Ridley Scott returns to his sci-fi roots with Prometheus, a beautiful film that is equally impressive in the ideas it evokes as in the visual prowess it displays. Ostensibly a prequel to Alien, this film works surprisingly well as a standalone story. There are clear nods to Scott’s earlier iconic franchise, but ultimately this is a dazzling, gorgeous movie that aims high and lands as one of the best of the year.
Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover the same pattern among artwork of various ancient civilizations that had no contact with one another, believing it to be a map to the home planet of the creators of humanity. Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) funds Shaw and Holloway’s expedition to this planet via a ship called Prometheus, with Captain Janek (Idris Elba) at the helm, an android named David (Michael Fassbender) on board as the ship’s butler, and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) as the Weyland Corporation’s representative on board. What they find when they arrive is not what anyone had in mind.
Shot entirely in 3D, Prometheus features one of the best uses of the gimmick to date. The stunning natural landscapes and incredible practical sets are matched by the coolest visual effects of the year, and the 3D enhances the feeling of visiting an alien world and being right there in the action when intense moments crop up. Unlike the slow burn suspense of 1979’s Alien, this film opts to work more in pure action sequences than in scary moments, which may ultimately disappoint horror fans. That being said, there are several thrilling scenes before the explosive climax, and a handful are so intense that they caused audible “holy sh*t” reactions from my theater full of critics. Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script is terrific, and they take care to make sure their characters are fully formed; when the characters get involved in action scenes later on, the audience actually cares about what happens to them. (Take note, young writers.)
The actors are all fantastic, from Rapace’s strong-willed scientist to Theron’s icy corporate stooge and everyone in between. Elba’s ship captain was fun to watch and a nice bounce-back for the actor from the embarrassing Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance earlier this year. Fassbender was especially noteworthy, bringing a steely disassociation to his robotic character while exploring an android’s complicated relationship to humanity. But the real star of Prometheus isn’t an A-list actor or even a burning light they pass in space: the highlight of the film is the blending of drama and action with philosophical questions that make the audience reflect on ourselves in connection to the story.
(Tiny spoiler ahead.) Elizabeth Shaw is obsessed with finding out why the “engineers” of humanity changed their minds and attempted to destroy us, and it’s clear that Ridley Scott wants the audience to think about our behavior as a society and implant ourselves into the story; if the fictional Earth in Prometheus was our real Earth, how bad would we have to make things for our creators to abandon us? Along those same lines – and this is what I think Scott is really getting at – is there anything we can do to change their minds, or is it too late? This somewhat fatalistic view of the future isn’t uncommon in sci-fi, and like all the best work in the genre, Prometheus forces us to think about the human condition outside of his narrative.
Marc Streitenfeld’s score is outstanding, with a truly iconic theme that captures the hopefulness of the mission, the depths of space, and the uncertainty of the future all at the same time. It’s a brilliant piece of music that sounds like something Jerry Goldsmith would have composed for an old Star Trek movie back in the 1980s, but there’s an immediacy and modernity to the rest of the score that makes sense when you find out Streitenfeld briefly worked as Hans Zimmer’s musical assistant. (Listening to such incredible music in a blockbuster reminded me how the music was such a non-issue in The Avengers, a movie that almost begs for a whole series of iconic themes.)
Full of big action and even bigger ideas, Prometheus is an instant classic and one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years. The ending (which I won’t detail here) didn’t quite live up to the rest of the film for me, but I’ll take a movie with a few flaws that makes me think over a flashy, empty blockbuster every time. Until next time…