Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"… (Michael J. Lutch / Associated…)
Part philosophical treatise, part pulp fiction, part pure horror show, Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" ends up with less to say than it thinks it does. Though more involving than much of this year's summer blockbuster competition, by the standards set by its wizardly director it's something of a disappointment.
Scott's "Alien"(1979) and "Blade Runner"(1982) are two of the preeminent science fiction films, and so it was inevitable that "Prometheus" would be compared to them. But it's especially the case because "Prometheus" — starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron — shares, as Scott himself has said, some DNA strands with "Alien."
Anyone who is unfamiliar with "Alien" need not worry — "Prometheus" stands on its own. But those with vivid memories of what happened to Ellen Ripley aboard the Nostromo 33 years ago will find several points of reference in common with this latest iteration.
Aside from Scott's expert first-time use of 3-D, the main differences between "Prometheus" and those earlier films are that the new venture is more creepy than it is scary, and it's considerably more self-conscious about the ideas that lie beneath the action.
Although the director remains a master creator of alternate worlds, "Prometheus," unlike its predecessors, does not wear its themes lightly. It pushes too hard for significance, which is dicey in and of itself for genre material and contrasts badly with the standard nature of some of the story's plotting.
As written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV's "Lost"), "Prometheus" begins, after an arresting but baffling prologue, at a dig on Scotland's Isle of Skye in the year 2089.
Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), a pair of romantically involved archaeologists, have made a startling discovery: a 35,000-year-old pictogram that shows humans worshiping an enormous figure who points to the stars.
This same image has also been discovered in a number of far-flung sites all over the world, leading Shaw and Holloway to conclude (as an unacknowledged Erich von Daniken claimed in his 1968 book "Chariots of the Gods") that beings from outer space had a big hand in creating life on Earth.
Messianically determined to find these aliens and answer once and for all big questions like "Where do we come from? What is our purpose?," the pair persuades the world's richest human, Peter Weyland of Weyland Industries (Guy Pearce under a ton of makeup), to spend a trillion dollars, give or take, to fund a trip to outer space with the purpose of tracking those "engineers" down.
"Prometheus" proper begins on a spaceship ominously named after the character in Greek mythology who suffered greatly for challenging the gods. Though Janek (an excellent Idris Elba) is the nominal captain, the ship is really run by Meredith Vickers (Theron), a Weyland Industries bigwig who is not shy about saying things like "my job is to make sure you do yours."
Theron, who has clearly found her comfort zone with ice-cold roles, is strong here, but from the acting point of view "Prometheus" belongs to the protean Fassbender, who excels as David, the spaceship's resident android.
Considered by Peter Weyland to be the closest thing to a son he has, albeit with the drawback of not having a soul, David (who watches"Lawrence of Arabia"for tips on being human) is smarter and more capable than anyone on the ship and very much knows it. Fassbender gets David's almost-but-not-quite human character exactly right and is especially good at conveying the can-he-be-trusted aspect that always comes with android territory.
More hit and miss is Rapace (of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), who never quite connects with the tree-hugger aspects of Shaw's character but really comes into her own once things start to go south in a major way.
For it will not come as a surprise to anyone that everything is not exactly sweetness and light on the planet where the Prometheans land in search of those creative aliens. All kinds of awful, increasingly grotesque and horrific stuff starts to happen, and having someone with Shaw's indomitability around turns out to be a major plus for mankind.
(In an odd convergence, both "Prometheus" and the benighted"Battleship"share a press material reference to scientistStephen Hawking'swarning that intelligent life from other planets "might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." True story.)
Making up for the expected nature of some of the film's plot twists is Arthur Max's spooky, H.R. Giger-influenced production design, Dariusz Wolski's fluid cinematography, as well as Scott's moment-to-moment storytelling skill. Though the thrills here are less visceral than "Alien" and the world imagined less mind-altering than "Blade Runner," those gifts continue to impress in any galaxy you care to mention.
MPAA rating: R for sci-fi violence, including some intense images, and brief language
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: In general release