You don’t expect to walk out of a spanking-new $130 million 3D sci-fi action spectacular and find yourself saying, “They sure don’t make them like that any more.” Happily, though, they do—or at least, Ridley Scott does. At 74, the director has returned to the franchise he launched 33 years ago like the sorcerer returning to his apprentice, setting back to rights the alchemy that had spiraled far away from the lean genius of Scott’s original Alien.
The eerie, thoughtful Prometheus serves as a reminder that Alien was the last great sci-fi classic to come of the remarkable decade that began with Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and included such landmarks as George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973).
In 1975 and 1977, respectively, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and that other George Lucas sci-fi movie ushered in the age of the blockbuster, which is still very much upon us and is exemplified by James Cameron’s sequel Aliens (1986)—a great film, as sci-fi action blockbusters go—but the first Alien (1979) is still redolent of the 70s, with H.R. Giger’s slimy biomechanical horror invading the sterile white Nostromo like the Me Decade’s angry id visiting nightmares upon its high-minded superego.
Prometheus is loosely framed as a prequel to Alien; though it doesn’t immediately establish the events of that film, it exists in the same universe and fleshes out the back story of the horrifically homicidal aliens and an only slightly friendlier humanoid race that’s implicated in the baddies’ creation.
One of the smartest decisions Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof make is to not explain everything—the characters and audience are left curious in a manner that’s consistent with the themes tying it to Alien. The aliens are fundamentally mysterious, and so are we. Prometheus indicates a connection between the aliens’ origin and our own, and stops there. Really, that’s enough to process in a film that has a lot of action sequences to take care of.
The plot has the eponymous vessel arriving at a distant solar system after a long voyage during which the crew, in stasis, are overseen by the android David (Michael Fassbender). The resemblance between this David’s solitary vigil and that of David Bowman is the first of the film’s many nods to 2001, but this David turns out to be more HAL than help. The ship has come in search of alien life, but a tension immediately becomes apparent between the mission’s idealistic scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) and the corporation that funded the voyage, as represented by a steely Charlize Theron. Amidst all this interpersonal drama, it need hardly be mentioned, there are a couple of unfriendly extraterrestrial races to deal with.
Prometheus is so rich with atmosphere and imagery that despite its bleak themes and tortured characters, it feels decadent: every scene satisfies, from the majestic opening sequence to the hard-bitten conclusion. Prometheus constitutes the most beautiful use of 3D technology I’ve seen: you constantly find yourself being impressed by the depth, much like viewers of The Wizard of Oz must have noticed that film’s use of color.
From an objective standpoint, there’s really too much going on in Prometheus—the aliens infest, infect, and invade the humans in almost as many ways as there are characters—but it’s all done so well that I had no complaints. Typical is a sequence when Rapace finds need to extricate an alien presence from herself using a DIY surgery machine. The whole sequence could have been trimmed and no one would have missed it, but it turns out to be the single best scene in the movie: a master class in how to use all the filmmaker’s tools to hold the audience rapt.
Scott creates the space for a superb performance by Rapace, who becomes more flushed with life as the death toll mounts around her. Like Esther Williams, the wetter and more athletic things get, the better she looks. Fassbender, who’s been a very busy actor lately, has never seemed so born into a role as into that of the android David. Most movie androids seem eerie because they’re not sufficiently human; David, on the other hand, unsettles because he’s not quite as robotic as you’d like a robot doctor to be when he’s asking about your sex life.
One advantage of taking directorial leave of the Alien series from 1979 to 2012 is that Scott skipped the awkward adolescence of CGI technology; just as Lucas was confident enough in his model/matte effects to make things believably messy, now films like The Hunger Games are seamlessly incorporating digital effects into a world that feels rough and real. Prometheus is a glorious victory lap for Scott, who figured out how to make a gorgeous and thrilling future world in 1979 and has now updated it to look better than ever.