Although Ridley Scott's 3D visual feast is no classic, the oozing alien tentacles hit all the right sci-fi horror notes.
Be careful what you wish for, especially if it involves figuring out who invented humankind. That's the warning at the heart of Prometheus, a visual feast of a 3D sci-fi movie that has trouble combining its high-minded notions about the origins of the species and its Alien-based obligation to deliver oozy gross-out moments. Ridley Scott's third venture into science fiction, after Alien in 1979 and Blade Runner in 1982, won't become a genre benchmark like those classics, despite its equivalent ambition. But it does supply enough visual spectacle, tense action and sticky, slithery monster attacks to hit the spot with thrill-seeking audiences worldwide.
The Greek titan Prometheus got in trouble for stealing fire from Zeus and putting man on the same level as the gods. Presuming that humans won't rest until we discover where we came from and how we got here, Prometheus proposes that not very long from now -- in 2093, to be precise -- a plausible source of human life will not only be found but reached by space explorers backed by private, not government, interests.
The striking opening sequence (shot in Iceland) reveals scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovering some ancient cave paintings indicating the likely arrival on Earth of extraterrestrials many thousands of years ago. Evidence points to the source as a moon in a small solar system a vast distance away but not out of reach for a trillion-dollar spacecraft built by Weyland Industries.
The buildup and arrival are the best part of the film, suggesting a sense of inquiry and a genuine thoughtfulness that promise a weighty slice of speculative fiction. Not that this territory hasn't been amply mined: In fact, the particulars of the ship's interior design, visual projections, hibernating crewmembers, workout routines and Michael Fassbender's robot character as a sort of ambulatory HAL are unavoidably reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It doesn't take long for the crew's number to be reduced by untoward circumstances, nor for doubt to set in about the true agenda not only of Fassbender's David, who can be quietly amusing, but of Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers, the chilly Weyland executive on board.
Elizabeth and her scientist boyfriend, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), continue to spar about the potential momentousness of their journey: She hopes to find confirmation of her religious beliefs that will point to the existence of a traditional creator, while he is convinced that what they discover will merely prove that Darwin was right. But such rarefied considerations are thrown overboard when aliens start materializing, shooting their tentacles where you definitely don't want them. The gross-out quotient only increases; a self-inflicted Caesarian section may be a screen first, while Fassbender's fate is similarly imaginative and far funnier.
Technically, Prometheus is magnificent. Shot in 3D but without the director taking the process into account in his conceptions or execution, the film absorbs and uses the technology seamlessly. There is nary a false nor phony note in the effects. The graceful, vivid cinematography synthesizes all the elements beautifully in a film that caters too much to audience expectations; a little more adventurous thought might have taken it to some unexpected destinations.
Opens: Friday, June 8 (Fox)
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba
Director: Ridley Scott Rated R, 124 minutes