(Be sure to check out my retro reviews of the entire Alien series!)
Ridley Scott's Prometheus is an epic-sized tableau packed with a lot of meditations on a lot of big questions. But let's get the biggest question out of the way right up-top. Is it a prequel to Alien? Yes. Of course it's a prequel to Alien. When viewed in hindsight, the filmmakers' hemming and hawing and misdirected "Look at that!" over the last few years as they ran in the opposite direction whenever the question arose seems a bit silly. So, yes, Prometheus is set in the same universe as the Alien series, and yes, it's set before the first film in said series. Seems to satisfy the base requirements of a prequel to me.
With that out of the way, the second question that's dogged viewers from even before Fox rolled out the big publicity push all the way to now is what precisely Prometheus is about. This one is a little harder to pin down. It's about a lot of things. The beginnings of life. Man's place in the universe. The bond between parents and children. But most importantly, it's about Scott returning to the genre he served so well and that in turn served him so well, to prove he still has what it takes to make his mark. Well, he does, and he does. And if Prometheus doesn't quite measure up to the loftiness of its aspirations, that doesn't make it a ride that's any less worth taking.
Starting in the year 2089 (after a brief pitstop at the dawn of time), film follows scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), whose discovery of ancient ruins with some connection to extraterrestrials points the way to another world that may just be populated by our makers. Cut to four years later, and Shaw is part of a crew of scientists gathered together by Weyland Industries (hmm, where have I heard that name?) on the space ship Prometheus, now arrived at the planet they were directed to by the relics. While this team of explorers sets out in search of the meaning of life, the secrets they find may well end up leading them to their deaths.
There's a lot to like in Prometheus, starting with the production design and overall visualization. This is no big surprise coming from Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors of this or any other era. It's clear with every frame that he relishes the opportunity to revisit the world of Alien three decades on with the benefit of the experience he's gained since. The production design by Arthur Max nicely incorporates the aesthetics of Ron Cobb & Chris Foss, and also of H.R. Giger from the original Alien. Stylistically and aesthetically, this is very much of a piece with the earlier work.
Structurally, however, there are some major issues with pacing and basic logic, and the larger share of blame there has to go to the script by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, which doesn't lack in scope or ambition, but does stumble when trying to measure up to them. As first envisioned, Prometheus was supposed to be more of a straight-ahead prequel that would have cleanly laid the pipe for Alien without all the cloak-and-dagger stuff about whether it does or it doesn't. Lindelof's primary contribution was to make the Alien stuff more tangential, allowing the works to have a connection, but also allowing that film and franchise to stand separately.
This ends up being both a plus and a minus. The tendrils connecting this to Alien are there. They can't be escaped. The ship the scientists discover is of the same design as the one discovered by the Nostromo crew in Alien. The "engineers" the scientists are looking for, who they believe created life on Earth, are of the same species as the "space jockey" that we saw in Alien as a petrified corpse. These connections may indeed be tangential, but they're tangible all the same, and so it's impossible not to view Prometheus without measuring it -- perhaps unfairly -- against its older cousin.
In that sense, Prometheus lacks the clarity of focus that the earlier film had. Like the creature from which it took its title, Alien was a perfect organism. No time or space was wasted, and every second of runtime had a functional reason for being there. With Prometheus, on the other hand, there's a little too much breathing room. Too many digressions and dead-ends that, while fascinating and engaging on their own, don't do much to make the overall experience any more fulfilling. Further, the seams are a little too obvious at the joint where Scott's Big Ideas movie in the mold of Kubrick's 2001 bumps up against a horror movie in the mold of... well, Ridley Scott's Alien.
If all that sounds unnecessarily negative, it's not meant to be. As mentioned, the effects and world building are breathtaking, and both benefit from the added scope and dimension of IMAX and 3D (actual, not post-converted). And many of the characters are given more depth than they're due by the across-the-board excellent cast, which includes Idris Elba as the ship's skipper, and Charlize Theron as a representative of the company (hmm... wonder if she knows more than she's letting on? This being the Weyland company, what do you think?). While Rapace is no patch on Sigourney Weaver, she nonetheless acquits herself very nicely as a woman trying to balance her religious beliefs with pursuit of scientific knowledge.
The unquestionable standout in this cast, just as he was in last year's X-Men: First Class, is Michael Fassbender as David, a Weyland Industries android that serves as progenitor to the Alien series' Ash and Bishop. Unfortunately, as with the other characters, his arc is undernourished, with his behavior vacillating between naive and sinister a little too haphazardly. Nonetheless, Fassbender lends remarkable depth to the character despite these limitations, to the point that Prometheus is just as much about David's journey of identity as it is about Shaw's journey of discovery.
By the time Prometheus reaches the close of its third act (with an in-credits tie-in to Alien that's just confusing), there are a few too many questions left hanging and a few too many plotholes left nagging. These can be chalked up to planned ambiguity, planned sequel setup, or simple sloppiness depending entirely on how forgiving you are when you watch. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a little of all three. But in a world where your average summer blockbuster is content to bombard audiences with sound and fury and lull them into obeisance (like this one, ferinstance), Prometheus tries to do something a little more thought-provoking. And even when its reach doesn't quite meet its grasp, it still deserves to be seen. B