not to draw direct connections (except in one instance) between the new movie and its 1979 predecessor.
With the new movie following the original's template almost point for point, though, comparisons are unavoidable. And that's a distinct problem for this mutant offspring, because Alien is one of the best films ever made, and Prometheus, sadly, is something of a mess. Adjust those expectations, though, and it's still provocative and visually arresting enough that you should see it.
As befits an offshoot of the Alien movies, a franchise that seized upon icky taboos surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, you'd have to go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek: The Motion Picture to find a big studio film this interested in evolution. It opens with an alternate Genesis travelogue through the genetic birth of life, as two researchers find a cave drawing in Scotland that matches primitive stellar maps all over the earth — apparent clues to the origin of man.
The discovery convinces the shadow corporation Weyland Industries (corporate loathing being the hardiest strand of Alien's DNA) to dispatch the USCSS Prometheus research vessel in search of who or whatever issued that spark of creation. But after landing on an isolated planet, the researchers and the ship's blue-collar crew find a mystery more capable of ending human life than generating it.
A bigger mystery, after 30 years of rip-offs, sequels, chat-room theory and the near-complete absorption of the original Alien into mass culture, is why Scott would revisit such familiar terrain. (And by "familiar," we're talking the basic story structure of Alien, down to specific monster beats and killpoints.) The original Alien was a triumph of atmosphere and insinuation over its modest haunted-house-in-space conception: the trainyard-in-hell sound design and Derek Vanlint's spectral lighting produced a bone-deep dread even in those of us unfortunate enough to see it on pan-and-scan VHS instead of a theater screen. Only the second movie by the fledgling director, after his accomplished debut The Duellists, Alien was an elegant fusion of all nightmares: trespass, violation, body horror, corporate malfeasance, chthonic marauders. There was no level of fear it couldn't find some way of sneaking in to your subconscious.
Prometheus aspires to loftier goals. Instead of jaded punchclock workers, the script credited to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof makes the heroes idealists who believe they're bringing vital knowledge back to Earth. (And yet they don't see any threat in boarding a ship called Prometheus, a prospect as hinky as flying coach on Air Icarus.) As such, they're far more dangerous — particularly the character who passes for an Ellen Ripley here, scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). As conceived, she's a promising composite of ideas: a Christian scientist (not a Christian Scientist) who demands responsibility from the creator for its actions. She's as pregnant with religious conviction and hope as she is biologically barren, and if you know the Alien movies, that last detail alone should start making you queasy.
But Prometheus applies a bigger, more blatant aesthetic to the original blueprint. Scott is no longer the voluptuary filmmaker of 30 years ago who reveled in character detail and incidental beauty. His peerless eye for texture hasn't deserted him, reason enough to see the movie on the big screen, and here he uses 3-D to enhance the isolation and eerie enormity of his alien landscapes. But he can't untrain his Bruckheimer-damaged editorial impulses, and savoring an image this time around is like a battle.
That's less troublesome, though, than his reduced attention to the movie's human elements. As important as Alien's technical aplomb was its casting. Outfitted with first-rate character actors — the wild card was then-unknown Sigourney Weaver — the ensemble didn't just obliterate the hierarchy of stardom that determines who'll feed the monster first in a horror movie. They gave every character (except maybe Ian Holm's Ash) equal rooting interest and personality. And Scott added to the movie's verisimilitude by directing them to speak not in declamatory Leslie Nielsen-in-Forbidden Planet tones but in an Altman-esque mutter — the murmur of people in a factory break room. Dialogue overlapped, and you got the impression these were people who really had to interact on a daily basis.
By contrast, there are no genuine bonds between any of the characters in Prometheus. Their every move smacks of plot advancement, and even actors as capable as Charlize Theron (stuck in the Paul Reiser corporate-tightass role from Aliens) can't hide the seams — especially when, like Idris Elba's captain, they're left with an accent instead of a personality. (And what an accent — try pinpointing that locus of origin somewhere between Louisiana and Transylvania.) One actor manages to transcend or at least complicate his amorphous role: Michael Fassbender, playing an android named David who keeps the viewer guessing whether he's descended from Alien's treacherous Ash or Aliens' benevolent Bishop. First seen puttering around the spaceship's confines, enacting antiseptic rituals of human downtime, David is the soul of the film, spiky and petulant behind the rictus smile of purportedly helpful technology.
These problems aside, I'd still recommend seeing Prometheus, especially if you loved any of the Alien movies. It doesn't commit any of the sacrileges of the Alien vs. Predator films, which are so awful they should be used as evidence in divorce litigation. Scott wisely doesn't replicate Alien's then-groundbreaking space-junk look: Prometheus' trillion-dollar research vessel is all clean lines and sterile handsomeness, in direct contrast to the Nostromo's rust-bucket majesty in Alien. And 3-D allows a pleasure fans have dreamt of for decades: letting the eye wander within a lavishly realized H.R. Giger environment. The master of the insectoid, the fetishized and the biomechanical — not to mention the designer of the most influential monster in modern cinema — the Swiss conceptual artist has his fingerprints all over visual marvels such as the film's engineer pyramid, and such moments can't help but soar.
What Prometheus does that's rather amazing — and I am not at all convinced that it isn't completely unintentional — is to make the story of Ellen Ripley seem more and more like prophecy. With Prometheus as inciting event, the Alien movies become the saga of a woman who becomes a warrior (Aliens), dies (Alien 3) and is reborn (Alien: Resurrection) to bring the factions of human and alien into balance in her own body. As film prophecies go, that's not so outlandish. And there's something to Prometheus' metaphysical aspirations that suggests it is ascribing that kind of myth upon the Alien Quartet.
That said, there's a reason why Prometheus' buildup has focused so much on the giant Giger head that looms over the movie's landscape. Humanoid but not human, it lays out the film's central themes in one image, an economy of storytelling that screenwriters should envy. Atmosphere is how a scary movie lives or dies: it's almost certainly why the original Alien has outlasted so many imitators. The film Scott has delivered — an ambitious attempt to fuse philosophical ideas, corporate/familial intrigue and spam-in-a-starship subplots — could use more of a genre movie's ruthless clarity.
As proof, there's the movie's already infamous centerpiece, a sequence of such unspeakable grotesquerie it could drive audiences screaming and puking from the theater — or as I like to call it, the scene that makes the movie. As with all the films in the Alien Quartet, its monstrosities derive from pregnancy, and its details will be recounted with nauseating relish on playgrounds and around water coolers all summer long. (Let's just say this is one late-term abortion even Focus on the Family would approve of.) It's effective and memorable because it delivers on its clear-cut purpose: to leave you quivering in your seat.
What makes Prometheus, flawed and compromised and jacked-up as it is, an essential view is what it makes possible. If you see this in a good theater with good 3-D, you can spend a little while inside an H.R. Giger room. That's something I've wanted to do for more than 20 years. And for a little while, Prometheus makes those dreams come true. Maybe they'll be able to take this storyline further; as long as Fassbender is along for the ride, I'm interested. But there's a reason the Alien movies endure even to this day. There's a reason Giger's xenomorph haunts the dreams of the entire world, even now. I'm glad to see Scott revisit the world of his early work, and to see how it relates to what he's doing now. But the truth is, the biomatter is out of his hands.