Halfway through Prometheus, something grand occurs. On a distant moon, in the gigantic cavern of an ancient, vanished race, the android David (Michael Fassbender) sits at a kind of organ console and plays notes that summon images of planets aligning — a stately celestial dance to the music of the spheres. In its eerie, emotive power, the scene goes beyond the contact of humans with extraterrestrials through a musical phrase in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Here, David might be God in the ecstatic act of creating the universe. Or he could be Ridley Scott, conducting his team of actors and technicians in the bold, atonal symphony that was the 1979 Alien.
Alien proved to be the year’s fourth biggest hit, spawning three sequels directed by some very gifted young men — James Cameron for Aliens in 1976, David Fincher for Alien³ in 1992 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet for Alien Resurrection in 1997 — while Scott directed one more science-fiction film, the superb Blade Runner, but nothing else in the genre for 30 years. “Ridley did the first one, and the franchise kind of went off in another direction,” screenwriter Damon Lindelof told Ethan Sacks of the New York Daily News. “He was the father of this thing, and it ran away from home at a young age, and it’s the idea of him coming back and saying, ‘I’m your father. Let’s get to know each other and hang out together.’ “
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Thirty-three years later, after those three sequels and a couple of cynical hybrids that grafted the Alien monster to the Predator drone, Scott has returned to his space-horror child. Prometheus, which opened throughout Europe last week and will come to North American theaters on Friday, is a clear prequel to Alien — the DNA matches precisely— and for many veteran movie watchers, the most eagerly anticipated event of this summer in Hollywood.
Yet when 20th Century Fox released Alien on May 25, 1979, two years to the day after Star Wars, the film was met with reviews that ranged from mixed to vexed. Michael Sragow of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner dismissed it as “an overblown B-movie.” In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that “the roles might have been written by a computer.” New York magazine’s David Denby was driven to near cosmic despair, calling Alien “a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself.” Opined TIME’s Frank Rich: “It is depressing to watch an expensive, crafty movie that never soars beyond its cold desire to score the big bucks … Scott knows how to push the buttons that make the audience squirm, but he achieves nothing that could not be accomplished equally well by sending electric shocks through a theater’s seats.”
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It might have been that threat of cinematic shock therapy — and the famous ad line warning, “In space, no one can hear you scream” — that made me approach Alien later that summer with a kind of sacred dread. As a viewer with a sluggish nervous system, I’ve always been susceptible to scare scenes in films: my spine freezes in fear before my brain can send the message that, you idiot, it’s only a movie. When I finally did see Alien, I watched it with one hand blocking part of the screen, as my braver companion, Mary Corliss, whispered descriptions of the uggy stuff I’d just missed. A few months later, I dared to watch the whole movie on a hotel TV — with the sound turned down. Jerry Goldsmith’s score would not frighten me.
After that, I was able to look at Alien with a certain analytic detachment and appreciate its conception of the claustrophobic world of the spaceship Nostromo, the prickly camaraderie of the Nostromo‘s weary crew, the masterly orchestration of suspense as the monster picks off its victims in Ten Little Indians fashion and, of course, H.R. Giger’s majestic design of the title xenomorph in its several gestations. All that plus the rare elevation of a woman — Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — to action-film hero status. Last year, for TIME.com’s All-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies, Alien was ranked No. 2, right behind Psycho.
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Impatient readers will observe that I have craftily deferred revealing any salient shocks from Prometheus. But that’s exactly what Scott does for the first third of his new movie. In the early scenes he teases large questions of theology and cosmology, suggesting that this will be the ultimate prequel: a quest for the very origins of life on Earth. Then the director settles down to the business of trying to scare you. And when he does, even viewers with agitated nervous systems will be oddly soothed by how faithfully Prometheus replicates the strategies and shocks of Alien. The movie is less a prequel than a pre-make: Alien minus one.
Some younger viewers, for whom a film series than began in the Carter Administration and ended before The Sopranos aired is a musty old artifact, may well say, “Alien Schmalien. Is it a good movie?” And we’d reply to the uninitiated that if you like your R-rated sci-fi–horror pictures in two parts — first half chatty, second half bloody — you’ll find half an exciting evening at Prometheus. It’s just not what your parents, steeped in Alien lore and gore, were hoping for.
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The film opens in misty pre-history, when Earth is visited by a representative of a superior race. Looking like one of those powder-caked muscle men who perform the hand-to-hand ballet in a Cirque du Soleil show, he leaves the seeds of Earth’s evolution in a tin of caviar-like squirmy thingies. Then he gazes at the space vessel above him and literally cracks up. With visual elements reminiscent of Scott’s 1984 Apple commercial and the arterial river rafting of the 1966 Fantastic Voyage, this scene primes the viewer for lofty consideration of man’s place in a mutable universe — 2012: A Space Ontology. Skeptics will note that Prometheus seems inspired by another work from 1968, the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film: Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, the pseudoscientific book proposing that extraterrestrial astronauts came to Earth and passed their advanced technology along to early human civilizations.
In the main section of Prometheus, set in 2089 — students of Alien minutiae will identify this as possibly the year of Ripley’s birth — Ripley’s predecessor and partial soul mate is Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist who has discovered plangent cave paintings at least 35,000 years old, hinting at a map to the stars. With this evidence, she and her scientist beau Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) convince corporate potentate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund an expedition to a remote moon indicated by the cave art. Janek (Idris Elba) captains the vessel Prometheus, but the real boss is Weyland executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). She seems in it just for the money, reminding the crew, “My company spent a trillion dollars to get here.” (Mind you, in 2089 dollars, a trillion dollars would buy you a double chocolate Frappuccino at Starbucks.)
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The original Alien crew members lived in the present tense. Did Ripley have a husband and child back on Earth? We don’t know and aren’t meant to guess. This was a dictum of Walter Hill, one of Alien‘s rewriters and producers, who is quoted in David Thomson’s definitive book on the series, The Alien Quartet, as saying about movie characters, “I don’t care where people come from. I don’t care where they’re going. I do care what they are doing. I care very much.” Everything happened in the present to a bunch of working stiffs on a perilous mission — as it had in Alien’s obvious antecedent, the 1951 The Thing from Another World, with a vengeful space creature attacking soldiers and scientists at an isolated outpost.
Scott, though, cared very much where someone in Alien had come from: the large dead extraterrestrial known to the moviemakers as the “space jockey” or “big dental patient.” His electronic signals had led the Nostromo to that dangerous planet; his chest cavity had been burst open (by the “face hugger” that would cause mayhem later). Returning to science fiction 30 years after Blade Runner, Scott uses Prometheus to explore the fate of the space jockey’s people — the race that brought life to Earth and whose own planet is their burial chamber.
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The Prometheus crew, like that of the Nostromo, represents a rough amalgam of officers and grunts — disposable characters who can serve as eventual snack food for any monsters in the vicinity. Holloway in particular wears a superior smirk that all but guarantees an early, violent demise. Other characters behave so gratingly that a viewer will welcome their deaths just to be rid of them. In horror movies, attitude is destiny.
In the script by Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, the two women onboard are laden with backstory. Both have father issues, especially Shaw; her father’s hallowed memory gnaws at her the way Jodie Foster’s dead astronomer father did in the 1997 Contact, another science-fiction drama about a woman’s yearning to communicate with advanced alien civilizations. Shaw’s father love extends to God the Father; her fervent Christianity (“It’s what I choose to believe”) echoes the crucial place of religion in the plot of Alien³. She also believes she is incapable of bearing offspring. We’ll see about that.
Rapace, an actress of feral intensity as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie and its sequels, somehow goes off the rails here. Granted, Shaw is a veritable internal combustion engine of emotions, but Rapace conveys these tensions with little more than a strained mopiness. Theron does fine in a rote role, Pearce is trapped in implausible old-man makeup, and Elba (the consigliere Stringer Bellon The Wire) is just along for the ride. The crew bickers and backtracks for most of the first hour, until the viewer half-wonders if the ad line for Prometheus should be, “In space, no one can see you yawn.”
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Among the actors, only Fassbender finds a character worth inhabiting and enriching. A blond cyborg, David is worlds dishier than Ian Holm’s Ash in the original and carries himself with the stiff elegance of Star Wars‘ C-3PO, but he is neither cranky nor prone to malfunction. David has been fashioned to look and speak in the manner of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Like Pixar’s WALL•E, fixated on a Beta tape of Hello, Dolly, David replays his favorite film, with special attention to the scene where Lawrence douses a match with his fingers. Does it hurt?, someone asks. Of course it hurts. “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
Can a robot feel pain, or just ensure that humans feel it? The real engine of the Prometheus plot, David discovers the sticky stuff that will morph into the crew’s mortal threat. (When he holds the space goo between his fingers in a closeup, it could be a silhouette shot of the first film’s evil alien.) It is he who effects communication with the dead space jockey — the message is “Try harder” — and who thinks the goo might be an amusing additive to a crew member’s coffee. Poignantly aware of his android status, he is also clued in to the super-race that came to Earth. Discussing origins with David, Holloway tells him, “We made you because we could.” The robot’s reply, “Maybe that’s why they made you.”
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The people who made the cavern in Prometheus made it beautiful: a huge, dark expanse with an enormous statue of a human head in the center, whose walls are adorned with mysterious reliefs. (Is that an evolved “alien” carved on the far wall? Or the Brigitte Helm robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 speculative epic Metropolis? Anyway, it’s something imposing, cool and deadly.) The grandeur and portent of the cavern are to die for, as several of the crew members soon find out.
And you have skimmed this far through this essay to find out what the big gross-out scenes are. I’m bound by reviewers’ ethics not to err on the side of the explicit, but I will say that the most memorable shock tactics in the original film are recycled with minor variations in Prometheus. The gut-buster scene in Alien becomes a Caesarean section here; the face-hugger attack in the egg chamber gets a nice elaboration involving a black python-like organism with similar powers of bodily penetration. You liked the talking severed android heads in Alien and Aliens? Then third time’s the charm.
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But not the second time, for Scott on his Alien reupping. After all these years, the director or his team should have dreamed up a few novel scenes. Perhaps they’re saving their real ingenuity for a sequel to the prequel. Lindelof says there could be one or more films that would “run parallel to and independent of Alien.” Independent of? Really? The familiar image in the movie’s last shot indicates that the Prometheus series, should there be one, will close the narrative circle on Alien as Revenge of the Sith did on Star Wars.
If that’s the case, my advice to Scott and Lindelof is, Try harder — to bring the characters as well as the creatures alive; to extend the grandeur of that music-of-the-sphere scene to an entire movie; to devise new horror-film money shots; and to scare the crap out of me. Because I’m still susceptible to movie fright, and I saw Prometheus without my trusty guide-wife next to me to describe the creepy stuff yet watched every second of the movie. And not once did I jump out of my skin.