The elegantly designed Prometheus asks the Big Questions — where do we come from? who, if anyone, made us? — and kinda-sorta answers them. But if the movie is really about anything, it’s atmosphere. Director Ridley Scott, returning to science fiction after having made two of the genre’s classics (Alien and Blade Runner), brings a pleasant big-movie heft to the visuals, an almost cruel burnish only possible with lots of money and teams of well-paid techs. The look is handsomely antiseptic, much like the character David (Michael Fassbender), an android aboard the titular spaceship Prometheus. Passing the time (two years) waiting for the crew to wake up, David becomes enamored of Lawrence of Arabia, coloring his hair to emulate Peter O’Toole. It’s heartening, I guess, that in 2093 we will not only still exist but also remember 20th-century art; another character, the captain (Idris Elba), plays an accordion once owned by Stephen Stills.
These hints of personality and leisure have to last us a while, because most of Prometheus is about delving into — as mission director Vickers (Charlize Theron) puts it — “a godforsaken rock in the middle of space.” Our intrepid crew of scientists seek evidence of “the Engineers,” aliens worshipped by various unconnected ancient cultures. The Engineers, we’re to understand, created us. But why? For that, I think, you’re supposed to come back for Prometheus 2 and 3; this film is reportedly the first of a projected trilogy, though whether it’ll make enough bank to justify sequels is a more urgent question than any the movie asks. The maybe-part-one-if-enough-of-you-see-it aspect may explain why Guy Pearce appears underneath pounds of old-man latex as Peter Weyland, who funds the mission. I’m assuming the grand plan is to have the unlatexed Pearce return in a sequel or prequel as a younger Weyland; otherwise why didn’t they just hire an older actor?
The heart of Prometheus is the believer Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), whose entire career seems to hinge on proof of, well, intelligent design. I’m not quite up on what Richard Dawkins might say about this; whether we were created by a white-bearded Christian god or by strange-looking aliens gargling goo at the dawn of man, the point the film takes for granted is that we were created. Someone in the film snarks about two hundred years of Darwinism being chucked out the nearest air lock, but that’s about all the skepticism we hear among this cadre of scientists. Anyway, the impassioned Noomi Rapace is much the best thing about the movie; as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, she moves on an angular, headlong trajectory, and Shaw is about the only character visibly capable of horror and awe, sometimes both at once. (Charlize Theron, meanwhile, plays her second ice queen in as many weeks, and seemed to have more fun last week.)
Logic will not avail us here. Forget whether it’s plausible that a species of unpleasant baldies manufactured us for reasons as yet known only to them; what about the scene in which a character takes a series of running leaps when her abdomen was lasered open and then stapled shut only hours before? Not to mention the sequence in which two crew members, deep inside the womb of the godforsaken rock, suddenly decide to head back to the ship, then promptly get lost. They only exist, we gather, as alien fodder. Yes, here be dragons, or at least phallic slimy things and a big beastie worthy of Lovecraft at his most febrile. For weeks now, the marketing for Prometheus couldn’t figure out whether to sell it as a prequel to Alien or as a stand-alone scientists-meet-monsters epic. It is, if you must, a story that takes place in the same reality as Alien, and the final shot, much derided by Alien fans, strengthens the link. If you want to rewatch Alien and not think of the mysterious “space jockey” as what you pray to on Sunday, you might want to steer clear of Prometheus.
The movie wasn’t giving my brain much of a workout, but my eyes got a nice buzz. Prometheus is straight-up gorgeous, especially in 3D; Scott has conceived the shots for the added dimension, employing it with subtlety and for the occasional matter-of-fact spectacle. If the ads have intrigued you visually, go. Just be prepared for a plot that reminds me of various reviewers over the years admitting “I’m not sure whether this movie/book just rips off some Star Trek episode I never saw.” It’s an atmospheric thrill ride, though short on thrills until near the end, and certainly neither as intense nor as tight as Alien. It’s best perceived as an experiment by a director returning to the franchise he created, not by making a direct sequel but by drifting off to tell a related story. On the evidence, though, Scott can’t scare us any more, and his characters recede into the vast canvas of his own intelligent design. We can’t really care about who made us if most of the people onscreen aren’t us.