There’s too much to process in a first viewing of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus—some of it good, some of it great, almost all of it mental. How the movie fits together—both internally, and in sequence with the Alien series Scott launched in 1979—are questions its core audience will come out fiercely debating—those who’ve managed to keep down their dinner, anyway.
This elaborate science fiction freak-out takes gradual shape as a hot, writhing chop suey of ideas, not all of which necessarily belong in the same pot. Watching Scott slice and dice the ingredients—and much of his cast, to boot—is thrilling one minute, faintly deflating the next, like witnessing a master chef trying to satisfy your order and top it with added, incongruous flourishes just because he can.
Rediscovering his once-restless ingenuity as a stylist, Scott still finds ways to push a seemingly played-out genre into queasy new places here, which isn’t something you can say for any of his recent movies.
While we already know that rooting around on an unfamiliar planet is the absolute pinnacle of Bad Ideas in blockbuster cinema, this rolls back the form and uncovers fresh terror, particularly in a cracking, centrally positioned sequence when a robotically administered medical operation spawns the unholiest shock since John Hurt started spluttering at the dinner table in the first Alien.
Like every other key development, it’s not to be spoiled—not by me. Much of Scott’s audience are expecting a fully-formed prequel to Alien, but Prometheus only really lays the groundwork, leaving plenty of dots disconnected. Instead, it retraces the steps of the original movie, beat by beat, to tell its own tale—one screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelhof underline for us constantly (a bit crudely, to put it mildly) as a quest for meaning in the universe.
So archaeologists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) lead an exploratory mission in the year 2093, after discovering a series of cave paintings which all point to one location in space, and suggest that our engineers may have been a different breed of god than the one Shaw honors with the cross conspicuously placed around her neck.
Thanks to richly designed planetary environments with plenty of H.R. Giger’s original art in their DNA, the build-up to inevitable horrors is the most smoothly compelling part of Scott’s movie. Not all of the characterizations escape cliche—there’s a lame seam of jokes about Martians, Charlize Theron is largely an ice sculpture as the corporate functionary Vickers, and the script in general struggles for the right tone, see-sawing jerkily between levity and awe.
Michael Fassbender’s android butler may be the only truly original performance, zestily spliced from various sources, but he counts for a great deal, pacing softly about the movie with an unknowable agenda, and registering as more impressed than surprised by the fates visited piecemeal on his crewmates. It’s an amusingly creepy and constantly interesting turn—the best by far, though a committed Rapace gets better as she goes along, and Idris Elba is winningly blase in his spare-part role as the ship’s pilot.
Scott may have set himself an impossible challenge here, both in satisfying commercial hopes and doing justice to the bigger questions he wants to address—for all the tentacular mayhem going on, the film can’t please everyone all the time. For the time being, with expectations ever so slightly lowered, it’s something to gorge on hungrily all the same: majestic to look at in every way, and wild enough that many—this viewer included—will be right back for seconds.
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