Fan expectations for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus have run so ridiculously high that the movie is an almost inevitable disappointment before it even begins. First announced as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, then designated a stand-alone story with ties to the world of the Alien movies, Prometheus is a much more accomplished and ambitious film than the lame, bargain-basement Alien vs. Predator movies the franchise recently offered up. But it’s not the masterpiece that so many fans have been anticipating.
Falling short of being a masterpiece is not the worst possible thing, and so much of Prometheus is engrossing and visually striking that it takes a little while to notice how empty it all is. Although it follows the crew of a spaceship literally searching for the meaning of human existence, Prometheus is, like Alien, basically a haunted-house horror movie in sci-fi clothing. Noomi Rapace (star of the Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) leads the cast in the Sigourney Weaver role as the quiet woman who draws on untapped reserves of courage when faced with unimaginable horrors.
In this case, those horrors inhabit a seemingly abandoned planet, where Rapace’s archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw has traveled along with a motley crew of mostly disposable scientists and explorers in search of a race they dub the Engineers, who may have been responsible for the origins of the human race hundreds of thousands of years ago. What they find are deadly creatures that pick off the crew members one by one, as the coldly calculating android David (Michael Fassbender) works his own agenda behind the scenes.
Structurally, Prometheus is very similar to Alien, but Scott does an excellent job of building tension and atmosphere. Fassbender is eerily effective as David, although the rest of the cast (including Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and Idris Elba) is mostly just functional. The Engineers and their environment are beautifully designed and haunting to behold, but whenever the script (by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof) approaches big philosophical questions, it falls short. Prometheus isn’t a profound sci-fi treatise on humanity’s place in the universe, but it is an exciting, visually stunning and often exquisitely suspenseful adventure story, and that makes it a more than worthy addition to the Alien canon.