Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is something that doesn’t come around often: a very good science fiction film. It feels like a classic, brimming with stunning visual effects and a plot that provokes existentialist considerations. It seems to disdain the shallowness bathed in by so many summer blockbusters and manages a decent if imperfect examination of various approaches to some of mankind’s ultimate questions.
All good science fiction asks questions, after all. The spectacle is important, but more important than the overall look is where the overall look points to. In the case of Scott’s picture, the notion of where we came from takes centre stage and the possibilities are fascinating and frightening. The audience learns alongside the characters, with some shattering preconceived notions in light of new evidence and others clinging to crusted-over formations regardless of truth.
The movie opens with a dazzling set of visuals and a humanoid alien disintegrating after drinking something. There is a biogenetic reaction that seemingly sets no less than the mass of human history in motion (maybe). Fast-forward to 2089 and a pair of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), have made a discovery in a Scotland cave. It is a “map” that seemingly connects ancient cultures previously believed to have no connections.
What does this “map” say about our origins when the ancient cultures express similar thoughts as to what’s “up there?” Holloway and Shaw join the crew of a ship called the Prometheus and follow the “map” to a distant moon. An android named David (Michael Fassbender) and a corporation employee (Charlize Theron) are among the crew of the ship. Holloway and Shaw make a series of additional discoveries on the moon, leaning ever closer to discovering the truth about “where we came from.”
The film is somewhat connected to the Alien universe, with some of the architecture and mythology of the 1979 masterpiece fused to the world of Prometheus. It’s not a prequel or a reboot of any sort, but there are some scenes toward the close of the picture that really cement these connections. Scott has said that Prometheus has its own mythology but notes that it does indeed share strands of Alien DNA.
Like Alien, the characters of Prometheus are strong. With so many science fiction films providing characters that are mere archetypes, it’s interesting to experience characters that actually grow as the plot progresses. Of special note is Idris Elba Janek, the captain of the ship and one of the most practical characters. His growth and his ultimate sacrifice represent a compelling arc in its own right.
Rapace plays the lead, earning comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character from the Alien series. It is clear that Scott favours strong female leads (Theron’s character is another clear example, with her self-preservation motives coming into play early and often) and knows how to evolve them effectively while avoiding frequently used genre pitfalls. There are factors in Shaw’s past that collide with events she goes through in the film that astound on an emotional level and give her character unimaginable pain and depth.
To that end, one particular segment of the picture stands out for its raw power. Without giving away too much, it involves Shaw and a particularly eerie but familiar possibility. She must use a robotic surgery mechanism to achieve something that Paul Ryan would frown upon – and in a damned hurry, too. This sequence is stomach-churning for all the right reasons, illustrating Rapace’s range as an actress and her commitment to the role.
Scott’s film is one of the best science fiction films of the last five years. That may not be saying much, with most entries consisting of colourful but pedestrian superhero clichés. Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot of depth to Prometheus and more than a few puzzles waiting to be put together. It certainly benefits from more than one viewing, remaining a strong character drama and a powerful piece of otherworldly possibility all at once.