With a brand new Ridley Scott Alien film set for release this week, we at Psycho Drive-In thought it would be fun to look back at each of the films in the official franchise. So every day this week, the Psycho Drive-In All-Stars will be sharing their thoughts, memories, and interpretations of one of Hollywood’s most enduring and important science fiction franchises.
It’s rare to encounter a film so at odds with itself as Prometheus.
Is it a sci-fi action flick? A treatise on religion? A monster movie? A philosophical exploration of man’s inhumanity? Is it even an Alien film? At times, it attempts to operate on all of these levels, and more, while never quite fully pulling back the curtain to explicitly reveal some of the more high-concept themes or connective tissue in fullest light. This lack of transparency is a stumbling block for many viewers, but the one thing that nearly all who have seen it can agree upon is that it is a beautiful sight to behold.
The visual effects are astounding, from the interior set pieces to the exterior space travel and planetside shots, to the fierce glittery storm that envelops the crew mid-film. The mechanical design of the equipment and vehicles is spectacular, as is the costuming and styling of the cast. All told, we are drawn in to a fully realized and meticulously crafted world, one of greater depth than anything seen in the Alien franchise to date and besting the vast majority of feature-length sci-fi in terms of quality of immersion.
The cast is an absolute dream and once again I’ll praise the extra lengths an Alien film goes to in providing meaningful characterization. Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw is a brilliant counterpoint to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as female lead. Where Ripley acted with equal measures of confident surety and suspicious caution, Shaw begins the film with a sense of innocent wonder and a thirst for knowledge that informs her actions and drives her forward. Ripley just wanted to protect and survive. Shaw wants to learn and to understand.
It’s a necessary distinction given the tonal and thematic shift of Prometheus from previous installments in the franchise. As much as this film wants to scare you, make you tense and gross you the hell out (all Alien franchise traditions) it’s much more interested in asking larger questions. I never fully understood the “I don’t get it” complaint about this film in that regard. It’s right there in the damn title! I’ll admit that there’s a lot going on and several different layers competing for our attention, but the central questions come clear in a consideration of the myth of Prometheus. Or if that’s still too cerebral, filter it through a reading of Frankenstein.
I think it’s too easy to get hung up on the story of the origin of the xenomorph, of waiting for them to show up explicitly, thereby losing track of the thread that this is the story of the Engineers and humankind, not the biological weapon the remainder of the series centers on. It’s a hard trick, convincing us to let go of that particular monster. But when we do, we’re able to fully consider the other monster, the real and more pervasive threat that is humankind. This has always been a theme of the franchise, whether in the commentary on corporate greed or the qualities of humanity reflected in the various androids and AI presented to us.
Here they take a more central stage with the Engineers standing in for the xenomorph as the means of escalation. While the giant hairless humanoid ripping the heads off everyone may seem like the obvious villain, we mustn’t lose sight of Weyland (Guy Pearce, doing his best Anthony Hopkins), David (Fassbender) and Vickers (Theron) as antagonists to Rapace’s Shaw and Idris Elba’s Janek. It’s the worst of who we are vs. the best of who we are and it’s worth noting that the “winners” aren’t those who were right all along, but rather those capable of experiencing growth through understanding.
— Adam Barraclough
Prometheus is the first truly existential horror film in the Alien franchise. Ridley Scott’s film ditches the slow build of Alien and substitutes it will large scale terror and he takes the viscera of Aliens and infuses it with a sense of the cosmic. Prometheus is a mixture of almost every film in the franchise before it, but being a prequel it wants to go back to the beginning. It takes on the literal larger question we as humans could ask, “How did we get here”?
I can’t defend a lot of this movie. The characters are blatant constructs of a screenplay. They behave in ways that no human would ever behave. The only great character in the film is Michael Fassbender’s android, David. Fassbender brings an otherworldliness to him that is both eerie and comforting at once. Fassbender brings a vocal inflection to the role that is calm and soothing. It is the physicality of the role that stands out though. Have you ever seen anyone bounce a basketball like that? Or, the manner in which he stands with a stiff erectness that is completely inhuman
There is an intellectual curiosity to Damon Lindelof’s screenplay that is admirable for this type of big budget tentpole release. That curiosity is like freshman year philosophy, but at least it has a curiosity. Take a look at every big budget release this summer, there is not a single one on this summer’s calendar (except Alien Covenant or War for the Planet of the Apes) that seems to have a foot in the philosophical.
Of course, Scott balances the philosophy with some of the most inventive action set pieces in the last few years. The one great sequence is the abortion sequence. The sequence is brief and brutal. Noomi Rapace, who is decent in the film, really shines in these physical sequences. She brings a real world dread to the complete insanity of the moment. Scott wisely shows just enough. But, it is the sound design in the scene that really makes it a landmark moment in bodily horror. There is no way to shut those screams out of your head.
The big frustration of the film is that it asks a lot of questions that it has no agenda to answer. Lindelof’s script is infuriating. His central question is an engrossing one. It is the great question of art. The fact that he sets the question up and never attempts to answer it is a big flaw of the film. However, I don’t care. The movie is aggressive. It is a palpably intense two hours that works as a cinematic experience more than a continual conversation piece.
It is very popular to hate on this film. I hear what people are saying. This really is a wavelength movie. You are either on the wavelength or you aren’t. It isn’t the achievement that the first two films are, but few films are. I don’t think this is one of the great science fiction films, but I know that if this wasn’t in the Alien franchise then people would think it is a really good work of science fiction.
— Peterson Hill
I looked at my review of Prometheus from 5 years ago in preparation for this write-up, a film I gave a middling 3 stars. I said then it was the best looking sci-fi film of its era, and I had many hopes that it would be a definitive return to the thrills of xenomorphia. Instead, it was a mishmash of body horror mixed up with concepts of immortality and genesis, beset by distasteful family drama and robotic paranoia. Good cast, though.
I have had one more idea about it, and that is what if the giant white alien Engineers (not, after all, the cosmic adventurers beset by alien invasion in the first film suggested by the corpse of the pilot found in the giant ship, but rather the creators of the very predators that doomed them) are, for Director Scott, just another version of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty? What’s more Teutonic than Rutger Hauer, or alabaster white skin, both clad in a lot of black leather? While Roy wanted to make his creator pay for his short, servile lifespan (but took pity on his equally servile tormentor Deckard), the Engineers want to make everyone pay for existing at all. There’s something nihilistic and depressing about the architects of all human life deciding it was a mistake that must be eradicated. If that’s what in fact we saw.
But the Engineers, beautifully frustrating misconception or not, aren’t the reason to see Prometheus. And there are only two, despite the powerhouse cast. Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, Guy Pierce? All wasted. The only actors to shine are Fassbender and Rapace, and that’s because David is a wonderfully sangfroid take on the artificial life fascination of every previous film, and Elizabeth Shaw one-ups the chest burster scene by performing an emergency caesarian and attempted abortion on herself (with the help of traitorous medical bio-bed that must be the ancestor of Mother for all its grimly obtuse efficiency) when she realizes what is growing not in her chest, but in her womb.
Does this make Elizabeth Shaw the mother of the monsters we would later see? I guess we’ll find out more with our two versions of David in the new film, though I’m not sure if I want to know. But there is something very visceral about Shaw’s battle for her own health with the recalcitrant machine at the end of Prometheus. It is a weird callback to Ripley’s battle for survival with the maddeningly complex self-destruct program she initiated at the end of Alien. Both women have just about had it with machines and monsters by that point.
— Shawn Hill
Prometheus is pure cinema.
From its opening shot to the last, it is a visual masterpiece that could function to near perfection with no dialogue. It might actually be better that way because, as is typical with Ridley Scott films, the words are secondary to the images he is crafting (as evidenced by the removal of the voiceover in Blade Runner, which substantially improves the film). Prometheus was Scott’s first collaboration with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who has since been Director of Photography on each of Scott’s films up to and including Alien: Covenant, and it’s easy to see from these works that Scott is prioritizing the visual storytelling over the scripts (with The Martian being the only pairing that has had a solid story as well as beautiful images) to the detriment of the box office take.
This is an approach that really doesn’t sit well with mainstream critics — or mainstream audiences either, really (the volume of whom’s bitching about the film have caused him to second guess his storytelling in Covenant – altering the story he originally planned to tell in an attempt to appease these loudest critics). But Scott is a director who has a knack for capturing a story on film once or twice a decade that is successful enough to allow him to indulge himself with works that capture his visual imagination.
Film historians, will have something different to say about Prometheus, just like they did with the first Alien and Blade Runner, but that’s a discussion for another day. Maybe fifteen or twenty years or so from now.
Anyway, I love Prometheus. Having a childhood fondness for the crazier Ancient Alien stories, ranging from the existential dread of Lovecraft to the weird histories of von Daniken to the batshit insanity of Sitchin, the exploration of humanities origins as an intergalactic science project is right up my alley. And the superficial overlay of Christian mysticism, while a bit of a distraction, isn’t unwelcome.
I’m a sucker for a good “God’s an alien and He hates us all” approach. Shit, that’s the whole Old Testament, after all. Do you realize how many times Moses had to talk Yahweh out of murdering everybody while they were wondering around the desert for 40 years? Read your bible; it’s hilarious!
There’s also a fascinating subtext to the film contrasting reason and rationality with irrationality and impulsiveness, that sees the more spiritual characters embracing scientific methodology and the more secular characters reacting on instinct or illogically. If it weren’t a constant throughout the film, you might be able to blame it on poor writing, but I think it’s part of what draws Scott to telling the story the way he does. Mankind, in Prometheus, is essentially a group of children, bickering and experiencing the universe with wonder and terror. The scientists have embraced their narrow scientific fields as ways of protecting themselves from the existential dread that Lovecraft so effectively captured. When confronted with the wonders of this new world, they toss their rules out the window and suffer for it. Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth and Michael Fassbender’s David achieve spiritual knowledge through scientific method and ultimately become the only survivors.
Nor is it any coincidence that the blue-collar pilots, perhaps the least-defined characters in the script, but the ones who walk the true center between secular and spiritual, are the ones who step up and give their lives to save an unsuspecting Earth that will never know of their sacrifice.
This isn’t accidental or bad writing (though the actual scripting is weak at times, no argument). This is kind of the point. Turn the sound down (or better yet, isolate the amazing score by Marc Streitenfeld) and immerse yourself in Prometheus. You won’t be disappointed.
Or maybe you’re a philistine and you will.
— Paul Brian McCoy