I was part of the Classics Society at university. We had a room right up in the attic of one of the buildings; on the wall was an excerpt from an essay by some disgruntled academic about Homer’s The Iliad.
I forget the exact wording, but it went along the lines of: ‘Why bother praising The Iliad? It’s what we wrote before we knew how to write proper literature.’
There’s a sense of that watching old films. Superman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture are wonderful, amazing films, but they are clearly products of a particular time in our science fiction history. Long, pondering, meandering, and — to be frank — boring explorations of the human condition… in space.
I went to a party a few weeks ago dressed as HAL 3000. A few people said: ‘Oh, yeah! I don’t think I’ve made it all the way through that film. I fell asleep.’
Alien is, in comparison, a much more modern film. The film follows Ripley as the ship she’s on discovers a lair of eggs, one of which hatches, &c., &c., &c. Instead of being the typical science fiction movie about humanity, Alien is a horror film.
As much as I love Alien, it has some serious drawbacks. Characters exist just to be fodder and, really, does the plot make much sense? What the hell is the android doing?
Prometheus is what Alien would have looked like had it been made today and not two decades ago. It only looks bad in comparison with Alien if the nostalgia-goggles are so dimmed over that you can’t remember much about Alien.
Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers a map from ancient civilisations. She brings her partner along on a spaceship, Prometheus, lead by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) to find the ‘Engineers’ — the race believed to have somehow created life on Earth. Vickers’ leads a crew of men and a robot, David (Michael Fassbender). When they find the planet specified in the ancient map, Shaw’s assumptions are challenged: Who are the Engineers? What were they doing? Who are her shipmates? What are they doing?
Don’t go looking for a coherent plot. It doesn’t exist. Don’t go looking for deep and meaningful characters. Outside the three leads (Rapace, Theron, Fassbender), only Idris Elba manages to stand out beyond the cookie-cutter template for a spaceship crew.
Then again — to a degree — you don’t want those sorts of things in this sorts of film. Prometheus, like Alien, is a horror film set in space. What you want from this sort of film is terror, and Prometheus brings it in spades.
In a recent post, I discussed the argument that censorship made it more difficult for horror films to be creative. Prometheus shows that films can still find ways to terrorise audiences without needing to resort to gore. There’s very little blood in Prometheus, and yet there are scenes which are utterly terrifying. It finds ways to relive the original thrill of the facehugger — all of the creepiness, all of the shock, and all of the uncertainty — in brand new ways.
Despite being set in the Alien universe, Prometheus does really fresh things with the horror elements. Although the film depicts things we’ve seen before, they seem fresh and new. Alien was about anxiety regarding sex, and Prometheus plays uses body horror to play in the same intellectual space. Lovers turn out not to be who they seem. Pregnancy becomes a literal alien invasion. Monsters are amalgamations of genitals in brand new ways.
But there are times when the movie bites off a lot more than it can chew. There are zombies and alien infestations and alien creatures and alien warmongers all within about five minutes of each other. Where Alien kept our attention fixed on the life-cycle of one, individual monster, Prometheus plays with a lot of different kinds of monster. This often feels more like indecisiveness than purposeful. Characters isolated from the others discover a new monster because there is no chance of the existing three monsters reaching them.
And there are some really uncomfortable ideas bubbling under the surface, particularly about women’s rights to birth control in the future. Rapace and Theron all but eclipse this film with strong, powerful women. Thrown into the mix is a medical lab which is able to perform bypass surgeries and, apparently, vasectomies, but can’t perform abortions…
But these quibbles are nothing in comparison to how beautiful this film is. ‘Retro-futuristic’ barely manages to describe it. They’ve taken the concepts of what the future would look like from Alien in the most amazing ways. So where the new Star Trek film gave us a version of the Enterprise which was more modern than that appearing in the original movies (despite being a pseudo-prequel), the Prometheus feels like the sort of ship that would later be used by Ripley. Sure, some of the equipment is higher-tech (holograms and whatnot), but the overall design fits like a glove.
Overall, it’s not as good as Alien, but I can’t think of many films that are.
If you want a genuinely terrifying experience, go see Prometheus. If you want to see character development and plots, go see something else.