Film Review: Prometheus

Dazzling sort-of prequel to Ridley Scott’s landmark 1979 sci-fi chiller 'Alien' delivers both remarkable visuals and truly horrific set-pieces.

In his 35-year directing career, Ridley Scott has shown remarkable range (from Thelma & Louise to Gladiator to American Gangster), but he may still be most celebrated as the auteur behind two modern science-fiction classics, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Now, more than three decades after Alien, Scott has returned to the world of the outer-space chiller that made his reputation and delivered a companion piece that delivers all the visual spectacle and visceral shocks that fans of the original could want.

David Fincher may have directed Alien3 in 1992, but Prometheus is the true Alien Cubed, a new 3D benchmark worthy of comparison to the stunning imagery of Avatar (directed, lest we forget, by another Alien sequel helmer, James Cameron). This metaphysical quasi-prequel to Alien begins with an enigmatic sequence in which an impossibly muscle-bound humanoid standing on a majestic ridge drinks a liquid which causes him to painfully disintegrate—and perhaps give birth to life on Earth. The narrative then leaps forward to the year 2089, as archaelogist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) discovers an ancient cave painting that’s part of a pattern indicating a link between early man and a moon in a distant constellation. That breakthrough is enough to propel the financing of a journey on a vast spaceship named Prometheus to said moon, where the religious Shaw hopes to have a close encounter with her own creators and her colleague and lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) aims to prove the theory of evolution.

Landing on the planet where Alien was spawned, the team explores a cavernous pyramid filled with odd cylinders that ooze a sticky black substance—and also discovers what seems to be a human head. As in that first 1979 movie, some extraterrestrial finds are better left undisturbed.

Prometheus begins with a subdued reverence for the awesome, forbidding world the crew encounters, but eventually thwacks the audience with the first terrifying set-piece and doesn’t let up. The body count is high, and the deaths are of a grisliness to match the unforgettable scene in the first Alien involving John Hurt’s restless stomach. (Hurt’s ordeal is mirrored by a cringe-making sequence in which Shaw takes desperate measures once she realizes she’s been impregnated by something not-of-her-world.)

One of the dire plot twists is engineered by David, a trim, blond android played with uncanny spacey meticulousness by Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: First Class), a highly efficient robot who is as obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia as WALL-E was with Hello, Dolly!. The crew may regard him as a being without a soul, but it’s fairly clear he resents having his vast intelligence taken for granted and is not above some malicious mischief; he surely shares some cinematic DNA with 2001’s HAL 9000.

Also causing friction is Vickers (Charlize Theron), the stern overseer from the giant corporation funding the voyage, whose agenda conflicts with the scientific pursuits of Shaw and Holloway, for reasons kept to herself. (With this film and the current Snow White and the Huntsman, Theron is summer 2012’s official ice queen.) The intriguing cast is rounded out by Idris Elba, the indelible Stringer Bell from “The Wire,” as formidable Prometheus captain Janek, and Guy Pearce, encased in old-age makeup as Peter Weyland, the corporate titan who greets the explorers from beyond the grave via hologram.

With its themes of spirituality, cosmic forces and the origins of life, it’s no surprise that Prometheus (which takes its name from the mythological figure who stole fire from the gods and was cruelly punished) was co-written (with Jon Spaihts) by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the TV sci-fi hit “Lost.” The film is a curious mix of serious intellectual pretension and icky audience jolts, but it never feels tacky or risible thanks to Scott’s elegant and dazzling visual panache. This is one summer movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, to savor Scott’s visionary achievements in collaboration with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max (creating mammoth sets at Britain’s Pinewood Studios) and wizardly visual-effects supervisor Richard Stammers.

Viewers hoping for a tidy wrap-up to the existential questions posed here should be forewarned: Prometheus keeps some of its mysteries for the sequel, which is telegraphed with a coda that harks back to the very beginning of the series. We await Fox’s green light.