After watching Prometheus, on the way out of the theater I heard a group of young men behind me say, “It’s like there are no new stories.” What’s fascinating is that a film about discovery seemed to have precisely the opposite effect on at least a portion of its audience. I gauged the groups’ age at far too young to be real “fanboys,” apt to spit snarky remarks at anything which challenges their worship. These were young men who simply had gone in with certain expectations for the 2 hour sci-fi film from Ridley Scott. I was only four when Scott’s original Alien was released; I grew to appreciate that movie and the spin off films over time. I also grew, I think, to learn that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. We’ve been telling the same stories for millennia. Some would even say that there are only seven archetypal stories. Kurt Vonnegut might say that there are only three.
In Prometheus, the crew touches down on a distant planet after significant earthly discoveries convince the powerful Weyland Corporation to fund two scientists on an expedition. Once there, the group discovers an entombed race of the beings they believe to be our earthly progenitors, which they dub the “engineers.” Of course, as soon as they interact with the labyrinthine crypt where the remains of the engineers are encased, things start to change. You can imagine the rest, and the film does certainly follow certain genre lines, but the inherited narrative takes a fresh course.
This idea that there are only so many stories is often conflated with the big-money motivator behind franchise films – sequels and prequels which we all realize we’ve been saturated with for some time now. Add to that remakes, rehashes, and paeans and the cinemascape seems pretty bleak with no frontiers left. But what a good story can and ought to do is live on, and the way to achieve this immortality, or emotional franchise, tends to be through the characters.
Prometheus could have easily and obviously touted itself as an “origin” film. What writers Lindelhof and Spaihts managed to do, however, was to walk the thin edges between an origin film, homage, and a tale of new beginnings. And some of the characters work quite well. Michael Fassbender provides a delightfully detestable synthetic human, “David,” which recalls the same creepiness as Ian Holm’s inhabitation of “Ash” from the original Alien. Fassbender, while equally programmed with a secret agenda, is better looking, and so, let’s face it, is more likeable than his predecessor. Idris Elba plays Janek, the captain of the ship, the eponymous Prometheus. Like the captain of the Nostromo, Dallas, played in the 1979 film by Tom Skeritt, Janek is hardy, logical, and quick-witted. From there, though, the thrall of the characters does diminish a bit. Guy Pearce is only on screen for a few minutes, and does his best to hunch and smack his lips like an old man. Charlize Theron is effective as the icy Meredith Vickers, there to govern the activities of the scientists. It is Noomi Rapace, playing Elly Shaw, who has the tough job of holding the film, driving the story, and living up to the reputation of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Her character proves resourceful and rigorous – one grisly scene is enough to award her the “most bad ass character of the year” – but something about her is intangibly flat. Overall, the characters, and the group dynamic of their interactions have neither the spit and glue of the blue-collar Nostromo crew, nor jocularity of the space-age jarheads when James Cameron took the helm with 1986’s Aliens. Even the prisoners in the Fincher-directed Alien 3 are somehow more relatable than the Prometheus gang.
Again, though, I am not a fanboy. I went into the film with only a handful of preconceived notions. One, Ridley Scott is awesome. Two, I was a fan of the series Lost, and Lindelof was a major writer, so the story should be good. Three, that story would have something to do with the Alien saga, either taking place years after, or before Sigourney Weaver walked around in her tighty whities and blasted an alien off into space. I also have gone through some of the painful but necessary disenchantment that comes with aging in general – I’ve seen lots of movies, read lots of books, and yes, there are only so many derivatives. I didn’t expect to be raised to the peak of ecstasy and have my mind blown beyond all synaptic comprehension. I wanted something cool, something I could dig on for a while. And the glimmer of hope I may have secretly harbored that the film would take the whole world of “Alien” in a new direction was, to put it directly, satisfied.
While the characters didn’t engage me the same way the first three films did (and yes, I am conscious of omitting Alien: Resurrection here), Prometheus still has enough of what it needs to be considered a well-made film. There is the palpable sense of being in the good hands of Ridley Scott (things are neither too gory nor too pat), and the more unconscious effects of subtext and context – this is not some stand-alone creature film, but part of a larger body. Prometheus does what some of the best stories do – they keep a story living, they become part of the fabric which wrap us in the curative sense of legend and immortality.
*Viewed at the Palace Theatre, Lake Placid, NY