Ridley Scott is in top form with Prometheus, his first science-fiction film in the three decades since Alien (1979) and then Blade Runner (1982). Wonderfully dark and existential, this effort playfully balances elements of both of those films, among others. A masterpiece in craftsmanship, Scott gives us a tantalizing new place in the movies filled with rich ideas, excellent adventure, a palpable sense of dread, real thrills and first-rate acting.
Some of the movie’s detractors point out that it doesn’t have all the answers to the questions it poses. That fact is true, but I’m struggling to figure out why that’s a complaint, exactly. I suppose it depends on what you want a movie to be. Most of them are journeys that arrive to predictable conclusions. Some, like Prometheus, are journeys of discovery where one set of answers can lead to more deeper questions. The rewards here are measurable not in the lack of answers, but in the urgency and fascination with the questions.
We begin on terrain in a world that looks like Earth, a place not unlike a national park somewhere except for a great white human-looking creature that appears on a rocky ridge by a flowing river. He eats what appears to be some kind of food that is unrecognizable to us and that causes him to vomit rather violently. His body quickly begins to decay. What flows into the river from him can be seen morphing into other living organisms.
What is this strange creature? Where does he fit on the timeline; does he come before or after us? Is this this movie’s “dawn of humankind”? Is this Earth and is he just visiting, or is this his home? Is he aware that he’s naked or does he always travel that way?
From there we flash-forward to 2093 aboard the trillion-dollar spacecraft that is Prometheus and its privately-funded journey across the universe in an effort to trace the origins of humankind. The head of the corporation is the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in full old-man prosthetics). He appears in holographic form the way Princess Leia did in Star Wars, courtesy of his on-board android David (Michael Fassbender), who is pretty much a humanoid version of HAL 9000. He can perform surgeries on the ship as well as on people, decode any language, and show historical events in holographic form, which is a step up from being able to relay only messages.
David’s evidence of old drawings on caves show that an Earth-sized moon that orbits a mighty planet the size of Saturn may hold the key to the birth of our civilization. The exploration team that will eventually do the groundwork in the caves are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. With shades of Scully & Mulder, the team’s appointed leaders are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, who I’m beginning to confuse with Tom Hardy). They share a romance fueled by their determination for the mission, though they share opposing worldviews of it: she’s bound by her faith in a “creator” while he holds true to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
If David is the old tycoon’s android representative on Prometheus, than the corporation’s human rep is the tough, intelligent Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). The action to this point takes place entirely aboard the Prometheus as we get to know the players in the crack science team as well as the ship’s crew members, including Janek (Idris Elba), the pragmatic captain who is happy to have it known that he is less scientifically knowledgeable than rest of them.
What follows is the Prometheus’ landing on the strange new satellite and it’s desert highland landscape and the exploration work in the caves underneath a great pyramid-like structure. The crew discovers that creatures who once lived on this planet have matching DNA’s to humans, which only fuels more questions and more urgency to explore them further.
Beyond that, I can’t give anymore away. Wouldn’t be fair. The action moves between the caves and the ship as tension builds about how to move forward in the mission, complicated by the diverse personal and political agendas by various members both on the exploration team and from within the ship’s crew.
The sequences in the caves are expertly done, our collective fascination tweaked by the discoveries of long-dead beings as well as the craftsmanship in sequences like David decoding the password granting them access to a mysterious cavernous hub of a room filled with cylinder-shaped capsules that stand upright all over the floor. What are they, tombstones? What is that ooze flowing from them? That it turns into menacing variations of the “vagina dentata” theme with their teethy sliminess and their thrashing tendrils only serves up more questions. What were they trying to keep secret on this planet that the defense mechanism left to be found by its unfortunate visitors is so gruesome?
In the tradition of Scott’s strong feminine sci-fi hero in Sigourney Weaver, Noomi Rapace embodies all of these questions with strong-willed determination and a breakneck urgency. Whereas Weaver finally went on a vendetta against creatures she couldn’t stand, the Rapace character is more fundamentally concentrated on discovering what’s beyond them. Slaying them off is just an obstacle to finding out what they’re protecting. Rapace is fearless and almost completely unrecognizable to us from her terrific work as the protagonist in the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Fassbender (Shame) is equally good as David, who lifts much of his persona from characters in movies that he likes, such as Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia. He has the best dialogue throughout and is given just as much complexity as the great computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has there been a better human performance of an android on film than this one? Every shot he’s in is a captivating or a mesmerizing one.
Prometheus is excellent entertainment, one of the summer’s best, breathing welcome new life into a sorry genre of creep-out thrillers that don’t aim very high and deliver even less.
Yes, the movie leaves things open-ended, priming us for a sequel, but not even these characters fully understand what they’ve gotten themselves into. Besides, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters most here, and the amazing forward thrust of the action along with an exceptionally good balance of acting, special effects, and ideas transcend this into a magnificent, nightmarish space odyssey.
Prometheus **** (out of 4)