Director Ridley Scott has played coy about whether his new science-fiction tale, Prometheus, is a prequel of sorts to his landmark 1979 horror-in-space film Alien. Stop reading now if you'd consider such information a spoiler.
Because when talking about Prometheus, it seems preposterous to avoid talking about the acid-blooded, double-jawed killing machine in the room. Those who consider Alien one of the most effective thrillers ever made are bound to come in with an extra combination of anticipation and dread, wondering whether Prometheus could be a worthy addition to the canon or merely a feature-length extrapolation of Scott's penchant for director's-cut tinkering.
Prometheus actually does a fair amount right, as it launches a team into space to discover what may be the origin of humanity itself. Anthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) lead the crew to a destination gleaned from ancient civilizations' pictography, a planet where mysterious structures indicate an alien intelligence. The corporation that financed the mission - represented on the ship by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) - may have its own agenda, but all plans could be put on hold when it becomes clear that something unfriendly is creeping about.
The unfriendly something is what a lot of folks are coming to see, but Scott tiptoes deftly around his showcase sequences. As spectacular as Prometheus is from a production-design standpoint, it's actually got some heady ideas percolating beyond baseline summer blockbuster material. Dr. Shaw's quest for understanding these star-farers who may have birthed humanity allows an opportunity to dig into what it is we consider the characteristics of God, and how we deal with being disappointed by Him. And as the consequences of dabbling with the fundamental nature of life begin to mount, Prometheus becomes a compelling case for the difference between playing God and being God.
None of which is to suggest that Prometheus doesn't deliver the goods as an action-suspense film. Scott concocts a couple of terrific cringe-in-your-seat moments, most memorably when a character is required to engage in a little emergency self-surgery. He's also got a terrific asset in Michael Fassbender, whose enigmatic David keeps you guessing. Throw in some funky creature effects that evoke John Carpenter's The Thing as much as they do Alien, and you've got something that doesn't forget the meat and potatoes.
Yet Prometheus keeps throwing small frustrations at you. The character relationships are sometimes built on the foundation of a single scene, yet are expected to carry significant narrative weight. More significantly, Scott and company seem to feel obliged to fill in every remaining gap in the Alien history. For a film that is in some ways about confronting the great unanswered questions, Prometheus doesn't seem to trust that we can be okay with leaving some of them unanswered.