Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a grand, visionary science fiction experience, but just as important, it is an affirmation that idealistic science fiction is not dead. The best sci-fi is based on ideas, not laser guns and global domination. With the recent death of Ray Bradbury, I felt a sense of melancholy that the grandness of thoughtful science fiction was passing with him. Ridley Scott’s film gives me hope that there is still a film artist who sees the possibilities of the genre. Yes, there are monsters and shoot-outs, but there’s something worthwhile in the screenplay to back it up.
Scott’s Prometheus does what science fiction is suppose to do, it takes us to a place we could only imagine and presents completely new ideas about the origins of the species. It is officially a prequel to Scott’s landmark Alien, but doesn’t completely hitch its wagon to that film. It leads into the events of that film through thoughtful logic. We sense echoes of what is to come, but we don’t feel hammered by them. This is a film that stands well enough on its own. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof is written with patience and an intelligence that lets that events unfold as we experience them. It doesn’t make everything clear at the beginning and then follow them down a predictable road. The whole way through, we are just as surprised as the characters.
The movie opens with an odd scene that remains unexplained, but is never-the-less curious enough to inspire long discussions afterwards. We spot a strange figure on the horizon of a grey planet. The figure spots a floating object in the sky, drinks something from a cup and vomits before his body decays and falls into the river. The substance reorganizes his DNA into something quite horrible that the characters for the rest of the film will have to deal with.
Cut forward several centuries to a trillion-dollar ship called “Prometheus” that is run by an even more curious being, a plastic robot named David (Michael Fassbinder) who tends to an extended mission from earth to a planet located in another solar system. David is a curiosity, a four-limbed humanoid that reminds us of the HAL 9000 computer, not just in his function but in his thinking. He knows his mission, but never gives the audience any reason to trust him because he puts his duties above human life. What he’s doing is right, but his methods are questionable.
Asleep onboard are the ship’s crew, who have been placed in cryo-sleep for the length of the two year voyage and are awakened when the destination has been reached. The ship itself is the product of The Weyland Corporation, a trillion dollar business that is funding a mission to a planet that, evidence suggests, may unlock the key to the very origins of man. Representing the company is an ice-queen named Meredith (Charlize Theron) whose villainy isn’t a million years removed from her performance as the Queen in Snow White. She wants the mission done with so everyone can get their findings back home. A more idealistic voice comes from an archeologist named Elizabeth Shaw, played in a good, strong performance by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She and her partner Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered a series of star-maps that that have originated from several stone tablets from every age of man from the Byzantine Empire, to the Romans and even ancient Hawaiians. They all connect and seem to point straight to this strange little moon.
What they find when they arrive on the moon is, in a word, astonishing – a strange mountain that contains a cavern that once housed an ancient alien culture. The interiors of that cave are a breath-taking and brilliant exercise in production design by Ridley Scott regular Sonja Klaus (she deserves an Oscar). The discovery of an immense stone-face and hundreds of small missile-shaped canisters leads the crew to believe that something dangerous might be afoot. They’re right, but they first must discover what they have found. Their discovery leads to the uncomfortable information of possibly that the human race was created for sinister purposes. There’s some discussion between Elizabeth and Charlie dealing with her strong faith in God. Knowing what she knows, she has every reason to cast off her religious beliefs and one of the great questions of the movie is whether or not her discoveries will force her to do that.
More of the story, I cannot discuss, except that the movie keeps raising the stakes. Just as with the original Alien, the crew isn’t sure what they are up against nor what is killing them one by one. The difference is that there are few straight-forward answers. There are moments of astonishing discovery as when the away-team returns with a severed alien head that contains something that isn’t very appetizing. This is a film full of great scenes especially a sabotage by David that leads Elizabeth to need surgery before the alien inside her bursts from her abdomen. That leads to an astonishingly good scene in which she tries to remove the beast with the help of an automated surgery machine that has to be seen to be believed. That scene is a masterwork of suspense.
I could probably carp about Prometheus all day, finding faults in tiny details, but this is a film that extends itself into the realms of great science fiction. I haven’t always been kind to Ridley Scott’s work, he makes film that always seem to have grand visuals with characters that leave something to be desired. Here, however, is a movie that Scott has crafted with loving care. His heart was in the material and he has managed to fuse together the wonderment of great science fiction with a sense of danger and horror of his original Alien. The result is not for all tastes, but it rises above just a weekend entertainment. It us leaves us with curious questions about the origin of the species that Darwin probably never would have imagined.