Ridley Scott was arguably the best maker of cinematic science fiction following the releases of “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Yet he went off to explore other genres and bravo to him for doing so. Many of these explorations weren’t bad either, especially the iconic “Thelma & Louise” and “Black Hawk Down.”
With “Prometheus” he not only returns to sci-fi but makes a wink-and-a-nod riff on some basic elements from “Alien”
“Alien” — was it really back in 1979! — a seminal work if ever there were one, took the then unique tack of combining sci-fi with horror in one of the most heart-pounding (at least for the time) movies ever. I remember coming out of a theater with my blood racing, but poor head aching. And I don’t get headaches as a general rule. What I loved about the movie, though — among other things — was that it was the anti-“Star Wars.”
George Lucas envisioned his space opera along the lines pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” where space stations were sleek cocoons and everything screamed NEW, NEW, NEW with the shiny, slick looking flying machines and a universe that resembled a video game on steroids. In Scott’s futureworld, the spacecraft was a rusting bucket of bolts as general maintenance had been delayed for a decade due to budget cuts. You just knew that this would be the reality hundreds of years into the future.
I am sorry to see Scott retreat to the “Star Wars”/”Star Trek” design here but — saving grace — the impish humor and zest for the OH ICK money shots remain firmly intact. We all remember the most famous scene in “Alien” where that weird, slimy, disgusting creature erupted from John Hurt’s tummy after the crewman had a cozy breakfast with his mates. Well, Scott tops that not once but several times in “Prometheus.” Which is also a kinda problem. Where exactly is the line between “topping yourself” and “repeating yourself”? Damned if I know but “Prometheus” comes off as a really fun movie with some knockout effects, a splendid visual design, tense scenes, a playful attitude but … well, it’s a wee bit familiar.
Never mind, let’s concentrate first on the fun. You can read elsewhere the genesis of his project — originally conceived as a prequel to “Alien” (itself sequelized by none other than James Cameron with “Aliens”) then refashioned by Scott and co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof as a totally new film but with a “tip of the hat” to the original.
So this is a 2012 movie with all the cool 3D, CGI and digital filmmaking stuff you’d expect. Throw in elements from “Alien” including some of the original art design by the legendary H.R. Giger, and this movie kicks ass in the visual department.
The prologue is weird so let’s just skip it and go straight to the year 2093 where Weyland Industries funds a mission to deep space on the off chance that some clues found in caves about ancient civilizations might relate to the origins of mankind — not on Earth but on a distant planet.
On board is a fairly stereotypical crew of malcontents and in-fighters headed by the anthropologist Elizabeth Shaw — played by Noomi Rapace (from the original Swedish TV version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) — her boyfriend scientist Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the corporation’s “suit” Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a steady-as-she-goes captain (Idris Elba who very much anchors the movie) among others and oh, yes, a robot named David played by Michael Fassbender.
The mission takes them to a desolate, odd (make that exceedingly odd) planet and here the movie might start reminding you of those silly “Mummy” movies where long-dead creatures and viruses come back to life. The scientists venture into an underground cavern where oxygen exists, allowing them to remove their helmets. Strange specimens abound, which should make them cautious but this never occurs to them. Which turns out to be bad news for a pair of geologists (Sean Harris and Rafe Spall).
The film doesn’t have much patience for exposition and even less for characterizations so things become a bit of a muddle as crew members keep dying. It helps to remember “Alien” and the concept of incubation and host bodies since “Prometheus” is rife with these elements. You apparently can wind up bringing to life all sorts of horrid creatures in your body in so many different ways. “Rosemary”s Baby” was child’s play compared with “Prometheus.”
For my money, the ultimate gross out/fascinating sequence is the one where Shaw delivers herself to an automated machine that will perform a “surgical procedure” on her to extract a malignant fetus growing exponentially within her womb. And that damn thing refuses to abort!
And so it goes — a ripped-off talking head, slimy reptilian creatures that evolve into Gothic gargoyles, icky things in one man’s eyes, bodies imploding or torched, and finally human heads grafted onto god-knows-what creatures.
If you search for the character interaction and carefully escalating tension of “Alien,” good luck. It’s absent. The screenplay, credited to John Spaihts and Lindelof, rushes past all this, which leaves the actors rudderless. You get the idea that perhaps a three-hour screenplay might have gotten to the bottom of Shaw’s obsession with crosses and Vicker’s obsession with her dad and so on. But these appear as footnotes in this two-hour movie that rushes to the next money shot of a body disintegrating and other CGI wonders.
It’s a shame, in a way, to see Ridley Scott retreating into the me-tooism of today’s CGI brigades but it’s exhilarating to see him master it as well if not better than kids half his age. Whatever the case, Scott has his science-fiction mojo back.
Opened: June 8 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Scott Free Productions
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Producers: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill,
Executive producers: Michael Costigan, Michael Ellenberg, Mark Huffam, Damon Lindelof
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
R rating, 124 minutes