So, 33 years in stasis and Ridley Scott returns to the beast's lair. Over the last few months we've been bombarded with trailers, teasers, teasers for teasers, on-set stills, not to mention some rather natty viral videos. Not that it's been needed - there was no way a prequel to one of the world's most seminal Science Fiction movies was ever going to breeze by unnoticed, however, teased we were, salivating and eager to suit up once more. Scott claimed in the run-up to the film's release that Prometheus contained the slightest trace of Alien DNA in its veins; this was emphatically not a prequel, rather a tangent from canon, however official. Whether sincerely meant or a canny attempt at distancing the film from Alien, and thus heading off any potential comparisons should Prometheus fail to deliver, we don't know. What is clear is that whether Prometheus delivers at all is very much dependant on if you view it as a standalone movie, inspired by thematic strains the director knows best, or an deliciously irresistible forerunner to Alien.
The first thing to mention is that, predictably, Prometheus is exquisite to look at. From the opening aerial shots of a fecund, verdant Earth, to the intricate design of the ship itself as android David (Fassbender) prowls the corridors, passing time as the crew sleep. Every airlock, every helmet, glove, HUD and GUI has been clearly lovingly designed and executed. Purists might complain the production design lacks the grime of the original, but I would suggest that it feels like Scott's palette has opened up since '79. The advancing of tech has meant there's more to take inspiration from, new ways of moulding sets and props, new ways of texturing, layering, weathering. It feels like Alien made today. The premise, should you have managed to avoid the glut of marketing material, has archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) discover a star-map detail present in several unconnected civilisations around the world. Rashly interpreting this is an open invite to come say hello, off the crew jet to LV-233 in the hope of meeting our creators.
What happens next actually unfolds rather pleasingly. There are a number of genuinely chilling moments including a heart-in-gullet surgical procedure that astutely plays on primal fears of confinement and internal claustrophobia; think something nasty in you, in a coffin. Narratively, things just about hold together and overall Lindelof and Spaihts do the lineage proud, neatly augmenting and expanding backstory, whilst never being too overt, or worse, cheating us with palmed cards of story extension. The film is also indebted to the wonderfully nuanced performances by Rapace and Fassbender. Shaw is passionate and driven, too soft to be a natural heroine even, and her character is written with clever nods to the franchise's thematic detailing on motherhood and birth. Rapace is an actor of extraordinary ability, Scott's camera often allowing her expressive face and soulful eyes to fill the entire frame. Likewise Fassbender, man of the moment, is as intelligent and enigmatic as Ian Holm's Ash. Watching him act through the many layers of emotion and motivation both organic and artificial reveals how rarely robot characters are allowed as much depth of personality and thought as their human counterparts. It is with a heavy heart then that gaping plot holes abound and scenes segue together with all the grace of a drunken showgirl. Guy Pearce's much touted turn as Weyland of Weyland/Yutani fame might just as well have been left on the cutting room floor for all the narrative propulsion and sense it makes, and an on-screen caption that lists the crew of the Prometheus as being 17 in number sets a clearly unattainable goal at being able to give enough screen-time to each of them to make us invest in the humanity at stake. And then there's an ending which, given the smarts on display in the previous 120 minutes, leads into sequel territory with an unsettling heavy hand.
The stakes being so high to begin with, Prometheus was never going to live up to expectation. All there was was the promise of recapturing the past. But films aren't made in 1979 any more and detractors might feel betrayed by the inevitable passing of time, ageing of creators, and advances of process. Alien will always be there, waiting for us on our DVD shelf; Prometheus acknowledges its heritage, and proceeds to forge its own path. It's not perfect, but great art rarely is.