Taken on its own, as a standalone film, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is kind of a wonder, even if it doesn’t always make much sense. Tie it into the universe of his landmark 1979 film Alien, however, and you could be setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Scott’s much ballyhoo’d return to sci-fi horror, a genre he all but brought to the forefront of cinema, caused much consternation among Alien purists, who all but prayed to the anointed saints of celluloid that they would be returned to the canon of xenomorphs and acid for blood. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, Scott skirts just around the perimeter of the Alien world, creating an entirely new story, and giving us something new and fresh in the process.
Not that the world Scott immerses us in this time around isn’t familiar. There are moments in Prometheus that feel as comfortable as a favorite coat, particularly in the homage to H.R. Giger’s surreal biomechanics art design. Those hints of Giger come early in the film, as a deep-space research vessel, the Prometheus, sets down on LV-223, a planet that looks remarkably like the one in Alien, but isn’t (it’s adjacent). On board are two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), who have followed a series of ancient maps to what they believe is the origin of mankind: a distant race of alien life they call The Engineers. How do they know this to be true? The movie doesn’t say, in one of the many instances where the script maybe isn’t up to par with the rest of the film. They’re joined by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), executive suit with the Weyland Corporation, who’s funding the mission; the android, David (a terrific Michael Fassbender), who wants nothing more than to be a real boy; and Idris Elba as Captain Janek, who continues the long tradition of salty leaders more comfortable with a cigar pinched between their teeth. Upon exploring a series of dark caverns, they discover evidence of of the Engineers and the organic matter they were experimenting with before something came along and wiped them out centuries ago. An infection, perhaps, Shaw wonders? David surreptitiously brings the matter on board the ship and sets off a chain of disastrous events that includes the birthing of a new kind of alien life form (Prometheus predates the events in Alien by decades).
I could gone on for hours about the plot and its various twists, about the caverns and what they contain — all those totems and canisters, and the strange holographic echoes of the Engineers succumbing to some kind of plague. (How David knew the sequence of the ancient code that summons the image is one for the stars.) Or the final knowledge that the Engineers might not be as benign as once thought. There are elements of the story intended to be deep, including some questions about the origins of life and who begat whom, The Engineers or us. Vickers and David clip-clop through a bit of intrigue that has more to do with figuring out the secret to immortality than anything as diabolical as unleashing a murderous lifeform on mankind, although that does happen.
Frankly speaking, much of Prometheus is silly nonsense that can drive you crazy if you try to dig too deep. There are too many ideas going on, as if the writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, wrote ten different scripts and pieced together the best moments from each of them like a patchwork quilt. What makes the movie succeed in spite of the cobbled script — what keeps it moving like a well-wound watch — is Scott’s visual style and the spectacular action sequences. Prometheus is a text-book example of how vision and style can outweigh substance, and Scott pretty much schools them all. Two techs get stuck in the caverns and come face-to-face with an entirely unfriendly organism, and Scott delivers the results with a mix of grisly violence and dark humor. The sequence where Shaw rids her body of a contagion via emergency Caesarian is staged with nail-biting intensity. The final showdown between Shaw and the lifeforms on LV-223 (including the legendary Space Jockey) is exciting in a way that is rare in modern-day action films. Scott has firm control over his timing, the music, and the visuals, bringing them all together like a virtuoso conductor. By the time it’s all said and done, the shoddy story is forgotten. Prometheus is, in many ways, a master-class filmmaker’s return to top form.
Yes, the movie has its detractors. I’m not one of them. I think Scott was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t; doomed from the start, you might say, by too many people with expectations beyond what he could deliver. That’s okay. I’m glad he had the guts to return to this familiar world and make it into something we haven’t seen before. I’m also looking forward to the sequel. Who knows? Maybe we’ll run into Ripley somewhere down the road.