Ridley Scott returns to “Alien” territory with this prequel to his 1979 sci-fi classic, which revivified the monster-movie tropes of fifties outer-space horror movies for a new audience. “Prometheus” can’t match the shock value of the earlier picture—when it contrives an analogue to the previous picture’s famous chest-bursting sequence, it aims for prolonged squeamishness rather than a sudden gasp—or its clammily claustrophobic feel; and the script has a couple of plot holes that mar the impact. But it’s beautifully crafted and visually striking, moves well, and actually tries to raise some serious questions about the origins of human existence, even if the answers don’t amount to much.
In terms of narrative, the picture, set about three decades before the events in “Alien,” is very much a close relative of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” though a much darker one. Instead of beginning with Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man” and a black monolith, however, it starts with a humanoid alien on the earth of many million years ago committing suicide and literally dissolving into the rushing sea.
Jump-cut to the year 2089, when archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are investigating cave paintings; they come upon one depicting an alien figure pointing toward a unique constellation of stars. Four years later the two are on a space vessel operated by the Weyland Corporation, where they and the other crew are brought out of stasis by android David (Michael Fassbender). In holographic form the aged mogul himself (Guy Pearce) informs the group that on the basis of the evidence Shaw and Holloway found, they’re approaching the planet indicated on the drawing to search out the beings that might have been responsible for the creation of man. That immediately sets up a dispute between the Darwinians, who find the idea of creation preposterous, and religious believers like Shaw—whose father (Patrick Wilson), we learn in a flashback, was a missionary in Africa (and who wears a cross herself).
“Prometheus” thus begins with a search for God, or the gods—and while it wouldn’t be fair to disclose the details, of course it does not go well. The planet turns out to be deserted, but the visitors awaken old ghosts and things that have been long dormant and should have remained that way. The forces they unleash may have brought mankind into contact with its maker, but the result also prepares the way for the horrendous events of “Alien,” though it’s not clear precisely how, with the ending leaving room for an intervening episode of the story.
There are a great many things right with “Prometheus.” Like “2001,” its underlying premise involves the most basic questions about human beginnings (and human nature), and if it deals with those issues in a teasing, ambiguous (and provocative) way, there’s nothing wrong with that. Scott and his production team—designer Arthur Max, the art direction team supervised by John King, set decorator Sonja Klaus and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who employs the 3D format so subtly that one expects the 2D version will be equally effective)—have fashioned (as in “Alien”) an utterly convincing, lived-in vision of the future as well as a grimly stunning alien environment. The director and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof also pace the piece cannily, beginning with a relatively sedate first act before suddenly moving into action mode in a scene involving two stranded scientists (Sean Harris and Rafe Spall), from which it lurches forward, now inducing squirms and then jolts, on its way to an inevitable standoff, pausing long enough to throw a last-act curve.
The performances are all proficient, if mostly not more than that. Idris Elba makes a no-nonsense captain, and after “Snow White and the Huntress” Charlize Theron offers her second villainous turn of the season, playing Vickers, the pitiless corporate honcho on board to see to it that the company’s interests remain paramount. Pearce, encased in makeup that makes him a close cousin of Keir Dullea at the end of “2001,” and Marshall-Green are both fine if unremarkable, and both Harris and Spall play out their joint doom capably enough.
But two cast members stand out. One is Rapace, who expertly conveys both Shaw’s mask of professional stoicism and how quickly it can shatter to show the vulnerability underneath. The other is Fassbender, who wittily channels both Brent Spiner’s Data and HAL-9000 as the smiling, soulless David, who harbors a secret agenda. It’s one of the script’s best inspirations to have the character study clips of Peter O’Toole as T.E.Lawrence to model his persona after, apparently thinking that will make him seem more human when interacting with the crew. He couldn’t, of course, have chosen a more off-putting template to follow, and Fassbender captures the affectation with quiet humor, but also a sinister edge.
There are some loose ends in “Prometheus” that one would like to have been tied up. Not, of course, the “ultimate meaning” behind the aliens’ activity—the film actually benefits from ambiguity in that respect, simply pointing toward the inexplicable dark side of humanity that found theological expression in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin. But one might well ask why the aliens apparently left behind drawings that indicate not their home planet, but one that proves to be nothing more than the locale of a kind of military- industrial park. Or why Vickers, who despite her macho attitude is no man, has equipped her palatial suite with a miraculous medical machine that—as we abruptly learn at a critical juncture—isn’t configured for a woman.
Overall, however, “Prometheus” is a coolly elegant, tautly intense contribution to the “Alien” universe that grapples with issues leagues beyond anything raised in run-of-the-mill sci-fi films.