'Prometheus': Far Out, Man
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It would appear that science fiction is director Ridley Scott's métier. After an over half-decade run of films that ran the gamut from shockingly indifferent (the shoulda-been sure-fire "American Gangster") to the out-and-out indefensible (the attempted comedy "A Good Year"), Scott is kicking out the jams again...by going back, in a sense, to the film that made his name. A little sci-fi shocker called "Alien."
See also: Ridley's Scott's 10 Best Movies
As you no doubt have heard by now, the new "Prometheus" is a prequel, of sorts, to the legendary 1979 film that introduced the world to predatory extra-terrestrial creatures with acid for blood. Under normal circumstances returning to so particular a well as this now-classic movie represents would signal creative stagnation, not to say entropy. But as it happens "Prometheus" is a spectacular, and spectacularly imaginative motion picture that deviates from "Alien" in some intensely interesting and engaging ways while establishing narrative continuity in a way that honors the, well, let's call it the exo-skeleton of the original.
The predominant mode of "Prometheus" is expansive rather than claustrophobic, which is of course in marked contrast to "Alien." The film's enigmatic prologue, set in a breathtaking wide-open space (much of the shooting took place in Iceland) and featuring a spacecraft and a contemplative humanoid, establishes a chilly, genuinely otherworldly tone. The scenes in which the film's title spacecraft, sent on a trillion-dollar mission spurred by what is more or less an educated guess by a couple of not-quite-hipster scientists (Noomi Rapace being all resilient and Logan Marshall-Green being slightly irritating), sets down on a new planet actually manage to convey something like the possible awe and wonder and sense of danger of exploring unknown worlds.
The expedition is the project of a hungry-for-immortality corporation head (Guy Pearce in old-age makeup) who's put an extremely officious female exec (Charlize Theron, who's great but should be looking for something in a non-steely role right about now) in charge of the mission. How officious? The ship's captain (a gruff, purposefully logy Idris Elba) asks her point-blank if she's a robot, and gets a surprising answer. As for the actual robot, David, played by the great Michael Fassbender, he is, of course, a spiritual precursor to "Alien"'s Ash, albeit a far more...complicated character. For one thing, he aspires to be Peter O'Toole, or at least Peter O'Toole in a specific film role.
There's a sense in which "Prometheus" is, believe it or not, a movie about movies, or at least about visual storytelling. David wears a "neuro visor" that allows him to see the dreams of crew members in hypersleep; these dreams are rendered in what looks like a high-tech version of pinscreen animation. The backstory of the alien race that gave rise to the acid for blood creatures is conveyed through holographic records that reenact the race's history before the eyes of the human explorers. And so on.
Every shot in this film is a multi-layered wonder; there are segments in which the 75-year-old Scott seems hell-bent on out-Finchering David Fincher. Damned if he doesn't get there on multiple occasions. And while the script, by "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelhof and Jon Spaihts, abounds in classic sci-fi references -- everything from "When Worlds Collide" to "The Thing From Another World" gets a nod -- and purposeful narrative intricacies, there are, I must admit, times when it alternates between a certain evident slackness and overkill. Some of the red herrings, particularly one character who at first makes you wonder why, in the future, vetting for candidates for intergalactic travel is still so spotty as to let some real psychos through, end up rather conspicuously red indeed.
I'm complaining now only to follow up with some reassurance. Even with these problem areas, "Prometheus" is kind of an unbelievably huge and satisfying sci-fi movie experience. I've said before that I tend to measure certain genre pictures by the number, and quality, of what I call (if you'll excuse the phrase) Holy Crap! Moments. (I don't call them that, exactly, but what I actually call them can't be printed here.) In any event, in the notes I took for this film, on one page, in big block letters taking up pretty much two thirds of the page, I indeed wrote that phrase in the middle of one particular scene. You'll know it when you see it, and it is insane, one of the most perfectly perverse and beautifully executed pieces of shock cinema I've seen in years, an absolutely breathtaking and staggering and exhilarating set piece that kind of reminds you of every sick thing that cinema is good for. And that scene is more or less bracketed by sequences that, while not of equal impact (they couldn't possibly be), serve to buttress the truly insane sequence with whiplash-inducing excitement.
This is a remarkably scary and eye-popping headrush of a movie, an experience that offers a maximum adrenaline boost at the same time as it engages your intelligence. Don't miss it.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.