Prometheus, a new film by Ridley Scott, opens with soaring overhead shots of austere landscapes in chilling blacks, grays, and blues. The terrain is mysterious and cruelly beautiful, but as we approach a thunderous waterfall it begins to hint at a world that is familiar, much like the pale, smooth-skinned humanoid standing at the edge. The alien drinks a black liquid and violently dissolves into the churning waters, disseminating his DNA into our earth’s ecosystem and providing the basis for human life. Could this perfectly sculpted figure be a kind of original Prometheus (a Titan from Greek mythology bequeathed as the champion of mankind), defying his race to forge another in his image and bestowing them with the tools for survival; a deed for which he — or humankind — will be severely punished?

This fleeting speculation goes unresolved, the first of many questions Prometheus declines to answer. Scott’s tangentially-linked precursor to his 1979 groundbreaking sci-fi/horror film Alien doesn’t intend to provide backstory to its heroine Ripley or her alien nemesis; instead, it opens up the Alien world’s mythology for further exploration. The film’s dialogue sometimes feels like a string of questions: “Where do we come from? What is our purpose [and] where do we go when we die?” asks Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, Memento), the critically aging CEO of Weyland Corporation.

Initially, Prometheus loosely mirrors Alien and its sequel Aliens, where curious team investigations on the LV group of remote celestial bodies provoke the unleashing of unexpected evils. Prompted by a discovery of cave paintings showing evidence of alien interaction with prehistoric man, archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, from the Swedish/Danish original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, Dark Blue) head a scientific mission funded by the exceedingly profitable Weyland Corporation to follow a “star-map invitation” to a distant moon and, well, go and see who invited them.

The eponymous spacecraft flies out a miscellany crew with as many dissatisfied grumblings and possibly insidious motivations as they have accents. Among them are Captain Janek (Idris Elba, best known to American audiences as Stringer Bell in The Wire), the severe company overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, Monster, Young Adult), and the inscrutable Aryan-esque android David (Michael Fassbender, Shame, Inglourious Basterds).

Noomi Rapace follows Sigourney Weaver’s strong female lead (in both senses of the word) in playing Shaw, the “true believer” of the enterprise. Shaw tenaciously holds to supposedly paradoxical values as both a Christian and a scientist, and is balanced by her bare-truths husband in a Mulder-Scully dynamic that is rather flimsily put together. Rapace gives a fine enough performance, convincingly molding an idealistic character with enough stubborn pluckiness to survive hostile alien life forms, massive explosions, and even an impromptu abortion in one highly improbable but still gut-wrenching (no pun intended) scene. Through all these trials Shaw keeps on running, which is very courageous but gives us no pause to peer into her emotional interior, a frustrating lack of depth for our heroine.

Shaw’s passionate faith is foiled by Vickers’ ruthlessness, Charlize Theron here showing off the ice queen visage she’s putting to good use this summer (along with her performance in Snow White and the Huntsman). Yet despite Theron’s spot-on portrayal, her character proves to be quite a bit of dead weight in the story, as if Vickers is there just to give some reminder of the nefarious interests of the Weyland Corporation, which Alien franchise fans will remember as humankind’s non-alien threat. A revelation near the film’s end that Vickers is Weyland’s daughter fails to intrigue — don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, just another unnecessary plot twist. Unfortunately for the talented Ms. Theron, Vickers is the only major character with no questions of her own, nor much to interest us with.

Michael Fassbender has been applauded by critics across the board for his performance as David the android, communicating in the deadness of his stare and the subtle clench of his jaw both admirable dependability and a terrifying absence of feeling. David is as ambivalent in his attitude toward us humans as we are to him. He seems to alternately despise the weakness of humanity and be fascinated by our emotional turmoil, fixating creepily on Shaw: he watches her dreams and steals the cross she wears around her neck.

Whose side is David on, anyways? Another question goes unanswered as his motives remain uncertain throughout. His is one of the most provocative questions of the film: “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” after admitting that without his “father” Weyland, he’d be free of obeying command. David, just as Weyland describes him, is a son without a soul. Every crew of the Alien films included an android in various manifestations of sci-fi cliché, but here David’s character delves oh-so-slightly deeper into complex psychology. He exists among humans without seeming to be able to find his place, touching on a central question in the pursuit of technological progress — where is the line separating us from the machines we control and depend upon?

After landing on the desolate moon landscape, the discovery of an ancient structure containing violently deceased corpses resembling giant humans provokes fear, unease, and foolhardy curiosity in the crew. More questions are raised: “What killed them?”;  and — as the answer to that becomes terrifyingly clear, and further discoveries reveal astonishing revelations about the origins of human existence — simply, “Why?” Prometheus’s questions lead us around in the child’s game of responding to every answer with another why? And, as in the game, all the queries eventually lead to the one ultimate question — why were we born and why must we die? A necessary question, and yet with so many floating already in the film’s artificially oxygenated air, it gets a bit lost.

It’s easy to forget the weight of these inquiries with the outstanding special effects and stunning set designs. The visual aesthetic of the film is nothing less than expected from Scott (that is, wildly fantastic). The outdoor landscapes were partly filmed in Iceland at the base of an active volcano — no doubt providing for a bit of the anxiety in actor expressions. Everything looks and feels absolutely authentic, engineered precisely to immerse the audience completely into this world. As the team explores the savage and barren LV-223 landscape there is a very real sense of wonder and grandiosity, and we peer into the shadows of the terraform ruins and thrill at the crumbled immensity of past glory right along with the eager archeologists. The costumes and props on show from the spacesuits to the aliens themselves are no less impressive, including an alien ship that manages to convince us of its well-advanced technology, even as it gives off an aura eons-old.

Scott has stated that Prometheus inhabits “the same universe” as his previous film — and it’s clear that this film takes cues from the shadowy, grubby ambience that has made Alien resonate so strongly in popular culture. In this world, scientific progress is full of human error and conflicting agendas; the unknown reveals more ugliness and evil than it does coherency or illumination.

It’s also easy to overlook matters of metaphysics because the story spends no more time elaborating them than it takes to dot the question marks. Science-fiction, as much as it is an imaginative search for answers to our reality, cannot be expected to provide all of them. But what’s missing in Prometheus is the opportunity to even discuss the questions. The plot rambles, often too concerned with new convoluted divergences to spend time getting out of them. Prometheus is a story of Big Questions, but like the hapless crew it has wandered too far into too many dark corners.

Admittedly, the film has a big act to follow. As a prequel with this much hype, Prometheus does deserve credit for using Alien as an inspiration rather than a crutch. The story stands on its own as a thrilling sci-fi adventure flick — perhaps the most the two films have in common is the title design. In fact, there are remarkably few xenomorphs; the story’s propulsion comes not from these creatures (here more cephalopod than insectile, and with a newly confounding life-cycle) but from the recognition of a greater nemesis. Alien fans, however, will get their due share near the end, with light thrown upon the mysterious Space Jockey. Unfortunately, what makes Prometheus stand apart from the Alien saga is also its shortcoming, as the scope of this film aims for a magnitude (too) far above the simpler and more effective themes of Alien.

Though sinking under the weight of its own existential issues, ultimately Prometheus is an ambitious, thrilling, and very enjoyable foray into the murky fog that surrounds our own genesis — and a picture of the chaos that is wrought when we go to the limits of scientific frontiers asking increasingly bigger questions. The classic myth of the Titan Prometheus and his gift of fire celebrate our capacity for progress and scientific advancement, but it also tells of tragic consequences for the gift giver. Perhaps this is our greatest human folly, one that an android like David will never understand: the only answers at the end of our questions are death and suffering, and yet we refuse to stop searching. David would say, “Why ask?” Perhaps Shaw would reply, “Why not?”

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

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