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 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 Shaw finding 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 spaceship that seems familiar from countless other sci-fi movies. Scott is always keen to remind us that in spite of the futuristic settings, his astronauts can't escape their bodies... or their bodily functions. When the astronauts wake from "hypersleep," the first thing they do is vomit.
Alongside the crew 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 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 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. 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. But he evokes pathos and curiosity. His desire to know more about who made him mirrors that of the astronauts to track down their own creators.
Given all the secrecy and hype surrounding Prometheus, audiences can hardly be blamed for 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 anticlimactic. Scott hasn't reinvented the genre or explained the metaphysical mysteries of existence by the end of the final reel.
However, if this is just another sci-fi movie, it's certainly a rousing and very entertaining one.