When it arrived on multiplex screens last year, Matthis van Heijningen Jr.’s remake of The Thing proved a modest, mostly middling, popcorn flick. A box-office disappointment, it nonetheless proved an interesting case study. With his Thing, van Heijningen fused the beats of John Carpenter’s superb 1982 Antarctic-set actioner (itself a remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World) onto an ostensibly “original” story that dutifully laid the scene for Carpenter’s film—a deft, if ungainly, synthesis befitting the source material. Whatever its faults, van Heijningen’s film operated loyally, and effectively in places, in the shadow of Carpenter’s, minting a handy connect-the-dots boilerplate for how to make this kind of movie in the process.
With Prometheus, Ridley Scott attempts to pull off the same trick. The filmmaker isn’t as concerned with matching the clockwork pacing or clinical tension of 1979’s Alien, a movie holding the double distinction as being one of the most perfectly constructed horror pictures in the history of the medium and, with apologies to Blade Runner (and his Orwellian Macintosh computer commercial), quite obviously the best film Ridley Scott has ever made.
The decision to start from the beginning is telling. Since 1979, Alien has hatched all manner of adjacent properties en route to establishing itself as a franchise, with H.R. Giger’s acid-spitting extra-terrestrials being co-opted as stand-in adversarial variables, fit to pit against one or another comparably bankable franchise figure in comic books, video games, and spin-off films (most notably the otherworldly big-game hunter Predator in the Alien Vs. Predator movies, but also Superman, Green Lantern, Judge Dredd, Batman, Terminator, and even you—yes, you—in the Australian “laser skirmish” theme-park attraction AVPX: Alien vs. Predator vs. You). It’s not only that the licensed, canonized Alien film sequels paled in comparison to Scott’s original, it’s that the alien itself has been sold off like a breakfast-cereal mascot, diluting the taut perfection of that 1979 film with each subsequent relicensing. Prometheus seems conceived as a remedy to this, an attempt to extricate the franchise from its intractable outgrowths, an effort to deflate its bloat. Yet it unfolds like more of a knee-jerk rejoinder, a mawkishly brainy overreaction.
Prometheus opens with Scott’s camera heli-tracking across some wild and windy moor, where a bleached, muscular humanoid of presumably extraterrestrial origin disrobes, acknowledges a disc hovering in the atmosphere, then consumes a viscous black fluid that ravages its body, sending it disintegrating into a river below. However many eons later, circa C.E. 2089, paramour archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave etching depicting a human figure pointing toward a cluster of stars. The constellation’s formation matches a number of others indexed across ancient human civilization, constituting sufficient evidence to justify aging zillionaire Peter Weylan (Guy Pearce, heavily augmented by prosthetics, and likely some CGI) sending a team of scientists to the far reaches of the galaxy, trailing the origins of human life on a hunch.
The crew of the titular rocket ship is rounded out by a cast of boringly “colorful” characters: Idris Elba’s hard-bitten cap’n, Sean Harris’s bad-boy geologist, Charlize Theron’s chilly emissary to Weyland Corp., and, most notably, Michael Fassbender’s android, David. Unlike post-cinema’s other David (Haley Joel Osment’s beaming boy-robot Pinocchio in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), Fassbender’s aspirations to humanity are recognizably blasé. Cold and affectless, he bides the two-plus-year journey across the stars rewatching Lawrence of Arabia, stylizing his speech (and Hitler-youth hairdo) on Peter O’Toole, and circling Prometheus’s onboard basketball court on a BMX bike, nailing nothing-but-net three pointers—a callback (or forward), perhaps, to Sigourney Weaver’s superhuman slam dunk in Alien: Resurrection. Many of Fassbender’s performances are dogged by a cold, dead-behind-the-eyes quality, marshaled to good use here.
It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t futz about with David’s ulterior motives, as he slinks about executing a hidden-agenda subroutine stored in his memory banks as the rest of the crew treks into dusty caves in search of “Engineers”—aliens believed to have kick-started life on Earth. Alien fans, after all, are wise to the shady machinations of Ian Holm’s android in the original, so there’s no use belaboring the point in a film that, despite all pretensions to contrary, is aimed squarely at the franchise’s embedded audience. Prometheus positions itself as a corrective to stuff like Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, but it’s not much different: flattering fan-service, albeit configured across loftier axes. Prometheus plays out like bogusly high-minded fan fiction. It seems to suggest—or rather, insist—that all along, the Alien films have been about something other than resourceful sci-fi/horror plotting or space-marine romping. Prometheus launches itself well out of the franchise’s stratosphere in an attempt to pretend that Alien has somehow always been about the Big Issues—life, the universe, and everything in between.
Prometheus underpins its marginally tense, fleetingly exciting horror/action/thriller hybrid with inch-deep philosophical pretensions, struggling to parse the expanses (morally and literally) that we’d travel to satisfy our basic human inquisitiveness. Along the way, Scott tries to dress up this tedium with space-zombies, space-dune buggy getaways, and even a space-abortion—admittedly, the film’s best, and funniest, scene. It aspires to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, but in its maddeningly unresolved plot threads and cornball cosmic mysticism, it lands closer to Mission to Mars—though Prometheus lacks any action set piece as gripping as the Brian De Palma film’s sentient sandstorm.
As the ship’s crew is thinned, and a series of genetic mutations and chest-burstings bring us closer to the birth of Alien’s instantly recognizable monster, Prometheus seems to delusionally maintain that its modest thrills are being enlivened by deeper concerns. By the time the film’s ivory-skinned god-figure titan straps into a WWII-style gun turret, it’s clear these answers to all its highfalutin half-questions are nowhere to be found. Instead, Prometheus pesters its audience into deferring to its thin profundities. Though certainly, many sitting in the theater may well wonder, albeit with a sense of imminent urgency, “Why are we here?”