A ship moves silently through space. Crew members wake up from a long sleep. We see a strikingly fit woman in her underwear, a no-bullshit black man, a feisty crewmember who also looks good in her skivvies, an android whose loyalties are questionable, and a mission that seems to be benign, except that corporate may have other ideas. The android is decapitated. A crewmember is impregnated by something they didn’t expect. The crew turns out to be rather expendable. Deadly forces are tampered with, then unleashed.
Director Ridley Scott was rather adamant, in the run-up to Prometheus, that his original plan of a prequel to his landmark 1979 film Alien had been shelved in favor of a hybrid of sorts – which is a hell of a metajoke, given the subject of that franchise. As Scott put it, his first film since his disappointing Robin Hood reboot merely kept “some strands of DNA” from Alien (and, as you may have figured out by now, from the franchise’s many installments), and so, in came Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof to fuse a new organism from pieces of the old concept. Since Scott knows his space horror and Damon the basics of myth, this new creature should walk and talk, right?
The answer is yes… to a degree. Scott’s gamble pays off only fitfully, but that’s due in part to the old creature’s resilience – there are just too many times where fans of the Sigourney Weaver days will feel a little too familiar with this alien world, even if Lindelof’s presence means that this particular doomed crew aren’t looking for killing machines who seed human chests but rather an advanced race of “Engineers” who seeded the entire planet millennia ago. Our planet, that is. This movie has God on its mind.
This also means that the “villains” are our ancestors, spreading lifeforce, rather than monsters knocking us up. But it’s not enough to give Prometheus its own genome, even if Damon’s mythology, unlike Lost‘s, seems to have started with an endpoint in mind. Just what that is, however, he’s not telling; you’ll have to wait for the sequel to find why those alien creatures were designed by the Engineers, and why they created us in the first place. The reason this somewhat divergent universe is worth keeping an eye on until then has much to do with Ridley’s continuing mastery of his genre – he’s the last surviving director to take his cues about space from Kubrick and not Lucas, and returning to his breakthrough has clearly energized him. Familiarity aside, this is still the most poetic space opera since Blade Runner and the director’s most lively work in any genre since Gladiator. (The self-surgery scene, like the chest-bursting trope, will haunt your dreams for years.) Noomi Rapace as the female hero and Michael Fassbender as the android also do a heroic job shaking off the shadows of their character’s predecessors (successors?).
None of this quite saves Prometheus from being crushed by the weight of its pedigree – you half expect to see Rapace shoot one of these creatures out of an airlock – although advances in technology mean that we get to watch a rogue spaceship fall back to, uh, earth, roll over, and crush a character we don’t like. Scott’s own directorial DNA is just enough to allow this particular mutation to survive, for now, but you can look for James Cameron to invest Prometheus 2 with half a billion dollars and a love story nobody asked for. In the Hollywood universe, it’s not 1979 anymore.