In space, no one can hear you scream. Yet when word first surfaced that Fox was contemplating another installment in the Alien franchise – one of the most stunning and influential sci-fi sagas of all time – even the most far-flung interstellar traveler couldn’t escape the sound of the collective groan from fans everywhere. Not again! Alien 3 had already shown what happens when a studio is more eager to see a movie realized than its intended audience. Then Alien Resurrection came along and handily illustrated not so much how right scapegoat director David Fincher was with his vision, but just how wrong he wasn’t. Since then numerous AVP movies have turned the whole franchise into frankly a bit of a joke. What story could possibly be left to tell at this point?
Then, salvation! Ridley Scott, the man who started it all, announced that he was going to direct. That the story would likely be a prequel, an origin story. Plot details were a tightly guarded secret. All we knew was that it would be set in the Alien universe and that a Xenomorph may be involved (“Excuse me, Sir, a-a what?” – sorry, couldn’t resist). Safe hands then. Itching after all these years to return to sci-fi to realize a grand vision of intrepid, interstellar, exploration – more in line with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 than John Carpenter’s Dark Star – Scott has crafted a heady meditation on the origin of not just the Xenomorph species but our own as well, both visually stunning and teaming with ideas. Only, here’s the thing. The Alien saga was never about ideas. Not for a single solitary second.
Light years away from Kubrick’s balletic opera, where a great white mind embarks on a feng-shui informed quest to discover the meaning of it all at the end of the universe, Scott’s Alien was a purely functional world populated by blue collar types trying to make a living hauling ore through a cold and indifferent vacuum. They set down on LV-426 not out of any noble scientific curiosity, but because company policy dictated that failure to do so would result in a total forfeiture of shares. Listening to Noomi Rapace’s idealistic archeologist drone on in an extended prologue about the burning desire to follow a millennia old star map in hopes of standing before our creator and asking “why?” makes you yearn for the white knuckle intensity of a stand-up fight, or at the very least the nerve-shredding suspense of a bug hunt.
Always more comfortable designing worlds than the people who inhabit them, Scott handed scripting duties to Damon Lindelof, who, as anyone who patiently sat through six seasons of Lost hoping for answers can attest, is far more interested in posing the big, important questions than offering any answers to them. But really, who the hell even cares about the questions? So concerned is Prometheus with extraterrestrial DNA that it maddeningly ignores its own in favor of Lindelof’s favorite pet subject: the great debate over science versus faith. Yawn. First and foremost the Alien saga is a primal entity – not cerebral. It’s about marines who are short, but who are going to buy it on some rock. We would never stop to ask such grand questions because, as contrasted to the sleek, single-minded perfection of the Xenomorph, we’re the inferior species preoccupied with “f–king each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
As realized by Scott’s grand design – which is a triumph of imagination, it must be said – Prometheus is many things; immersive, impressive, enticing and frustrating in equal measure, but it’s never once scary and so much of that has to do with the characterization. Michael Fassbender’s coldly curious android might be one of the best-drawn characters in the entire saga. But, if your intention is to frighten people, shackling your audience to an individual who, by definition, cannot feel is a little self-defeating. Charlize Theron’s Weyland Enterprise bigwig – a prototype for the company man who would become such a series staple – is such a cold fish you long for the unapologetic sleaze of a Carter Burke. The rest of the ensemble is entirely bland and forgettable – talk about “crew expendable” – and quality actors the likes of Idris Elba, as the gruff captain, and Sean Harris, cast as a poor man’s Cpl. Hudson, are entirely wasted.
Eventually things do find something of a groove and the final act is far more in line with the B-movie, creature feature genesis of the original material. Although it never comes close to transcending its genre origins there is something of a nice ouroboros irony that for all the hope and promise the creators – “engineers” as they’re called – are ultimately unmasked as just another carbon based lifeform, not nearly as clever as they think they are, undone by their own hubris and just as susceptible to having their face ripped off when confronted by something driven by a more singular purpose. If Lindelof has anything at all to do with the inevitable sequel, he would do well to remember that if nothing else.