In this world, there are advertising campaigns, and there are Advertising Campaigns – and, let there be no doubt, Ridley Scott's Prometheus has well and truly been the recipient of the latter. It feels like every time I've been to a film with a vaguely appropriate certificate over the last few months, it has been preceded not simply by the trailer for this movie, but also by a short film 'introducing' it – basically talking heads of the creative people involved come on and talk about how great it is, while behind the scenes footage rolls. Long ago I learned to be skeptical about this sort of thing.
(And, while we're on the subject of advertisorial film nonsense, it appears that winsome Kim has been sacked from the reliably irksome Live From The Red Carpet slot in the commercials. What the hell...? Winsome Kim was just about the only thing that made this exercise in utter bumf tolerable, and there are surely few women in the world who can complete a handover to an animated piece of chocolate with the same degree of self-possession and charm that Kim did. Bring back Kim at once!)
Anyway, the promotional carpet-bombing is arguably a dodgy move as it manages to be inescapable across all media, to the point of actually becoming annoying, while remaining irritatingly coy about all the things about Prometheus most people are going to be interested in: namely, this film's connections with a particular series of well-regarded and hugely successful SF-horror movies.
Scott's movie opens with breathtaking landscapes and the strange death of an alien traveller, apparently by his own hand. It's a powerful, striking moment, setting the film's tone well – everything is reserved, thoughtful, visually awesome, and not a little oblique: there's something Kubrickian about Prometheus in its most majestic scenes.
From here the story shifts and we meet late-21st century scientists Elizabeth Shaw (insert Doctor Who gag here if you're so minded), played by Noomi Rapace, and Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green. They have discovered a series of obscure archaeological sites which not only suggest extraterrestrial contacts occurring in humanity's remote past, but also provide a map to the visitors' point of origin.
Some years later, the privately-funded science ship Prometheus is approaching that very planet. Shaw and Holloway are on board, leading a science team. Also present are Idris Elba's rough-diamond space captain, Charlize Theron's fearsome corporate enforcer, and – most charismatically – Michael Fassbender's impeccably-behaved android factotum. As the ship touches down on the bleak alien world, a chain of events is set in motion which will reveal much about the origins of the human race – and other things as well. The designation of the planet is LV-233...
So, you've got a feisty female lead, a corporate apparatchik with a personal agenda, a reliable old space veteran, an inscrutable android, crews coming out of stasis over unknown worlds, foreboding alien structures... on one level, the makers of this film are enthusiastically revisiting old territory. However, the one element of the film which people will probably be most interested in is the one not even touched upon by the advertising – the question of whether it actually features aliens. Or, to be more precise, the Alien, from the 1979 film of the same name.
Prometheus doesn't just copy the style and some of the tropes of Alien – from the moment the name of the planet is mentioned, it's clear that this is openly going to be a prequel of sorts to that film. As well as the characters being drawn from the same set of archetypes, at least one key location reappears, and – rather like The Bourne Ultimatum – there are moments and lines of dialogue seemingly designed to make you recall moments from the earlier films. Mostly the first two, as you might expect, and the Paul W.S. Anderson take on the franchise is ignored – continuity cops may have fun trying to figure out a way to reconcile those films with this one, but I digress. You yourself may be wondering – does H. R. Giger's masterpiece-offspring make an in-the-biomechanical-flesh appearance? In short, are faces hugged? Do chests burst? All I feel able to say is that I think this element is not handled as well as it could have been.
This is not a major problem, though, as this is a beautifully-designed and lavishly-made SF movie, not afraid to explore big ideas and take, it seemed to me, a genuine delight in doing so. It doesn't do so in great detail, to be sure, but then again one's expectations of a $130m studio movie released in 3D must necessarily be limited. Nevertheless, this film is a cut above in most departments, with strong performances from Rapace and especially Fassbender a major plus.
I'm on record as not being a great fan of the original film, to be honest, feeling that Scott's rather stately and restrained direction didn't work to best advantage in what was basically an (atypically brainy) exploitation movie. I have to say that, on the whole, I'm rather more impressed with his work on Prometheus – as I said, this is primarily a film concerned with all sorts of big ideas, not an adrenaline thrill-ride or nerve-jangling exercise in suspense. This is not to say that the film is completely cerebral – there's a memorably grisly sequence about two-thirds of the way through, about which all I will say is that 'it's not a traditional foetus' is a comment no girl wants to hear during a medical check-up – but the plot does seem written to facilitate the ideas rather than vice versa, and the story as a whole never quite engages the emotions.
Nevertheless, I was quietly impressed by Prometheus and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm not sure if people wholly unacquainted with the Alien series will find it especially rewarding, while as for people turning up expecting a bona fide new installment, dripping with fresh acid... hmm. Personally I enjoyed the links, subtle and otherwise, to the other films, while the fact that much of the back-story of the film is left to the viewer to decipher and come to their own conclusions about was not a problem: it's nice to be treated with intelligence for a change. Prometheus is a superior SF blockbuster; it may be only a distant and slightly strained relation to Alien, but it does its progenitors no disgrace.