To answer your first question about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: Yes, it is a prequel to his 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. The director has hemmed and hawed about that in public, but the final shot of his current movie leaves no doubt whatsoever. So that’s settled. Now, your second question about Prometheus is: Is it any good? The answer to that one is: Yeah, some.
The story takes place in 2093 on a scientific expedition led by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who’s out to explore a distant Earth-like planet that may hold clues about the origins of the human race. Also aboard are David (Michael Fassbender), an android in charge of the ship while the human crew members are in hibernation, and Meredith (Charlize Theron), who looks after the interests of the corporation funding the expedition. If we learned anything from Alien, it’s that you can’t trust the androids or the suits, and so it proves here.
Returning to the story that launched Scott’s great early triumph seems to have jolted him out of his torpor. His best movies have excelled at scenery, and here he conjures lyrical, menacing topographical features for the rocky, green, volcanic planet covered by glowering clouds. (The exteriors were shot in Iceland.) Great science fiction can dwarf you and make you humbly aware of your place in the cosmos. So this movie does, especially when David encounters a giant alien-generated hologram map of space. Android though he is, he’s still awestruck as he steps inside the map and holds the image of Earth in his hands. You’d be well advised to pay for the 3D upcharge, because Scott uses the technology not for action but to create vistas of breathtaking beauty.
Where this movie falls down is the script. The movie presents Shaw as a devout Christian and never follows up. The humanoid alien race whom the Earthlings are trying to contact (called “The Engineers”) are opaque and uninteresting, which robs the movie’s truncated climax — Shaw’s Ripleyesque showdown with the bad guy — of its power. Most grievously, when you hear early on that Shaw can’t have children, you know exactly what’s going to happen to her. The birthing metaphor in the aliens’ gestation process becomes too explicit and heavy-handed.
Still, that latter point does lead to the one stretch of the film that matches Alien’s skin-crawling power, when Shaw (aided by a robot surgeon) frantically tries to remove the thing that’s inside her before it bursts out on its own. The scene dings so many different fears, of childbirth, of enclosed spaces, of slimy animals, of staple guns. I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say that it’s all deeply unpleasant.
If you’ve seen Rapace in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, you know that she does not half-ass anything, and her commitment is essential here. Much of the film runs on the dynamic between the hyperintense Rapace and the inhumanly calm and polite Fassbender. Their contributions help keep the film from sagging when the director isn’t giving us cosmic visions. Prometheus is ultimately short of its predecessor’s haunting thematic material, but it’s eminently watchable all the same, and its ambition makes it stand out amid the summer blockbusters.
Starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Rated R.