You almost always know. And it seldom takes long.
It took less than five minutes, at most, to know in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" that one of the great living film directors was in charge. It takes even less than that in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," which is destined, in all final esthetic accountings, to be one of the great summer films of 2012.
In its opening, we are both puzzled and bedazzled. We're in a visual world we've never quite seen before -- a spaceship hovers over a raging cataract, strikingly filmed in desaturated color. Then we see a humanoid creature and what seems to be its DNA splitting apart.
You know in only a little more time than contestants on "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" get to ingratiate themselves, that the visual world in front of you was created by a master -- and one who knows he's a master, too. If he's showing you a stunning image, he's in no neurotic hurry to rush off to show you another. He always leaves room for a little low-level awe.
But then a lot of us suspected that would be true about Sir Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" before we even sat down. Here was one of the two most eagerly awaited films of the movie summer (the other is Christopher Nolan's upcoming "Batman" film "The Dark Knight Rises"). If, as I did, you only know that the film you're going to see is something of a "prequel" to Scott's 1979 modern space horror classic "Alien" ("In Space No One Can Hear You Scream" was the hypemeisters' contribution to the merriment of encountering a masterpiece), you are soon reassured that at the age of 74, Scott has lost absolutely nothing.
He's still a visionary, able to put sights on screen you've never quite seen before. And he's still a badass, who will gladly put the audience through discomforts far beyond those of more timid mortals. Those who remember the inimitable combination of frisson and stomach churn when the monster gorily exploded from John Hurt's stomach in the original "Alien" should know that "Prometheus" does a wildly creative variation on that in a medical procedure that is destined to be a classic sequence in movie history. (A request to this critic not to explain it in detail was relayed after the screening. I'm being, quite frankly, sketchy about it because I believe that encountered in relative ignorance, it becomes that much more harrowing and, therefore, that much more remarkable. It has already been revealed in other reviews around the world. And asking critics not to reveal things in the age of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, is not only close to impossible, it's foolish when you're keeping filmgoers from the information that your film contains one of the more memorable scenes they'll see all year.)
"Prometheus" was rated R for good reason. Scott has given the space movie back to grownups -- and the teens who aren't afraid to think like grownups. But he's also given the grownups the shivers and thrills of teen film matinees and midnight rides.
It isn't as if "Prometheus" -- or "Alien" for that matter -- comes to us entirely unrelated to every other sci-fi journey into outer space. Scott's debt to Stanley Kubrick's "2001" is obvious in "Prometheus." Michael Fassbender plays an extremely polite blond robot named David who might well be the brother of Kubrick's Hal made (robot) flesh. The vast empty spaces of the spaceship Prometheus which David wanders around bouncing a basketball are reminiscent of Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood alone in Kubrick's chilly space vessel.
The human crew of the Prometheus is just about ready to awaken after a two-year sleep to begin exploration of a planet in another galaxy which two scientists are convinced contained those who created human life on earth. The two scientists -- played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green -- call their creators "The Engineers." They happened on the far planet's existence by finding the exact same primitive cave and rock space maps in various cultures around the world. Surely, the pre-historic humans were showing us where they came from, they deduce. "I think they want us to come and find them," say the scientists.
The leader of a vast megabucks corporation is convinced they're on to something so he funds the project and leaves his aged, dying self in a hologram to bless their mission.
Charlize Theron is the company representative, the officious, frosty overseer of the crew and the first human to awaken. She cheerfully tells her crew, "It's my job to make sure you do yours." Considering that Theron is already sucking the youth and beauty out of medieval women as the evil queen in "Snow White and the Huntsman," she's also revealing that she knows what most other major film actors know: play as many villains as you can. The movie world does love its villains. (Hannibal Lecter would probably be invited to more parties than Clarice Starling, though you might have trouble figuring out who would be left at evening's end.)
It takes an hour and 15 minutes for the first horrific death in "Prometheus." Until then, you're taken by the hand through Scott's visionary gifts, as the crew suits up in costumes you've never seen before and wanders planetary landscapes you've never imagined before (except in Scott films) and unveils techno toys you've not quite seen before either.
That, if you think about it, is an amazing achievement. We have had so much sci-fi since George Lucas' "Star Wars" in 1977 that you need a filmmaker as extraordinary as Scott to take you someplace a little new and different. If you're in a bigger hurry to get to the slime and the monsters, that, frankly, is your problem, not the movies'. It may be that your taste has expired as your appetite for gore has increased from overuse in invidious causes. It's not Scott's ability to tell a story that has gone past its freshness date, believe me.
His movie is just fine, thank you, fine. And when the creatures start coming and heads begin exploding inside helmets, Sir Ridley The Badass will remind you why the original "Alien" is one of the movies which is firmly lodged in a lot of people's primal cinematic memories.
And then, of course, there is that little matter of medical procedures in the year 2093 to give you a serious topic in the car ride home.
There are plot questions to be answered: Who were "The Engineers?" What were they "engineering?" Who engineered them?
Some questions are answered. And some are theological. And some are left open for subsequent journeys.
And anyone who has seen "Alien" will have no difficulty figuring out who's going to survive and why.
What we have here is a master going back to the first summit of his film mastery to show us another and different view of it. It is, as was the 1979 movie, a great film -- not quite as visually arresting as James Cameron's "Avatar," perhaps, but far more memorable.
Very few Scott movies are bad, but not that many of them are truly great either (see the adjoining list). Only five or six, maybe.
"Prometheus" is now one of them.
4 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
RATING: R for violence, gore and medical yuck
THE LOWDOWN: Sci-fi from the great film master Scott in which Earth scientists in the year 2093 find a planet in another galaxy where human life may have originated.