In the hands of any other filmmakers, a prequel to Alien would have likely yielded a stale rehash of the franchise’s established elements within a generic PG-13 action-adventure. But director Ridley Scott had other plans, and the result is 2012’s Prometheus: an invigoratingly original story set within the Alien universe. To merely call Prometheus an Alien prequel is very misleading, as writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (with input from Scott) have created a majestic science fiction epic which stands alone as an independent entity while further contributing to the mythology behind the Alien series. Added to this, Prometheus is refreshingly dark and adult sci-fi with more on its mind than cheap thrills. This is a cerebral blockbuster; it’s unafraid to pose thought-provoking questions about mankind’s origins while also finding time for visceral horror.

Towards the end of the 21st Century, archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) discover a series of ancient cave drawings from different time periods and different civilisations. Through studying them, Shaw and Holloway conclude that the drawings could be interstellar star maps drawn by alien gods who might have engineered human life. Taking off in the spaceship Prometheus under Captain Janek (Elba), they follow the map to the far reaches of the universe in the hope of essentially finding God. Also along for the journey is android David (Fassbender) and a sizeable crew of geologists and biologists, all of whom are watched over by Weyland Corporation representative Meredith Vickers (Theron). However, the mission starts to go awry once the Prometheus arrives at its destination. As Shaw gradually realises the significance of her discoveries, staggering secrets become clear which could put Earth in tremendous danger.

When Ridley Scott initially joined Prometheus, he opted against a typical prequel approach. The script retains a handful of palpable Alien continuity nods, but the references are downplayed and the story doesn’t concentrate on the xenomorph species. It’s a genius way to revive the franchise, and Scott was the right man for the job. What’s most interesting about Prometheus is how commendably anti-Hollywood it is (in fact it’s quite extraordinary that Fox agreed to fund this thing). Mainstream blockbusters often adhere to formulas and spell everything out for viewers, but Scott and his crew tell this story the way that they want to tell it. The film has already garnered criticism for not laboriously explaining every facet, but the point is that it doesn’t need to explain everything – we are left to answer questions for ourselves, and devise our own interpretations. Plus, a few things are actually explained in visual terms (pay attention and you’ll realise what the black goo is). There’s nothing wrong with a science fiction film which begs us to pay close attention to every detail in every shot, and which wants us to engage our brain. Prometheus is not the smartest film since it does feature a few moments of asinine character behaviour, but it’s far smarter than 95% of the stuff we see during the summer season. (And a note to internet haters: learn what a plot hole actually is.)

Prometheus provides further verification that Ridley Scott is a visual director to be reckoned with. Lavishly produced on a reported $130 million budget, the film is a breathtaking experience featuring several moments of pure motion picture majesty. Each set feels lived-in and organic rather than a sound-stage creation, and it’s genuinely hard to discern what’s digital and what’s live-action. It’s rare to see a film of this scope and budget carry an R rating, and this freedom is a huge asset. Prometheusis not filled with gratuitous gore or excessive profanity, but neither does it feel restrained when dealing with violence or terror; Scott pulls no punches. Furthermore, Scott has not lost his deft touch with set-pieces – the horror scenes here are truly frightening. Prometheus also boasts one of the best uses of 3-D to date. With added depth, dimension and detail, the 3-D serves it purpose: it successfully immerses you into the experience, placing you on Prometheus’ decks and inside the dank alien caves alongside the characters. Best of all, the dimness associated with the 3-D glasses doesn’t turn the film into an incomprehensible mess (it’s never even obvious that the picture is darker at all). Prometheus was filmed with 3-D cameras, serving as a reminder of how good native 3-D is as opposed to a conversion.

Prometheus‘ only real downfall is its human characters, the majority of whom are underdeveloped and underwritten. 1979’s Alien featured a small, tight-knit ensemble who seemed like real space truckers due to the way they often discussed the “little picture” (that is, their personal lives rather than the plot). Here, the characters are always focused on the big picture, and most of the ship’s crew aren’t even introduced properly. The flick still works on its own terms, but it’s a shame that more attention wasn’t paid to developing the characters. At least performances are strong right across the board. Noomi Rapace commendably eschewed aping Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley role, and seemingly pulled this off without even trying. Rapace is a strong female lead, and she’s highly engaging from start to finish. The standout here, though, is Michael Fassbender as David. This is a performance riddled with nuances and intricacies; Fassbender genuinely seems like a curious artificial being trying to learn human mannerisms. It’s such a transformative performance that you would never believe that this is the same guy who played young Magneto in last year’s X-Men: First Class. Also terrific is Idris Elba, again demonstrating his versatility here as the gruff captain of the Prometheus. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce has a minor role as Peter Weyland, and it’s difficult to recognise the Australian under the thick old-age make-up.

The debate is going to endure for years as to whether or not Prometheus is truly an Alien prequel. Truth is, it’s more of a spin-off which tells its own standalone story, and no prior knowledge of the Alien films is necessary (though Alien fans will better appreciate all of Prometheus‘ narrative details). Film-goers constantly scream for motion picture originality in this day and age, and that’s exactly what Ridley Scott has delivered here. How amusing that Scott has managed to create one of the most original sci-fi movies in decades within what was supposed to be a prequel. It’s critical to note, though, that how much you enjoy Prometheus does depend on what you expect. This is not an Alien film in a generic sense; it’s a moodier, more thoughtful picture which plots its own unique path. And hey – with the way it explores the genesis of the xenomorph species, Prometheus fundamentally erases the Alien vs. Predator debacles from the official timeline.

8.6/10