Ridley’s Return Finds Breadth and Bewilderment in the Wide-Open Spaces
Sprawling into existence with a series of shots of alien (actually, Icelandic) vistas and a surreal vision of life and death that sweeps from grandeur to molecular breakdown like some forgotten off-cut from Mallick’s Tree Of Life; it’s clear from the outset that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien mythos (an infamously soundstage-bound franchise) won’t be confined to the dank corridors and shadows of the past.
Unfortunately, in breaking free not only from the close surrounds of past outings but also from the accepted survivalist horror narrative, Scott has engineered a beast that sits uncomfortably with it’s claw (and teeth) hewn pedigree.
We’re no longer in the realm of age-worn space-freighters, industrial colonies and forgotten prison planets. The good ship Prometheus is a spacious “trillion dollar” marvel of translucent design, glowing neon and familiar luxury. Likewise, the destination planet is no sodden backwater. An interplanetary combination of Egypt and Tibet where even the subterranean tombs gape cavernously and sport original Giger artwork on the walls, it’s difficult not to visualise as a futuristic destination for extreme gap years.
Plotwise, we’re firmly in Chariots of The Gods territory as a pair of intrepid scientists wrangle with faith and science in an attempt to reconcile the two in a flesh-and-blood creator. Protrusively, they’re backed by the ubiquitously shady Weyland organisation whose agenda isn’t so much hidden as mired in the spaghetti script.
Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron are left – on either side of the idealistic divide – to scrap it out for the “new Ripley” tag. To her credit, Rapace manages to conjure some texture in what’s an almost ludicrously virtuous role but Theron tears into her corporate ice-queen to unveil the predatory lioness (and streaks of brittle vulnerability) within.
They’re both eclipsed, however, by the perfectly-cast Michael Fassbender as the ship’s prototype android. It’s not so much a perfect performance as a masterful application of his talents; the same distance that served him so well as an IRA hunger striker, a damaged mutant and a listless sex-addict warped here into foreboding ambiguity and unsympathetic threat.
In truth, Fassbender’s presence in the first two acts – caretaking the eerily lifeless ship, calmly dissecting entombed carcasses, forever shifting in the background at his unknown duties and schemes – conjures considerably more tension than the inevitable reveal of the slimy natives.
Indeed, with the exception of a muscular take on the “made in his image” idea, the tentacled beasties are a disappointment. Of course, on paper the description of a toothed vagina on a regenerative phallus must have dripped Gigerian threat. On screen it seems a (very, very, very) poor relation to the “perfect killer” xenomorphs. Worse, a few of the beasts appear to be stolen direct from Dabaront/King’s The Mist without taking note that they’re best used as the payoff to an unknown/unseen build-up.
Whether there was need for the monster-movie tropes at all is the big question. In the opening acts we’re perfectly comfortable exploring big spaces and bigger ideas but as the film races towards the finish line, its attempts to tie itself into the broader franchise (and, perhaps, to set up another of its own) muddle an independently interesting exploration of creation, rejection and death.
When the film’s game-changing reveal is prefaced (and upstaged) by a token, gleefully squeamish self-caesarean, it’s difficult to escape the image of a studio committee insisting a summer blockbuster on the ‘Big Ideas’ can’t work without being used to re-legitimatise to a stickily well-proven cash-cow.
Looking at the big picture, this still has to be seen as a victory for Scott and for truly interesting big-budget film-making. Still, it’s a pity that for all the sumptuous production design, star-studded casting and thematic adventure there isn’t enough commitment and direction here to avoid real annoyance to the baying fanboys and open-minded cinephiles alike.