Prometheus is more sci-fi than horror movie, but the precursor to Alien delivers some shocking scenes and terrific performances
Back to the future: Prometheus
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green
The trouble with prequels is that, by their very nature, they're designed to strip away the mystery. Last year's The Thing, for example, set out to join the dots right up to the point John Carpenter's 1982 icy alien classic of the same name began. It's merely part of a larger Hollywood trend that sees screenwriters taught to explain, to answer, to solve riddles, to leave the audience without a shred of doubt.
So any trepidation that Alien fans may be feeling towards Ridley Scott's Prometheus is understandable, particularly as Scott has promised that, 33 years since his film Alien changed the face of science fiction movies, he will return to the franchise he started, to answer some burning questions. Not least, the origins of the so-called "Space Jockey" - the creature whose carcass is glimpsed briefly in Alien.
While Prometheus does indeed provide answers, at least the script by Jon Spaihts and the Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof makes a virtue out of this. Set primarily in 2093, some 30 years before Alien, the crew of the ship Prometheus, led by the archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), are travelling to distant moon LV-223 to uncover the origins of mankind and, quite literally, meet our makers.
Funding the trillion dollar trip is the Weyland Corp - the insidious "Company" from the original films - led by the ageing CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who has an agenda of his own. His agents on the ship include the mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the lifelike android David (Michael Fassbender) - one of several reminders that while Sigourney Weaver's heroine Ripley is absent, we are very much still in the Alien universe.
For all the tangential links to the franchise, there are differences: the crew of Prometheus (led by Idris Elba of The Wire) is more A-list than Alien's cast ever was, and the tension and dread of the original is largely absent, simply because this is not a film full of acid-spewing, dome-headed aliens munching through the crew one by one. But if it's more sci-fi than horror, there are some shocking sequences, one involving a nail-biting self-surgery that will turn you inside out.
Performances are first-rate - particularly an eerie Fassbender - but what really impresses is that Prometheus is a film about ideas. Expanding on Alien's preoccupations - the very male fear of reproduction - Scott's return to this bleak, forbidding future world asks big philosophical questions about the responsibility of creation. As forensic as it is frenetic, it's as thought-provoking as blockbusters get.