Movie Review: Prometheus Brings a Grander Vision to Ridley Scott’s Alien Universe

What a blessing it is to see a big-budget summer blockbuster with a brain, and to discover that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) doesn’t have a monopoly on the form. Director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is as interested in grand ideas as it is in blowing stuff up or gory alien encounters (though it’s got plenty of both).

The film is about nothing less than the origin of mankind and the nature of our relationship with our creator. Or, according to archaeologists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), our plural creators. The couple convince mysterious industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund a trillion-dollar mission to a faraway moon so that they might make contact with an alien race depicted in 35,000-year-old cave paintings found all over Earth. They believe these extraterrestrials, whom they dub “the Engineers,” are responsible for the introduction of human life.

Why, they want to know, did the Engineers leave us all alone so long ago?

Weyland has his own motives for funding the enterprise and has dispatched the hardnosed Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender) to represent his interests. The rest of the team – the ship’s crew, a biologist, a geologist, and security officers – are kept in the dark about the trip’s purpose until they awake from stasis after a two-year journey aboard the ship Prometheus.

Upon arriving on the moon, they find a massive structure that doesn’t appear to have formed naturally. Shaw and Holloway lead a contingent to investigate, and…I’d rather not tell you what they find inside, except to say that of course not everyone makes it out alive.

You may have heard that Prometheus has a connection, or is a sort-of prequel to, Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. That’s true, though I won’t explain how. I don’t want to spoil the film’s satisfyingly slow unspooling of its revelations.

Even at the end, much of the mystery remains. I was grateful that at no point does a character stumble upon some ancient alien PowerPoint presentation that spells out all the details, as might have happened in a lesser film that doesn’t trust its audience to add it all up for themselves.

Fassbender delivers a masterful performance as David, a robot who idolizes Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and often appears to be working for his own motives, though his agenda is never entirely clear. An undercurrent of resentment, possibly even a boiling rage, peeks through whenever a crew member says something that reminds David that he’s not human and that they don’t consider him their equal.

David doesn’t understand the desire of Shaw and Holloway to meet their makers. After all, he’s met his, and there are indications that he’s not impressed. David seems hurt when Holloway tells him that human beings only made him “because we could.” He turns the same notion right back on Holloway, and the implications are unsettling:

What if we’re not special? What if humanity’s creators didn’t make us as part of any grand design? What if humanity is just an experiment, something the Engineers cooked up just because they could? Were they even happy with the results?

I praise Prometheus for its thoughtfulness even though the screenplay (by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof) lays its ideas on a little thick. I’m willing to forgive the use of clunky metaphors like the cross that Shaw wears around her neck, which functions as painfully obvious a dramatic symbol as the unicorn figurine in Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie.

It’s otherwise all so beautifully crafted – a horrifying, tense, intelligent monster movie.