Enough with all the coyness—yes, this is a prequel to Alien. However, it’s the kind of prequel where, yeah, you’ll get the connection if you know the first film, but, you don’t need to get it in order to understand the plot. That’s smart (though, in truth, I doubt the interest from people who’ve never seen Alien is very strong), but it’s the kind of smart that also keeps Prometheus from being the “great” film Ridley Scott was obviously trying for. It’s apparent that Scott was hoping to make a sci-fi picture that is also an “important” statement that explores big themes—and which has that enduring impenetrable mystery of Kubrick’s 2001 (with maybe a dash of Malick’s Tree of Life). The problem is that Scott is too much of a professional popularizer to make that leap of faith—in himself and in his audience—to pull it off. Prometheus—whatever its merits—isn’t taking any real chances.
We get a workable basic concept of following what appear to be guideposts left on Earth by ancient aliens works—which somehow skirts the feel of crackpot “ancient aliens” speculative TV shows. But what makes the film successful is the quality—and effectiveness—of the very spectacle laid out for us. And there Prometheus—whether you attribute it to Scott or to the production designers and effects technicians—scores very nicely. It’s also nice to see a big movie that doesn’t feel the need to climax with some kind of gigantic battle. Oh, sure, there’s an exciting climax with the requisite peril and explosions, but it’s geared toward story, character and concept—not just the need for a big ending. Will it spawn a sequel? Well, it’s certainly pitched to one, but it has the wisdom to have a self-contained ending. Is it short of greatness? Yes, but it’s still an impressive show.
While Scott’s attempt may fall short, he has made an entertaining, fast-moving, good-looking film that at least flirts with big questions. That it’s fast-moving is no small feat when you consider that it’s not really an action-oriented film, being more interested in mood, atmosphere and theme. It doesn’t even rely on the stock false scare techniques of Scott’s own 1979 Alien—and that’s partly the result of Scott’s desire that the film should be more than an exercise in sci-fi horror. (In that regard, at least, it’s a more original movie experience—whether it’s a more effective one is undoubtedly a personal call.)
For instance, I’m not skeptical about the idea that the big scientific force behind the story might have strong religious beliefs. That Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a Christian is fine. That she not only makes supposedly scientific decisions based on what she “chooses to believe” isn’t, and it’s even harder for me to swallow that a huge corporation backs her theory founded on that basis. I get that it’s all about the film’s desire to explore the nature of faith, but it’s not really explored—merely stated. That the film ends in a way that suggests a subsequent film (or films) will explore it is—at this point—something of a side issue.
Now, if you want to pick other aspects of the movie’s plot apart, it’s certainly possible—and casting Guy Pearce (under gobs of makeup) as the incredibly old corporate head Peter Weyland just feels like a stunt. But it’s overall solid enough for purposes of drama. Most of the characters are pretty well defined, but Rapace’s Shaw and Michael Fassbender’s android, David, are the standouts. Fassbender gets the best of the film, evidencing both a charismatic appeal and an air of suavely sinister villainy at the same time. In fact, the whole film is worth watching for his performance. Rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language.