To call "Prometheus" the origin story of 1979's seminal outer-space monster movie "Alien" is both accurate and misleading. Set primarily in 2093, roughly thirty years prior to the fateful voyage of the Nostromo
, this eagerly-awaited return to form for veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott (2010's "Robin Hood
") builds astronomically upon the earlier story's mythology while also proudly and disparately standing apart as its own entity. Not content to merely rehash what's been done before, Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts (2011's "The Darkest Hour
") and Damon Lindelof (2011's "Cowboys & Aliens
") have crafted both a thigh-clenchingly frightening science-fiction epic as well as a ruminative, soul-baring existential study that's not afraid to ask the tough questions. Where do we come from? Do we have a Creator? What happens after we die? "Prometheus" isn't presumptuous enough to have all the answers, and that's just one of the reasons why it is such an unforgettable journey into the unknown.
Isle of Skye, Scotland, 2089.
Archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and colleague boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave drawings potentially dating back thirty-five thousand years. It's a substantial finding, pointing to a place in the galaxy that may hold the answer to the so-called "Engineer" of life as we know itone that is very much different from the God Shaw was taught to believe in as a child from her beloved father (Patrick Wilson). Four years later, Shaw, Holloway and fifteen other crew members wake from stasis on space vessel Prometheus
as they near their destinationa planet with similar properties to the Earth capable of sustaining life. Funded by late CEO of Weyland Corp., Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), Shaw and Holloway are held in high regard and more or less put in charge, much to the chagrin of power-happy First-in-Command Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Shaw's hope is to find answers to life's greatest queries, even as she stubbornly holds on to a faith favoring Creationism over Darwinism that goes against most everything she is learning in her research. Just as confirmation comes of intelligent beings on this foreign planet, circumstances fast deteriorate when one of their own is infected by alien matter and a staggering secret is uncovered that could put the fate of Earth in immediate danger.
There once was a time when the sci-fi genre was about ideas and the power of possibility, when the question of what was on the other side of the universe was more exciting than the sight of arbitrary aliens beaming down and blowing up the White House. In recent years, it has been more often used as an excuse for empty effects dazzlement and snarky jokes. In addition to co-existing within the same universe as Ridley Scott's own "Alien," what makes "Prometheus" so special is that it has so much more on its mind than just jump-scares, violence, and gooey slime. Yes, all of those things make their rightful appearance, but the picture is layered in such a way that legitimate tension and mounting fear are treated as attributable asides to the universal questions we, as human beings, are prone to ask ourselves in the face of so much we do not know.
Director Ridley Scott, who has been floundering for the better part of a decade with projects that he didn't have his full heart in (among them, stock, identity-free efforts such as 2008's "Body of Lies
" and 2006's "A Good Year
"), gets it right with "Prometheus." As proven by "Alien" and 1982's "Blade Runner," this is the kind of film he excels at and that his passions are aligned with. A mesmeric genius of deliberately escalating intrigue leading to full-blown terror and/or suspense, Scott has a painterly eye for both the mundane and the extraordinary, for keyholes into the vivid, the enigmatic, the otherworldly. Equipped with state-of-the-art effectsa combination of top-notch CGI and practical workthe film's audacious sights and creatures never look anything other than authentically there, every bit as in front of the camera as the flesh-and-blood actors. Because of this, it's all the more intoxicating as Shaw, Holloway, and a handful of the crew locate and investigate the spacecraft of unknown origin, little by little coming upon species never glimpsed by human eyes. For the span of 124 minutes, what occurs in "Prometheus" might as well be really happening, the curiosity of its characters and the danger they ultimately find abuzz with immediacy and horrifying consequence. Two such moments not easily disclosed or forgotten include a curious run-in with a reptilian, snake-like animal that comes slithering through the dank puddles of the labyrinthine structure, and a jolting, squirm-inducing set-piece involving an automatic surgical chamber that might just manage to one-up the infamous chest-bursting scene from "Alien."
The urge for any actress placed in Noomi Rapace's (2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
") shoes would be to somehow ape Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley character, and it's the sign of a great performer that she avoids this without trying. Both have dark hair and both are strong and resourceful enough to fight for their lives. That's where the similarities end. If Ripley was a follower of reason, Rapace's Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is a dreamer in the way that she clings steadfastly to her beliefsabout the birth of civilization, about Christianity, about the afterlifeeven as she refuses to give up seeking the truth. When android David (Michael Fassbender) questions Shaw about why such answers are so important to her, it is logical that an electronic being such as he would not understand, because he hasn't any soul. "You have no idea what afraid is," Shaw tells him later. She says no more than this, and doesn't have to; it's very clear by this point that the thought of death consumes her in a way that it occasionally must affect anyone with a beating heart. If human beings share one common trait, it is this unavoidable destiny we know nothing about, but must all, one day, face. Rapace is a feminine presence, but also a commanding one, as able-bodied in the role's physical demands as she is in its frequently crucial emotional notes. Shaw is a complex heroine as written, but what Rapace does with the part lifts it up to another level.
The rest of the ensemble have been impeccably cast, each one standing out from the others right down to the peripheral crew members without much to say or do. Mixing and matching actors based on their features and physical quirks are more important than it may seem, and this film gets it right. As for the more prominent supporting players, Michael Fassbender (2011's "Shame
") portrays his most unusual role, to date, that of abiding robot David, who has been brought along to assist the mission. In the way he watches scenes from movies and imitates the speech and hairstyles he sees, right down to the way he struggles to understand a race who look like him but will never be like him, Fassbender is both fearless and sympathetic, transformative enough that it scarcely seems like the same person who, for example, played Magneto in 2011's "X-Men: First Class
." As the stern, egocentric Meredith Vickers, Charlize Theron completes a sort of trilogy of ice queens that began with 2011's "Young Adult
" and continued with 2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman
." Amazing, how specific and very, very good Theron is, building from the ground up three fictional women whom a lazier actor would have played all the same, but whom she personalizes and sets apart in constantly dynamic and astonishing ways. Meredith feeds off of control and superioritya scene she shares with her elderly father is staggering in the ferocity of its dialogue and the way Theron delivers itbut she is far from a one-note character. When the chips are down, she is as scared as everyone else. Finally, also especially strong, Idris Elba (2012's "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
") threatens to steal his screen time as pilot captain Janek, empathetic enough to Elizabeth Shaw's plight that he is willing to do just about anything for her and the human race at large. If not dedicated in such a way, why else would he, and the rest of the crew, give up years of their lives to board Prometheus
in the first place?
"If you don't stop it, there won't be any home to go back to!" Shaw urgently pleads near the end of the film, the stakes having risen to a breathless, unthinkable degree as a series of ingeniously plotted events lead toward the scarily plausible birth of H.R. Giger's most iconically designed monster. The power of cinema is too often taken for granted by people who, preconditioned through mediocrity, watch a movie for a roughly two-hour duration and then never feel the need to think about it again. "Prometheus," like 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1997's "Contact," and 2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
" before it, not only demands deeper consideration after the fact, but earns it. Whereas most movies decline in quality the more one thinks about them, their seams beginning to show, here is an example of the direct opposite. Seemingly boundless in its thematic relevance, its three-dimensional shades of characters, its eye-popping imagination, and its sly insinuations and suggestions within a miraculously constructed narrative that thrillingly reveals fresh angles and surprises at each new turn, "Prometheus" is in many ways a groundbreaking feat of visionary art, going so far as to present situations, images and creative concepts never touched upon in quite the same way before. Don't take this writer's word for it, though; see it for yourself, open your mind, and prepare to be awed.