Watching Prometheus early this morning, in my favorite seat in my favorite theater, one thought entered my mind early in the movie when the Prometheus is just arriving at the planet. This is a science fiction movies with big ideas. Yes, it’s mixed in with horror and plants the DNA of what will become the Alien series, but it’s based around high concepts and ideas of where humanity may be going and tackles those by also mixing in larger questions about who we are and where we came from. It’s what makes the best science fiction good scifi. It’s something that was very common in the science fiction novels of the 60s and 70s. As that was entering my mind, I remembered that we lost Ray Bradbury this week. Watching this movie so soon after that loss, I felt reassurance that the big idea genre of science fiction didn’t vanish with him.
I really feel that Prometheus has been burdened with the whole Alien prequel angle. I’m guilty of it in part, if only thanks to Fox’s incessant denial that the movie was a prequel. It most definitely is; you see the first face hugger and the first xenomorph, and if you pay attention throughout the movie you get a pretty good idea why and how they were created and for what purpose. You have to pay attention as this is a movie co-written by Damon Lindelof and he brings some of his vagueness that he infused Lost with.
The movie begins with some balls. It shows what looks like primordial Earth, and when they were filming this scene in Iceland; they even said they were filming primordial Earth. Now at the film’s release, Scott is saying it could be any planet and it was just to show what the Engineers did. But that explanation just comes off as PR spin to avoid offending people, as what the opening scene shows is one of the alien engineers seeding Earth and beginning life on the planet.
Fast forward to the near future and the main portion of the movie is set in 2093 when a trillion-dollar exploratory ship named the Prometheus is going to a planet (in Zeta 2 Reticuli according to Ridley Scott) where two scientists believe the engineers of life on Earth came from. As this is a movie in the Alien universe, things definitely don’t go as planned and the crew of the ship predictably die off one at a time. That formula, and since we’ve seen it a million times before, is what hurts the movie. The larger picture, however, is what makes it great.
Prometheus is filled with everything science fiction movies have lacked for a long time, most importantly a brain. Sure nitpickers and cynical basement dwellers on the Internet and spending this weekend complaining about every little element and wasting bandwidth coming up with ideas of how they’d make the movie better than Ridley Scott. But for the majority of science fiction fans, if they can put aside Alien expectations, will come out of Prometheus seeing a true science fiction movie that really tries to ask where we’re going. It really isn’t hard to think that if we got someone in the White House with the vision of Kennedy, and put 2 cents from each tax dollar into NASA, we’d have an Ion-powered exploratory vessel flying to Zeta 2 Reticuli by 2093.
One thing I liked, and does play into the whole prequel thing, is how the technology in the movie is older than in the previous Alien movies. I’m not talking about how the screens and displays look, as Alien was made in the late 70s, but the technology here isn’t quite up to the same level. Specifically, I’m talking about the cryo-sleep. This isn’t the happy wakeup that you see in Alien and Aliens where it’s just like getting up in the morning. Cryo-sleep in 2093 is a tricky, and dangerous, thing that requires having an android to monitor the crew and a bit of recovery time after waking up.
I also really like Marc Streitenfeld’s score. The main theme of Prometheus is a distant horn theme that harkens to humanity exploring the far reaches of the frontier of space. That theme pops up many times throughout the movie, and it really fits the theme of this movie. He does slip in some Alien cues, specifically the main theme from Alien can be heard early when we’re first introduced to the elderly Peter Weyland, and some of the sharper cues associated with the xenomorphs pop up later in the movie when things become really tense.
Prometheus was also the first time Ridley Scott filmed a movie in 3D, and the result was excellent. The opening helicopter shots of primordial Earth are stunning, and the 3D effect is so smooth and the depth it gives the scenes is so flawless you almost forget you’re wearing those glasses and can just immerse yourself in the film.
In a summer that’s seen a future cult classic (John Carter) and the highest grossing movie of 2012 so far (The Avengers), Prometheus is a welcome addition to a year that may just end up being another 1982 in terms of the number of classic genre films being released. I look forward to seeing it again.