Ridley Scott has been quoted everywhere saying that “Prometheus” is not a prequel to his 1979 sci-fi masterpiece “Alien” but is rather a stand-alone picture that has “strands of ‘Alien’s’ DNA” woven into its story. Coy boy. Can you say “marketing ploy”?
The “DNA” dodge is a teasing way to connect “Prometheus” to what, for my money, is Scott’s greatest movie while at the same time distancing it from the duds “Alien 3” and “Alien: Resurrection” and the laughably ghastly “Alien vs. Predator” pictures (all directed by others) that stunk up the franchise something awful.
But make no mistake: “Prometheus” is Scott’s “Alien” prequel. In it, the secret behind the “space jockey,” the petrified extraterrestrial pilot with the ruptured chest found by the luckless crew of “Alien’s” space freighter Nostromo, is revealed.
Revealed too is something significant about the origins of humankind. “Prometheus,” Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof will have us know, is about Big Things. The movie makes that explicit when David, the character played by Michael Fassbender, whispers cryptically, “Big things have small beginnings.”
David is a synthetic human crewman of the deep-space exploration ship Prometheus, a character of the same lineage as Ian Holm’s in “Alien” and Lance Henriksen’s in “Aliens.” He is also, by far, the most interesting individual in the picture.
As it happens, there’s some other cinematic DNA twined around the helixes of the “Alien” strands in “Prometheus,” and it comes from another science fiction classic: “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Remember red-eyed computer HAL 9000? Silken-voiced. Preternaturally calm. All-knowing. Malevolent. Yeah, him.
Now picture him walking around with a Mona Lisa smile and hair styled like Peter O’Toole’s in “Lawrence of Arabia” (David’s favorite movie). And David, like HAL, has the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. But what that mission is, exactly, only he knows.
The humans on board think it’s to follow a clue discovered by scientist-sweethearts Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) in an ancient cave painting in Scotland showing a humanoid figure pointing to the stars. It’s an invitation, Shaw surmises. Follow it, and find out where we all came from.
Shaw is a starry-eyed dreamer, a religious believer and, advanced degree notwithstanding, not too bright. On the forbidding space-jockey planet, she emphasizes that this is a purely scientific mission, so don’t anybody bring along any weapons. Good lord, girl, haven’t you ever seen any horror movies? Talk about your invitations to disaster.
But naive though she may be, she turns out to be amazingly resilient, able to endure a gruesome fate worse than death (yes, here there be monsters) and then instantly shake it off and run around like it never happened.
As for the rest of the crew, they’re a disagreeable lot of cardboard cutouts. Charlize Theron is a bullying corporate ice queen, Marshall-Green is a hard-drinking cynic, and Idris Elba is the sardonic skipper. One of the great strengths of “Alien” is how distinctively individual every character in that picture is. We care about them all. By contrast, the people in “Prometheus” are so generic, and in many cases downright dislikable, that you can’t wait for them to have their way-too-close encounters of an alien kind.
While its vast sets and production values are simply stunning, “Prometheus” ultimately disappoints.