Thirty-three years ago, writer-director Ridley Scott (2010’s “Robin Hood”) kicked off his career with 1979’s visionary space-age horror classic “Alien.” That little haunted-house picture on a spacecraft still holds up beautifully, as it quietly crawls up your spine at an intoxicating slow-burn pace and then unleashes its shocking, startling, often gory jolts-a-go-ago on you. Imitated but never equaled, “Alien” is such an elegantly moody and frightening dread machine. Now, as times have changed, technology has advanced, and those “Alien vs. Predator” spin-off jokes are done with, Scott no longer works on a small, claustrophobic scale with practical special effects but comes close with “Prometheus,” a bigger budget be damned. Prequel or not, the long-gestating “Prometheus” is definitely part of the “Alien” family, as it’s Mr. Scott’s return to space where “no one can hear you scream” and body-conscious terror, but never feels like a conscious rehash and should be judged on its own. This visceral, more-than-worthy stand-alone companion piece is not only a jolt to the system but has been implanted with a brain and ambition.
In 2089 on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, archeologists Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover prehistoric cave configurations of a man reaching out to a constellation of stars that date back to nearly 35,000 years ago. “I think they want us to go and find them,” Shaw says in a state of giddy awe, believing the drawings are an “invitation” from mankind’s “engineers.” Flash-forward a couple of years after a state of hyper-sleep, the docs lead a mission on Prometheus, a scientific exploratory vessel boarding seventeen members, to the planet depicted in the cave’s paintings. Funded by wrinkly, old Peter Weyland’s (Guy Pearce) Weyland Corporation and helmed by the all-business Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the scientists hope to meet their makers. Vickers makes it clear to Shaw and Holloway that she’s the one in charge, not them, and that no contact will be initiated if alien life is found on the planet. However, once they land the ship and explore the alien landscape, the Prometheus crew are really going to meet their maker by the unfriendly alien race.
One thing is certain: “Prometheus” is the summer antithesis of both “Battleship” and “Men in Black III,” last month’s alien offerings. The screenplay, by Jon Spaihts (2011’s “The Darkest Hour”) and Damon Lindelof (2011’s “Cowboys & Aliens”), is thoughtful and ambitious enough to raise the Big Questions. How did we get here? What if we could meet our maker? Can we be saved from death by those that created us? The film may not provide concrete answers, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not that Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof are too lazy to hold our hands and answer everything. More explanation would have been silly and laborious, but the ambiguity is intentional and more effective that way, considering “Prometheus” is about a journey into the unknown. Such questions of life, creation, and death make great food for thought.
“Prometheus” is expertly paced and taut, gradually and patiently moving at an old-fashioned modus operandi, as we meet all the colorful characters before director Scott cranks the wheel and tightens the vice. The evolution of the plot unfolds closely to that of “Alien,” as when we first find our crew members in hibernation pods on Prometheus, to a character forbidding to break the ship’s quarantine law and bring a sick member back on board. Other narrative and visual reminders point to the original “Alien” (the catacomb of oozing vases in place of the eggs, the origin of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the “space jockey,” and our heroine running around in her underwear like Ripley), as well as Stanley Kubrick’s influential 1968 opus “2001: A Space Odyssey” (David is like Hal 9000 in “human” form). When two characters are left stranded in the cavernous catacombs, there’s a creepy-crawly jolt involving a cobra-like alien. A dust storm is also tensely staged and exciting that you can almost feel the wind blowing you away. Then there’s one memorably intense, repulsive, and nerve-racking set-piece involving a hasty self-administered C-section that rivals the ick factor of “Alien’s” chest-bursting scene, and that’s all that’ll be said there. It puts us on pins and needles, and will be the scene that the public will be talking about. Luckily, 20th Century Fox didn’t force Scott to compromise his vision with cuts or a diluted PG-13, as that key scene and the entire film deserve an R-rating.
This is also a film of sleek, staggering beauty, directly from the top in the “dawn of time” prologue with a tall, waxy, muscle-bound humanoid standing on the cliff of a roaring utopian waterfall. Even the creatures are seamlessly realized with fully convincing CGI and practical effects. It’s pleasing to report that the 3-D heightens depth-of-field and never looks murky under those glasses. The film won’t lose an ounce of its striking, immersive imagery in 2-D, but it’s worth the stereoscopic upcharge. Marc Streitenfeld’s music score is very much an atmospheric aid to the visuals, as well as being in fond memory of the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s indelibly layered and spine-tingling work on the original.
Noomi Rapace, star of the Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, makes her official American debut (read: a lead role that gives her more to do than 2011’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” did). As Elizabeth Shaw, she is the compelling, resourceful human glue, invoking equal strength and vulnerability like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Shaw’s faith is quite dear to her, wearing a cross around her neck. If her harrowing portrayal as the first Lisbeth Salander didn’t already, this will make Ms. Rapace an international star. Michael Fassbender is excellent as David, the android made without a soul, whoÂ may or may not be as benevolent as his pleasure for watching “Lawrence of Arabia” and combing his hair like Peter O’Toole. He’s even more enigmatic than Ian Holm’s Ash from the first “Alien” with ambiguous objectives. Charlize Theron, who’s two for two this summer with “Snow White and the Huntsman” and this in playing ice queens, does chilly, controlled work as Meredith Vickers. This is Theron’s more subtle performance of the two, and she gets to wear form-fitting space suits in gray and black, not glorious gowns from Colleen Atwood’s sewing machine. Her Vickers is cold, has “agenda” written all over her, and is more about the bottom line than she is about science. Her character has a minor twist, which isn’t too surprising, but it kind of makes sense why Vickers is the way she is. Also, making the most with what they have on the page, Logan Marshall-Green (a clone of Tom Hardy?) does engaging work as Shaw’s co-scientist boyfriend Charlie, and Idris Elba adds some unforced comic relief as the cavalier Captain Janek.
“Prometheus” has so much going for it, but isn’t immune to being called flawed. When one considers good, clean logic, plot holes become more apparent. Yes, the cynical riffraff of the crew isn’t going to behave like the sharpest crayon in the box, just so they can die first. That is bound to happen here, but a sexual meeting after a verbal exchange between Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and Vickers never happens, so why even introduce it? And how does a certain room emerge unscathed after an explosive event takes place? Nevertheless, when a film does more right than wrong, fault-finding is like not seeing the forest for the trees.
Seeing the original “Alien” ahead of time will keep the viewer in good stead, but you must be from another planet if you haven’t seen it. A second ending has a hook that clearly leads to the acid-dripping aliens that first attacked the crew of seven on The Nostromo. Though it’s not as palm-sweatingly frightening as “Alien” (what is?), “Prometheus” is more cerebral science fiction than a grotesque horror show. Sure, it has its knockout shocks and thrills, but like the best kind of science fiction, it’s about something.
124 min., rated R.
Grade: B +