The brilliant mysteries of Alien are easy to forget about after what’s to follow. But the wonder of stumbling upon that massive exoskeleton is unforgettable and leaves so much to question. Prometheus is smart enough not to run up and into Alien but instead follows it tangentially. There are similar threads and themes, and certainly there are major connecting points, but overall Prometheus focuses on Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s journey to discover where it is that humans came from. It’s a theme unexplored in Alien, and while other Ridley Scott constants recur, Shaw’s journey is our focal point.
Let’s get the most important note here out of the way: Michael Fassbender is one of the finest working actors right now. He steals the show just peddling around on a bicycle. The other performances are a bit mixed. Noomi Rapace does a fine job as Scott’s typical strong female lead, at least during the parts where she’s given strong material to work with. Her love interest, on the other hand, seems a bit too pretty and cocky to be a scientist. Scott’s future has trucker-types running spaceships, but our scientists can’t be skateboarding up to their excavation site (or so one could imagine him doing). It’s an odd type to give him, and it hurts the verisimilitude. Charlize Theron plays the corporate suit keeping the mission on track - her role is a bit stiff, and for the most part, she is too.
This is not to say it comes off poorly. Once they’re in their places, Scott creates fantastic atmosphere. The scientists walking down cave corridors isn’t quite as eerie as the crew walking the ship’s corridors in Alien, but it echoes the same sentiments to strong effect. When we see some of these sights we’re in wonder. A massive human statue. A mural of familiar figures. A room filled with suspect canisters. It’s clear from the beginning that there are multiple agendas at play. Theron is the boss, Fassbender is the boss, Rapace is the boss. Someone has to give.
Thematically there’s a lot at work here. Theron is the personification of the greedy and nefarious corporation. It’s the same idea visited in Alien, but here it’s far less graceful. Where in Alien we slowly discover these things only as facts and are later left to consider them, here, Theron’s suit is nothing but a villain. Most interesting is the indefinitely recursive question of who made us and why. Rapace’s Dr. Shaw is determined to know. She has a strong religious belief as well which creates a great dynamic between faith and her findings (this theme should be no surprise - Lost’s Damon Lindelof had a strong hand in Prometheus’s script). It’s not necessarily explored as thoroughly or clearly as it could have been (which again, should be no surprise for Lost viewers) - more than anything it simply came up and characters sometimes made statements. Regardless, it’s this question that drives much of the plot and mystery, and largely it’s this that pushes Prometheus away from it’s relation to Alien.
There’s a wonderful comparison of the act of creation, that is gods or some forerunners to man, against the human reproduction. It’s unfortunate then that it’s so bluntly dropped in. That said, the direction this idea takes us is thrilling. Rapace’s journey from a certain point on perhaps demonstrates an impossible stamina, but it makes for a seriously tense sequence. Overall though, the sequences in this film are focused more toward action than suspense or horror, but the finer sequences are the ones where no one is being attacked.
The visuals are fine here, but there’s nothing worth lingering on. We’re given some fantastic and massive sets, but it’s unfortunate to see them often tainted with additional CG elements. While some can’t be avoided, others could only have been more effective performed practically. The 3D here is subtle and demonstrates that when used without gimmick, it might just be the future of cinema. Scott does nothing out of the ordinary, it’s simply an added dimension, and largely, it looks nice enough for it (although a bit darker). Of course, 3D is still at a place where it looks like there are simply several different layers on the screen like a pop up book. Still, though I’ve seen few 3D films, this may be the most tasteful yet, and between this and Rian Johnson’s discussion, the idea of 3D seems more plausible.
Prometheus isn’t as good as Scott’s early (and only) sci-fis (that is, Alien and Blade Runner), but it’s an interesting and atmospheric sci-fi film. Prometheus has a lot of good ideas and a taught mythology. Even if those ideas aren’t fully or gracefully explored, it’s enough to make Prometheus a fine piece of science fiction cinema. There are some muddy motivations, but few science fiction films take cracks at big ideas the way this does. At the very least, it’s the best film with the Alien in it since Alien.