Prometheus: Film Review

Michael Fassbender as David
Twentieth Century Fox

Fassbender plays David, a robot that's programmed to help his human counterparts explore the new planets where the Prometheus lands.

A visually stunning return to science fiction by Ridley Scott caters too much to audience expectations when more imaginative boldness would have taken it further.

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 Prometheusa 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 seriousness and 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, not surprisingly, by private, not government, interests.

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The striking opening sequence (shot in Iceland) reveals scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) discovering ancient cave paintings indicating the likely arrival on Earth of extraterrestrials many thousands of years ago. Such evidence points to the source as a moon in a small solar system a vast distance away, but not out of reach of 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 genuine sort of thoughtfulness that promise a truly weighty slice of speculative fiction. Not that this territory hasn't been amply mined in the past: In fact, the particulars of the ship's interior design, visual projections, hibernating crew members, sports workout routines and Michael Fassbender's robot character as a sort of ambulatory HAL with an obsession to look and speak like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, which he likes to watch, are unavoidably reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Little by little, however, elements of other, less philosophical films come into play, including Fantastic Voyage, Rosemary's Baby and, inevitably, Alien. Arriving on the rugged, outwardly lifeless moon, the 17 crew members notice pyramid-like structures that were clearly not fashioned by nature. Inside, the elaborate tunnels and chambers possess moisture, elaborate writing, a large statue of a human head and, more alarming, countless small cylinders that produce a sticky mud-like substance, and an apparent human head.

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 who condescendingly treats everyone else, including the ship's captain (Idris Elba), as vastly inferior employees.

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Elizabeth and her scientist boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) continue to spar about the potential momentousness of their journey -- she, who wears a cross, 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 once and for all 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, getting someone pregnant and otherwise causing the same sort of mayhem they always have in outer-space monster films.

As the survivors are pared down to a precious few, the grisliness and gross-out quotient increases; a self-inflicted cesarian section may be a screen first (certainly the result of it is), while Fassbender's fate is similarly imaginative and far funnier. This project started life as an intended prequel to Alien but morphed into something else. Unfortunately, the closer it comes to a climax, the more you feel the elements being lined up to set the stage for a sequel to this film, most of all in a coda that feels like a craven teaser trailer for the next installment.

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Scott doubles his Alien pleasure with not just one but two strong female roles here. Rapace credibly expresses her character's combined scientific and religious convictions -- ”It's what I choose to believe,” she insists -- and is more than up to the physical requirements of some very intense scenes. Theron is in ice goddess mode here, with the emphasis on ice (and this just as her turn in Snow White and the Huntsman is about to open) but perfect for the role all the same.

Blonded up, perfect of diction and elegant of body, Fassbender seems almost alarmingly neutered at first as the ship's all-purpose valet but excels as he's allowed to begin injecting droll comedy into his performance. As the captain, Elba has a few strong moments standing up to his “boss,” Theron, while the other actors are mostly cannon fodder, save for an unrecognizable Guy Pearce in a late-on role.

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 process seamlessly. There is nary a false or phony note in the effects supervised by Richard Stammers, which build upon the outstanding production design by Arthur Max. Dariusz Wolski's graceful and vivid cinematography synthesizes all the elements beautifully in a film that caters too much to imagined audience expectations when a little more adventurous thought might have taken it to some excitingly unsuspected destinations.

Opens: June 8 (20th Century Fox)
Production: Scott Free, Brandywine
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, based on elements created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Producers: Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill
Executive producers: Michael Costigan, Mark Huffman, Michael Ellenberg, Damon Lindelof
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Visual effects supervisor: Richard Stammers
Rated R, 124 minutes