There were plenty of reasons not to expect much from Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," primarily because Scott hasn't made a good movie in years. Hyped as a prequel to the director's groundbreaking 1979 science fiction horror effort "Alien," the new movie looked like a feeble attempt to recapture the power of that icy genre hybrid after decades of inferior imitations. Even with "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof punching up the screenplay, the mold sounded too familiar: A few astronauts, the familiar mix of passionate scientists and trenchant pilots, trace the origins of Earth's life to a barren world with hideous monsters lurking beneath its surface. Bored yet?
Earlier this year, audiences were given a reason to feel cynical about the state of Hollywood science fiction. The pricey cosmic spectacle "John Carter" was largely regarded as an overambitious and muddled attempt at resurrecting Saturday matinee escapism. Confounding the public and inviting critical derision, the movie was an embarrassment to Disney as well as those viewers hoping for excuses to keep celebrating the genre. More than a monumental dud, it implied the flagging appeal of the once-vibrant space odyssey.
Leave it to Ridley Scott to save the day. Thanks in large part to Lindelof and Jon Spaihts' highly calculated screenplay, "Prometheus" is a brilliantly paced chamber piece, a reminder that a few simple props and solid performances matter as much as impressive effects work (of which "Prometheus" has plenty, as well). Despite occasionally disconcerting pulp dialogue and disposable plot twists to pad a story in no need of them, "Prometheus" rejuvenates the formula that made "Alien" click.
Like "Alien," the new movie derives its appeal not only from stunning, otherworldly imagery but also from the central performances tasked with reacting to it. Noomi Rapace, as one half of a researcher duo driven by ancient cave paintings to visit an alien planet and find the creatures that planted the origins of our DNA eons ago, ably inherits the female survivalist throne from "Alien" queen Sigourney Weaver (and who better to do so than the original "Girl With a Dragon Tattoo"?). Michael Fassbender, as the ship's artificial intelligence assigned by the mission's benefactor to ensure its success, delivers a chilly performance that suggests the love child of HAL 9000 and Spock.
There are downsides to the familiar ingredients as well. Other characters, including a barking ship manager played by Charlize Theron and an equally bland captain played by Idris Elba, fall back on clichés and distract from an otherwise compelling ensemble. By its wild finish, however, "Prometheus" is an unquestionable good time, one of the best big-screen science fiction accomplishments since "Avatar" — and in some ways more impressive for its efficient combination of effects wizardry and sleek, contained suspense.
Appropriately, the credits include a nod to the late, great Dan O'Bannon, author of the first "Alien" screenplay and a collaborator on John Carpenter's debut feature "Dark Star." A primal version of "Prometheus," "Dark Star" also revolves around space travelers stuck in a maze of technological and organic problems largely of their own creation.
Going one step further, O'Bannon's "Alien" concept worked so well partly because it left much of the explanation up to the imagination of the viewer. In the same tradition, "Prometheus" relies on running and gunning, seriously intense body horror and breathless dialogue about religious fate even more than on the modicum of discussion about what's actually going on.
By the time a large, tentacled creature has wrapped its tendrils around the neck of an equally menacing foe, logic has given way to intense immersion. Once the monstrosities take over, the characters' entanglement calls to mind something out of Andrzej Zulawski's "Possession," in which the creature features purely represent a frantic state of mind. As the robotic Fassbender deadpans when one of the scientists insists on uncovering the aliens' motives, "The answer is irrelevant." Indeed. As with Lindelof's "Lost," the fun lies in the chaos of the moment.
This has been a terrific summer for science fiction to rediscover its roots on a small scale. Panos Cosmatos' supremely trippy "Beyond the Black Rainbow," now in limited release, resurrects the iconography of "Alien"-era science fiction while pushing it to a wholly abstract arena of sights and sounds that put it in league with "Eraserhead" in terms of midnight movie excess. "Safety Not Guaranteed," opening this Friday, uses time travel to instigate a charming romantic comedy about regret. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's "Extraterrestrial," opening next week in New York and also hitting VOD, similarly uses minimal science fiction components — a UFO hovering over a barren town — to set in motion the relationships between a quartet of characters crammed in an apartment for the majority of its runtime.
In each case, plot specifics form only one part of the story. So it goes with "Prometheus," as well. The movie only makes enough sense to keep barreling forward to a thrilling climax, and then it closes the loop with a final nod to its precedent (no specific spoilers, but fans of a certain franchise should expect a climactic big reveal). "Prometheus" never transcends the boundaries of its narrative, but despite the alien setting, its familiar patterns have an oddly soothing effect.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Fox's carefully engineered marketing strategy still working its magic, "Prometheus" is set to open strong in wide release this weekend and become one of the summer's biggest box office hits.