Discovery is at the heart of good science fiction. it is the end result of the questions that lurk behind the veil of a secretive universe. This week, the world lost a man who asked great questions and forced us to see ourselves from a different perspective. To write science fiction is to take the vastness of the cosmos and reveal it in ourselves. Without Ray Bradbury, our collective imaginations would be narrowed. Bradbury showed us worlds and themes that are echoed in our films. Movie fans owe him a great debt.
The science-fiction film “Prometheus” debuted this week, and it is a fitting return for director Ridley Scott to a franchise that made him famous. “Alien” was always more horror than sci-fi; it used science as a vehicle for deadly things hiding in shadows, deadly things that, at times, burst from within. “Prometheus,” on the other hand, uses monsters as a vehicle for science fiction. We see in it a search for our origins, for immortality, for purpose.
“Prometheus” isn’t as pure as it could have been and it certainly doesn’t resonate as emotionally as it hopes. But Scott is attempting something in “Prometheus” that he didn’t with “Alien.” There is more here than cheap thrills and jaw-dropping visuals. “Prometheus” intentionally weaves terror with wonder, creating a much more poignant film than can be found in most summer fare.
The premise is as simple as a late-night History Channel marathon. Ancient extraterrestrials are responsible for the origins of human life and have left clues in various ancient historical artifacts. A corporation has found a distant moon where this civilization is located and dispatched a ship and crew to make contact with them. When they arrive, they find evidence of an advanced Krell-like culture, long dead without explanation, leaving behind a massive working structure full of strange technology.
While the film follows the standard sci-fi/horror plot, there are strong moments of brilliance throughout the narrative. Of particular note is David (Michael Fassbender), an android programmed to follow directions and mimic human behavior, who has been crafted so perfectly that his need to learn is irrepressible. He is fearless, fascinated with his surroundings, and subtly yearning for the freedom to pursue knowledge. His inclusion as a mirror is more revealing of human nature than all of the other characters combined. He is humanity, distilled.
My only disappointment came from the antagonists, whose motivations we are left to guess. The xenomorph aliens, typical acid-blooded, multi-jawed abominations, aren’t seen much. Instead we have large, bipedal humanoids not unlike ourselves. Why should they be automatically violent? Perhaps thoughtful magnanimity is best reserved for deities.
“Prometheus” isn’t great science fiction, but it’s good enough for a summer blockbuster and a thoughtful return to a classic franchise. Pair it with Dandelion Wine and pour one out to a lost master of fantasy.