IMDB says... A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.
The 73rd Virgin says... It’s unfair comparing this beautifully filmed, slightly clichéd, not-all-that-horrifying horror and science fiction with its birth mother, “Alien”. There are times when the awesome giganticness and mysteriousness of the universe are presented with a power approaching “2001, A Space Odyssey”. There are times when it degenerates into idiot plotting and “hulk smashing”.
One of the creepiest scenes in Ridley Scott’s 1979 original is when the ill-fated landing party finds what appears to be a huge mummified corpse referred to as “The Pilot”, in his command chair with his chest blown apart, on an unimaginably huge crashed space ship. The Pilot is of course never identified but we eventually learn what came out of his chest.
After losing control of the franchise through the very good Aliens, the pretty good Aliens 3, the not very good Aliens 4 and various execrable Alien vs. Predator projects, Scott returns with this prequel to them all.
I’m not giving too much away to say that the Pilot was wearing a helmet that obscures his rather humanoid features. The movie opens with one of his species on a planet that looks suspiciously like a very prehistoric Earth. He watches a space ship fly away, and then either by accident or design allows his DNA to enter the environment.
Cut to 2093 and a standard-issue team of movie scientists is connecting the dots from various ancient art and iconography sites that all seem to show large humanoids pointing mankind to a constellation of 5 stars way the hell out there.
The beautiful young sex-having scientists Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green – actually he is kinda cross-eyed) and their crew are then in suspended animation aboard Prometheus, watched over by an android known as David (Michael Fassbender), the most interesting character by a mile, on a 2-year journey to a planet in the constellation. David busies himself playing perfect basketball while riding a bicycle (a tip of the cap to Sigourney Weaver’s real-world back-to-the basket shot in Aliens 4), learning alien languages, watching old Peter O’Toole movies and dyeing his hair and practicing his delivery to match. It’s sort of neat that as the Alien series progresses, the androids get less idealized and more quirkily human.
When the crew is revived they go through the motions of introducing themselves to each other and the audience. The second stroke of genius in Alien was Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, and Yaphet Kotto all as pissed-off, wise-cracking blue collar space meat. Here, the supporting cast is predictable and dull with character traits stapled on their foreheads for easy recognition – the wimpy biologist, the tattooed geologist, the nameless security guards who show up with guns so they may be lectured by Dr. Shaw, yada, yada. It made me long for Bill Paxton’s clip-slapping, slide-racking scenery chewing space Marine in Aliens. We know there are supposed to be 17 crewmembers, but a third of them are never identified and we don’t know where they are at the end of the movie. I’m not sure they all would have volunteered for the final mission at the climax. They disappear like the spare Dr. Harding in Jurassic Park.
With those largish quibbles, there is a lot to like. The prehistoric planet and the Prometheus’s landing on the alien planet are shot in beautiful daylight rather than the rainy nights generally preferred by cheaper and earlier productions. There is an awesome sense of wonder as this year’s landing party enters an enormous mound that appears to be shot through with tunnels.
Finally the crew meets their boss Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and her holographic boss, Peter Weyland (always reliable Guy Pearce in full latex life mask) who describes to the crew why they have come to this place aboard Mr. Weyland’s trillion dollar ship in order to find “The Engineers” – who may have created man.
When the action starts, it starts in full-on idiot plot mode. This intergalactic landing party riding the aforementioned trillion dollar ship suddenly displays less discipline than a Boy Scout troop as the geologist neatly maps the mound so the mother ship can see it in full 3D. But then he gets scared and along with wimpy biologist decides to split off from the party, and then – I’m not joking – gets lost in the mound he just mapped. The biologist then – still not joking – puts his hand within striking distance of something alien and snakish with a large tooth-filled mouth, like intergalactic biologists always do. Not surprisingly they get infected with something and head back to the ship. One of them starts to look a lot like The Wolfman except with multi-colored hair. I’m mystified where that special effect fits in. It almost looks like homage.
The plot rolls on with reasonable speed. In a fine tense scene Dr. Shaw subjects herself to the most unlikely C-section since Meg Ryan in Restoration. Scott loves powerful women in extremis. And if that leads to more Sigourney Weaver in tiny panties and Noomi Rapace in gauzy, if bloody, body wrap, I'm on board then. I suppose the fact that Dr. Shaw is a cross-wearing believer who undergoes what amounts to an abortion should be acknowledged as Scott in his Thelma and Louise please-love-me-I'm-a-feminist mode.
Thanks to a kind of holographic ship’s log, the crew learns the fate of the Engineers and finally finds their way to the ship’s bridge where the Engineers were getting ready to take off thousands of years ago, when things apparently went very wrong. They awaken the last engineer, and here humanity stands face-to-face with it’s possible creator; David speaks to it in its native tongue; all the power, mystery, time, distance, love, longing, questing of the universe come together in what should have been a scene of beauty and resonance, or at least creepy fear, but turns into what I have on good authority the young people refer to as “hulk smash”. Yep, pretty much a fist fight.
Thankfully, the movie regains a small chunk of its power and mystery in time for the action-packed ending and leaves room for a better sequel.
I don’t regret seeing this in a theater, although I blew off the 3D. In the end, it feels like it was torn between being a monster movie and a lovely meditation on our place in the universe. It will do.
Ebert gives it his highest rating of four stars. I’m mystified.
The very good 3:15 unembeddable trailer at IMDB is here http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1446714/.
The typically shitty YouTube official trailer is below.