Ridley Scott revisits sci-fi with “Prometheus”

In 1979, at a time when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the
kings of movies that focused on outer space adventures and encounters
with beings from other planets, and “Star Trek” stumbled out of the
gate with its first attempt at a big-screen adaptation, a new sci-fi
film hit the theaters with a simple, chilling and enigmatic marketing
campaign.

The movie was titled “Alien.” It did not have any big-name stars in
it. The ad published in newspapers was dark, with the title stripped
across the top and just below it was an object that looked like it
could either be an oblong-shaped moon, an egg, or some kind of alien
head with light beaming out of the eye sockets. Under the object was
the real hook — the words: In space no one can hear you scream.

That was all the information potential viewers would get. Critical
reaction to the movie was mixed, but word-of-mouth truly paid off and by the end
of 1979, “Alien” was one of the most successful movies of the year
and has become a classic in the science-fiction and horror genre.

It really was a case of little known names making it big. The late
Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009) was the genius behind “Alien” as he and
Ronald Shusett, having worked together on John Carpenter’s “Dark
Star” five years earlier, collaborated on the screenplay.
In another fateful match-up, the writers were introduced to the
artists, notably Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud, who would be
pivotal in the design of the full-grown alien xenomorph that now
ranks up there with other classic horror figures such as
Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and
Godzilla.

Ridley Scott, who had only one other major movie under his belt,
“The Duelists,” directed “Alien” and with this team captured the
chilling and claustrophobic effects of being trapped inside a ship
in deep space with no way to escape a hostile being that was
practically indestructible and, by the way, bled acid.

The rest is history. While the sequel, “Aliens,” directed by James
Cameron, was a hit, the two subsequent movies tanked and have been
disowned by ardent “Alien” fans. Nevertheless, an industry of
products — action figures, puzzles, trading cards, novelizations –
has kept the franchise going, as well as a healthy post-theater life
of the movies via video-DVD and pay-TV exposure.

Now, 33 years later, Scott, who had nothing to do with any of the
“Alien” movies following the original, is revisiting the genre with
what may or may not be a prequel, depending on who is talking about
it. Noomi Rapace, who plays the key role of Elizabeth Shaw in
“Prometheus,” has said that when Scott first brought up with her the
possibility of being in the movie, he called it a prequel.
However, co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof — co-creator of “Lost” –
said that his intention during the writing of “Prometheus” was not to
treat it as a prequel. Lindelof had been hired to work on an
original draft of the movie written by Jon Spaihts, which was penned
as a straight-up prequel. Lindelof saw his objective as pushing back
some of the familiar aspects of the story — face-hugger and
xenomorphs — and fortifying more of the original concepts of the
Spaihts effort.

So the premise of “Prometheus” is learning about the beginnings of
man rather than an exploration of possible life in outer space.

In the late 21st century Rapace’s Shaw and her partner not only in
scientific research but in life as well, Charlie Holloway (Logan
Marshall-Green), discover etchings on cave walls throughout the
world that despite being done thousands of years apart have a common
theme of people looking up to a cluster of planets or moons.
Their discoveries catch the attention of Peter Weyland (an
unrecognizable Guy Pearce), the elderly ultra wealthy owner of the
Weyland Corp., who finances a journey to this faraway destination on
the spaceship Prometheus.

Unlike “Alien,” wherein the basically blue-collar crew of the
Nostromo is forced to detour from a trip home to become planetary
explorers, the Prometheus crew is hand-picked specifically for this
mission. While Nostromo is essentially a cramped dump truck of a
space vehicle, Prometheus is roomy and luxurious. On board with Shaw
and Holloway are a few other scientists, a crew led by the
wise-cracking captain, Janek (Idris Elba), the Weyland corporate
figurehead Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and of course the
android, David (Michael Fassbender).

Their destination is a moon orbiting a Saturn-like ringed planet.
This moon has atmospheric conditions similar to Earth and upon a
closer look there is evidence some form of intelligent life is or has
been there.

Here the aura of “Alien” hangs over to the disadvantage of
“Prometheus.” In the 1979 movie, when Dallas (Tom Skerritt) , Lambert
(Veronica Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt) leave Nostromo and venture
on foot on the unexplored planet to find the source of the
transmission that diverted the spacecraft there for investigative
purposes, viewers had no idea what to expect. The result was truly
shocking. In “Prometheus” the anticipation is that the space jockey,
egg pods, face-huggers and possible xenomorphs will be appearing.
There is a sense of foreboding but not surprise.

“Prometheus” does offer clues as to what transpired on this planet,
explaining the space jockey that the doomed Nostromo crew
encountered. “Prometheus” also presents some ideas about the
beginning of life and leaves a few questions unanswered, likely in
anticipation of sequels.

Aside from the chills supplied in “Alien,” the 1979 movie was lifted
by the characterizations. The crew of Nostromo was a motley group.
Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are the
engineers, the mechanics of the ship, two guys low on the totem pole,
bitter about what they feel is unfair compensation for their work.
Lambert is the I-do-what-I-am-told employee, not really anxious to
offer more than token effort; one who stands frozen in the face of
death rather than try to flee. Kane is the dedicated second officer,
efficient and driven, a guy everybody can talk to. Dallas is the
leader, a man probably with loftier goals, having resigned to the
fact he is captain of a oversized ore hauler with a crew of misfits
– he distrusts the company that employs him but does what he is told
without question.

Then there is Ash (Ian Holm), who is kind of the nerd — the science
officer — not close to anybody and the character who turns out be
only a tool for the company that has a secret agenda. He is, in fact,
an android whose true purpose is to carry through with
company-mandated exploratory projects should they arise.

And Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). An unknown when she was cast as
Ripley, Weaver’s career was propelled by this role, applauded as a
ground-breaking character of a woman who despite being scared to
death maintains her wits and eventually outsmarts a hostile, wily
creature.

In “Prometheus” Shaw no doubt will be compared to Ripley in that
when mortal danger threatens, she is resourceful, or as android David
notes, has a strong resolve to survive. Rapace, who proved herself as
being able to play tough roles with her turn as Lizbeth Salander in
the original “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series, gets really
sweaty and dirty as Shaw and even forces the audience to endure with
her an excruciating scene of impromptu surgery. She presents an
interesting case of a scientist who also firmly embraces her faith.

Theron’s Meredith also is a strong but underused character. Her
primary interest is to oversee the journey and make sure Prometheus
returns to Earth in one piece, with minimal depreciation. Her
allegiance to the mission is minimal, more obligatory than anything.

Fassbender’s David is the character with the most intrigue. Unlike
Ash, we know from the start that he is a robot. This keeps the
viewers guessing. It is known he primarily is programmed to complete
some mission that may or may not conflict with the safety of the
crew. Fassbender’s performance is marvelous — he is efficient, has
enough artificial intelligence to be analytical. He even has a
childlike wonder of things, much like the android Data from “Star
Trek — The Next Generation.” It should be noted too that the naming
of this android David follows an alphabetical pattern of robot names
in the “Alien” series — Ash in “Alien,” Bishop in “Aliens,” Call in
“Alien Resurrection.”

Ridley and his crew present as awesome view of the planet and the
pyramid therein where the Prometheus crew members make their finds. Indeed,
the visual aspects of this movie are stunning. There are shocks and
there is gore. “Prometheus” does not capture the eeriness of the grim
proceedings in Nostromo — that is not its intent. It just takes
another look at how life might have begun and how some things can go
horribly wrong.

“Alien” was absolute. It could stand on its own without any sequels.
“Prometheus” leaves us in the dark in some ways. It too could stand
alone, and thrive on years of discussions. The murkiness of the
ideas, whether intentional or not, leaves a serious challenge to
those who undertake a sequel.

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