The trick is not minding it hurts
Ridley Scott made a worthy prequel to the core Alien film series that, with the exception of the exceptionally poor fourth film (Alien: Resurrection, 1997), has managed over four decades to remain a unique sci-fi horror experience.
Prometheus follows the familiar formula: a lone ship with a lean crew lands on a planet and finds itself facing murderous extraterrestrials. After much circumspection and some bad decisions the group is whittled down until only the Giger-designed xenomorph and heroine Ellen Ripley are left to face each other. Since this film precedes her story, the female lead this time is the smart and confident Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, who is in my eyes a worthy replacement of Sigourney Weaver. Before the film is done, Elizabeth will endure some truly harrowing experiences with unflinching bravery.
It is an immense pleasure to see the strong suits of the Alien franchise have weathered the storm of modern filmmaking. Prometheus takes its time to leisurely build up tension. There are no cheap scares, but a carefully constructed sense of foreboding that affords itself the space to develop and ripen. The visual and thematic cues of the series are present (lonely metal corridors, artificial sleep as a metaphor for death, a disturbing obsession with impregnation), but the film wisely avoids filling itself up with cutesy winks and nods to what came before. Prometheus builds its own lore, linking up to the first film in a satisfying way only at the end.
It is much to Scott’s credit that he didn’t construct an overly heavy plot filled with needless politicking, but chose to stay true to what made Alien great: a genre film made with such craft that it rose above the rest in its details. I have but one nitpick to point out, and that is that the screenplay in two instances lacks the confidence to trust in the audience’s perceptiveness. The biggest offender is a scene between mission commander Meredith Vickers and her company boss Peter Weyland. Not trusting people to pick up on the obvious relationship between the two, she spells it out. As a result, the scene comes across as crude.
I’ve neglected to talk about David, the staple android crewmember. Michael Fassbender and specifically his head were made to play this part. He’s the first ‘person’ we see in the film’s opening, so we naturally identify with him. He is an artificial being, incapable of human weaknesses like fear and desire. He’s cool, a little sassy and just a tad unnerving at times. The film deliberately creates a contrast between him and the frigid Meredith, who appears by all accounts much less human than David. After all, he quotes Lawrence of Arabia and shows every sign of being an independent spirit.
I found myself rooting for him at almost every turn, even if I couldn’t quite understand his role in the film. He turns out to be an ephemeral character: is he good? Evil? Indifferent? At times his curiosity is genuine, then he takes the role of seducer, nudging on crewmembers to plunge into the terrible unknown. In the end I think of him as a trickster, a capricious entity often found in ancient tales. Tricksters adhere to different rules than the rest, they are often magical or godlike in aspect and their alignment is never clear. David seems to fit the bill.
Even without the long heritage Prometheus effortlessly matches and the layered symbolism, this is an excellent alien infection movie that offers plenty of thrills.