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Lovely and Horrible

by Shawn Stone on June 14, 2012

Directed by Ridley Scott

On an examination table in an antiseptic environment, a pair of scientists poke and prod at the well-preserved head of a humanoid alien.

“I think,” one woman says to the other, “we can trick [the brain] into thinking it’s alive.”

So the other scientist inserts a metal probe into the base of the head, a switch is flipped, and—voila!—things begin to happen. The flesh ripples. The eyes open in blank terror. Unable to stop what’s happening, the scientists frantically lower a transparent containment cover over the pulsing head just before it explodes in a gooey mess.

It’s a lovely scene.

If director Ridley Scott did nothing else in Prometheus, his return to the Alien franchise, he would earn esteem for moments like this. In these scenes, he imbues the “ick” with a kind of gross beauty. Part of what made the original Alien such an indelible experience was the sense of wonder Scott brought to the visual presentation of the deadly creature in its various forms. It’s a magical blend of science and aesthetics, like a nature painter finding the beauty in creating a carefully rendered image of one insect devouring another. Or, as here, a squid-like thing crushing a man.

In this sense, Scott shares the impassive point of view of Prometheus’ most engaging and beguiling character, the android David (Michael Fassbender). While David serves the humans on this deep-space mission and helps them as they go about their passions and pursuits, the robot is no more attached to them than the nature artist is to the bugs he paints.

While the robot takes the long, expansive view, the humans are caught up in their immediate passions. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is looking for the big answer to the question of the origin of man; edgy corporate functionary Vickers (Charlize Theron) wants to carry out the mission with a minimum of fuss; and the workaday crew simply want to make money. This is reminiscent of the original Alien,  though there are too many crew members here, and most are sadly dispensable.

Most of the Alien sequels were duds. James Cameron did fine by focusing on (as is his wont) military-style action, but filmmakers David Fincher (Alien 3) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection) were defeated by, respectively, their own hubris and the series’ increasingly intricate (and nonsensical) mythology. Scott takes us back to before the first film, imagining what kind of creatures would bioengineer something as dreadfully lethal as the “alien.”

The answer is not flattering to humankind.

The tradition of having the strongest, most capable human character a woman is continued here, and Rapace is up to the task. She has the toughest, most harrowing scene in the film; whether you consider what happens a successful birth or a failed abortion provokes a worthwhile argument (and says a lot about you).

While Prometheus isn’t without flaws—some of them rather glaring, in fact—it’s a deeply pleasurable moviegoing experience.