space no one can hear you scream."
The immortal tagline that promoted "Alien" in 1979 tipped viewers that the
now-classic science-fiction shocker was essentially a carnival ride through a
haunted house in outer space. The shrieks were their own reward.
Thirty-three years later, director Ridley Scott is Sir Ridley Scott. He was
knighted in 2003; he directed "Gladiator," which earned the Best Picture Oscar
in 2001; and he's 74 -- closer to the end of his career than to its beginning.
When he makes a Robin Hood movie, as he did in 2010, it's not a romp, it's a
Is it any surprise, then, that Scott's eagerly and long-anticipated "Alien"
prequel, "Prometheus," isn't content simply to shout "Boo!" at the audience? The
new movie elicits screams, but also asks questions -- and not just any questions
but "the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind," in the words of one
character. Not questions like "Why in God's name is Ripley going back for that
cat?," but such questions as, and I quote: "Where do we come from? What is our
purpose? What happens when we die?" -- just like that, one after the other, in a
monologue. In space, unfortunately, every one can hear Guy Pearce channeling
Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life."
Can slime be sublime? Like Terrence Malick's arguable masterpiece, "Prometheus"
is gorgeous and pretentious, ridiculous and awesome. It is a movie inspired, in
part, by the oh-wow pseudoscience of "Chariots of the Gods?" author Erich von
Däniken, whose theories about "ancient astronauts" were much discussed among my
high school peers. It's also a movie in which a woman programs a C-section for
herself inside some sort of translucent auto-surgery cubicle that resembles a
futuristic tanning booth. The wound is closed with large staples -- pop, pop,
pop -- while the monstrous bundle of non-joy is held in a clamp. "It's not
exactly a traditional fetus," comments the spaceship's wry humanoid robot
manservant, played by Michael Fassbender, an actor whose long, almost simian
arms, sculpted good looks and preternatural poise could, in fact, inspire a
popular line of mandroids. (In a witty conceit, we learn the robot has chosen
the unearthly Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" as his human role model.)
Fassbender is matched in ramrod rigidity by Charlize Theron, cast as a glacial
corporation executive whose secret agenda is the real engine driving the
"scientific exploratory vessel" known as Prometheus. "Are you a robot?" the
ship's captain (Idris Elba) asks her, in all seriousness, in a scene that
preempts the audience's expectation of just such a revelation.
Most of "Prometheus" takes place in 2093; but though the story's spacefaring
scientists and engineers have many decades' worth of additional horror movies
from which to learn, they still behave like teenagers in a post-"Halloween"
slasher flick. Why else do they repeatedly risk exposing themselves to alien
contamination? Why, when a small snaky creature that resembles a cobra rears up
from the black ooze of an extraterrestrial cave, do they approach it as
unguardedly as if it were a sleepy box turtle in a backyard?
Scripted by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the film follows the Prometheus on a
deep-space voyage inspired by the discoveries of a romantically involved pair of
archeologists, Charlie and Elizabeth, who believe a distant moon may be the home
base of the extraterrestrial "engineers" responsible for the seeding of life on
the Earth. Charlie is played by Logan Marshall-Green, while Elizabeth is Rapace,
in her first starring role in a Hollywood movie, following her appearances as
Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish "Girl
with the Dragon Tattoo" movies.
The expedition is funded by the Weyland Corporation, the sinister entity that
backed (or will back?) the mission in "Alien." Specifically, Mr. Weyland himself
(Guy Pearce, in elaborate old-age makeup), a dying trillionaire, hopes the
archaeologists will discover some sort of alien technology that will enable him
to prolong his life. Instead, of course, the expedition discovers horror, and
the answers to some of the mysteries of "Alien," while excavating new mysteries
that may require yet another sequel.
"Prometheus" opens with a scene that introduces one of the "remarkably human"
extraterrestrial "engineers" at work on a planet that may be the primordial
Earth. The men of this race (we see no women) resemble the comic-book versions
of Greek gods, with ripped physiques and noble profiles. Are these our
"parents"? Like "Alien," the movie is pregnant (sorry) with ideas about
evolution and reproduction, and bursting with sex and birth imagery. The
creature attacks are, essentially, rapes.
The movie is at its most interesting at its darkest. "Doesn't everyone want
their parents dead?" the android asks, provocatively, after several episodes of
violence. At times, Scott seems to be imagining a sort of twilight of the gods
-- the death of God, depicted in science-fiction blockbuster terms. But, for
better or worse, the cynicism gives way to hope, and rationalism can't supersede
the sturdy faith of Elizabeth, who wears a cross around her neck, a gift from
her father, as we learn in a flashback.
Whatever its flaws, "Prometheus" is a marvel of production design,
state-of-the-art special effects and stunning cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski).
Scott wisely uses volcanic locations in Iceland to represent alien terrain,
rather than creating a phony digital realm, a la "Avatar";
the Prometheus is a much sleeker vessel than the earlier film's workhorse of a
spaceship, the Nostromo, but the old-school realism of the planetoid's rugged
surface is a reminder of the grit-and-grime environment of "Alien," which was a
welcome novelty at a time when the future often was imagined to be antiseptic
The sheer ambition at work throughout Prometheus makes the occasional scripting
hiccup a forgivable flaw.
It's easy to forecast Prometheus' biggest obstacle: getting audiences to buy
into adult science fiction with a movie that is being touted as an Alien
prequel. On the sci-fi spectrum, Prometheus is a lot closer to 2001 than it is
to Alien vs. Predator. Viewers should understand what they're getting; it has
less to do with action and shock killings (although there are a few of those)
than with an exploration of space as a means of learning about what it means to
be human. This is intentionally a very different movie from Alien; Scott
consciously did not repeat himself, except perhaps in small doses. One could
argue that Prometheus has more in common with Scott's other iconic science
fiction endeavor, Blade Runner, than with Alien. Whatever its pedigree, however,
one thing is clear: Prometheus is the antithesis of the "big, dumb summer
movie." Its visuals and special effects can stand toe-to-toe with any of the
season's spectacles, but are audiences ready for something with an intelligent,
thought-provoking screenplay where the action is secondary? Prometheus is
flawed, but stupidity cannot be numbered among its missteps.