Thanks to the conflicting comments by director Ridley Scott and an ad campaign that borrows a few tricks from the J.J. Abrams School of Mysterious Film Marketing, Prometheus has been built up as a film with big answers to big questions about man's place in the universe. Viewers with those expectations will be disappointed to discover that elusiveness is not just in the film's nature but practically its point. However, for those willing to forgive ambiguity (both intentional and unintentional), there's more than enough skin-crawling body horror and gorgeous, expansive sci-fi visuals for the trip to be worthwhile.
Set roughly 80 years from now, Prometheus follows a crew to a distant moon, outlined in cave paintings that date back to the dawn of man. There, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) hope to discover nothing less than the secret to life on Earth: where do we come from, and how did we get here? They are accompanied by a crew that includes an icy, all-business captain (Charlize Theron), a curious pilot (Idris Elba), and an android named David (Michael Fassbender), who models himself, physically and philosophically, on Peter O'Toole's performance as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.
Prometheus takes place in the same world, with the Weyland Corporation and a planet-naming scheme, but several decades of space between the two films are significant. Scott's insistence that this film simply "shares some Alien DNA" is pretty accurate. Perhaps that's for a reason. Recent film history is full of prequels and reboots that "take away the mystery," ruin the fear that comes from the unknown. Prometheus is actually about the unknown and whether the search for answers is one worth taking -- covered clumsily in at least one frustratingly vague scene, and maybe a bit of a cop-out, but still considered within the film's story. I'm sure many of the same people who hate knowing too much will be just as annoyed by learning so little, but on the whole, I feel the film's point is valid.
The first hour of the film is the best, held up by anticipation and the thrill of discovery, as the characters explore a structure on the planet's surface. This is also the section that basks in the film's phenomenal production design and cinematography, which is not only gorgeous all on its own, but gains extra credit for being, hands-down, the absolute best use of 3D to date. The added depth and dimension truly put the viewer on the deck of the Prometheus, inside dank, alien caves next to the characters unlike any other 3D movie I've ever seen. Viewed on the giant IMAX screen, the film fully delivers as spectacle alone; putting any number of modern films that look like glorified TV shows to shame.
There are three potentially interesting leads here, but their competition for screen time hurts all of them. Rapace gives herself over emotionally, but the role is lacking in personality, and her effort, while admirable, can't stand in for actual motivation. Idris Elba ranks a little higher, playing a working-class guy just trying to get the job done, reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto's Nostromo crew members. Theron ends up in the middle, with her character intended to cause friction when she's stuck making the tough decisions. Instead, the real star is Fassbender as David, who investigates and provokes with genuine fascination and programmed sympathy. Combining Theron and Elba's characters (and cutting some useless, meaningless co-pilots) might've freed up a little more room for David to interact with both of them.
At one point, one character in Prometheus asks (paraphrased): "Did we succeed?" Another responds: "Depends on your definition of success." There's a wide range of movies a fan might want out of a new film set in the Alien universe, but Prometheus toes other waters, intentionally trying to preserve a sense of mystery. When the movie skids on muddled patches and briefly gets bogged down in dull action-movie nonsense near the end, it's hard not to be a bit disappointed (an ending screaming for a sequel doesn't help either), but overall, Prometheus is consistently beautiful, frequently thrilling, and makes a genuine effort to get its ideas up on the screen.
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