With choosing to start at the beginning of this story, Scott runs the risk of repetition—and ends up teetering down that dark well of disappointment. There are questions “Alien” fans have wanted to know the answers to for years—where did those double-jawed, acid-blooded creatures come from, why, how do they compare with humans?—and Scott tries to give us the answers, but it’s clear he doesn’t know them all. It’s also clear that in trying to veer our attention away from his lack of definitive mythology, he crafts another story altogether, one that relies on convenience and deus ex machina to link back to “Alien” in a believable way. “Prometheus” isn’t completely a prequel, as Scott has adamantly argued, but it’s also not an effective sister piece to “Alien.” It’s a retread, with the best parts of Scott’s original work presented in a tedious way, tarnished by mediocrity.
The year is 2093 (“Alien” was set in 2122, so we’re 29 years before then; perhaps around when Ripley is born?), and archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, who played the original Lisbeth Salander before the U.S. remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are seeing the culmination of years of work and research. After finding a common symbol among various ancient civilizations around the world—a group of large men pointing toward the stars, while humans kneel before them—they’ve pinpointed the constellation in the image and are traveling there to figure out who they are. The image is an “invitation,” Shaw says, and she and Holloway hope to discover the link between these humongous humanoids and our own species—”I think they want us to come and find them,” she says with all the hope of someone who really believes her dreams can come true.
Funding them on this $1 trillion expedition is the Weyland Corporation (company tagline: “building better worlds”), who has created the ship Prometheus and put together a crew of scientists; leading them is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, of “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Young Adult”), who works for Weyland and enjoys bossing around everyone, including ship captain Janek (Idris Elba, of “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” “Thor” and “The Losers”), an expectedly gritty and sarcastic blue-collar guy just looking for a paycheck. And loitering around the perimeter of this motley crew is David (Michael Fassbender, of “Haywire,” “A Dangerous Method,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Jane Eyre” and “Jonah Hex”), an android who fashions himself after the Englishman in his favorite movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence was an outsider, too, trying to do what he thought was right for a group who fought wars with him but didn’t really accept or entirely trust him, and in that characterization you can figure out David’s role in this film. (Or not, but that’s a flaw in the film’s plotting that we’ll get to soon.)
So the crew doesn’t really get to know each other, but they’re forced to work together, anyway, especially when they reach their destination, venture into a giant cave-like dome, and discover corpses of the huge men they were looking for. And a giant head. And a bunch of cylinders that look like offerings, like eggs. And then everything goes crazy.
If only that “everything goes crazy” part was handled more cohesively, Scott would have certainly made another legendary sci-fi film in “Prometheus.” The images here are stunning, from the depictions of the first days of our own world to the vast, decrepit desolateness of the world the crew finds. It’s all dust and stone and loneliness and death, feeling more depressing and real than any alien planets we’ve seen before (that includes the civil war-torn Mars of “John Carter”). But the realism of that setting is marred by Scott’s choice to use background music in nearly every scene, a stark contrast with the effectively eerie silence and stillness of “Alien” and “Aliens.” When every meaningful conversation in “Prometheus” takes place against elevator music, nothing seems that tense anymore.
Plus, it’s difficult to care about those conversations when they’re between characters who function solely as stockpile stereotypes; part of that superficiality is because they’ll probably die eventually, but every reaction seems artificial. Charlie’s sneers toward David are too obvious. Janek’s sexual interest in Meredith, and her own haughty frostiness, add nothing to their depth. Perhaps we would be more scared of Meredith if we knew more about the Weyland Corporation, but the company’s sinister intentions aren’t clear here—unlike what we know from “Alien” and “Aliens.” It’s a narrative oversight to assume everyone watching the film would know what “building better worlds” really means; Scott and writers Jon Spaihts (who previously wrote “The Darkest Hour”) and Damon Lindelof (who worked on “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Star Trek”) should have shown, not just told.
And heroine Shaw, even though she demonstrates excellent fortitude in one scene that proves her will for survival, veers between a true believer and a hysterical naysayer—especially because that plot point that demonstrates her mettle is swept under the plot rug and forgotten. Something terrible happens to her, no one seems to notice, and she doesn’t tell anyone; even though Rapace is a great actress, it’s frustrating to see her portray a character who makes such foolish decisions.
Shaw’s trauma isn’t the only disregarded, or inexplicable, plot point: There’s also everything about David. Fassbender is great as the blank-faced, sneering cyborg, especially when he’s sparring with Charlie about how the extra-large men made the humans, and the humans made the cyborgs: the scientist says, “We made you because we could,” leading David to reply, “Maybe that’s why they made you,” an effectively sneering response. But his haughty asides aren’t enough when his motivations seem to change by the scene; he just does whatever is convenient to move the story along in the way Scott wants. His function is to expedite the film, not enhance it.
Scott can get away with more in “Prometheus” than in the decades-ago “Alien”—thanks to better CGI, the aliens move faster, and the attack scenes are certainly defined by more obvious rape imagery, as is the franchise’s custom—but he hasn’t thought it all through. The film asks questions it can’t answer, answers ones we don’t want, and ends in a thoroughly disappointing, silly way. “Prometheus” is ultimately pretty and scary, but undeniably dumb, weighed down by the greatness of its predecessors.