First thing’s first, while Prometheus is set in the Alien universe, this is for the most part not another Alien film. Out go the venerable facehuggers and chestbursters (although a familiar figure does make a fleeting cameo). Instead the focus is on the Space Jockey, the huge mysterious skeleton seen in the first film. The plot, sees the crew of the good (space)ship Prometheus voyage to an alien planet after finding a map at an archaeological dig on Earth. They hope to find the truth behind humanity’s origins; unsurprisingly, things quickly go pear shaped once they land.
Ridley Scott, back to the franchise for the first time since 1979’s Alien, effectively creates an atmosphere of wonder and dread in the film’s first hour, as the crew face the (sometimes literal) ghosts of the past. The visuals are simply breath-taking – a derelict alien structure is gloriously realised, and Scott makes visceral use of the 3D technology in a deeply tense storm scene. And if Prometheus is never outright scary, it is very, very creepy. Echoing corridors will never stop being unnerving, and Scott has certainly not lost his touch for body horror – a scene in which a character performs surgery on herself must surely rank amongst cinema’s most gruesome.
Nor, like so many other blockbusters, does Prometheus talk down to its audience. Scott is asking some big questions, and nr is he providing obvious answers; the audience is expected to do a fair bit of mental heavy-lifting. Prometheus is probably the most intelligent blockbuster since Inception, and it never becomes nearly as convoluted as Christopher Nolan’s hit.
Michael Fassbender is the film’s secret weapon. As the android Dave, he completely steals the show, giving a gloriously creepy, fully realised performance. Fassbender lends his character just the right amount of eerie artificiality – brilliantly, the character overtly models himself on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, although there’s more than a hint of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. From his introduction – in which he stalks rigidly around the ship while the other characters sleep – to his final scene, Fassbender is flawless. Able support comes from Charlize Theron, who manages to make her character – an ostensibly obvious corporate baddie, all chipped tones and Fascist chic – far more layered than she should be.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast isn’t as effective. This is less the fault of the actors, more a script that either makes too many characters deeply irritating (lead Noomi Rapace’s Shaw) or gives them little to no depth (Idris Elba’s salty captain). In fact, most of the crew, half of whom barely have a line, seem to have been put in the film solely in order to kill them off messily.
More disappointingly, Prometheus loses the run of itself as it goes on. There’s a silly and deeply unnecessary sub-plot involving Guy Pierce’s aged businessman, and the last twenty minutes in particular are merely a series of action scenes that lack real tension or emotional heft. The atmosphere dissipates, and thoughtfulness is replaced with blood spatter and explosions.
Which is a shame. For the most part Prometheus is simply excellent – intelligent, exciting, tense. It deserves better than the ending it gets, which sees it fall agonisingly short of true greatness.