At what point is a child a separate entity from its parent - or can it ever be? It's been 33 years since Alien, time enough for someone to become their own person and begin having offspring of their own. Alien, being the groundbreaking bolt out of the blue that it was, didn't have inherited expectations to live up to. When Ridley Scott announced he would be making a prequel, it had many cautiously optimistic. When that idea soon evolved into something wholly different, but with some traces of Alien DNA, who knew what to expect.
You won't need any paternity test to find the origins of Prometheus, a film all about questions of parentage. It opens with an albino humanoid offering up its body to create the primordial ooze, on this planet or another, it's not clear, but it is provoking. Who are these beings? What is their purpose in creating? And why would they leave us all alone? Lacking nothing for ambition, Prometheus inherited philosophical aspirations from one parent (let's say Blade Runner) but when transposed onto that Alien DNA, the result is a clumsy, laborious hybrid that frustrates as often as it astounds.
Alien fans will pick up on the little connections immediately, like how the title fills in line by line and the old school computer font used for the titular space shuttle's manifest, before a largely identical set-up takes over. A crew following an ancient pictogram star map is led to a distant moon on which an alien presence is immediately confirmed by the presence of an unknown structure, some sort of a crypt or a bunker. Leading the expedition is scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who wants to believe that our real makers are somewhere on this rock, despite holding a crucifix quite dear.
She's not our real lead for a while, as the cast is so deep that we jump back and forth between characters as often as they go from dry-dock to moon-side and back, which is frequent. We get hints at the motivations and personalities of the crew, like the frosty corporate-backer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, making last week's role as the witch in Snow White seem delightful by comparison), before checking in with someone else. "Is there an agenda?" asks Shaw's lover Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) of Vickers. Since she represents Weyland industries, we already know the answer, but not the specifics.
Ambiguity is Prometheus' bread and butter, which is bold when tackling its greater themes of man's origins and where it is we come from, while refusing to settle on one answer, but too much of that haziness worms itself into the plot. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof move things along through sporadic, episodic events that lack sufficient character motivation, explanation, or both. A sandstorm forcing everyone back to the ship is fine, having part of the crew get lost in the tomb is convenient, but having the captain nonchalantly inform them that there's something awake and moving around inside with them is just bizarre.
The film's most dynamic character, an android named David (Michael Fassbender), is the best developed, though even he seems more capricious than programming should allow. He's served his human masters diligently during their two-year trip, but has he developed a HAL-like distrust for his creators? "Don't all children really want their parents dead," he asks with a hint of… menace, or maybe just curiosity, it's unclear. He seems as interested in finding this species of "Engineers" as Shaw, having studied them for years, which makes for a rather convenient explanation of how he can understand an alien language and their advanced technology, where buttons look like hard boiled eggs and Picard's flute is some kind of password protection.
Those are among the only quibbles one could find with Prometheus as a production though; if nothing else, Scott's knack for gorgeous visuals remains intact. The open vistas of Iceland are awe-inducing and shots of a rolling river are among the most immersive the 3D format can provide. The ship's innards and equipment are at the halfway point between current technology and the point where things are functional enough to allow for some style to creep in. Little details, like how the sound of David combing his hair conveys it's falsity, keep Prometheus' immaculate aesthetic and design in your head at all times.
And while the action is stellar at creating thrills and stomach churns, the story denies satisfaction at every turn. Where Alien built on atmosphere before delivering a singular tale of survival amidst the universe's worst nightmare, Prometheus struggles to balance its visceral vision with its philosophical one, and its beloved heritage only serves to undermine the present product with flashes of old brilliance. Like its enigmatic android, Prometheus looks the part so well that in moments, you can mistake it for the real deal, before the mechanisms begin to lumber away again, trying to find a soul and an identity within the facsimile.
3 out of 5
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Damon Lindelof and Jonathan Spaihts