No film this year has arrived with such high expectations as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the long-awaited prequel to Alien – a movie that spawned a franchise and a cult. I attended a preview at the iMax in Darling Harbour on a night when the wind and rain were causing mayhem all over Sydney. The place was completely packed, testifying to the hold this movie is exerting on the popular imagination.
Scanning the on-line responses it seems that the pre-publicity for Prometheus worked almost too well. The trailer was so spectacular it created a hunger that could barely be satisfied. Factor in a group of hard-core fans who have followed the Alien saga through four related films and two junk spin-offs, and you have an audience that will always be hard to please.
I confess to not having seen any of the Alien films apart from Ridley Scott’s original feature way back in 1979, but was surprised at the negative comments on the web, because Prometheus is a remarkable production.
Its detractors seem to find the movie deficient in action and gore; pretentious or incomprehensible. But it’s possible to defend all these charges.
When the creature burst out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien, it was one of the cinema’s most horrifying moments. Nowadays it feels as though exploding chests and heads are almost run-of-the-mill. Even for those of us who don’t seek out these gorey incidents, there has been a gradual densensitization to blood and guts.
Scott himself has said that he was more concerned with making a thriller than a metaphysical conundrum, but Prometheus takes on the bigest themes of all: “Who are we? Where do we come from?” It is one of the few science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey that uses these questions as an integral part of the plot rather than a rhetorical throw-away.
That plot is complicated but it can be decoded. It begins with an extra-terrestial committing suicide on the banks of a raging river. As he dies and sinks into the water his DNA is released. This, we will learn, was the origin of human life of earth.
In the year 2089 archaelogists discover caves on the Isle of Skye in which stick figures point to a particular configuration of stars. In 2093 a spaceship named Prometheus arrives at the only planet that fits the pattern, bringing with it a crew of scientists and mercenaries with conflcting goals and expectations. For some it is simply a chance to make money, but for the archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), it is nothing less than an opportunity to meet their maker: to trace the origins of life.
For Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the aging plutocrat who financed the expedition, the search for origins is also an attempt to cheat death. It is not until well into the film that we realise Weyland is actually on board the vessel. His interests are safeguarded by David (Michael Fassbender), a robot who acts as caretaker while the crew slumber in cryogenic tubes. David’s activities are monitored suspiciously by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the official Weyland representative on the trip.
When the ship arrives at its destination it’s immediately apparent there has been another civilisation on this planet, but it now has the atmosphere of a mausoleum. By accident, and through David’s manipulations, they find the planet is not as dead as they thought – a discovery that has catastrophic implications, not merely for themselves but for the entire human race. It would be futile to try and describe the twists and turns of the story, which unfold on both an intimate and a cosmic scale.
The most confusing part of the plot concerns the nature of the slimy monsters that seem to have eliminated most of the original extra-terrestials – referred to as the Engineers – and now pose a threat to the exploration party. The best explanation, as offered by Janek, the ship’s captain, (Idris Elba), is that they are a kind of biological weapon that got out of control.
This raises further questions as to the nature of the Engineers. Why did these advanced beings need such deadly weapons? Is violence ingrained in the DNA of both humanity and its makers?
It’s inevitable that Prometheus will raise more questions than it answers because these questions are as old as humanity itself. The strength of the film lies in extraordinary special effects and cinematography that gives these fantastic events a feeling of reality. It’s worth the effort to see the 3-D version.
The other impressive part of this movie is the way each character is allowed to depart from the stereotypes, providing a concise portrait of the leading personalities. The most fascinating is David, the robot, who models himself on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and is surprisingly sensitive to any perceived insult. Anyone who complains about the script or the acting in Prometheus has obviously not seen Iron Sky. Scott’s film may have towering ambitions, but it meets those self-imposed challenges, showing that a big-budget film can combine action, suspense and horror with a lucid intelligence.
Prometheus, USA, rated MA, 124 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 16, 2012