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30 Minutes On: "Prometheus"

It’s hard to believe that Ridley Scott didn’t personally direct any "Alien" sequels until 33 years after the first one, and—big surprise—considering how many films he made in the interim, this is just a different movie. 

At first it was unclear what relationship this was going to have to the original 1979 "Alien" and the franchise generally, but it turns out that it’s something close to what was attempted with "Rogue One" in the "Star Wars" series. “How did we get here?” is the question. It’s one that pertains to the human species as well as the franchise. 

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The jumping-off point for the screenplay, which is by John Spaitz and Damon Lindelof, is the crashed spaceship that the crew of the Nostromo investigated in the 1979 film. One of the most tantalizing images released in the advance of the original was the shot of this enormous, bowl-shaped room containing what appeared to be some kind of giant humanoid “space jockey” lying dead in what could be a telescope or a weapon, his ribcage exploded from what we later learn was the emergence of a parasite. 

From this image, and also from various fan fiction including the Alien vs. Predator series, the makers of “Prometheus” have extrapolated a story about a race of giant humanoid super-beings known as the Engineers, who essentially were a race of Dr. Frankensteins, genetically and geographically altering the universe. It takes a while to figure all this out, but we gather that the creatures died of their own hubris. There are similarities between the way Scott presents this material and the John Carpenter film “Ghosts of Mars,” also about terrestrial explorers setting foot on a planet that’s one big haunted house and encountering the invasive ghosts of a previous civilization.

It’s not just a prequel to “Alien” but also a “Blade Runner”-adjacent science-fiction film, about replicants/androids, playing God, and the idea of artificial intelligence and whether an implanted personality can result in a real person. So much attention is paid to the character of David, played by Michael Fassbender, a handsome, eloquent android who adores “Lawrence of Arabia” and watches it obsessively, that it almost seems as if the project came about because Scott was thinking about the original movie when it occurred to him that the story might play out very differently if Ian Holm’s character were affable and handsome rather than secretive and prickly.

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It’s beautiful what they do with this character. David (shade of Michelangelo!) is framed as a servant, like every other android character in the "Alien" and "Blade Runner" series. There’s no indication that he will prove to be the protagonist of the story. But that’s what happens. His narrative arc is Frankenstein’s monster learning how to be Frankenstein and ultimately becoming Frankenstein. By the time we get to "Alien: Covenant" that idea is going to be pushed even further.

There were some complaints at the time of release that “Prometheus” was not up to snuff in terms of characterization and narrative—particularly that the characters were stupid in the way that horror movie characters often are, doing reckless, ill-considered things that often resulted in hideous death. I don’t see any way to argue against that. They do remarkably stupid things in this movie, like making small talk with an alien cobra with a face full of jagged teeth. One admittedly generous way to frame the movie is to treat it as an analogy for the self-destructive impulses of the human race as a whole. 

But I would also argue that a lot of the behavior we perceive as “stupid” in a "Alien" movie is only perceived this way because we’ve already seen a lot of "Alien" movies. When John Hurt’s character was in that chamber with a bunch of what were obviously giant eggs—seventies audiences knew this because they saw the commercials and trailers—and the top of one of them opened up and he went over and shined his flashlight into it, was that smart or dumb? A fair answer would take into account that, unlike the audience, he didn’t know what that was. “Prometheus” is a prequel to "Alien," so none of the explorers know what they’re looking at, either. Ditto the crew of this ship, which didn't see the original "Alien" and therefore doesn't know that, in an "Alien" movie, a distress call is something you ignore if you know what's good for you.

Plus, the aesthetic here is just different. Scott was concerned in "Alien" and "Blade Runner" with plausibility and technical realism, and creating worlds that could actually exist at some point. He was operating in the mode of someone like Stanley Kubrick or George Pal. Now he’s more like a silent, German expressionist filmmaker, more like a Fritz Lang making' "Metropolis." I don't think that Fritz Lang lost a lot of sleep over whether or not the city in "Metropolis" was “believable” in the way that Scott and his collaborators did when they created the dystopian Los Angeles of "Blade Runner." Nor do I think F.W. Murnau was concerned that his portrayal of the relationship between the country folk and the city in "Sunrise" was a journalistically correct representation. They were both fables. 

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“Prometheus” has a touch of the fable. It tells you that in the opening sequence, a creation myth that's never "justified" through the point-of-view of a human character, and therefore must be interpreted (like the "Dawn of Man" sequence in "2001") as being staged for the audience's benefit alone. All told, the film probably owes more to opera than to a hard science-fiction novel ] with intricate descriptions of processes and gear. It’s about the music of the images, as in a German Expressionist dream-horror picture like “Nosferatu” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari,” where plainly sinister and dangerous things happen right in front of potential victims and they either fail to grasp the threat or are too mesmerized to think clearly. A self-administered Caeserean extraction in the movie makes no sense if you think about it for more than a few seconds (what kind of surgery machine isn’t designed to accomodate a woman?). Ditto a shot of a ring-shaped starcraft rolling after one of the characters, who never thinks to cut left or right because this entire movie is a nightmare ruled by nightmare logic. 

It’s wonderful to see Scott play around with a big budget in a kind of voluptuous, decadent, tossed-off way, as if he’s drawing in a sketchbook and just trying to get as many fabulous, iconic images out there as he can. Even seemingly functional and expository moments are designed and executed with panache. There’s a shot early in the movie where you see the ship and the crew waking up from a deep space voyage. David walks through the frame, starting in the foreground, then walks through a doorway, and a light goes on in the next room, and he keeps walking through another doorway in the middleground, and another light goes on. And there's another doorway and another light, until finally he’s in the deep background, and he stops and notices something on the floor, and bends down and picks a speck of something off the floor. In that one shot, you get a sense of David’s character as somebody who cares about the details, cleanliness, and order, and is an excellent caretaker for the ship and the humans on board, and also a sense of the vastness and elegance of the vessel that they’re on, which Ridley Scott unveils as if pulling back a series of curtains. 

The master showman: always with a flourish.

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