Ridley Scott’s Prometheus opens with one of the most spectacular and beguiling scenes ever put on film. The camera sweeps across a planet that might be ours, or not, to find a creature who might be human, or not, in the act of what might be suicide or seeding the world with life. Or both. A large, unidentified space ship twists away into the clouds as the creature drinks some goo, shows a look of surprise, and disintegrates. Or more accurately, falls apart from his DNA outward. It’s the kind of scene that would have been impossible to create just a few years ago, and that leaves you wondering “What did I just see?” while you await more.
That thought — What did I just see? — kept pace with me throughout the entire movie. From one plot turn to the next, What did I just see? was my most common reaction. Something moves at a character’s feet — What did I just see? The android, a machine Alien fans know not to trust, does something quickly with his hands — What did I just see? That uncertainty is not due to image quality or camera work; in fact, Prometheus is visually staggering. Incredible. The film editing is understated, not choppy the way many action films tend to be. The cinematography and special effects are as good as any that have been put to film. With one exception, the cast is top notch. Michael Fassbender as the android David is pitch perfect, sometimes childlike, sometimes outwardly evil, though as a robot he cannot be. His true motives stay off screen, obscure and inscrutable. Charlize Theron is regal and icy; Noomi Rapace as scientist Elizabeth Shaw combines Sigourney Weaver’s tough mind with the vulnerability of Newt, the little girl from Aliens. The one case of miscasting is that of Logan Marshall-Green as scientist Charlie Holloway. He is never believable as a scientist driven to spend years traveling to the other side of the galaxy just for the sake of knowledge, and is a drag on the film.
Prometheus‘ pace is fast despite the long, steady shots of underground caverns that may or may not be natural, and the too-few face-offs with actual aliens who may be something more or less than mere living things. The pace is almost too quick to allow the audience to figure out what is motivating the characters to do what they’re doing, and one particular plot twist involving the geologist made no sense at all, other than to insert a very standard horror film trope of separating the characters to commence the kills. I won’t say too much about it, though, because like nearly all turns in this story, saying too much gives too much of the plot away.
As for the big question at the heart of Prometheus — Who’s our daddy? — the film doesn’t really answer that either. It asks the question more than once, but leaves the answer to some future telling. You may think you know the answer if you have seen the trailer, but you don’t. At least, not really. You will know who’s the daddy of the aliens that Sigourney Weaver and company will encounter years later, though. The creature at the beginning of the film doesn’t even really know who his daddy is, or what results from his end. But the interplay between advanced and primitive, creature, creator and android and beginning and end plays a fascinating note throughout the film. The nods to Lawrence of Arabia flitting around the android character anchor Prometheus in real history in a strange sort of way.
Ask me if I liked Prometheus, I’m at a loss to say yes or no. I think I did. It’s definitely worth seeing. It is enthralling, and it is full of action, and yet it is very elusive. I do like open ends in films, particularly futurist films. In some important ways Prometheus is an example of the best science fiction, with homages and questions about the past and a quizzical view of the future as it asks questions it is content not to answer straight away. It will fuel dorm room debates for years to come, with everyone around the Doritos bag asking themselves “What did I just see?” Or maybe Ridley Scott will give us the answers in another visit to the Alien space.