Stunningly beautiful. Almost intriguing at times. And eventually, the prequel to Alien that we originally thought it would be.
There’s a lot to like here. (Full disclosure: I didn’t live in breathless anticipation of this film, as many others did. But I admire director Ridley Scott and was looking forward to it. I liked and admired both Alien and Aliens, for different reasons. But I’m just not that into sci-fi.) The effects are great, and the 3D feels integral, not tacked on. (I recommend seeing it in 3D). It’s always a treat for the eyes, even when the gory content makes you want to look away. And there are moments of near-transcendence that make the rest of the film that much more disappointing.
What’s also strong aside from the look is some of the acting. It matters greatly for believability and connection that we can buy into both the characters and what they are doing in a sci-fi film. Highlights here are Noomi Rapace (the original “girl” in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who owns this film gently and registers in a way she didn’t in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Here she is Ripley-strong, but is in a loving, believable relationship with her husband that brings out colors and shades that Ripley didn’t have the chance to show. She can clearly carry a film.
The other acting strength is in Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David. Fassbender is something of the flavor of the month/year/decade, but deservedly so. His work here—his posture, his gait, his lack and then presence of “apparent” emotion—is the strongest in the film. His character and depth of performance link David to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, and pulls the film in the direction of that film’s investigation of the intersection of human and artificial life. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t pick up and run with that intriguing issue, and leaves it pretty much to Fassbender to express it and suggest possibilities that remain elusive and unexplained.
What is weak is the script. Many have rightly noted that we have a film here that begins with Tree of Life aspirations about the source of life on earth and ends up being a simple horror film. That’s frustrating enough. But its degeneration from meaningful film to good-looking horror film is furthered by cliché after cliché. When the group on patrol is informed of a storm coming in, they j-u-s-t-b-a-r-e-l-y make it back to the ship with a “Whew, just in time!” scene whose urgency doesn’t quite mask its staleness. When two men in the group (secondary characters, of course) decide they are going to go off on their own to explore, it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the decision doesn’t bode well. Lastly, the ice queen played by Charlize Theron (now that’s a redundant phrase) seems to have a friends-with-benefits relationship with the ship’s captain (Idris Elba) that suggests something of a character arc for her, but it’s left both unexplored and confusing.
Also, if Tom Cruise had Renée Zellweger at “Hello,” this film began to lose me in the first scene, when Rapace’s character says that the discovery of ancient cave drawings obviously meant that “they” wanted “us” to come and find them. The search needed an impetus, to be sure, but this was too big of a stretch too early in the film. It didn’t seem that obvious.
Technically, since it’s a Ridley Scott film, I expected to simply stand in either awe or admiration. But a few of the fight scenes are clumsily edited and bewildering. There are also a few scenes where the actors don’t seem to respond to a action taking place—an arrival of an injured party, an unexpected occurrence that demands an immediate response—with either the speed or sense of urgency that the situation demanded. Much has been made of Guy Pearce’s questionable make-up job as a very old man. I was aware of the critical comments about it before I saw the film, and I still thought I was seeing a damaged creature or alien before I realized that this was supposed to be an old human.
Ultimately, the strange course of the tale told here, from possibly profound to perfectly predictable, gives rise to intriguing suggestions and possible implications that are left unexplored. Who made us (and happily, the film then asks, “And who made them?”), why are we here, what’s “out there,” what is or can be the relationship between human and android—these are left by the wayside. And all the many, many allusions to previous Scott films or sci-fi films become either a game or simple trite without the context of a compelling, consistent narrative.
If you’re a sci-fi person, or want to the see what is really the latest Alien incarnation, do, do see this in the theater. Unless your TV can be measured in yards, do yourself a favor and see this one on the big screen.
(Second full disclosure: The author has it settled internally where life comes from, so the profundity of the question just doesn’t grab, and ends up turning those films that sincerely investigate the issues into fables.)