First, the good news: Prometheus is a captivating experience, meant to be savored on the big screen. Ridley Scott’s reputation as a master craftsman is well deserved and he offers up a big, impressive, eye-opening production. It’s also well cast, with two forceful female characters played for all they’re worth by Noomi Rapace (Sweden’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlize Theron. Even better, the versatile Michael Fassbender plays a sly, sophisticated robot, built in human form to make the real humans more comfortable dealing with him. He’s a living, breathing version of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like HAL, he needs watching: he’s always one step ahead of everyone else on the spaceship Prometheus.
The year is 2093. Rapace and her partner (Logan Marshall-Green) play scientists who, thanks to a deep-pocketed corporation, get the opportunity to travel on Prometheus to a distant moon in search of clues to the origins of mankind. A series of cave drawings have led them on this ambitious journey. Most of their fellow voyagers are just along for the ride, including captain Idris Elba and chilly executive officer Theron. It’s the quest for answers to the Big Questions that gives Prometheus its underpinning of thoughtfulness. (Rapace wears a cross given to her by her late father, not to contradict her scientific discoveries but because, she says, “It’s what I choose to believe,” echoing the words of her dad.)
When Ridley Scott directed his science-fiction saga Alien back in 1979, he dared to take his time, carefully building up to the first scary incidents. That won’t do in 2012, so there is a moment in the opening scene involving a humanoid creature that serves as a tease of things to come. This presages the bad news: Prometheus may be more intelligent than run-of-the-mill sci-fi sagas, but it doesn’t skimp on icky, gross-out moments or scenes in which characters make poor decisions that lead to their mutilation and demise—as in any tacky B movie. Watching Prometheus requires a strong stomach.
The screenplay, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, apparently began as a prequel to Alien and then evolved into something else, but echoes of Alien remain, which is why official acknowledgment is made to the writers of that film, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
While I was completely engrossed in Prometheus, I felt a tug-of-war going on between the cerebral and visceral elements, right up to the finale. In fact, there are two endings, and without giving anything away, I’ll say that I wish the movie had faded out after the first. Fans may disagree, but I think the inconsistency in Prometheus’ DNA—and the obvious contradiction this represents—is what keeps it from being a great film, or a ground-breaker, as Alien was.
I don’t mean to damn this film with faint praise: falling short of greatness doesn’t mean the movie isn’t gripping and entertaining. It is. And it certainly gives audiences their money’s worth.