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June 8, 2012

In 1979, Ridley Scott presided over the creation of one of the most enduring properties in the modern science fiction canon: Alien. Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay melded space action and horror, brought to life by the surrealistic art design of H. R. Giger. And Scott injected the whole thing with a cinephile’s art-house aesthetic. In 1986, James Cameron’s sequel — Aliens — was lighter on the allusions, but no less heavy on the allegories. Between the two of them, these films have kept a branch of film criticism alive for thirty years. The next two sequels — David Fincher’s Alien3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection — were decently made, at best, but lacked anything much for serious theorists to chew on the way the first two did. And the two crossovers with the Predator franchise are, it’s now quite safe to say, completely non-canon.

So it’s against a mixed historical backdrop that Scott returns to the series he created with Prometheus to tell, fittingly enough, a creation story for the series. And, in a glorious sop to analytical critics, it’s a creation story about creation stories. That alone should be enough to tell you that Prometheus is indeed a return to art-house form for Scott. But not to worry, there’s still plenty of body horror to go around.

The titular ship was, of course, sent out by the Weyland corporation, evidently before the merger with Yutani. Their mission is nominally scientific: anthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered a common design among numerous ancient carvings and paintings, with a common arrangement of stars that has a single corresponding configuration in the heavens. Clearly it’s a map to where the common creators of terrestrial life and civilization came from; Erich von Däniken was right all along. And don’t argue with this setup too much or we’ll never get off the ground.

Anyway, here we find our scientists on the moon in question, on a ship captained by the practical, blue-collar Janek (Idris Elba) and commanded by the well-heeled company representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). During the voyage, while everyone else was asleep, the ship has been monitored and maintained by Peter Weyland’s own android creation, David (Michael Fassbender), who also keeps himself busy mastering ancient Earth languages back to a common root, in the hopes of communicating with the “engineers” the crew seeks. Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone on board has the same idea of what they’re here for, and nobody is quite prepared for what they will find.

Where Alien raised and Aliens amplified the topic of motherhood, Prometheus is concerned more generally with the psychological — and, of course, psychosexual — dynamic between creator and created; parent and progeny. If Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was ambivalent about having children, the characters here are ambivalent about having parents. That said, both sides do make an appearance, though it’s a little disappointing that the best that they can do with Shaw’s character is rehash the same old angsts about female identity crises. Shaw is clearly meant to replace Ripley here, but there’s too little to work with for Rapace to make nearly the impression that Weaver did.

The main thematic exploration instead moves to David, and Fassbender does a marvelous job with him. The character is one of the few really unique ones we see; each motion marks him ever-so-subtly as not quite human. It’s no coincidence that he takes affection to Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, and Fassbender — if not David himself — has clearly been watching David Bowie in The Man who Fell to Earth. His character’s dynamics are also subtle, and marked more by what happens around him than anything he says or does. After all, he’s just a robot, not a human being, and so he has no psychology as such. And yet he stands in microcosm for the whole human crew.

There is much depth to be plumbed here, and it’s impossible to escape the sense that much more was left on the cutting room floor. Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof is not known for writing neat, tidy answer, and this screenplay is no exception. One particularly glaring loose end is Vickers, who seems to have much more going on than we ever see. I’m hoping there’s a three-hour special edition in the offing, which would give Theron time to really develop the character in a way she doesn’t get a chance to here.

And yet there’s no demand that any depths be plumbed at all; the film stands on its own, both level with Alien as a fusion of science fiction and body horror and independent of the rest of the series. Production designer Arthur Max went back not only to Giger’s original Alien designs, but to the rest of his work to mine it for inspiration. Fans of the Swiss artist’s work will find reference after reference from his biomechanical landscapes to his designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky abortive adaptation of Dune; I’m only mildly disappointed not to see an homage to Debbie Harry’s KooKoo album cover thrown into the mix.

Outside of the alien megalith, there are many truly amazing shots to fill the audience with awe and wonder. This is a big, tentpole movie, after all, and Scott makes sure to deliver our money’s worth. From the ship landing through the clouds to the climactic action sequence, there is a sense of scale that reinforces the idea that we are all very tiny and the world — not to mention the universe — is very large.

But if you do want to dig down and really think about the film, you need go no further than the title as a starting point. As is pointed out more or less explicitly, Prometheus sacrificed himself to enable the Greek mortals to break away from their gods, but that only hints at the nature of this key. To really start to crack things open, recall that the full title of Mary Shelley’s famous novel was Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s movie may well expand its title to Prometheus; or, The Post-Modern Frankenstein. Starting from this point, academic film criticism can keep its love of this series running for another thirty years.

Worth It: absolutely.
Bechdel Test: pass, barely, and mostly because Bechdel herself said that Aliens was enough to count.

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