Ten Years Later, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus Deserves a Second Look


It’s been 10 years since Ridley Scott’s Prometheus arrived in theaters and attempted to rebrand the long-diminished Alien franchise as something more … profound. Rather than simply remake Alien (or James Cameron’s Aliens), Scott opted to go back in time to tell the tale of the mysterious Engineer (or “Space Jockey”) that we first saw in his 1979 sci-fi horror classic, believing the popular xenomorph had long worn out its welcome.

Enlisting the aid of screenwriter Jon Spaihts (and later Damon Lindelof), the film was meant to serve as a prequel to Alien while connecting new characters with the likes of Ripley and the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo. However, it seems somewhere along the way, Scott changed his mind on the exactness of the project — probably after viewing the documentary Chariots of the Gods — and opted to go in a completely different direction — one that didn’t involve eggs, face-huggers, and alien queens. Well, at least not directly.

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The decision made sense. At the time, the Alien franchise had largely been sullied by David Fincher’s morbid and depressing Alien 3, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s silly Alien Resurrection, and a pair of dumb Alien v Predator movies that all but nuked the beloved franchise from orbit. As such, Scott focused his attention on the mysterious Engineers and set out to craft a story that explored the very concept of creation. The resulting film could definitely bleed into Alien … except, no it can’t.

The heroes of this particular story fly to LV-223 rather than LV-426 and happen upon a similar spaceship to the one Ripley and Co. discover in Alien. This ship also houses an Engineer, and a bunch of aliens; and also crash lands on a moon where it presumably awaits rediscovery by another hapless crew. Everything is there for Prometheus to align with the events of Alien, which makes Scott’s last-second recalibration all the more frustrating.

Why not kill two birds with one stone and allow Prometheus to be an Alien prequel that, in turn, sets the stage for a completely different franchise? Why tease fans with promises of new adventures featuring the xenomorph only to deliver a film that goes out of its way to not feature the xenomorph until the closing credits? And why set up a franchise heroine in Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) only to kill her offscreen in the very next movie?

Clearly, Prometheus started as one project before Scott got bored and decided to try something a little more ambitious. It’s not even the first time — check out the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued the famed director’s Robin Hood project.

That’s Prometheus in a nutshell: an ambitious misfire that’s all the more frustrating because it’s actually quite good, if that makes sense. As another entry in the Alien franchise, it frustrates to no end. As a tentpole for an all-new franchise, you can’t fault Scott for his desire to go above and beyond the call of duty. His creative passion almost carries Prometheus to the promised land, but the constant teases of the film we wanted to see keep the sci-fi adventure from truly taking off.

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Case in point: the scene where Sean Harris’ character Fifield mutates into a hideous beast and attacks the crew. Deleted/expanded scenes show that his original mutated design was supposed to mimic that of a xenomorph before last-second reshoots and/or special FX tweaks changed the character into a monster that kind of moves like the alien we all know and love, but more closely resembles the Wolfman.

It’s maddening. Even more so because, as stated, Prometheus still works as an entertaining piece of sci-fi that explores the very principles of agnosticism — of which Scott is a devout subscriber. We learn the Engineers previously sent one of their own to our planet to create life and sent another one years later to check up on their project right around the time Jesus Christ presumably walked the Earth. In other words, these Engineers are our gods and saviors — a concept that’s only hinted at in the film, but more or less hidden in plain sight (the plot takes place at Christmas for Pete’s sake). They created us and then, perceiving humans to be a flawed species (crucifixion does that), set out to destroy mankind using a mysterious black goo that is designed to do anything and everything the script needs it to do.

Into this fold drops the android David (Michael Fassbender), a truly unique creation who likewise desires to understand the purpose behind his creation. At one point, he asks Logan Marshall-Green’s Charlie Holloway why humans created machines. Charlie says, “Because we could,” which prompts David to reply bitterly, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creators?” The mysteries of life, and by extension the world beyond this life, are the driving force behind Scott’s wild design; and sometimes, as with David — a fascinating villain whose propensity for violence is matched only by his ongoing desire to prove he’s more than just a walking, talking toy — that vision is marvelous to behold.

Other times, however, Scott neglects intricate details that hamper the realism he’s clearly striving for. Many point out the stupidity of removing one’s helmet whilst on an alien planet, or breaking from the group to explore a dark and dreary spaceship filled with corpses and wild animals, or playing with a cobra-like organism whilst trapped inside a room full of mysterious egg like objects. These sequences feel like last minute additions ordered by the studio to move the plot forward, or compromises made by Scott so he could further explore the film he wants to make about an android dealing with an existential crisis. And so we have two movies meshed into one — a predictable slasher flick where characters make increasingly dumb decisions that ultimately lead to gruesome deaths, and a fascinating story centered around one android’s quest to understand the very nature of his existence.

Both films come to a head in the final 20 or so minutes, resulting in a climax that is equal parts magnificent and stupefying. At one point, Charlize Theron’s character tries to outrun a crashing ship rather than step to the side to avoid a horrific death. That scene is followed by a thoughtful exchange between David and Shaw, where the latter remarks, “They made us and tried to kill us, but changed their minds. I deserve to know why.” David doesn’t understand and feels the answer to her question is irrelevant, leading Shaw to explain, “Well, I guess that’s because I’m a human being and you’re a robot” before zipping the android’s head in a duffle bag. As I said, fascinating.

Naturally, because Scott is Scott, Prometheus looks amazing. From a visual standpoint, it’s up there with James Cameron’s Avatar in terms of style and execution. The ships look amazing, and the sets are intricately designed. The film cost $130 million to produce and every penny is up there on screen. That the characters — namely, Theron’s largely pointless Meredith Vickers, Idris Elba’s bizarre Janek, and Guy Pearce’s silly Peter Wayland — and clunky storytelling aren’t quite up to par with said visuals is ultimately what renders the project a disappointment.

Still, there are thrilling sequences, such as Shaw’s cesarean operation, which stands as one of the more graphic (and clever) moments of Scott’s career:

There’s a brilliant storm sequence that looks amazing:

And a horrifying finale that feels like a throwback to the classic creature features of yesteryear:

Such moments make Prometheus an entertaining summer movie, while the heady concepts are enough to separate the film from others of its ilk. As an entry in the Alien franchise, though, it largely underwhelms. The disappointing follow-up, Alien Covenant, certainly doesn’t help, either, but as a standalone blockbuster, there are few that look this great while daring to tackle the fascinating concepts lingering at its core. Don’t think about it too much and you may even come to tout Prometheus as one of the better summer tentpoles of the last decade.

And, hey, if you squint your eyes hard enough, you might just see the Alien prequel we were promised, but never received.

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