Ridley Scott’s belated return to the genre that forged his reputation as a visionary stylist arrives weighed down by expectations it was always going to struggle to match, let alone surpass. And such is the case with “Prometheus,” which contains neither the taut, visceral chills of “Alien” nor ground-breaking aesthetic of “Blade Runner” but does, as its grand title suggests, bite off some colossal themes to chew upon: the origins of man, no less, as pinpointed to the alien residents of a faraway constellation.
It seems Sir Ridley wouldn’t dream of re-entering the realms of science fiction, even with something as seemingly clear-cut as an “Alien” prequel, unless he could hurl everything plus the kitchen-sink into the mix, including primordial ponderings, body horror, mythological mash-ups and cool space gadgetry, while finally answering the question that has been plaguing “Alien” lovers for 30 years: who is that masked space jockey and how did he come to be where the crew of the Nostromo could stumble upon him? Lofty aspirations, although perhaps Scott should have put stronger minds on the script or steered their efforts more rigorously: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts seek to plumb depths within a multiplex framework but leave their hodge-podge of ideas splashing in a shallow pool as the film diverts into a conventional furrow of death and evisceration.
After a brief prologue in which faith-based scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover-counterpart Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave paintings they read as an interstellar invitation, we’re swiftly on board the spacecraft Prometheus, crewed by 17 disposable stereotypes who get little chance to register before meeting variously unpleasant fates. For a trillion-dollar expedition tasked with finding extraterrestrial forefathers, funded by corporate deity Peter Weyland (a holographic Guy Pearce) and supervised by his ice-queen subordinate Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, squandered), you’d think finding better staff would have been key, or at least giving them more interesting things to say. Rapace is a strong linchpin for the story, especially as her eyes open to the reality of the situation and she assumes the kick-ass Ripley role; she’s matched by Michael Fassbender, who steals the film as the creepy, Lawrence Of Arabia-obsessed robot David, the only other character on board, ironically, with anything like a three-dimensional personality.
And yet “Prometheus” is also a film of magnificent, grandiose spectacle, containing plenty to admire, gawp and recoil at, both outside and within the gargantuan, pyramid-style structure that they discover upon their arrival on the faraway planet. While the ferocious shocks and unbearable tension of “Alien” are largely absent, characters still come to be tormented by various toothy, tentacled life-forms, and a self-induced caesarean gives the film its grisliest and most unforgettable sequence.
For the sake of blockbuster cinema that’s more than plastic spectacle, you really root for Prometheus to fire on all cylinders. The fact that it doesn’t, and settles for being watchable entertainment without ever scaling the spine-tingling heights of Scott’s previous sci-fi forays, is frustrating. But there are more ideas and intricacies in a few frames of Scott’s film than the entire oeuvre of Michael Bay, and in a landscape in which originality is vanishing quicker than the human crew of the Prometheus, that can only be applauded.