In conversations full of filmgeek excitedness, I've often found myself to be the first to say that no good 'true' prequels have ever been made. We tend to get all fired up about the idea of revisiting our favourite stories and universes but the basic fact of the matter is: if a prequel ever needed to be made then why not tell that story first? For example, the Star Wars prequels are a complete failure in narrative terms because there's no logical way to watch all six Star Wars films. You either start with the prequels and go into The Empire Strikes Back already knowing that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad (thus negating one of the greatest movie twists ever) or you watch the prequels last whilst knowing that Anakin Skywalker is going to turn evil (meaning you basically just sit there waiting about eight hours for Darth Vader to finally turn up). I don't think I'd be surprising anyone if I pointed out that the real reason most prequels get made is just to cash in on an already established property.
But if anyone has earnt the right to revisit an established property it's Ridley Scott. After the success of Alien, Scott stepped back and let another three directors expand the story into a franchise. The series went from a philosophically-interesting and rather unique horror film into pure action territory. I don't want to put down any of the sequels to Alien but it's fair to say that if Scott had a vision for the continuing story of this universe (and let's face it, he probably didn't) then it was still yet to be told. So, after a cool 35 years, Scott has finally returned to the film that made his career. The idea of prequeling Alien and exploring the origins of the 'space jockey' (the mysterious and giant humanoid alien found surrounded by alien eggs in the 1977 film) didn't feel right to me at first, but at least it's better than another Alien Vs. Predator movie, right?
Prometheus is predominantly set in 2084. If you didn't know any better, you could watch this film as a stand-alone movie outside of the Alien franchise. You don't need any prior knowledge to follow it, but having an awareness of who the Weyland company are and what they do should let you know what you're in for. In this respect, Prometheus echoes some of the plot points of Alien without seeming slavish or pandering. The least spoilery way I can describe the plot is to say that it's about humans traveling to a distant planet using ancient co-ordinates found in prehistoric archeology sites across the Earth. The scientists who travel there hope to meet the alien beings that gave humans life, but the company that pays for this expedition have secret ulterior motives.
Don't watch this movie expecting a horror film like Alien, and don't watch it expecting action like Aliens. Those elements are present but Ridley Scott has primarily revisited his ideas to make a Von Danikenesque sci-fi film that relates to creationism and faith. The Prometheus myth is purposefully referenced throughout the film, alluding to fears about using technology to bridge the gap between the creator and the created. The aliens referenced in this film, nicknamed 'the Engineers', remain aloof and enigmatic throughout, and things get more intense the closer the humans get to understanding them. Scott has famously said that this film provides 'connective tissue' to Alien, and it's in this respect only that it's a prequel, but I think there's more to it than that...
Alien explores creation in fairly small way. The life cycle of the xenomorph provided grounds for a philosophical subversion of motherhood in a horror framework, with the 'birth' of the alien existing as a disturbing perversion of the human reproductive process. A male becomes 'pregnant' and the alien comes into the world by bursting through his chest. This world is the ship Nostromo - cold, sterile, bleak; a representation of all that men had built in the history of human civilisation. Only a woman can create life, but man creates technology to compensate for this. The xenomorph itself is a streamlined combination of human physiology with a grimy machine-like exoskeleton, and it represents death rather than life.
Prometheus continues this ideas in a much bigger way. The paradigm is flipped on its head, this time instead of man creating technology it's about technology creating humanity. More pertinently, the Engineers (and their name says it all) are revealed to be bioengineers, creating distorted and highly dangerous forms of life, and the phrase 'connective tissue' takes on a more literal meaning. Scott's maturity and growing concerns about mortality have made him even more philosophical than he was back in 1977, and the film opens up some big questions about faith. The biggest of these; what would happen if we met our creators? This question is only partially answered, with the film's ending leading into a possible sequel. I'm not sure we'll ever get a Prometheus 2, but I'm not sure I would want to. Seeking to answer the meaning of life, even in a fictionalised context that makes such answers literally possible, would be a little too divisive for my tastes. But still, kudos to Scott for having the balls to do it (male-centric allusion intentional).
The movie is visually stunning, the effects work is seamless and all the tech looks great. At first I thought the film would be a rather hollow exercise in style over substance, but the themes are always there. They start out as part of the plot mechanics and then become more subtle as other stuff happens. Michael Fassbender steals the film as the android David... he delivers every line of dialogue as if it contradicts the character's own thoughts. Fassbender is paradoxically able to portray the detachment of a robot whilst simultaneously suggesting complex ambivalence. It seems a tricky role but he absolutely nails it, and the character is very much the cornerstone of the film. I could watch Prometheus again just to concentrated more completely on the things David says. There are telling parallels between the way the human characters treat David and the way the Engineers treat the humans, and I think this is the true key to understanding what Scott is trying to say.
Charlize Theron is great too, she portrays a difficult and underwritten character with subtle depth. Most of the other actors are good but underutilised. My only real gripe with the film is the casting of Guy Pearce, who is made up as an old man. I didn't get the significance of casting a much younger man as such an elderly character, and the make-up and mannerisms of Pearce didn't sell me on the character's age. The role would've been much better off in the hands of an older actor. Surely there's enough of them kicking around to fill the job?
That little quibble aside, Prometheus is a bold film with big science fiction ideas. The ideas won't be particularly new to anyone who's read serious sci-fi before but this kind of sci-fi rarely gets onto the big screen. Normally it's all fantasy or action-driven. Studios are seldom keen to pour money into idea-driven sci-fi, and this is probably what makes Prometheus so special. I don't think we'll see another film like it for quite some time.