Riddley Scott is one of the very few filmmakers are given the privilege of taking a second bite from the cinematic apple that was so good to them. Fewer still when the original franchise took such a nosedive as the sequels just kept coming. The franchise is Alien, and while PROMETHEUS does not want to be a prequel, it does take place before the events of the first Alien, and offers an expansion on the mythos of those frighteningly efficient monsters that prowl space waiting for a chance to wreak havoc.
The Alien connection pops up almost immediately, as the sponsor of a trillion-dollar space expedition in search of humankinds origins is identified as the Weyland Corporation. No mere commercial venture, though the bulk of the crew is there strictly for the money, the object of this trip is to reply to what seems to be an invitation left in widely dispersed ancient cultures from around the globe, each of which left an identical star map. Mr. Weyland (Guy Pearce in old-age makeup that is both egregious and inexplicable in context) himself is the spur, as he explains to the crew in a pre-recorded message to be played upon the voyages arrival. In it he explains that he is setting aside monetary gain in favor of discovering the answers to humankinds most profound questions, which, as age has crept up on him, have become more and more important.
Or not. Certainly the lead scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), are not Weyland functionaries, but rather pair-bonded anthropologists who have devoted their lives to finding the clues they are convinced were left behind by aliens. Yet, once they start orbiting the object of their quest, a moon orbiting a lovely ringed planet, they begin to get mixed messages from the expedition leader (Charlize Theron), an icy blonde with far less warmth than the ships robot (Michael Fassbender), who tended to them all while they slept in stasis during their two-year trip. That he also tended to drop in on their dreams as they slept is only one of the things that make him the most interesting character in the film, along with a fixation on mid-20th century cinema. A cool, correct, yet comforting presence despite an inability to do more than simulate empathy, Fassbender finds an inner universe in David, that reveals nothing, but hints at much, particularly when David suddenly becomes aggressively pro-active. He also has the most thought-provoking exchange in the film as a human-created artificial life form discussing with a human what to ask the aliens who may or may have engineered humankind. And its all done with a distinctly low-key approach that underscores rather than undercuts the irony at work.
The storytelling is as cold as Therons character, though the lurking tension of what slithers in the dark, the real motives of a super-corporation, how much technology can be trusted, and the real reason for the trip provides suspense that grows as some questions are answered and the special effects get bigger. Those effects are massive, but not superfluous, with nifty bits of dazzle that are the reasonable extrapolation from what exists in the here and now into what will exist in the there and then, plus, those evocatively (the once-again) Geiger-inspired alien vistas.
As the story unfolds, the parallels with Alien become more and more distinct, using tropes, idioms, and art direction that evokes the first film without directly copying it. This time, for instance, the robot on board is identified almost from the start, and motherhood is not the nurturing, if sometimes savage, experience found in the earlier films. The slithery eel-like creatures, too, echo the earlier monster with mouths like hermaphroditic sex organs. Long sequences of silent tension give way to maniacal fits of well-considered terror, and both approaches are equally riveting.
Some of the unanswered questions of PROMETHEUS have less to do with the sequel that is obviously in the works, and more to do with editing choices. Why exactly is Guy Pearce cast as Mr. Weyland, when he never appears in anything except the old-age makeup? Why do the ever so tantalizing, not to mention intellectually challenging, questions pertaining to the nature of faith in the face of facts fail to maintain their footing as the special effects get bigger? And why is there a distinct feeling that the whole questions what dreaming means to a sentient creature, evolved or manufactured, is lost all too quickly after Davids eavesdropping (dream dropping?) establishes a bit of backstory for one character? They are not insignificant quibbles that temper the enjoyment to be found here without significantly detracting from it. PROMETHEUS offers the unalloyed pleasure of fierce, intelligent performances in a piece of commendable speculative fiction told on both an epic and an intimate scale. The missteps only serve to make the future release of a directors cut something to be contemplated with equally fierce anticipation.