Silver Screen: Prometheus ***1/2
Summer movies are all about big effects and big box office, but Ridley Scott attempts to add big ideas with Prometheus, his much-anticipated return to the Alien franchise three decades after he got out of the sci-fi game.
Near the end of the first century of the third millennium, scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) make an astonishing discovery: an ancient cave painting they believe not only suggests humanity descended from a race of alien beings, but provides a star map to the planet of origin. Seeking the secret of mankind's beginnings, Shaw partners with the Weyland corporation, led by frosty corporate honcho Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), to undertake a deep-space expedition to discover the creators of life on Earth.
The steward of the trip is an android named David (Michael Fassbender, playing a robot by way of David Byrne), who serves as caretaker of the crew during their years-long hypersleep period. He awakens them when the ship arrives at its destination, a mysterious planet that does indeed contain the ruins and technology of an ancient civilization. But nothing seems to be alive-- at least, not at first.
What the team ultimately uncovers is both majestic and frightening. Their discovery is not simply murderous space beasts, as in the original film (although there are some of those). Instead they find fragmentary clues of the history of life in the universe, the details of which are sketchy in part because Scott and screenwriters John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof are being ambiguous, and in part because they're being vague. The viewer may quite reasonably have a difficult time separating meaningful ambiguity from simple plot holes; if Scott really wants us to give him the benefit of the doubt on his cosmic ponderings, he shouldn't base a major plot development on a character not being smart enough to run sideways instead of forward when something very tall is falling toward her.
There is a lot of good in Prometheus, and even more bad, but there is no ugly. Taken just as an aesthetic exercise, the film is an unqualified success, with sumptuous, painterly images that are captivating in their own right. Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski turn the screen into a canvas early on with gorgeous panoramas of Scotland and later another planet. Iceland serves as the stand-in for the alien world, and the landscape is plausibly fantastical. The splendors of science are represented as well in beautifully detailed shots of the ship gliding through space, especially a dazzling holographic laser show inside an extraterrestrial craft. Regardless of the film's myriad ambitions and failings, the gorgeous photography and presence of hypnotically beautiful performers like Theron and Fassbender make Prometheus enjoyable simply to stare at.
Prometheus's primary failure comes from Scott's desire to essentially make two different movies. In the early stages of development the film was referred to as another installment in the Alien franchise, and indeed by the conclusion it's clear that it is in fact a direct prequel to Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic.
The conception of Prometheus as a standalone film is the one that ultimately dominates Scott's attention, however. Everything about the movie's themes and aesthetic suggests a project with entirely different aims than Alien, or any of its sequels (he didn’t direct Aliens or Alien III), and there are significant inconsistencies (as in Star Wars, the technology in the prequel appears vastly superior to that of the installments that take place later).
Scott fashions Prometheus as a cerebral sci-fi exercise in the vein of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a deliberate pace and existential focus, yet he's simultaneously beholden to live up the Alien legacy, which means lots of slimy scares and visceral horror. Not only do the movie's creature-feature elements fall far beneath the high bar set by H.R. Geiger's unsettling design concepts in Alien, but the lurid thrills and overt moments of terror are at odds with the rest of Prometheus’s restrained approach and high-minded ideals. The end result is a potentially fascinating sci-fi film that is marred by dutiful but dissonant attempts to merge with the Alien franchise, and also a distractible and piss-poor precursor to Alien. Scott perhaps could have succeeded mightily at either task, but in combining his efforts he muddles both.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.