Throughout his career, Ridley Scott has probably been most associated with science-fiction genre. Despite making only two sci-fi films (the first Alien and Blade Runner) such was the critical acclaim that both films have accrued in the years and decades afterwards that Sir Ridley has managed to base an entire reputation on them.
The truth is nobody, bar Kubrick and Tarkovskiy, has been able to match Ridley Scott’s science fiction output in terms of its quality. Alien was a near-perfect space horror, a film that was far more disturbing and genuinely terrifying than its all-action, subtlety-lost sequels. Blade Runner took the elements of film noir and used it to create a perfect setting for Phillip K Dick’s ambiguous story on what it is to be human.
In Prometheus, Scott might be resurrecting the Alien franchise but the scope is far more aligned with Blade Runner’s philosophical ruminations on where human enterprise will lead our civilisation. Prometheus covers a ship with a crew of 17 who undertake a mission to uncover what race of aliens (or, perhaps more appropriately, Gods) left messages in the artwork of ancient civilizations relating to a star network at the other end of space.
They reach a distant planet and uncover what they believe is a race of ‘engineers’ who visited Earth. They also find all the engineers have seemingly died and the island contains numerous containers holding some of the creatures we were introduced to in the original Alien. We are then left to question why these so-called “weapons of mass destruction” we being created and why the engineers were so transfixed with Earth.
The ambition of film is commendable. While Prometheus offers many of the chills and thrills Alien had, it dedicates much of its time to throwing out ideas on the nature of human existence and evolution, throwing in death and religious imagery throughout to tell us just how profound the film really is. It throws out numerous different world-views and belief systems and never once directs us on which character is correct in their interpretation of the riddles the planet holds.
Michael Fassbender once again provides the most interesting role as a Lawrence of Arabia loving android villain/anti-hero; his own possession of consciousness provides as much inspiration for the film’s title as the humans looking for the engineers who created them and his association with Lean’s Lawrence, along with the repeated playing of a clip of Lawrence’s famous match trick, provides both the fire and the hubris the film’s title references. Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron all excel as characters with vastly different motivations to coming on the mission and who discover very different characteristics about themselves as the exploration of the planet’s secrets continues.
However, despite the grand ambitions and quasi-philosophical musings on the nature of life, Prometheus never manages to tie these ideas into a satisfactory conclusion. At the end of the film many of our questions are still unanswered, not in a 2001-like statement on man’s inability to understand the universe it is in, but simply because it never succeeds in bringing its own script under control.
Questions are thrown out and never satisfactorily answered, meaning another film is on the horizon to try to bring some closure. We are left expecting a sequel when another hour of film would have provided the film’s major conclusions while still leaving some room for ambiguity. Prometheus is much like its title in many respects – it aims for Olympian heights but never quite manages to reach them.
Despite these shortcomings and a rather unsatisfactory ending, Prometheus is easily the best film of the Alien franchise, bar the unassailably brilliant first film. Scott has managed with this film to render all those films between Alien and Prometheus essentially irrelevant. Aliens came close but the change from slow-building horror to full throttle action never quite suited the franchise, with all the subsequent films attempting to incorporate this change in tone.
With Prometheus, Ridley Scott has set the reset button, bringing the Aliens back to their sinister roots while expanding the universe they exist within. Whether it proves to be a classic will hinge on what answers the next film will provide. The only hope is that this film becomes the beginning of the series’ end rather than a full-blown resurrection. But, with a Blade Runner sequel apparently in the offing, Ridley Scott has proven that 30 years away from the business hasn’t dimmed his appetite, or talent, for sci-fi. And long may that continue.