Among several things that commend it—not least the baroque design and slick visuals you'd expect of any back-to-the-future mission mounted by Ridley Scott—the new Prometheus contains the most electrifying body-horror shock scene in recent memory. It's part of a harrowing sequence, already icky enough in conception, that climaxes in a claustrophobically walled-in space. The scene is explosive and gut-churning and very messy, of course; and no matter how much you might wish it otherwise, it's unforgettable. Too bad, then, that the movie's discursive narrative leeches energy from the proceedings, and that it only intermittently approaches this level of graphic power.
Prometheus seems to have hovered above us for more than a year now. The long, steady drip of pre-release promotion was coy about what the movie would actually be. Now we see that it is, in fact, not exactly a prequel to Alien, the 1979 game-changer in which Scott scuffed up and pulped out the pristine techiness that had dominated sci-fi films over the decade since Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Heading in another direction, Scott created a wet, grotty darkland of inescapable horror that still resonates.
The new picture, made from a script by Jon Spaihts that was reworked by Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Lost, returns to the treacherous Alien universe—to what might be called the adolescence of the title monster—to tell a separate story, one not intended, in the George Lucas manner, to neatly butt up against the beginning of the earlier film. This clever narrative strategy allows the possibility—well, the iron certainty—of a sequel that can take the franchise into new areas of Kubrick-style philosophical musing while retaining the genre imperatives of menace and doom and heavily chewed humans.
This time out we find ourselves aboard the Prometheus, an intergalactic expeditionary ship far grander than the shabby Nostromo of 30 years ago. (One suite in the vessel contains a grand piano and crystal chandelier.) Among its 17-member crew are two lovebird archeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose researches among the world's prehistoric cave paintings have revealed a common image of figures pointing up to the sky, toward a faraway galaxy. Shaw and Holloway have somehow managed to pinpoint this place, and a predictably sinister corporation called Weyland Industries is now financing the two-year trip to reach it. Shaw, whose religious faith is proddingly signified by the small cross she wears, hopes to find the origin of the human race—to meet our makers. Holloway, a skeptic for whom science explains all, scoffs at her beliefs. (We already have a small idea of what's going on from a prologue involving a hairless, muscular being—a sort of interstellar professional wrestler—who on a visit to primordial Earth sheds some genes into a body of water of the sort from which planetary life will later emerge.)
The size of the crew—three times as large as that of the Nostromo—is one of the flaws that flatten the movie's effect. Although the script fitfully stirs our interest in a pair of characters who ultimately linger too long in a place they shouldn't, most of the rest are set-dressing. There's really only room to focus on five of them: Shaw and Holloway; Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron in ice-bitch mode), the Weyland exec who's onboard to ensure the fulfillment of the company's shadowy agenda; the ship's salty captain, Janek (Idris Elba); and, most memorably, a sleek blond android called David (Michael Fassbender), who is far more intelligent than the earthlings who surround him, but is consigned to menial duties as the ship's housekeeper.
With his precisely stilted movements and unshakably bland amiability, Fassbender gives the movie's most inventive performance. While the rest of the crew is tucked away in a two-year hyper-nap, we see him pottering around the ship on his own, devoting long hours to studying ancient languages, and—in the film's wittiest conceit—whiling away more of his abundant spare time studying a wide-screen video of Lawrence of Arabia, entranced by the glamorously styled blond hair of that film's star, Peter O'Toole. David seems to know more about the object of the ship's mission than he's willing to convey (another flaw—the character's intentions are never clarified). When his shipmates wonder about the beings who contributed their DNA to the human gene pool and, more important, why they created us, David replies, with the ghost of a smirk, "Why do you think your people made me?"
On reaching their destination, the explorers find a hostile planet whose only breathable air is inside a huge rock formation that resembles a pyramid. Mapping its interior, they come upon a number of unsettling things: a huge stone head, indecipherable wall markings, hidden chambers, and—oops—a vast assembly of oozing urns. A number of wonderfully horrible things happen, involving infected eyeballs and snapping bones, and before very long at all we encounter the fearsomely tentacled precursor to the slimy killing machine of Alien.
The movie has a great look, elegantly deepened by Scott's intelligent use of 3D. There are some odd kinks in the story (a reference to a wheezing concertina said to have once been owned by Steven Stills—possibly an inside joke of some sort—may puzzle anyone familiar with Stills' instrumental specialty.) And it's not clear whether Rapace—sweet and spirited here, a world away from her Dragon Tattoo girl—is yet ready to carry a big Hollywood production; or why Guy Pearce should have been brought in to be unrecognizable as Weyland, the wrinkled company founder, who is introduced as a shimmery hologram.
Still, if Prometheus weren't burdened by the expectations engendered by Alien, a masterwork of sci-fi modernism, it would surely be greeted as a superior genre exercise. It's exciting in parts, even if the excitement isn't maintained. And while the movie's earnest spiritual ponderings may seem hackneyed to some viewers, that, of course, is a tribute to their eternal fascination—to their real mystery. Toward the end of the picture, when one of the characters says, "Time to go home," we realize that none of them is any longer sure where "home" might be.