Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic
WASHINGTON – Few movies jack me up like “Alien” (1979), combining the best tagline in movie history — “In space, no one can hear you scream” — with a classic monster in the house design for cinema’s most terrifying monster. What’s scarier than an alien life form that straps itself to your face, inserts its genitalia down your throat and impregnates you with offspring that hatches out of your chest?
“It solves the ultimate problem of the haunted house,” said movie critic Maitland McDonagh. “Why don’t the people just get out of the house? In ‘Alien,’ there’s no where to go.”
Ridley Scott’s space shocker reinvented science fiction as much as his dystopian urban follow up “Blade Runner” (1982). Ironically, Scott abandoned the genre for the last three decades to dabble in others: the buddy flick (“Thelma and Louise”), the sword-and-sandal epic (“Gladiator”), the action war flick (“Black Hawk Down”) and the gangster picture (“American Gangster”). Now 30 years later, he returns to his genre wheelhouse, and the result is well worth the wait.
“Prometheus” is less a prequel about the origins of “Alien” as it is a quasi- related meditation on the origins of mankind. You won’t find Ellen Ripley, the starship Nostromo or H.R. Giger’s iconic alien creature (or will you?).
“The alien had its run, but you can’t see that guy again,” Scott told USA TODAY. “He’s no longer frightening. Iconic, but too familiar.”
Instead, we get a new team of explorers in the year 2089. Infertile archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Naomi Rapace, the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and her lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover an earthly clue to the origins of mankind and embark on a mission to find who or what planted it there. They board the spaceship Prometheus, led by strict mission manager Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a smooth pilot with a Stephen Stills accordion (Idris Elba) and the multi-lingual android Dave, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, who looks like “Lawrence of Arabia” and talks like HAL 9000.
Like the best science fiction, the conflict is sparked by mankind’s overreach. As Dr. Frankenstein said, “As God as my witness, now I know what it’s like to be God.” Hence the name “Prometheus,” which was the name of the Greek God who paid a price for trying to bring mortals up to the level of the gods.
Just as these humans are trying to meet their maker, Dave the android yearns to outsmart his. This conversation unfolds between Dave and Charlie over a billiard table where Dave asks, “Why do you think your people made me?” Charlie responds, “We made you ’cause we could,” to which Dave responds, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing?”
“Prometheus” tries to answer this age old question with a commentary on faith. We see Shaw’s cryogenic dreams of her Christian childhood, then we see Dave remove her crucifix necklace, only for her to later replace it. When Charlie says the discovery of alien DNA disproves her beliefs, she simply responds, “But who made them?” Dave is dumbfounded: “After all this, you still believe?”
Ultimately, Scott says none of us truly knows the answer, and we choose to believe what we want to believe. We choose to make a leap of faith. All the while, he purposefully places a Christmas tree blinking in the background, moments before a “supernatural” birth.
Such symbolic mise-en-scene (the placement of all elements in the frame) highlights why Scott is a respected director. The franchise has been blessed with some very talented filmmakers — James Cameron (“Titanic”) in “Aliens” (1986), David Fincher (“Fight Club”) in “Alien 3″ (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie) in “Alien: Resurrection” (1997). But after the abominations of “Alien vs. Predator” (2004) and “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” (2007), it’s great having the original visionary back in the director’s chair.
Scott knows how to create gorgeous compositions, and the carefully composed set pieces remind me of Kubrick’s best futuristic designs. Dare I say “Prometheus” is the most visually stunning movie Scott has yet done? Such rich cinematic spaces become all the more impressive when they eventually become covered in blood. Scott takes his time in getting here, handling the gore eloquently. While Spielberg kept “Jaws” hidden from view for logistical reasons — the mechanical shark simply didn’t work — Scott famously fought studio execs to keep his alien hidden from view.
In “Prometheus,” his approach is more like Cameron’s in “Aliens,” favoring special effects action over the unseen corners of darkness of “Alien.” This is most successful in an awesomely grotesque “surgical chamber” scene that had me squirming in my seat, mixing claustrophobia with tokophobia (fear of childbirth) – – the exact fears that made the original “Alien” so effective.
These effects-heavy choices could keep Scott from winning his Oscar yet again, but he is long overdue. His films (i.e. “Gladiator”) have swept the Oscars, but he himself has never won, having been nominated for best director three times and losing to Jonathan Demme for “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic” (2000) and Ron Howard for “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).
In “Prometheus,” we can see the knack for storytelling that makes him one of the elites working today. He happily eats up screen time, building tension before any blood is shed, but keeping us gripped the entire way. I had that same sense of dread in my stomach that I had watching “Deliverance” (1972), as the director draws out the dread before whacking you with horror.
The dread comes with a fear of the unknown, rallied by Scott’s showmanship. Like DeMille or Spielberg, he has a sort of P.T. Barnum quality, building buzz like Alfred Hitchcock, who forbid moviegoers from entering the theater after the start of “Psycho” (1960) and held faux casting sessions for the role of Mrs. Bates. Scott has used online buzz and talk show appearances to create intrigue over the film’s secrets, including Theron joking with Stephen Colbert that studio snipers would probably shoot her if she spilled any secrets.
After all, this is a franchise built on surprises. When shooting the famous “chest bursting” scene in the original “Alien,” Scott did not tell his actors it was about to happen. Suddenly, John Hurt began convulsing and blood shoot into the air. Those are real screams on the faces of the actors, and thus BRAVO voted it the #2 Scariest Movie Moment of All Time:
“Prometheus” certainly has its own surprises, like a throwback “Easter egg” just before the end credits, but other unveilings could have used more attention. I wish the script had explored Theron’s character more, and I didn’t understand the casting of Guy Pearce as the elderly founder of the expedition. Why not just cast an old man? Instead, it looks like a young guy caked in makeup.
Overall, I felt like the build up was much stronger than the payoff, with an ending that doesn’t quite satisfy the reason for mankind’s existence. Perhaps to leave room for another sequel? Even so, it’s one hell of a ride, and you have to admire Scott’s ambition as he tries to match Kubrick’s “2001: A Spacey Odyssey” (1968) and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011).
The epic tale had me gripped from start to finish, with enough allusions to satisfy fans of the original (i.e. Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score), and enough of a standalone journey to thrill the newbies. Scott’s first sci-fi effort since “Blade Runner” is a replicant worth seeing. That is, if you can stomach it.
★ ★ ★
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)