Visually stunning, wildly ambitious, but ultimately as emotionally involving as the icy core of a dead star, Ridley Scott's much-anticipated return to science fiction and, more specifically, the mythos he created in 1979's Alien, is one of the most frustrating films I've ever seen. It's awash in grand ideas that end up going nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. It's filled with an ominous, questing spirituality that, by film's end, is enough to make you bow down and worship Richard Dawkins. It's a promising epic that ends with what feels like a lie. In short, it's a glorious mess well worth seeing, but light-years away from what fans were expecting.
Or maybe not. Much has changed – both real and reel – since John Hurt gave us our first gory glimpse of the H.R. Giger-designed, chest-bursting predator. Frequently referred to as a "haunted house in space movie," the multiple sequels have familiarized audiences with the alien design(s), thereby taming that wonderful, initial shock. With Prometheus (a prequel), Scott's moved far afield from the cheap but effective scares of his original film and created a movie that is to Alien as Peter Hyams' 2010 was to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: audacious yet sterile and unmoving.
It's 2093 and scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and her partner Charlie (Marshall-Green) are on a mission to uncover the origins of life on Earth. Also on board the titular spaceship are Theron's frosty Weyland Corporation representative, Fassbender's unknowable robot, and Elba's flinty ship's captain (there are others aboard but they're either spoilers or given short shrift, character-wise). Shaw – who tellingly keeps her father's crucifix with her at all times – is the moral center of both the ship and the film itself, and it's her realization of the alien paradox of creation and destruction that gives Prometheus its most accessible draft of humanity.
It will surprise no one that the humans aboard the Prometheus get more than they bargained for. What is surprising is Guy Pearce – concealed under what must be several pounds of foam latex and old-age makeup (he looks an awful lot like Big Trouble in Little China's Lo Pan, actually) – and his role in the film. Also interesting is the flawless production design, which, as you might expect, is calculated to evoke both ecstasy and horror in equal measure. As for the poor humans of the story, far less attention is meted out to them, although big questions are continually raised and debated.
And that's where Scott stumbles. This feels more like some quasi-metaphysical game of chess than an actual Alien film. It's not without its messy pleasures, but it's also not the masterpiece fans had hoped for. Such is life.