It’s rare to see any movie delve into deep theological, ontological, and existential questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia. “Prometheus” isn’t even a pensive indie – it’s a blockbuster – and it still ponders them deeply in the far reaches of our universe to satisfying and intellectually stimulating effect.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts don’t pretend to have any answers. Thankfully, they don’t have that kind of hubris. After all, these are the quandaries that have kept philosophers twiddling their thumbs. But it doesn’t ever feel like a cop out or negligent writing. They effectively stage a thoughtful drama in outer space and pose the questions to a new audience in an freshly compelling frame.
A number of people have quibbled about the small things in “Prometheus,” such as its fidelity to the “Alien” franchise, the plausibility of various events, the nature of the “engineers” that serve as the mysterious beings for the film, and the motivations of certain characters. And if you really wanted to nitpick Scott’s film, I’m sure you could find some flaws and holes in the plot. I, for one, really want to know why people are apparently unable to run laterally a century from now.
But to harp on the fine print is to miss the point of “Prometheus” entirely. It’s a layered cerebral and psychological drama that just happens to use the framework of science-fiction. The film finds fascinating parallels between the mysteries of extra-terrestrial life and the mystery of our own origins and existence. Then, it heightens our senses and gets the heart racing. The mind, naturally, wants to catch up and runs in overdrive after the movie to ponder what it just experienced.
Scott harkens back to his original “Alien” (thankfully glossing over James Cameron’s action-adventure “Aliens” and its dreadful sequels) in ways that place the film in a familiar context. There’s a gentle but ever-present tension that you feel slowly twisting your stomach into knots – and then Scott bursts it with frightening moments of pure terror.
To bring all the sophisticated concepts to fruition, Scott has assembled one heck of a team. The visual effects are stunning and truly haunting, striking an appropriate balance of far-fetched foreignness and eerie familiarity. And the artists working with pixels do a remarkable job maintaining enough fidelity to the original “Alien” that it feels related to the series, but it doesn’t weigh itself down by overtly linking itself back. “Prometheus” feels like an homage more than it does a spin-off, and I liked that.
And in terms of really bringing the film to life, the cast is absolutely top-notch. Noomi Rapace gives one of the best performances of the year as Elizabeth Shaw, the deeply religious archeologist who goes looking for our makes in the deep reaches of outer space – and gets far more than she bargained for. To say she’s terrorized and challenged in her faith in a higher, benevolent power is a bit of an understatement, and Rapace pushes herself to her physical and emotional limits to bring us into the horror along with her.
In contrast to Rapace’s over-the-top performance, there’s placid Michael Fassbender as David, a robot along for the mission with some sinister ulterior motives. Fassbender creates the character through coldly spoken phrases and spine-chillingly calculating expressions, and it’s a tour-de-force of subtlety. After turning a brilliantly committed performance in last year’s “Shame” that saw him go far beyond Rapace’s level to externalize his emotions, Fassbender proves he is truly the real deal, an incredibly versatile actor able to tackle just about any role out there.
While there are plenty of other characters in “Prometheus” that come and go – Charlize Theron’s icy captain, Guy Pearce’s ancient venomous capitalist, Logan Marshall-Green’s intrepid partner to Rapace’s Shaw – it’s the interplay between Shaw and David that make the movie interesting and have kept me thinking for months. As representatives of religion and science, the two set up a very curious dialectic left very much open for debate by the end. And for once, it doesn’t degrade people of faith in the process of starting that conversation. B+ /