More than three decades after his stomach-churning Alien (1979), Ridley Scott is back with a "prequel", which, he has said, possesses "strands" of the original's "DNA". It's a tremendously enjoyable (if ever so slightly cheesy) return to outer space for one of Britain's most distinguished film-makers.
The budget may be huge (a reputed $130 million compared to the $10 million or so the original Alien cost), the film-makers may now have the benefit of state-of-the-art digital technology and the chance to shoot in 3D but the pleasures of the film are reassuringly familiar and even old-fashioned.
Prometheus is again playing on our fascination with (and fear of) alien life forms. ("They weren't what we thought they were," one character laments toward the end of the movie, voicing a sentiment found in almost every sci-fi movie from the trashiest Ed Wood pics to Quatermass and Stanley Kubrick at his most transcendent.) Scott has again enlisted a kick-ass female astronaut in the form of Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, a character whose formidable survival instincts put even those of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley to shame. The famously grotesque scene of John Hurt giving birth to an alien in Scott's original movie is echoed several times here (Scott clearly knew that he couldn't return to this world without providing one or two "money shots" of squirming foetuses and succubuses that would be repulsive and ingenious enough to keep the audience talking afterward.)
The film begins in earnest in 2089 with Elizabeth Shaw discovering cave paintings on the Isle of Skye. Just as Werner Herzog did in his recent documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Scott sets out to induce a sense of awe in his audience. The images look fresh, even though they're thousands of years old. They all share the same symbolism. Shaw's interpretation is that there are some beings out there "who want us to come and find them."
Then it's all aboard the Prometheus, a space ship that seems very familiar from countless other sci-fi movies. Scott is always keen to remind us that in spite of the futuritsic settings, his astronauts can't escape their bodies... or their bodily functions. When the astronauts wake up from their "hypersleep," the first thing they all do is vomit. (When you've been asleep for decades, it's only to be expected that you'll be feeling groggy.)
As in old Westerns or yarns about sea farers braving new waters, there is a strict hierarchy. Alongside the camaraderie lie petty jealousies and resentments. The mission director (Charlize Theron) is an icy, authoritarian figure, openly contemptuous of the scientists' dreams of finding new life forms. The ship captain (Idris Elba) is a laid-back but heroic alpha male who could quite easily have slipped out of an episode of Flash Gordon. Scott has enlisted British character actors Rafe Spall and Sean Harris to provide the cynicism and earthy comedy – and to act as bait for the aliens.
Instead of the computer Hal in 2001: a Space Odyssey, we are offered an android called David (Michael Fassbender), who has short blond hair and seems to model his behaviour on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (a film he watches on board.) Playing a robot is always a stretch. The temptation is to adopt Tin Man-style mannerisms and a shuffling gait. Fassbender is far more subtle and affecting. We know he isn't human by his oleaginous manner, monotone delivery and lack of empathy for others. At the same time, he evokes pathos and curiosity. His desire to know more about who made him mirrors that of the astronauts themselves to track down their own creators.
Like many of the best sci-fi movies, Prometheus invites us to approach it on several different levels. The screenplay is pondering big issues: religion (Shaw has a huge sentimental attachment to a little cross she carries), the fear of death, the desperation to know more about our origins. At the same time, the film is full of gadgetry and hardware as well as asides about light, heat, energy and DNA. In interviews prior to release, Scott talked (seemingly seriously) about Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods, with its outlandish theories about astronauts and ancient civilisations. The film-makers seem to be doing their hardest to appeal to tech geeks, scientists and UFO watchers alike. However, this is also a rip-roaring adventure about some humans stuck on a toxic planet a long way from home. Scott combines spectacular set-pieces (for example, a huge silicon storm) and apocalyptic imagery with much quieter, more intimate moments of the crew members flirting with one another, making bets, sharing drinks or shooting pool.
Given all the secrecy and hype surrounding Prometheus, which wasn't shown to the press at all until earlier this week, audiences can hardly be blamed if they were expecting something truly groundbreaking. Why make such fuss if Ridley Scott doesn't have something new to tell us? On that level, the new film is anti-climactic. Scott hasn't reinvented the genre or somehow managed to explain the metaphysical mysteries of existence by the end of the final reel. There are many scenes here which we've seen before: characters racing for safety down the spaceship's corridors as the doors close behind them, astronauts with huge, worm-like creatures coiled around them. Prometheus probably won't achieve the cult status of earlier Scott movies like Blade Runner and Alien. However, if this is just another sci-fi movie, it's certainly a rousing and very entertaining one.