Most people who like cinema have a movie that shines like a beacon in their memory, brighter than all the rest. Mine is Alien. I was there for its first release in 1979, sneaking past the warning signs in the theatre foyer even though I was too young for the movie’s X-certificate. ‘This film contains stroboscopic lighting effects!’ one of the signs screamed. Another suggested that if I was pregnant I might want to give this one a miss.
I ignored the warnings and let Alien carry me away to that distant, dark world. I loved it then, and love it still. Two of my all-time favourite ‘making of’ books are The Book of Alien and Giger’s Alien. I can even tell you, without looking it up, that the registration number of the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo (out of the Solomons and looking for Antarctica Traffic Control) is 180924609.
No wonder I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Prometheus, the film in which after a gap of over thirty years director Ridley Scott finally returns to the Alien universe. And which I’ve now finally seen.
So, did Prometheus knock me out the same way Alien did all those years ago? No, but then I’m not the same impressionable teenager I was in 1979. What intrigues me is how much the movie is staying with me. Possibly growing inside me. It’s a while since a movie’s done that. In the car on the way back from the theatre, my daughter and I couldn’t stop talking about it. Over the past few days I’ve read up on all the background material I’d been studiously avoiding for fear of spoilers. Maybe it’s just because I want to like it. Or maybe it’s really rather good. Either way, Prometheus has got under my skin. I just hope it’s not messing with my DNA.
What impresses me most about Prometheus is its agenda, which to my mind goes something like this: Yes, we’re back in the Alien universe. But we’re not just going to rehash what’s gone before – we’re going to try something new. We also want to do what science fiction films used to do: ask big questions and not necessarily deliver all the answers. When writing the screenplay, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof borrowed more than a little genetic code from Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey. With considerable success.
The whole question-and-answer thing is a tricky one to balance. There’s a fine line between being enigmatic and just plain frustrating, and I’m not the first person to note that Prometheus risks dipping into the latter. Solid as the story is, the script sometimes falters, leaving blanks where you need exposition and telegraphing things that would have been better left unsaid. There are scenes that have you slapping your head and saying, ‘But why didn’t they [fill in the blank]?’
But there’s also something that’s been missing from science fiction cinema for some time: a true sense of wonder. That’s enough to make me think that maybe I like Prometheus a lot after all.
That’s not all. For a start, the film looks stupendous. The art direction and cinematography are to die for. There are some great performances too, from Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and particularly Michael Fassbender, who holds the movie together and throws a mean basketball.
Then there are the visual and special effects …
Back in 1979, I was pretty good at taking effects shots apart and working out how they were done. These days it’s a lot harder. Watching Prometheus, I was struck by not only the beauty, but also the simple realism of what I was seeing. Having now read the extensive coverage in Cinefex #130 and at FXGuide, I’ve learned that a lot of the work was done on-set and in-camera. Sure, there’s plenty of CG too, but it seems the key effects vendors MPC, Weta and Fuel fed into their pipelines as much real-world reference as they could.
The results are blisteringly good. The big spacecraft shots – both of the Prometheus itself and the alien Juggernaut – are awe-inspiring. The orrery is magical. The Engineer – realised primarily through prosthetics but also replicated briefly as a full digital creature – is beautiful, chilling and truly other-worldly. When Scott cuts to those wide, wide, wide shots of tiny people and tiny vehicles moving through rich alien environments, it’s goosebump time. I could go on.
It was always going to be hard to watch Prometheus purely on its own terms. All that Alien baggage weighs a ton, especially for someone like me. On first viewing, my expectations were high and a big part of my mind was distracted trying to join all the dots between the two films. On subsequent viewings, will those niggling script issues prove fatal? Or will Prometheus, as I hope it might, reward more each time I see it?
There’s only one way to find out …