With Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce. Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R (for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language). 124 minutes.
As a director of science fiction films, Ridley Scott falls somewhere between Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron. He’s more interested in action than Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange”) and was yet more interested in ideas than Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Avatar”). Returning to the genre after three decades, Scott’s focus is still more on the visuals than the content. Yet as with “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” his PROMETHEUS is anything but an empty summer blockbuster. It provides the requisite thrills yet it leaves us with questions. That, perhaps, is the key to Scott’s science fiction: you exit the theater awed by what you saw but eager to talk about what it all means.
It’s the late 21st century and billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of makeup) has sent out the ship Prometheus to look for the planet that may be responsible for life on Earth. Researchers have found signs in several ancient Earth civilizations that they had visitors from the stars, and now archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are leading an expedition to see if they can discover the creators of humanity.
Of course it’s not quite that straightforward. There’s the android David (Michael Fassbender) who has undisclosed instructions from the corporation as well as Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the tightly-wound but very human executive on board. Most of the crew, including Captain Janek (Idris Elba), seem to be in it only for the money.
If this seems to be recapitulating the original “Alien” it’s no accident, although the agenda is quite different. “Alien” was essentially a haunted house story in space. “Prometheus” wants us to consider if we want to meet our creators – or Creator – if such a thing was possible, and what might happen if the opportunity presented itself. With the humans working at cross-purposes, it raises the question as to whether humanity is actually ready for such a meeting.
After planetfall there are secrets to be uncovered, and scary alien beings that may or may not be precursors to the being in “Alien.” One of the questions viewers have had in anticipation of the movie is whether this is a prequel. “Prometheus” ultimately answers that question only to leave us wondering, “Now what?”
The strong ensemble cast makes it difficult for anyone to stand out, but two actors manage to leave a lasting impression. Noomi Rapace (from the Swedish “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” series) is the clear heroine of the story and gets the film’s most horrifying scene where she has to perform surgery on herself. Michael Fassbender (who played Magneto in “X-Men: First Class”) is the duplicitous android we’ve come to expect since the original “Alien,” but who proves to be a bit more complicated than his programming.
As with “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” Scott has fashioned a science fiction film that will leave fans arguing, with some dismissing it out-of-hand and others declaring it a modern masterpiece. In the midst of the summer blockbuster season, the main question is whether it engages the viewer and provides enough excitement. That it does. Over time that will prove less important as viewers (particularly repeat viewers) try to make sense of everything that has happened. It’s a discussion that will continue for a long time to come.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.