Kids these days probably think movies like Ridley Scott’s Alien was boring as hell. It was long, quiet, and you were required to pay attention or you’d miss out on the good bits. There were lengthy shots that established atmosphere and frames that made you feel like you were there onboard the Nostromo, hauling cargo to the far reaches of the galaxy with Ripley and her crewmates.
Scott’s new Alien prequel, Prometheus, is a lot like that. It reminds me of Cameron’s Avatar in a way. Emphasis is put on ambiance in this film: time spent walking around the mostly virtual environments with the characters. You wait for scares as the tension builds up, finally realizing that you’ve been holding your breath for a several minutes. When something does happen, you’re thoroughly immersed in the movie’s environment, enough that it still comes as a complete surprise. The spectacle here is mood rather than action set pieces.
There’s a slow boil as the movie starts with otherworldly landscapes (which were in Iceland) and moves into the rising action, where you learn of Doctors Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway’s (Logan Marshall-Green) study of ancient cave paintings that have led to the discovery of a kind of map left in humanity’s genetic memory. By the time the film has transitioned to the outbound trip of the science vessel, Prometheus, you’re hooked.
The biggest weakness in the film it’s the plot. Because this is part of the Alien universe (if not necessarily part of the franchise itself), certain things had to happen in order for it to tie into the mythology that has already been established. The writers and filmmakers did a pretty good job keeping Prometheus as a stand-alone story, but it’s individuality seems to have been sacrificed a bit. What you expect is what you get and because of that restriction, the movie doesn’t seem to be able to carry the philosophical underpinnings that are so obviously being presented.
However, the draw of the movie isn’t really the plot, it’s the visual design. Building on H.R. Giger’s work for the first film, the production team created tons of practical costumes, creatures, sets and props that fill the screen with tangible awesomeness. As the human team explores the alien compound, you really feel as if it’s a real cavern, as if it’s a real ship, as if there are real bodies moving through space. The CGI work seems to have been restricted to fantastic virtual matte paintings and some so-so work on the new alien race.
They were able to assemble a pretty good cast of actors. The always likeable Idris Elba plays the cool Captain Janek. A prosthetic-covered Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland, the dying owner of the Weyland Corporateion (what eventually grows up to be “The Company”). And Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers, the ruthless company representative who enforces the Weyland agenda onboard the ship.
On the flip side, Noomi Rapace (Dr. Shaw) is an actress I still can’t buy as a lead. Maybe it’s the athletic body or the odd (to me anyway) Swedish accent or her unique manner. I didn’t like her in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows either. Maybe I’m just too married to the idea of Sigourney Weaver as the lead in an Alien film. After all, we have four of them. I can’t picture Rapace shouldering a flamethrower and saying, “Get away from her, you BITCH!”
The real standout is Michael Fassbender as David (this outings’ version of the “Bishop” android) who steals every single scene he is in. He first appears on the outbound voyage, taking care of the ship as the passengers sleep in cryo-tanks. He watches movies, learns dead languages, and shoots some hoops while riding a bicycle. His character comes off as far more unbalanced than Lance Henriksen’s helpful Bishop or Ian Holm’s sinister Ash. At one point he talks about the disappointment he feels (or doesn’t feel) after “meeting his maker” and you just want to cry (or run away in terror). His performance here alone is worth the price of admission.
While Prometheus has not replaced Sunshine as my all-time favorite science fiction movie, it’s come in at a close second. The technology available to Scott and the other filmmakers today have allowed them to create a world like the ones I imagine when I read books from Niven, Clarke, or Heinlein. While they may not have been successful in conveying the (one assumes) deep messages that they wanted to communicate about the “big questions”, the movie they’ve made is highly entertaining and satisfying as all get out.
I can’t wait for the sequel!