Ridley Scott has never repeated himself.
The 74-year-old director has turned his deft eye on almost every genre, from fantasy (Legend), to historical drama (The Duellists, Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven, Robin Hood), crime (American Gangster, Black Rain), war (Black Hawk Down), black comedy (Hannibal, Thelma & Louise), and many sub-genres in between.
Despite the consummate skill the knighted filmmaker has brought to each of these stories, it is science fiction that he will be the most remembered for.
His 1979 film, Alien, was only his second cinema release as a director and to this day remains a monumental achievement.
Structured like a slasher movie, which had been a dominant force at the box office in the 1970s, Alien demonstrated why characterisation, atmosphere and the less-is-more concept remain the most effective methods of engaging an audience and creating a truly memorable work.
Thirty-three years after Alien’s release, Scott brings his fans the prequel Prometheus – a far more ambitious and epic piece of science-fiction.
The plot of his new film evolved from an unanswered question in Alien – a mystery that was not addressed in any of Alien’s three sequels.
What was that dead humanoid creature that the crew of the Nostromo discovered?
Why was it carrying a ship full of eggs that hatch “face-hugging” parasites?
How did it crash?
The “space jockey”, as fans named the humanoid, and its species, are at the heart of Prometheus.
In 2089, archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover an image among several unconnected ancient cultures.
It is of a human-like figure pointing toward a star pattern.
Shaw and Holloway believe that the figure, which they call an “Engineer”, is inviting them to travel to a region of space.
The couple also believe the Engineers might be linked to the birth of humanity.
To investigate, a trillion-dollar deep space research vessel called Prometheus is sent toward a star pattern that matches those in the artwork of the ancient cultures.
In 2093, Prometheus arrives at its first destination – the moon LV-223.
Very quickly the crew spot a series of dome-shaped pyramids and they hurriedly venture into the first of them, hoping to seek the answers they have travelled across the cosmos to find.
Sadly, from this point onward the plot of Prometheus buckles under the weight of its lofty ideas.
We’re promised an action adventure with an intellectual backbone but are given a movie that struggles to find a balance between thrilling action and intelligence.
Where Scott’s other landmark achievement, 1982’s Blade Runner, had synergy between existential themes, plot, characterisation and atmosphere, Prometheus lacks the same finesse.
But there are still some interesting references to ponder.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan and a champion of mankind.
He supposedly created man from clay and then gave him the gift of fire as a way to bring man’s power closer to that of the Gods.
The Greek myth is a clue that might reveal what the makers of Prometheus attempted to investigate.
Android David (Michael Fassbender), who was built by the mission’s sponsor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), also touches on the theme of creationism.
David asks how humans might react if they meet their creator and are told that they have no purpose.
Every attempt to express this question artistically is delivered in a heavy-handed way.
The big questions, like ‘Why do humans exist?’ and ‘Why do we desire to meet our creator?’ are posed in Prometheus via throwaway pieces of dialogue, seemingly to spare screen time for the large action sequences.
Other potentially interesting plot points regarding the Engineers are left undeveloped, perhaps lazily offloaded to a potential sequel.
Scott’s stunning direction and jaw-dropping visuals flatter the script provided by screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.
Lindelof’s work resides mostly in television, most notably the dense series Lost, and perhaps his inability to realise grand ideas in only two hours is exposed here.
Prometheus’ cast of characters sadly amount to no more than clichés.
When the crew is introduced, a typical sci-fi mix of scientists, pilots and engineers, the expendables stick out by a light year.
The so-called scientific experts, who are supposed to be so brilliant that they were chosen to go on a trillion-dollar space mission, make very unbelievable errors of judgment.
As a female lead, Shaw is dogged and determined, but very dull.
We are simply not given any time to like or understand her.
In contrast to Alien, by the time the title monster starts to circle Ellen Ripley we like her and want her to survive.
But Shaw puts herself in danger before winning over the viewer.
Fassbender brings creepiness to David, but delivers a far more obvious and less layered android performance than other robot characters in the Alien franchise.
Idris Elba brings charm and presence to Prometheus’ captain Janek, but is not given enough screen time to sink his teeth into.
Charlize Theron, as mission director Meredith Vickers, suffers the same fate.
As a director with a proven ability to explore the motives of his characters, it is unusual to see Scott treat his cast as if they are the fodder of B-grade horror.
Despite the faults in plotting, the film is held aloft by some of the most stunning visual effects to grace the silver screen.
The sense of depth and scope when viewed through 3D glasses is worth the experience alone.
Plus there is a deliciously ironic twist in the film’s final moments.
But while no one can question Scott’s commendable ambition in Prometheus to give life to a bold and vast mythology, the film feels like a missed opportunity.
Plot holes and lack of memorable characters prevent it from being the masterpiece that science fiction fans had been hoping for.