Plot Synopsis: Set before the events of 1979’s Alien, Prometheus explains the history of the planet where the crew of the Nostromo set down and discovered the derelict spaceship and nest of alien eggs that kick-started the horror to follow. A pair of scientists are convinced that a series of ancient subterranean drawings are a message from a distant planet, a belief that sees them onboard the spaceship Prometheus, where they and the crew discover the horrifying truth behind the ‘messages’.
Prequels. Are they ever any good? Let’s not count Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the fact that it’s a prequel really doesn’t make any difference to how we approach it, and even though a good chunk of The Godfather Part II is set before Part I, a lot of it is set after, so it’s not a textbook prequel per se.
When it comes to prequels, the big bloated daddies are undoubtedly the almighty trilogy of pointlessness that is the Star Wars prequel films, which had zero tension because we knew EXACTLY where they were heading, and only offered to answer questions raised in the original trilogy that when, revealed, weren’t too interesting after all the build-up. The Star Wars prequels didn’t work because they ruined the powerful thing that almost all films (and especially the original Star Wars trilogy) use, and that’s backstory.
Backstory is necessary. We enter the film at its logical plot starting point, and the backstory is given to us so that we can fill in the blanks. When backstory is effectively used, we essentially expand the plot’s universe in our head without the filmmakers having to spend hours and hours telling us in detail what happened before the opening credits. We can only imagine what happened before the first shot, and by doing so we help to give the film an extra, personal dimension by bringing our own imagination to the proceedings. Take the first (or fourth…..you know, the 1977 one) Star Wars, which has a huge amount of backstory. Three films worth in fact. Us fans would speculate on all the stuff mentioned but never shown – all that Clone Wars malarkey, what Luke’s father was like before he went all asthmatic, and so forth. Then the rumours of the prequel films got us all excited – all the stuff we had to resort to our imaginations with, now would be made real, and all our pitiful daydream versions would be consigned to the rubbish bin. Oh, but wait, the real things turned out to be massively disappointing. Not really worth it in the end. Essentially, the prequel films were always going to be lesser – after all, if they had stronger stories than Episodes V-VI, then why were those films not made instead back in the seventies? No, the reason is because George Lucas did a smart thing – he consigned those films to where they belonged in the form of backstory, and started his series at the best possible point. Then he went and ballsed it all up by making that backstory a trilogy in itself, and because he couldn’t resist the lure of modern special effects, totally ruined the visual element by having a bunch of films set before the first lot that looked three thousand times more sophisticated. Seriously, how can you flow easily from the end of Revenge of the Sith to the beginning of A New Hope without wondering what happened to all the technology and the haircuts in-between?
Ridley Scott’s hugely awaited Prometheus is set before the series of Alien films that started with Scott’s own original back in 1979. That film was, and still is, a terrific SF horror that spawned an incredible sequel, a butchered but eventually salvaged and ultimately underrated third chapter and a muddled, weak fourth instalment (not to mention the Alien Vs Predator offshoots) that expanded the Alien universe exponentially. For a while though, there was just Alien, and it could have logically remained a one-off. It used backstory, and tantalisingly featured many unexplained moments, but there was nothing that left you frustrated. In fact, the unexplained presence of the alien spaceship, and that bizarre looking pilot inside, made it all the more mysterious. So, did we need a film thirty years later telling us what really happened before Alien? Not really, but the Alien franchise sells tickets, so on we go. Prometheus is quite enjoyable as a bit of SF nonsense, but it’s a waste of time as an Alien movie. And this is a film set in the Alien universe that deliberately ties events to earlier films, so it belongs in that series’ timeline. And yet, like Lucas, Scott has seriously compromised the continuity of the series by featuring ludicrously advanced technology that makes the endearingly clunky, relatively unsophisticated hardware of Alien look like it was set a thousand years before Prometheus, not after. If Scott had stuck to the logical timeline of things, we’d have had a film where all computer screens were black with green lettering, where state-of-the-art meant using what looked like a chunky microchip board into a load of messy wiring in order to access the top secret communications room (which is made up thousands of very impressive but ultimately pointless miniature light bulbs). And it would have looked like a film from 1979 as a result. Hardly big-budget 2012 blockbuster material. Yet the film geek in me wanted it to look like that. By having everything super-modern and amazing looking, you end up making something that doesn’t feel part of the Alien chronology at all. It’s a compromise that many won’t mind, but I hate it.
Anyway, if the film was exciting, tense, scary and whatnot, I would have been far more forgiving of these aesthetic lapses – but Prometheus is merely decent, fair, okay, alright. It’s a three star movie. There are great things about it – for all the compromising of the series continuity, the film does look fantastic, and special effects are mostly fine (with one exceptional element – read on) and the deliberately slow build-up is nicely choreographed. Michael Fassbender (yes, him again) is really delightful for the most part as the token ‘artificial person’ who is on board the ship. Every Alien film has a robot on board, and Fassbender is almost as classic a robot as Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen were in their own synthetic roles. He’ll make you forget about Winona Ryder’s bloody appalling turn in Alien Resurrection, that’s for sure. He’s got the attempts to simulate human behaviour down beautifully, and he’s magnificent to watch before the story goes everywhere and he’s just a cog in the wheels of a plot that’s trying to get everything wrapped up before the credits. Once you get over the realisation that Noomi Rapace’s lead character is supposed to be British (with that accent?), she’s one of the more intriguing, if still underdeveloped, characters in the film, whose vague obsessions only keep us going so far with her. All the other characters are cut-outs, not offensively conveyer-belt material, but not far off. There’s some good tension here and there – the best bit is an emergency C-section that’s intensely staged (even if the aftermath is hard to swallow) and claustrophobically scary. The alien creatures themselves are unfortunately computer-generated and as such unconvincing – you just don’t believe they’re really there on screen. I re-watched Aliens the other day and was astonished by the effects – the aliens have a terrifyingly real presence because there was genius costume, performance, camera and lighting work on show. You really believe Ripley is trapped in an airlock with an alien because on one level, she really is. However, when we get two oversized pixels wrestling on the floor, it’s hard to get so involved.
By the end I hardly felt like the Alien universe had been effectively expanded. I re-watched Alien shortly after and felt no sense of an old film being cast in a new light because of Prometheus. The only thing that film did was make me remember just how bloody brilliant the original Alien is.