Movie of the week: Prometheus

I, robot: Michael Fassbender in Prometheus.

I, robot: Michael Fassbender in Prometheus.

Of all the movies coming out this year, Prometheus is the one to have attracted the most questions of the “Have you seen it yet?” sort. Maybe that’s just because I know several guys of the geeky-nerdy persuasion, but Prometheus certainly seems to be “eagerly awaited”, even if it hasn’t been particularly “long- awaited”. Nobody realised they were waiting for a prequel to Alien until Ridley Scott announced he was making one.

Prometheus is not, perhaps, precisely a prequel to Alien — it has no characters in common.
But it gets us to the point at which that 1979 spaceship chiller began. And director Scott is once more at the helm, 33 years later, raising hopes that this extension of the Alien sequence (an extension backwards in narrative time) will not replicate the sorry decline of the last few Alien movies, which ended with the nadir of Alien vs Predator.

Scott’s presence, at least, assures audiences of some authentic insight into the scenario, as though he was the original prophet given the holy message of the Alien story. As a director, though, Scott is of little use without a good script, as movies such as Matchstick Men and Robin Hood show. Still, good script or not, he can at least bring a superb art director’s eye to any movie he makes.

And Prometheus is certainly a marvel of design. It looks fabulous, whether we’re in the high-tech spaceship of 2093, speeding towards a distant planet, or we’re on the planet itself, investigating the ancient retro-techno relicts of a breed of aliens nicknamed “the engineers”. The CGI is seamless and masterful, as befits a director who helped to push that particular envelope. This rather makes up for a storyline that only just escapes predictability and is peopled with characters one can’t help feeling one has seen or met before.

But that’s part of the notion, of course, for this prequel also has to mimic much of what made Alien special, though it cannot reproduce its freshness or its surprises. Hence we have a motley crew of spaceship travellers, as in Alien, one of whom is an android. No point, here, in withholding the revelation of which character is the android, as in Alien, until the right moment for the shocker; it is clear upfront that it’s David (Michael Fassbender), for he’s the only crew member padding around the spaceship Prometheus while the rest sleep for two years on their long journey into outer space.

Talking in tongues

He’s also busy learning some archaic alien languages so that, when they get to their destination, the people on Prometheus can communicate with “the engineers”. This he does very well, though the language or dialect in question sounds a lot like an especially guttural version of Arabic, or perhaps it’s Dothraki — and David could have learnt it from watching old episodes of A Game of Thrones.

David is also a great admirer of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, as are we all. He watches a clip from that epic, focusing on a moment in which Lawrence talks about not minding the pain — odd, perhaps, for an android who presumably feels no pain in the first place. Is he seeking some kind of identification with the truly, fully human? Or is he learning, like he learned alienspeak, ways of more convincingly impersonating real people?

Such questions, unfortunately, are not explored in Prometheus. Perhaps that’s another movie — an adjunct to Blade Runner, Scott’s other Meisterwerk. Yet the echoes of Blade Runner persist in Prometheus, apart from our wondering whether David dreams of electric sheep, if he dreams at all. When the Charlize Theron character is asked whether she’s an android, it’s more than just a laugh line referring to her icy demeanour and her sneer of cold command. She could easily be one of those sexbots created by the Tyrell Corporation, though it would have had to give her a more winning bedside manner too.

In Greek myth, Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, thus generating humanity’s first great leap forward. (It really is the only thing that utterly separates us from our fellow mammals: the fact that we cook our food.) In some versions of the myth, Prometheus actually created humanity, and the “engineers” sought by the Prometheus crew are believed to have done just that. There is a prologue that illustrates this idea without, in fact, clarifying how it is supposed to have worked.

Indeed, the whole set-up is rather sketchy. Noomi Rapace, otherwise known as the girl with the dragon tattoo, and Logan Marshall-Green, who looks like a flat-top Israeli version of Tom Hardy, find some cave paintings that point in the direction of outer space and an off-planet origin for humanity. Then that Chariots of the Gods moment is swept aside and we’re off on our odyssey across space.

Once we’re aloft, the plot proceeds apace. As soon as the ship reaches its destination, the plot speeds up and gets more actiony, as well as scarier. Unlike so many movies nowadays, it is very good as far as pace goes — it can do a lento lead-up as confidently as it can do presto action. It is wholly engrossing for as long as it lasts, though the likelihood is that some viewers at least will walk out with an oddly empty feeling, as though Prometheus didn’t quite fill that Alien-shaped hole in our bellies. I’m not sure, either, that all the plot dots were properly joined.

And it’s no Alien. That claustrophobic atmosphere, never mind a willingness to stretch out the suspense in a minimal but nerve-racking way, is absent. There’s nothing to compare with the celebrated “Here, kitty, kitty” scene with Harry Dean Stanton in Alien. (Maybe one can’t make such scenes any more in this prestissimo era.) Nonetheless, Prometheus is thoroughly entertaining, and worth it for Fassbender alone. This role extends his range, which already stretches from Magneto and Mr Rochester to Shame, still further.

His android David may or may not dream of electric sheep, but he knows how to touch up his dark roots, and it’s the most oddly human moment in the movie.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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