** SPOILERS **
For months, Prometheus played coy about whether or not it is a prequel to Alien. It absolutely is a prequel to Alien. With Prometheus, director Sir Ridley Scott returns to his old outer space stomping grounds. The trappings are familiar, visually stunning and, at its best moments, truly thrilling: a starship in deep space, its crew in cryo-sleep woken by a human-like robot whose behavior they question, a hostile-environment planetoid they land on, a gruesome-looking vessel they explore, and the disgusting, malignant monsters they encounter, which will not stop until they kill them all. Unlike Alien, a horror tale of a locked box of humans trapped with a monster, Prometheus has other ideas, other questions it's looking to address, especially the big one: Who Created Mankind? Prometheus has the hubris to offer a direct answer.
Prometheus, in the Greek myths, stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. In Prometheus, set a mere 80 years from our present but optimistically positing that corporations have the technology and financial resources to fund deep space expeditions, human explorers led by scientists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green (a dead ringer for Tom Hardy) are funded by the Weyland Corporation to travel to a distant world seeking the origins of Man. In 2089, Rapace and Marshall-Green found star maps in archaeological sites around Earth. They believe these point to a planet that promises the answer to Who Created Us? Four years later, the gorgeous, trillion-dollar starship Prometheus and her crew, captained with swagger by Idris Elba and cooly overseen by Charlize Theron, land on the planet LV-223. They, and we, get our answers, and horrors, and deaths, and Aliens.
Rapace calls Man's potential progenitors "The Engineers". We know them as jacked, bald, ivory-skinned giants, one of whom eats an Alien substance that shatters their DNA and turns them to dust at the start of the movie. If these are the guys who made Mankind, they're probably not worth meeting, except to find out what kind of core workout they use to get their eight-pack abs. But Rapace doesn't know that, so she optimistically leads her team into a familiar H.R. Giger-inspired construct on LV-223. Her group includes The Hatchet-Faced British Woman, The Japanese Guy, The Guy Who Actually Wrote Shakespeare's Plays, The American Guy With Glasses, and the Redhead Who Looks Exactly Like WWE Superstar Sheamus. This is about the level we get to know the characters, most of whom we instinctively know are Alien fodder. There are other members of the crew who pop up here and there, mostly hanging around the hangar bay. None of them wear red shirts, but we know what their role is.
The most intriguing character in Prometheus is David, the robot played by Michael Fassbender, no doubt constructed to be well-equipped down there. David, curious about humanity, watches the dreams of the crew in cryo-sleep and adjusts his own effete, British look and manners based on watching Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia over and over. The intriguing philosophical questions Prometheus would like us to ponder are posed by David, but you can see how saying things like "It must feel like your god has abandoned you" to Rapace irritates the human crew. David is serving a different, sinister agenda, however, and directly feeds an unwitting Marshall-Green a dollop of Alien DNA in his champagne. The old Alien in the champagne trick! Works every time.
The best human characters on Prometheus are Elba as the captain and Theron as Weyland corporation head honcho Meredith Vickers, simply because both convey the clearest and most relatable motivations among the cast. Elba wants this mission to go well, then lift off and go home. Theron would like the same, but with a healthy and prudent distrust of the scientists, the android with them, and the company she works for. Theron, ever fetching and imminently watchable, is in the toughest, most thankless spot, responsible for everyone and everything. Elba can't help but notice how tightly wound she is and a flirtation between them is the sole sexy and funny moment Prometheus offers. Less sexy is a love scene between Rapace and Marshall-Green, as we know by that point he's been infected by an Alien. As soon as Rapace announces she's unable to have children, we know where this is headed. Unprotected sex has horrific consequences, especially in space, and especially in an Alien movie.
Rapace's team are initially presented as a group of intelligent scientists and professionals who are, naturally, wary of why they find themselves billions of miles from Earth - especially after a less than inspiring speech by the ancient Chairman of the Weyland Corporation, which turns out to be Guy Pearce in ghastly, unconvincing old man makeup. The facade of competent professionalism is shattered almost immediately when they're exploring the caves and they all decide to take their helmets off - completely disregarding any protocols about contamination. "Helmets Off" becomes the new protocol, even when they all know their enemy will literally jump down their throats. They see holograms of the "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" kind all over the caves and find the decapitated head and body of an Engineer, which is curiously wearing the Dream helmet of Morpheus in The Sandman. So The Engineers are actually Sandman cosplayers! Once Rapace and Hatchet-Face performed forensics on The Engineer's head and it exploded, the practical move would have been to pack up and send Prometheus home. But it is the folly of Man to not leave well enough alone.
Things get worse, much worse. The two biggest fraidy cats on the crew, American With Glasses and Sheamus, are left behind to spend the night in the caves and meet a disgusting Alien eel that they pretend is a cuddly kind of puppy or something. Soon they are dead, burned with acid blood with the alien burrowed in their bodies. Marshall-Green transforms immediately into a mutated Alien that Charlize personally and correctly lights up with a flamethrower. Matters get even worse from there as Rapace discovers she's pregnant with an Alien. Fassbender's bedside manner is hilarious as he delivers the single worst line a pregnant woman can hear: "Of course, this is not a traditional fetus." Rapace rushing across the ship to get into the surgery pod and have the robot arms literally carve the Alien, with its grasping, screaming tendrils and tentacles, right out of her babymaker and then staple her stomach back together is a horrifically bloody, gonzo sequence that pretty much spelled the beginning of the end for Prometheus as a serious science fiction parable.
From there we discover two things: old Guy Pearce is alive on the ship and there is an Engineer alive on the planet. The trains shall meet and it shall be a train wreck. In perhaps the most disappointing moment of First Contact since Kirk, Spock and McCoy met "God" and He turned out to be just some alien asshole, David awakens The Engineer, speaks to him, and we hope and wait for something profound, an idea, a transcendent moment... Nope. The Engineer decides to just start punching, ripping them apart, and kill them all. What a dick, and what a letdown. The dying old man Weyland came all the way to LV-223 but didn't get to say, Roy Batty-style, "I want more life, fucker." The Engineer activates his ship and launches for Earth... with a cargo hold full of millions of urns containing Aliens. Why does The Engineer want to annihilate humanity and replace us with Aliens - which by the way, they are terrified of and can kill them as well? Rapace wants to know, but first things first: The Engineer's ship can't be allowed to leave LV-223.
Unfortunately, Prometheus isn't armed with nukes, photon torpedoes, phasers, or anything of the sort. Poor Charlize has to rush into a space suit and launch into an escape pod as Elba makes a damn heroic decision and channels Mr. Worf -- ramming speed! Incidentally, having The Japanese Guy as the pilot of the ship on its kamikazi mission is a bold choice, Sir Ridley. Prometheus successfully destroys itself and brings the alien ship crashing down on the surface of LV-223, right on top of poor Charlize, who undeservedly dies the ignoble death of being squished by a space ship. But The Engineer is not dead, nor is Rapace's Alien baby, both of which chase her into Charlize's escape pod and run into each other. A more familiar-looking Alien (still a comedown from the original H.R. Giger design, but it's a proto-Alien) chest-bursts from their union.
Meanwhile, Rapace is contacted by a still-functioning David and the two of them, despite him being a decapitated robot and her suffering from numerous injuries - including just giving birth via C-section to an Alien - as well as unreasonable physical and emotional trauma, push believability well past its breaking point when they somehow get another Engineer ship space worthy. Are they going to home to Earth? No, Rapace wants to go to the Engineer homeworld and demand answers. Yeah, ask them why oh why they made Aliens to begin with. Lady, you're insane. Good luck with that. And yet, despite the whole shebang spiraling out of control in a dizzying barrage of illogic, explosions and bewildering behavior, Sir Ridley Scott, like a maestro, shows us things we people wouldn't believe.