Graced with the clearest, most immersive 3D design since Avatar, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a triumph of atmosphere over, well, everything — plot, internal consistency, even common sense. But it’s no less a triumph for that. Horror — which, in spite of its sci-fi trappings, is the backbone of Prometheus’ pre-/post-cursor Alien — is, in large part, about building and sustaining the tension between scares. You may recall the instant when the monster jumps out of the shadows, but it’s the moments before it that make the punchline land, so to speak. And Prometheus, unlike any of the sequels between it and the original, is a horror movie first and foremost, gnawing at subconscious terrors even as your conscious mind attempts to bat it away.
In a brief opening sequence, a near-naked figure who looks like an Olympic swimmer covered in candlewax strides across a verdant, apparently unspoiled terrain. He approaches the top of a waterfall and ingests a vaguely alive-looking substance, which the camera follows through his mouth and into his body, zooming in until the double helixes in his blood fill the screen. The substance attacks his genetic material, ripping it apart as his rapidly decaying body falls toward the water, his atoms separating and recombining into cells that rapidly multiply, swelling the primordial stockpot and, as the credits start, spawning the letters of the movie’s title as well.
Directed by Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon, Alien was powered by the anxieties of creation writ small: birth. Entering through a moist orifice (the mouth) and bursting out through the abdomen, eviscerating their human incubator in the process, the aliens were a grotesque, almost comically on-point incarnation of misogynist fears and maternal unease — a point superfluous driven home in later movies by giving Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley a human child to tote around. Prometheus inflates those anxieties — along with everything else — to quasi-mythic proportions, following an expedition to the stars chartered by a pair of biologists (Noomi Rapace and Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green) who’ve discovered cave paintings that seem to point to the origins of life on earth.
Naturally, they wind up on a spaceship, shunted into suspended animation while David, Michael Fassbender’s Aryan android, keeps watch over them. As always, there’s a hidden agenda, pushed by the apparently eternal Weyland corporation, represented onboard by Charlize Theron’s steely Vickers, who knows almost as must as David about the mission’s true aims. There’s the standard motley crew of barely differentiated deckhands, watched over by Idris Elba’s seasoned captain, all of them evidently expendable.
At first, the planet’s surface reveals little, but a subterranean network of tunnels turns out to contain rooms full of ovoid canisters that pointedly resemble the Alien movies’ eggs, as well as the remains of several creatures resembling the suicidal creator from the opening scene. Answers? Consider that the script’s primary architect is Lost’s Damon Lindelof, and come to terms with the fact that they’ll be outnumbered by questions, two to one.
Turning back the clock is a wise move, since it allows Scott and Lindelof to tease some of the franchise’s elements — facehuggers, chestbursters and the like — without being weighed down by it. There are only so many ways to play an eerily lifelike but somehow-not-quite-alive collection of tubes and wires, and Fassbender doesn’t quite square the circle, but he manages to find a level of pansexual menace that’s never quite manifested in the series before. He’s an Adonis, or more the point, Adam, looking as if Darwinian imperative might just compel him to wipe out the bipedal life forms in his vicinity. Rapace strips down to a pair of gauze strips rather than a tank top and bikini panties, but the movie’s insistence on stripping her down and watching her fight her way back up deliberately echoes Ripley’s cornered fury. There’s plenty of fodder for gender studies majors as well, some of it tongue-in-cheek, as when a character has to trick a male-calibrated medical pod into giving her a Caesarean section by describing the fetus as a “foreign body” — the result of a “penetrating injury,” no less.
Prometheus winds up, to be sure, in some fairly dopey territory, particularly as the elegantly sustained tone gives way under the imperative to stage a succession of increasingly incongruous action sequences. (Turns out those godlike creatures with the secret to creating life can also throw a totally badass punch.) But for all its blockbuster mechanics — mechanics being, by and large, all Scott’s movies have offered of late — it feels more suggestive than hollow, even if its foundational premise turns out not to make a lick of sense. In not just its own universe but our own, it seems like a throwback to the time before Alien, when science fiction movies didn’t have to choose being microbudget head-scratchers or overblown spectacles, trying and occasionally succeeding to colonize the middle ground between the two.