But it totally is. Only if it were called Alien Babies or Alien: The Phantom Menace could it have been more of a prequel. (And, SPOILER ALERT, either of those titles would have worked here.)
Late in the 21st century, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find similar symbols in ancient cultural sites across the world. The images seem to indicate giant visitors from a distant corner of the galaxy. Their hypothesis is that these beings might have had a hand in creating human life on Earth and will want, ha, to have a friendly meet-and-great with their creations. (No, really, try to say it, even in your head, without snickering.)
A few years later Weyland Corporation has financed a voyage on the ship Prometheus to a planet orbiting one of the stars. Elizabeth and Charlie are on board, slumbering in cryosleep as are assorted other scientists, the captain Janek (Idris Elba) and Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). But not David (Michael Fassbender),; this android has been puttering about the ship while all the humans slept. You know, watching Lawrence of Arabia, dying his hair to look like Peter O’Toole’s, learning ancient languages — the things one does when one has time to kill. He helps wake everyone up as the ship approaches the planet. Most of the crew don’t know why they’re there (SPOILER ALERT, to die) but Meredith Vickers seems to know more than she’s saying. (What she has no problem sharing with everyone is her not-completely-understandable rage. At, like, everything. She is a concertina wire of hatred tightly wound around a steely core of pissed-off.) And David, while he seems like a helper robot, actually also appears to have his own motivations.
It’s with this tangle of emotions and relationships that the ship lands on the planet that may house The Engineers, as Elizabeth and Charlie call our possible alien makers. When the ship touches down on the planet, the crew starts to investigate an ancient-looking temple-y thing that they hope will offer clues as to who the beings from the cave paintings on Earth are. What they find instead are funny canisters full of goo and the corpses of long-dead beings that look like they died from something decidedly unfun. They return to the ship but not before something can return with them.
Let’s go back to the premise for this movie: that, as Elizabeth Shaw says, these extra-terrestrial beings who perhaps seeded life on Earth are inviting us to come for a visit. For tea? Perhaps with tiny sandwiches and little cakes? What are the chances of that? This isn’t just a future world these characters are inhabiting; it’s a future world in which, apparently, nobody’s ever made a movie about aliens. There is no contingency plan for this trip to visit distant relations not going perfectly. No weapons, even — and the one guy who thinks to bring a gun along on the trip to the planet’s surface is snottily told by Elizabeth not to.
And, while the movie does a servicable job of setting up the aliens, the planet and the reason for the space travel, it doesn’t follow through with this story at all. In the end, Battleship’s alien storyline made about an equal amount of sense, and making sense was very low on that movie’s list of priorities (below “working the Battleship grid into the movie” and “making Brooklyn Decker’s hair look good”).
I realize it is sacrilegious to say this, what with the enormous number of fans the Alien universe has and how cool this movie seems to be, at least in the trailers, but my overall feeling about this movie is: who cares? “Seriously, who cares?” was what I found myself thinking a little more than halfway through the movie. By then it had become clear that the movie had posed questions it was never going to answer and set up little plot details that would never amount to anything. Yes, Michael Fassbender looks lovely as the sarcastic, flip-flop-wearing robot and Theron proves once again how great she is at playing a woman who is a steaming caldron of bitterness but ... so? Their characters are interestingly designed but don’t ultimately amount to much. I both wanted much more about them and found myself not particularly caring about what happened to them. We never really get to the center of what motivates them or why they are part of this story. And they are the two most compelling characters in this movie. Rapace, the other lead, is for the most part a girl in a horror movie. She might as well be in a too-short nightgown and stage whispering “who’s there?” while shining a flashlight into corners of a dusty attic.
Though perhaps that is the real secret of Prometheus. For all its sci-fi setup and space travel setting, it’s really just a rather pedestrian horror movie. A horror movie with top-notch set design — the grays and browns of the planet help to increase the creepiness, and the sterility of Prometheus gives it a very retro-futuristic look — and some A-list acting talent but a plain vanilla horror movie nonetheless.
Rated R for sci-fi violence, including some intense images and brief language. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, Prometheus is two hours and four minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.