If you can, dismiss the question as to whether or not Prometheus is explicitly an Alien prequel. While it is indeed a film set in the same universe as those films, and will likely be appreciated far more by those initiated into them at a young and tender age (yes, me), it manages to be an upstanding work of science fiction without the burden of that other story line to live up to. In a cinematic landscape littered with sequels, remakes, board games, and first contacts designed solely to 'blow up real good', Prometheus is positively regal in its bearing. When he bothers to make an effort, Ridley Scott is something of a visionary within the genre; Blade Runner, Alien, and Prometheus manage a aesthetic ingenuity rarely matched. Scott's films are not CGI noisemakers tricked out to distract you from the absolute lack of plot. They're atmospheric wonders in which familiar things become quite strange and the truly strange things (H.R. Giger catacombs, for example) haunt our memory as prototypes for what the genre looks like. They are monuments and monoliths: Blade Runner's visuals are the cyberpunk landscape, Alien is a reflection of our worst intergalactic fears, and Prometheus is the Tree of Life of standard issue sci-fi. It's brooding and philosophical, simple, yet packed with problems that possess no easy solutions. Prometheus is all the more haunting because it is not contained within the austere decks, vents, and control rooms of the Nostromo. Instead, it's entangled with images of a nature we recognize and the comforts of home.
In the prologue, we watch as a pallid demigod of a humanoid deconstructs in an apparent life-giving suicide. Cells proliferate, things break and decay, we reopen millions of years in the future where scientists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have made an archaeological discovery that suggests the key to understanding the origins of life may be far outside of our own solar system. They want to meet their makers, and are sponsored on their costly outing by Weyland Corporation, a questionably intentioned company run by Guy Pearce in waxy, rather awful old-age makeup. The film's title is, of course, based in a myth worth noting. Prometheus was a titan who dared to steal fire from the Gods. In doing so, he sparked civilization as we know it though he himself suffered an endless, cyclical torment as a punishment. Shaw and Holloway's thesis appears correct, they find what they're looking for right away, but the question is: who were these 'people'? What benefit comes from knowing? Are we inching too close to the fire, or did they? Whatever the answer, the lead-up to the inevitable blood bath is positively dazzling.
Among the grim band of pioneers is the icy, all-business Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) (a woman who acts like a robot) and David (Michael Fassbender) (a man who indeed is an android). Where Shaw and Holloway are painted as semi-sloppy humans with fleshy desires, emotions, and an inability to see the big picture in a moment of genuine excitement, Meredith and David are agents of control (though sometimes this means a controlled chaos). While Prometheus is undoubtedly a visual marvel, its broad successes are due in no small amount to the quality of the actors on board. Noomi Rapace has her breakout English-speaking role here, and it's all too easy to completely forget that she was every the steely, volcanic Lisbeth Salander. Here, there's an naivete about her, a keeping of the faith that resonates in her countenance and makes her a believable paradox: the god-fearing scientist. We need Shaw in the game for us to care at all, and she's our link to the film's thesis and its shrunken, barely beating heart. In direct opposition to her slapped-down optimism you will find Fassbender's spectacularly rendered David. David is a walking, talking Hal 9000 with an unsettling smirk, an obsession with Lawrence of Arabia, and the ability to respond to constant reminders of his status as "not a real boy" with passive aggressive remarks that you'd have to be a damn fool not to question. While the question of a robot's agency may read as tiresome to certain viewers, David is a remarkable, highly memorable character portrayed by Fassbender with a freaky, uncanny valley amount of control. He's menacing and alluring, scarier (in some ways) than the monsters lurking in the unknown. Man and machine have become as one, and the question of creation weighs heavy. Like Shaw, David seems to be seeking his own truth. Like Shaw, the lengths he's willing to go to only open up further room for debate.