This is the prequel that isn't for the Aliens-series that Ridley Scott began with Alien (1979). It positions itself a little awkwardly as being a part of the same universe, but not a direct prequel, which means we are in a world we are familiar with, but the pacing and the ideas are different. It's different enough to be intriguing in its own right and still familiar enough that the viewer is comfortable with the premise.
A pair of archaeologists, Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), have discovered a particular constellation of stars that appear in several ancient artifacts from different cultures all over the world. They believe this map is an invitation from the giants depicted in the rock art to come visit. The theory is that these beings created us, life on Earth, and an expedition is put together to go talk to our makers, the “Engineers”.
The journey takes place on board the Prometheus, a vessel owned by the Weyland Corporation. Whereas the expedition is composed of archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and sundry others, Weyland is not doing this for strictly altruistic, ideological reasons. The old patriarch of the company, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), is dying and wants to find the Engineers, not to meet our makers, but to try and exhort more life out of them. Weyland himself has created the android David (Michael Fassbender) in his likeness and David is a part of the expedition as a sort of general dog's body, manservant, translator and sinister handmaid.
Once the Prometheus lands at its destination, things start going awry. The expedition finds a structure in a valley that seems to have been built rather than natural and they go to investigate. The structure itself is full of storage cylinders, statues, and dead Engineers who have been remarkably well preserved due to the atmospheric conditions. A rapidly approaching storm makes it necessary for the crew to return to the ship as fast as possible.
Two of the members of the expedition, Millburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris) get cut off by the storm and have to remain behind in the monolith for the duration. This is where the inevitable “ten little Indians” portion of the tale begins. Something about the presence of the crew triggers the Engineers' storage canisters and they begin oozing black goo, which in turn starts pinging on the radars as “life-form”. That can't be good, right? No, of course not. You don't want life-forms where there were none before, and you certainly don't want them when you are all alone in an alien building in the middle of a bad storm.
Prometheus has several things going for it, the aesthetics most of all. This is a truly gorgeous piece of science fiction, where the Engineers' technology is similar to ours, but more organic in nature. The huge sculptures and the “recordings” are hauntingly human, and the star chart that David pulls up is spectacular. All this is done in that self-evident way that I, for one, prefer, where the technology is integrated to a point where it all seems natural, something used and common for the inhabitants of the world we're in. Fassbender's performance as the android David is a joy to watch. He is just a little off, a little too perfect, a little too correct as if he has to think in terms of which servo to regulate when he walks across a room. He is also as deceitful as the androids have been previously in this universe.
The philosophical implications are interesting. Each of the members of the expedition have their own reasons for wanting to participate. The elderly CEO of Weyland Corp. Peter Weyland is chasing immortality, Holloway is driven more by the pure exploration and science aspect, Shaw is a believer looking for answers, and Vickers (Charlize Theron) has daddy-issues whereas the captain of the Prometheus, Janek (Idris Elba) is just doing his job.
The creatures these intrepid explorers accidentally trigger seem to be designed as a form of biological weapon. You could speculate that they were created as a way to “clean” a planet. There are a couple of different forms, a snakelike creature and a many-tentacled monster bringing to mind an octopus, or Cthulhu, for those of us who read our Lovecraft. They are the same kind of body-horror-based parasites and predators as we have learned to expect from the Alien franchise. Most vividly made explicit by the surgical removal of the parasite David put in Halloway's drink that then impregnates Shaw. She narrowly escapes giving birth to a monster by way of a state-of-the-art medi-pod in Vickers’ quarters.
The Engineers are humanoid enough that their DNA and ours is more or less identical, proving beyond all doubt that they are the Engineers behind our existence. The fact that they had set a course for Earth with the cargo hold full of canisters of black oozy death could quite possibly be a sign that they think they made a mistake somewhere along the lines. The only one ready and able to communicate with the Engineers is David and he is possibly not the best interpreter, seeing as how he has a different agenda.
For me the thing that makes this interesting is the double, the DNA, the Engineers, the plan within the plan of the seemingly equally random creation and potential destruction of mankind. I'm less impressed with the second half of the action where Shaw survives not only the emergency c-section and running from Engineers and fighting monsters and running out of oxygen only to have a spaceship fall out of the sky and narrowly avoid crushing her through some very fortuitous rock-formations. Bigger is not always better. It seems there is a competition between Ripley and Shaw as to who can survive more calamity. The thing about the first Alien movie is that it really capitalized on the claustrophobia and the body horror of being locked in with an alien predator.
Prometheus' strength actually rather lies in the philosophical and ethical questions and the mystery that is the Pyramid of the Engineers and their various devices. That, and David, the many mirrors of life and creation, and what that can mean. I don't mean to say that the action is bad, it's just that it's been slapped on with a trowel where a little subtlety would have gone a long way. It thrives on small exchanges like the one between David and Holloway where they discuss what the Engineers were doing. “Why do you think your people made me?” David asks. “We made you because we could”, Holloway tells him. “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” David replies.
Questions rather than answers are what makes this intriguing, which is why I suppose it's only fitting that David gets his head taken off when he tries to communicate with the Engineer found in cryo-sleep inside the ship hidden in the Pyramid structure. It is a wrathful entity rather than a benevolent one, and that is all kinds of interesting. Prometheus is gloriously visual and impressive in its scope, which makes for really good big screen viewing, but it does not quite recapture the sheer horror of the very first Alien movie.