Prometheus is a difficult movie to rate. It’s a visually stunning science-fiction epic with aspirations to being more than a shoot-’em-up in space, and big-budget films like that come along once in a blue moon. For fleeting moments, it recalls the heady days of 2001. It’s also a mess.
With Alien and Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott pioneered what Pauline Kael called “Jacobean science fiction” — the dark, gritty, violence-ridden counterpart to the more optimistic spacescapes of “Star Trek” and Star Wars. But Scott, returning to the genre after decades away, was always better at crafting visuals than stories. For Prometheus, a sort-of-prequel to Alien, he turned scripting duties over to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. The latter, best known for his work on “Lost,” appears to have done his damnedest to stuff a TV season’s worth of plotlines, genre clichés and undergrad-level philosophizing into a two-hour film. The result is scattered, opportunistic and unfocused — but not boring.
It starts with a Chariots of the Gods?-style scenario. A pair of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered near-identical cave paintings in far corners of the globe, from which they infer that aliens may have engineered the human race and left us a handy road map back to their planet.
Interstellar travel is no big whoop in the 2090s, and our heroes enlist a mega-corporation to bankroll their expedition to meet their makers. But anyone who saw Alien knows that, as the crew members shake off two years of cryo-sleep and prepare to explore a seemingly desolate planet, we should brace ourselves for something other than Spielbergian wonder.
Scott has assembled an impressive cast, including Idris Elba as the ship’s captain; Charlize Theron as the icy corporate rep; and Michael Fassbender as David, the requisite android. But the film has a point-of-view problem. For roughly the first hour, David occupies the protagonist position — a choice that works for the audience, because the android is more nuanced and likable than the film’s human characters, most of whom are arrogant, crudely conceived, inexplicably dim or all three. (As they ooh and ahh at relics and remains, with little concern for their safety, these “scientists” seem more like hungover college kids on a field trip.)
Yet the focus on David makes no big-picture sense, because he clearly has ulterior motives to which we aren’t privy. After David’s true mission reveals itself (sort of; most reveals in Prometheus spawn more questions than they answer), Rapace’s character becomes the film’s focus. But, despite starring in one memorably Cronenbergian scene, she never succeeds in being more than Ripley Lite.
The mysteries unveiled in Prometheus have already provided fodder for hundreds of thousands of words of internet debate; some viewers find its resolution coherent and satisfying; others, colossally stupid. I lean toward the view that Lindelof (and whoever else had a hand here) ruined the story by whipping up a purée of wonder, terror, gross-out horror, pulp fiction and vague religiosity when a few of those ingredients would have sufficed.
But Prometheus is still a sight to see. Scenes such as David watching Lawrence of Arabia in the eerily quiet spacecraft; or the scientists exploring intestinal-looking hallways reminiscent of artist H.R. Giger (who designed the titular xenomorph of Alien) will be remembered longer than who in the film did what and why. And you can say one thing about Prometheus that you can’t of most belated sequels and prequels to popular franchises: It’s way weirder than a “Greatest Hits” compilation.