Making a prequel to a highly successful series of films is not easy. Just watch Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The temptation is always there to reverse engineer the prequel(s) so that they lead neatly up to the first, famous film. So, episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars prequels worked better because viewers could see where they were heading towards.
The original Alien from 1979, directed by Ridley Scott had big unanswered questions – who were the Aliens, where did they come from and why were they so sociopathic? Wisely, instead of directly answering these questions by setting the scene on the planetoid where the unfortunate crew of the Nostromo found the Alien in the first film, Scott took a different path.
Prometheus is set in the near future towards the end of this century. A team of archaeologists find cave paintings around the world from unconnected populations of prehistoric man all showing detailed star maps pointing to a moon in a distant solar system which could not have been observed by the painters. Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), one of the archaeologists, along with her partner Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) persuade the elderly billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund an expedition to this moon to test their hypothesis that this must be the origin of human life on Earth.
I won’t spoil the actual plot by revealing any further details, but in general terms it follows the same arc as Alien and Aliens – corporate backed expedition finds aliens, crew of expedition has range of competing motivations and a degree of mutual distrust and antagonism (particularly in respect of the token android), crew gets picked off by aliens, crew realises pathological nature of aliens and takes all necessary measures to try to prevent aliens from getting to Earth.
What the film does brilliantly is to take this formula and make an original and surprising story from it. While there is no definitive answer to any of the unanswered questions from Alien you can start to form plausible hypotheses as some of the characters in the film attempt to do. The third film in the original franchise left me cold and I didn’t bother with the fourth so I was partly expecting Prometheus to be more of the same and was “pleased” to find that it was actually rather unsettling overall, even if there were few scenes which were a real surprise (of course the geeky scientists who get cut off from the rest of the crew by a storm are going to meet a horrible end etc etc).
Partly this might be due to the film returning to the sparseness and claustrophobia of Alien and Aliens. Another element to it is, I think, that the action is plausibly brought to near our time. The clothes worn by the archaeologists on their expedition on Earth aren’t futuristic and, apart from the obvious technological advance enabling the starship Prometheus to travel at something approaching the speed of light, the technologies adopted aren’t unimaginable. By being set in the near future, the search for the origin of human life as a motive for the expedition is closer to the rhetoric of SETI and contemporary space exploration, whereas the more distant futures of the other films are ones where the commercial exploitation of space is an unremarked upon commonplace.
The film is not perfect – rather too much use is made of holographic projections of The Engineers (Shaw and Holloway’s name for the aliens who they hypothesised created humans) in their installation, showing them trying to flee from the Aliens and showing how to operate their technology. It isn’t clear why The Engineers would leave such useful visual aids for anyone. But this is a minor quibble. A definite recommendation for you this weekend if you’re planning on a trip to the cinema.