Ridley Scott’s Prometheus seems to have been made as a kind of rebuke to those publications that attempt to distill their movie reviews down to simple letter grades. If I were forced, whether by a flamethrower-wielding Charlize Theron or an ooze-dripping alien parasite, to assign such a grade to Scott’s return to the universe he first explored in the original Alien, I would have to give it a middling mark: a C-plus, or if I were feeling generous a B-minus. But that sounds like a grade suitable to a so-so romantic comedy or a flabby superhero flick. Prometheus deserves better, and it deserves worse: This is a blockbuster that merits a flat-out A for some of its components, and something between a C and a D-minus for the rest.
The grade-A material starts with the concept, which takes the primal dread inherent in the Alien universe and blows it up to cosmic proportions. From its opening sequences, the arc of Prometheus offers a kind of pessimistic counterpoint to the “why are we here?” yearnings that animated Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life last year. Like that film, Scott’s traces mankind’s quest for understanding all the way back to the fire and ice of a primordial earth, opening his movie with shots of glaciers and rocks and rushing, seething water on an as-yet-lifeless planet. But in place of Malick’s hidden, inscrutable Jehovah, Prometheus gives us a towering, albino extraterrestial, who stands over the fjord, drinks some sort of potion, and lets his body fragment and dissolve, sowing the water with fragments of what will presumably become our own human DNA.
A few moments of screen time and untold millennia of history later, we meet our protagonists: two archaeologists, partners and perhaps lovers, whose excavations have revealed an image common to every ancient civilization, showing a titanic figure being worshiped by our ancestors even as he gestures toward a constellation in the sky. This constellation, inevitably, becomes the destination for an expedition — a purely scientific mission, insists the female archaeologist (Noomi Rapace), a missionary’s daughter who still wears her father’s cross, but veterans of the Alien franchise are well aware that the corporation paying for the ship and the crew may be inclined to disagree.
That crew includes Rapace’s cocksure partner (Logan Marshall-Green), the ship’s laid-back captain (Idris Elba), the corporation’s icy representative (Theron), and a gaggle of geologists, biologists, and mercenaries not long for this mortal coil. It also has an android, the silky David (Michael Fassbender), whose persona is modeled on Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence (thanks to repeat viewings of David Lean’s epic during the long space voyage) and whose formal obedience to his human makers masks obscure and possibly sinister motives.