In his 35-year film career Ridley Scott has never made a sequel to any of his films. And I'm not certain that Prometheus is the exception.
Is it the much-anticipated Alien prequel fans of the series have been clamoring for Scott to make since his original Alien masterpiece in 1979? Yes ... and no.
Prometheus exists on its own terms and in plot respects, without divulging too much of the story, has little to do with the Alien movies as we know them. But it's also undeniably grounded in the mythos, and most definitely is a forerunner to the popular franchise. As Scott himself said of Prometheus: it has "strands of Alien DNA." Once you see the movie, his comment becomes clearer.
The film is the story of a pair of archaeologists who stumble upon the greatest discovery in human history: proof of alien visitations to our ancient world in the form of cave drawings and other records. The drawings depict the same giant humanoids pointing to a cluster of stars.
Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) view this as an unmistakable "invitation" from this advanced race for us to come visit our creators. With the financial backing of the mega-wealthy and powerful Weyland Industries (one of several Alien nods), Elizabeth and Charlie lead a small crew of humans and one android named David (Michael Fassbender) to a far-away world to meet our makers.
But what happens if our creators are not the benevolent beings we think they are?
On the ship, Elizabeth and Charlie have to worry about Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland Industry's representative who is in charge of the expedition, and David, who has his own secret agenda. But it's once the crew of the Prometheus is off their ship and stumbling through a dark alien structure with mysterious pods and eerie holograms that the film really begins to hum, as the scientists discover a race of long-dead aliens that met with an unimaginable fate of their own.
Prometheus is Alien without the title character, as it delves into minor ruminations from fans of the original film: namely, what was the "Space Jockey," the long-dead extra-terrestrial pilot, that Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo discovered, and where did the menacing aliens in its ship come from? Writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Lost) explore this backstory in clever and occasionally surprising paths, though their plot gets lost at times in the grand scheme of the film and drifts into tedium.
Rapace continues the tradition of strong female leads in Scott films, staggering through much of the movie with a set of fresh abdominal staples and facing off against some formidable foes. Theron is efficiently icy and calculated as Meredith, and Idris Elba as the ship's captain Janek is her heroic moral counterpoint. But it's Fassbender's antiseptically logical David, a paradoxical android resentful of human imperfection yet struggling to be more flesh than machine, that resonates most. David is more Ian Holm's Ash from Alien than Lance Henriksen's Bishop from Aliens. The android also represents another common thread in Scott's films in the filmmaker's distrust of technology.
The familiarity of Prometheus will be its biggest attraction and distraction to audiences. Its art direction and set design is unmistakably that of the Alien world, but looks -- and trailers -- can be deceiving. Alien fans will rightfully expect Scott to conjure the same kinds of white-knuckle tension and chair-leaping scares he did in the original, but the filmmaker was smart enough to realize that's an impossibility given the age of his film and the number of sequels it's spawned. (Five, if you count the bastardized Alien vs. Predator films.) To try and out-Alien himself would be a mistake.
There are a few good jolts and a uniformly creepy vibe that permeates the film, but Prometheus is much more than horror film redux; it's a reflection of a 75-year-old filmmaker concerned with big-picture questions about how we came to be on this rock. And within that larger philosophical meandering, he's crafted a competent science-fiction film that operates with machinelike precision, hitting all the right dramatic beats. Scott's use of 3-D is inspired, not so much for the gimmicky "wow" factor, but for how organic it feels in the theater auditorium.
Given its runaway train hype, Prometheus is bound to disappoint some Alien fans by its lack of chest-bursting creatures and oozing acid blood. But those open to a challenging science-fiction film that pushes the series in a new and unexplored direction should appreciate what Scott has in store.
Prometheus isn't Alien 2. But it is a welcomed fresh start.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. A 20th Century Fox release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images and brief language. Running time 125 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Elizabeth ............. Noomi Rapace
David ............. Michael Fassbender
Meredith ................Charlize Theron
Janek .......... Idris Elba
Charlie .......... Logan Marshall-Green
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.