Prometheus: in space, old habits die hard

Despite promising something new, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel falls too easily into the familiar formula of a tired franchise.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

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It’s no great insight to say that Hollywood seems to have run out of new ideas, but recently this has become embarrassingly evident.

The past few years have seen a relentless succession of high-profile remakes and sequels. In a changing marketplace, in which big media companies continually refuse to adapt, film studios seem to have become increasingly reliant on the Sure Thing. The trouble is that as much as we may despise such shameless regurgitations, they tend to make an awful amount of money. The 2010 remake of Desmond Davis’ 1981 fantasy classic, Clash of the Titans, was critically panned but made almost $500million at the box office; Men In Black 3 may have you craving to have your memory wiped by a secret agent, but has already brought in a cool $300million in its first few weeks.

However, while this increasingly unimaginative atmosphere has produced a fair amount of tripe, certain genres seem to be able to provide the potential for quality as well as commercial viability. Alongside the irrepressible comic-book adaptations, science fiction has once again thrived with such prequels as JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes being greeted with critical acclaim as well as financial success.

So it seems that a well-conceived science-fiction universe can provide ample fodder for worthwhile blockbusters. However, given the Alien franchise’s steady decline over the past few years, Prometheus seemed to have its work cut out for it.

Directed by blockbuster powerhouse Ridley Scott, Alien (1979) was a masterstroke of conceptual simplicity and stylish execution. The crew of a cargo ship unwittingly bring a beastly, man-eating alien on board and it picks them off, one by one, in a claustrophobic and spine-tingling couple of hours that quickly cemented itself in the Hollywood pantheon. Unfortunately, its brilliant simplicity also made it readily replicable. Aside from James Cameron’s decent 1986 follow-up, Aliens, the same blueprint was marched out for a further two abysmal sequels. The 2000s saw the eponymous creature rear its ugly head twice more in the crossover catastrophes that were Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, which turned in a considerable profit margin despite being excruciatingly naff.

It is with a certain trepidation that Scott has returned to the fold to direct this latest outing. Eager to distance himself from the franchise’s formulaic trappings, and in lieu of making a direct prequel, Scott instead decides to focus on one unexplained aspect from Alien and expand it into a very different kind of story. In the 1979 original, the malevolent creature is brought on board the cargo ship, Nostromo, when the crew discover alien eggs in a crashed spaceship. As they explore the wreck, they also find the remains of a giant, fossilised creature, which sits in the ship’s cockpit. Scott has said that the enigmatic ‘space jockey’, as it became known, has always bugged him, and this film sets out to explore its origin, setting a new group of characters on a distinctly more philosophical journey, which may hold the key to the meaning of human existence.

The year is 2089 and archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a celestial map left by humanity’s alien forbears in the ancient cave paintings of Earth. They are commissioned to lead a scientific expedition to follow the path the paintings lay out, taking them to a remote and desolate moon where they find the ruins of an ancient civilisation. Initially, Prometheus feels encouragingly different from the rest of the series. The journey the ship Prometheus takes is set up as a voyage of discovery rather than a voyage of the damned and, with stunning visual effects, Scott begins to craft a tantalising new world in the distant reaches of the Alien universe.

Unfortunately, it isn’t long before Scott begins falling into old habits. As they explore the ruins, the crew find more than they bargained for and unleash the wrath of the race they hoped would enlighten them. Thus, the film realigns itself with the very moulds it set out to break and Rapace, taking her lead from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the original series, is left to run around in blood-stained overalls, narrowly escaping the fate of her shipmates, who are all killed off in a range of rather unpleasant ways.

The script then descends into a series of clanging nods to the original, with several scenes almost completely mirroring the most iconic moments of Alien. As it reaches its end, the film hastily returns to the philosophical questions it first posed, yet with so much time taken up in reliving former glories, this only serves to underline how quickly the film drifted away from what was supposed to set it apart.

Recognising that a direct prequel would only lead him into all-too-familiar territory, Scott sidelines the iconic extra-terrestrial in order to tell a more human and complex story. Yet, in its almost compulsive backsliding into the Alien formula, Prometheus is little more than a tame rehash, whose only merit will be making an obscene amount of money.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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