Let me paint a picture for you: I’m about seven years old and I’m at Disney World with my family. I know only light and wonder. Then my parents take me on another ride. On this ride we pass through scenes from famous movies. We travel through The Wizard of Oz; I am overjoyed. We travel through Singin’ In the Rain; this man looks nice and I like when people sing. Then it gets dark, I’m confused, we’re in a metal hallway. We round a corner and on my left there is a woman in a giant metal suit with big arms talking to me. I don’t know it, but this is the animatronic Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. We creep forward and suddenly a giant hissing xenomorph bursts out of the ceiling directly above me. The world instantly becomes a cold, horrible place and I begin trying to burrow through the back of the plastic bench to get away from whatever the hell is going on and my irresponsible parents who seem oblivious to the fact that WE ARE ALL ABOUT TO DIE MICKEY WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?!
This was almost everything I knew about the Alien franchise before walking into the theater to see Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s new prequel to 1979’s Alien. I fully expected this movie to scare the crap out of me.
As a generation raised on the promise of science and technology, the idea that it can do nothing to save us, or the idea that there is technology out there that makes us look like so many monkeys on typewriters, is terrifying. That is, it’s terrifying when done right, and Prometheus does a lot of things right. First and foremost, the movie looks fantastic. From the beautiful—if cold and unnerving—natural landscapes during the credit sequence to the holographic displays onboard the good ship Prometheus, it looks like you hope it would. The world-building that Scott guided in this film is great. Old fashioned, hard-core sci-fi is not a regular visitor to the multiplex, so when it finally shows up again and it looks this good it’s an instant blast of nerd adrenaline. Second…well, that’s almost everything I can say about the film without starting to give things away. But let’s just say the movie makes excellent use of the following: 4x4s, fire, tentacles, robots, severed heads, Stephen Stills’s accordion, forceps, and ion propulsion engines.
This is not a perfect film, and it’s not perfect sci-fi. The inherent problem with sci-fi is that it exists in the realm of speculation, frequently wild speculation at that. Even the most cherished sci-fi classics are riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes. Prometheus stumbles on some of the same points as many of its predecessors, but rather than causing the film to unravel into a confusing mess, the uncertainty and the incomplete information add to the feeling of unease that this film creates. Perhaps the most concentrated point of unease is Michael Fassbender as David. The entire cast is solid, but having taken several days to mull over the movie the only thing I’m sure about regarding David is that I, under no circumstance, would like to be in the same room as him.
What I felt during this film was not simply the terror of something leaping out at me but a slow burn of dread. What thrilled me was the metaphysical horror at the brightest parts of human nature—curiosity, exploration, faith, hope—crashing down on the unfortunate crew. The sense that regardless of intention, and at a certain point regardless of action, the things that make you good, that make you human in the best sense, lead to a place of utter inferiority and complete devastation. There is little to no drawing out or savoring of these crushing moments. They are statements of scientific fact as cold as space itself.
The film incorporates a lot of what you hope for in sci-fi and an intelligent kind of fear along with the bone breaks and infections and explosions you’d expect of an Alien movie. Perhaps my favorite thing about the film, though, was that I didn’t catch my breath only at moments of fear, but at moments of wonder as well. You leave the theater a little unsure, a little unnerved, and a lot thrilled by the spectacular, mind-bending kinds of things you need to jump on a spaceship for a couple of hours to see.