'Prometheus': A Gorgeous Mess

Ridley Scott's Alien prequel is long on visuals but short on logic.

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Is Ridley Scott's new sci-fi thriller, Prometheus, a prequel to the Alien saga? The film's marketing campaign has been extravagantly coy on the question. Scott himself has allowed merely that "the keen fan will recognize strands of Alien's DNA." It's an odd, if calculated, reticence for an era in which nearly every cinematic undertaking is desperate to associate itself with a known "brand," however distant the relation. Forty-five-year-old naval board game reimagined as an alien-invasion movie? Check. Cult vampire soap opera flattened into a generic chapter of the ongoing Tim Burton-Johnny Depp weirdothon? Check. Blockbuster superhero franchise rebooted a mere five years after it was put on the shelf? Check back in a month.

"The ideas tackled in this film are unique, large, and provocative," Scott says, and he's right, provided one also appends hokey, shallow, and confused.

In any case, notwithstanding Scott's disavowals, the answer is yes: Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, and one need hardly be a keen fan to notice. Although the connection is not made absolutely explicit until late in the film, it is evident almost from the opening frames. Following two prologues—one in which a humanoid alien seeds the primordial Earth with his own DNA, and another in which archaeologists discover ancient cave drawings that point to a distant planet—we again find ourselves on a spaceship, with a decidedly familiar cast of crewmates.

There's the tough-but-pretty female protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace); the corporate tool with a hidden agenda, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron); the mannered, creepy android, David (Michael Fassbender); and the likable-enough-that-he-is-almost-certainly-doomed crewmember, Janek (Idris Elba). Rounding out the cast is the usual alien-fodder of braggarts and cowards.

The year is 2093 and the ship is the Prometheus, just arriving at the planet in the cave drawings after a two-year voyage. The crew is gradually awakened from their long cryogenic sleep by Fassbender's David—who, if you've seen the actor in Shame and A Dangerous Method, is about the last fellow you'd want around while you spent several months unconscious. David, for his part, has spent the journey teaching himself a variety of ancient languages and obsessively re-watching Lawrence of Arabia. ("The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts," he mouths in sync with Peter O'Toole.)

The ship's mission—or at least the one we know about from the start—is to search the planet for signs of an alien race that Elizabeth and her partner/lover Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) call the "engineers." She suspects (and we, having seen the prologue, can confirm) that in the distant past these advanced beings created the human race using their own DNA.

The ship quickly finds a massive dome-like structure full of catacombs, and the crew duly sets out to explore it. If you have seen other installments of the Alien franchise, you can guess—at least in broad contours—what happens next: alien artifacts are discovered; slimy, viscous substances begin to ooze; crewmembers are separated and of necessity abandoned; unsavory things start going bump in the night. Those back on the ship detect something moving in the dark tunnels and warn those left behind, who reply (reasonably enough): "Pings? Clicks? Life forms? What the fuck!"

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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