In 1979, Ridley Scott, who until that time had been known as a director of television commercials, released his first feature length film, Alien. That film sent reverberations through the corridors of science fiction and horror. At its basic level, it was a rip off of a haunted house film with Swis surrealist H.R. Giger’s xenomorph taking the place of the ghost or hobgoblin. It broke barriers in practical effects, and heavily borrowed from the lessons that Steven Spielberg had learned two years earlier in filming Jaws, the less you show of the monster, the more the horror becomes psychological, and that horror is far more emotionally resonant than something concrete. In 1982, Scott followed up Alien with another seminal work of science fiction, Blade Runner. Despite creating to masterpieces of the genre to start his career, he never really returned to science fiction.
A handful of years ago, 20th Century Fox released the Alien Quadrilogy, a nine DVD set of the four Alien films with a bonus DVD for each film. In the case of Alien, Scott went back and re-added some removed footage, and included a very insightful commentary track. As a part of that commentary track, he noted (as he had years earlier) that he had no interest in making an Alien sequel, and that he was happy with the finished piece, and felt that other directors had exhausted the potential for future stories. However, as he had noted for the better part of a decade, he had always had a craving to explore the origins of the monster, and what that fossilized pilot of the derelict spacecraft which the crew of the Nostromo found was up to before his untimely death.
33 years later, we have finally arrived! Spoilers abound from here. If you plan on seeing the film, don’t read further.
the film opens with some beautiful cinematography of Earthly landscapes at a time long before man. It eventually focuses on a lone individual walking along a ridge above a waterfall while a spacecraft hovers in the background. The being looks human except much taller and albino-white skin. He drinks from a vessel, and begins to disintegrate, falling into the waterfall, the essence of his body spreading through the water …
Fast forward to 2089; the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. Two archaeologists (Liz Shaw and Charlie Holloway) discover a cave painting of human surrounding a giant being pointing toward what appears to be a formation of dots.
Fast forward to 2093. The ship Prometheus is nearing a destination unknown. All of the passengers and crew are asleep except for David, an android who has been keeping an eye on things. In addition to watching the ship’s systems, he can also put on a set of visors which allows him to communicate with the sleeping crew members, though he usually just listens and watches their dreams. When they approach their destination, David wakes them up. In addition to Shaw and Holloway, there is the ship’s captain, Janek, and Meredith Vickers, the representative of the Weyland Corporation, the company that has spent the trillion dollars to finance the interplanetary mission. Once everyone is awake, a holographic recording of Peter Weyland (who announces that he is likely dead by now) informs them all of the great mission of discovery that awaits them. The archaeologists inform the crew that the cave painting they found in Scotland is one of many identical ones found around the world from various cultures … and that they are interpreting the images to be invitations. These aliens (called “the Engineers”) they think had a hand in creating life on Earth, and that they have identified the one start system that matches the pictures.
Prometheus goes down to the planet, and soon finds a series of structures in a line that appear to be artificial. They immediately get out and explore the first structure and begin mapping it. They soon find the remains of an Engineer, decapitated and in front of a door. David is able to figure out how to open the doors, and that leads them to a chamber with a giant stone head and a number of large containers. Lost in entering the room are the small worm-like life forms that pay them no heed. They also find the head of the Engineer, and begin collecting samples from one of the containers which begin leaking an oily black substance. The Prometheus informs them that a storm is coming, and that they need to come back. Shaw is nearly killed when the storm arrives before they get back, but David rescues them. They learn that two crew members were left behind, and that they will need to wait until the morning to come back to the ship. Shaw discovers that the Engineer’s DNA is identical to humans, meaning that they were in fact the creators of human life. David, meanwhile accesses some of the black oil recovered from the structure, and covertly puts some in a drink that Holloway is drinking. Back in the structure, the two crew members enter the chamber with the head, and discover the black oil has run all over the room, and that there are two large worm-like creatures that attack them. One of the mapping devices also discovers an unknown lifeform in a different part of the structure. Shaw and Holloway meet and acknowledge that they have done something big, and have sex to celebrate.
The next morning, the crew suits up and heads over to the structure to recover their two teammates. David volunteers to seek out the broken mapping probe, and goes off on his own. The remainder of the crew locates one of the crew, and he is dead. Holloway begins acting oddly, and they abandon the mission to get back to the ship. Vickers greets them and refuses to allow Holloway on board, as his illness becomes more of a transformation, he demands to be killed, and Vickers burns him with a flame thrower. Shaw freaks out and faints.
David meanwhile discovers a chamber with more of the containers stacked up to the roof. A second chamber appears to be a control center. He discovers that Earth was very much important to these Engineers, and that one of them is still alive in stasis in the room.
Shaw comes to in the medical bay with David hovering over her. The whole crew is being inspected for infection, and she has been discovered to have an anomaly; she is about three months pregnant, something notably impossible. David gives her a sedative, and tells her that she will be put back into stasis, despite her pleas to terminate the pregnancy. When she comes to, she fights her way to a Vickers private quarters (actually a detachable lifeboat) which has a machine which can conduct surgery. She climbs in and orders the machine to remove the foreign object. It opens her up, and removes the creature inside her; something akin to an octopus. She gets out of the machine after her belly is stapled back up, and seals it with the creature trapped inside. She wanders out, and discovers in another room Peter Weyland being tended to by David. He reveals that he is dying and is here based on the idea that if the Engineers created humans, they know how to fix them. By this time, Captain Janek has put together the reality of where they are. the black oil is a biological weapon: drop it somewhere, and the population undergoes mutation. This site is not the Engineers’ home, but an isolated depot for storing a weapon of mass destruction. Worse, he has discovered that under the structures is an Engineers’ ship, and that the black oil containers are stored on the ship for deployment elsewhere … and that prior to the Engineers here being killed in an accident, the ship’s next stop was Earth.
Weyland, David, and Shaw return to the ship, and David awakens the Engineer. He is able to communicate with him, but the Engineer responds by pulling David’s head off and killing Weyland. Shaw escapes as the Engineer starts up the ship to leave. Vickers is ordering the Prometheus to leave, as Shaw explains that the Engineer must be stopped or that Earth will be destroyed. Captain Janek decides their only option is to ram the ships, and orders Vickers to leave, ejecting her lifeboat as she runs for an escape pod. Vickers and Shaw witness the ships collide, destroying the Prometheus as the Engineer’s ship crashes to the ground, killing Vickers.
Shaw makes it to the lifeboat, and notes that the room with the surgical machine now has a large tentacled creature in there, but locked in for the moment. David’s head contacts her, and tells her that she needs to get out immediately: the Engineer has survived, and is coming after her. It is too late as the giant enters the lifeboat. Unsure what to do, at the last instant, she opens the surgical room as giant tentacles emerge and attack the Engineer. She is able to get away. The creature attacking the Engineer jams a tentacle down his throat, and wraps itself around the body of the Engineer who collapses.
David informs Shaw that there are other Engineer ships stored under the other structures, and that he knows how to operate them. She recovers him from the Engineer’s ship, but tells him she has no intention to return to Earth … the Engineers created humans, and then tried to destroy them … and she wants answers. She and David take off for the Engineers’ home world.
Back on the lifeboat, the Engineer awakens in pain. His chest convulses as his body splits open … revealing an all too familiar creature that is now the master of the planet … at least until the next ship arrives!
As I surmised, Prometheus is absolutely a prequel to Alien, despite Ridley Scott’s protestation to the contrary. Is Prometheus as good as Alien? No. It would be very difficult to be that good. However, it is good in very Alien like way.
The strength of Alien, and of Prometheus, are in the mood that is set with the background, cinematography, and overall appearance of the film. The cinematography is easily the biggest strength of the film. There are numerous scenes that show breathtaking vistas, and I have never seen a film that got the appearance of a planet’s atmosphere so beautifully and realistically rendered.
Certainly the plot isn’t all that complicated, and it sends a message about how weapons can sometimes have unpredictable results when put into use. However the overwhelming subtext of the plot is a religious one. Shaw is a Christian, and sees her mission as somewhat of a religious one since she sees the Engineers as the creators. In the light of her discoveries, Holloway asks her if it is time to let go of her faith, but she won’t … and one wonders if she is incapable of believing that the creators of all humanity could be nothing more than soldiers, and that humanity was nothing more than guinea pigs to test the latest biological weapon. In this sense, the writers wisely kept this part unanswered, and left it more open to the viewer to decide (very Kubrick-esque!). Paralleling Shaw’s religious issues are David’s: he knows his creator, but more than simply knowing your maker, they are very much interested in the motivations of their makers.
The acting was strong. In keeping with the Alien started motif, the last two human survivors are the women, one a mousy scientist the other a strong business woman … though in a turn, it is the mousy scientist who ultimately survives.
If Alien is a bonafide 10 star film … a seminal work of the highest quality, then Prometheus is in the 7-8 star range. It was nearly impossible to live up to the hype and follow in the footsteps of the original, but this film in its own way was a worthy successor, and I would not be surprised if there were Oscar nominations for visual effects and cinematography coming in a few months.