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PROMETHEUS
(***½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:   Ridley Scott
Writers:
Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring:
Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
Length:   124 minutes
Released:   060812
Rating:
R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language
“Prometheus is gorgeous and pretentious, ridiculous and awesome." 

"In space no one can hear you scream."

The immortal tagline that promoted "Alien" in 1979 tipped viewers that the now-classic science-fiction shocker was essentially a carnival ride through a haunted house in outer space. The shrieks were their own reward.

Thirty-three years later, director Ridley Scott is Sir Ridley Scott. He was knighted in 2003; he directed "Gladiator," which earned the Best Picture Oscar in 2001; and he's 74 -- closer to the end of his career than to its beginning. When he makes a Robin Hood movie, as he did in 2010, it's not a romp, it's a history lesson.

Is it any surprise, then, that Scott's eagerly and long-anticipated "Alien" prequel, "Prometheus," isn't content simply to shout "Boo!" at the audience? The new movie elicits screams, but also asks questions -- and not just any questions but "the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind," in the words of one character. Not questions like "Why in God's name is Ripley going back for that cat?," but such questions as, and I quote: "Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?" -- just like that, one after the other, in a monologue. In space, unfortunately, every one can hear Guy Pearce channeling Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life."

Can slime be sublime? Like Terrence Malick's arguable masterpiece, "Prometheus" is gorgeous and pretentious, ridiculous and awesome. It is a movie inspired, in part, by the oh-wow pseudoscience of "Chariots of the Gods?" author Erich von Däniken, whose theories about "ancient astronauts" were much discussed among my high school peers. It's also a movie in which a woman programs a C-section for herself inside some sort of translucent auto-surgery cubicle that resembles a futuristic tanning booth. The wound is closed with large staples -- pop, pop, pop -- while the monstrous bundle of non-joy is held in a clamp. "It's not exactly a traditional fetus," comments the spaceship's wry humanoid robot manservant, played by Michael Fassbender, an actor whose long, almost simian arms, sculpted good looks and preternatural poise could, in fact, inspire a popular line of mandroids. (In a witty conceit, we learn the robot has chosen the unearthly Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" as his human role model.)

Fassbender is matched in ramrod rigidity by Charlize Theron, cast as a glacial corporation executive whose secret agenda is the real engine driving the "scientific exploratory vessel" known as Prometheus. "Are you a robot?" the ship's captain (Idris Elba) asks her, in all seriousness, in a scene that preempts the audience's expectation of just such a revelation.

Most of "Prometheus" takes place in 2093; but though the story's spacefaring scientists and engineers have many decades' worth of additional horror movies from which to learn, they still behave like teenagers in a post-"Halloween" slasher flick. Why else do they repeatedly risk exposing themselves to alien contamination? Why, when a small snaky creature that resembles a cobra rears up from the black ooze of an extraterrestrial cave, do they approach it as unguardedly as if it were a sleepy box turtle in a backyard?

Scripted by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the film follows the Prometheus on a deep-space voyage inspired by the discoveries of a romantically involved pair of archeologists, Charlie and Elizabeth, who believe a distant moon may be the home base of the extraterrestrial "engineers" responsible for the seeding of life on the Earth. Charlie is played by Logan Marshall-Green, while Elizabeth is Rapace, in her first starring role in a Hollywood movie, following her appearances as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movies.

The expedition is funded by the Weyland Corporation, the sinister entity that backed (or will back?) the mission in "Alien." Specifically, Mr. Weyland himself (Guy Pearce, in elaborate old-age makeup), a dying trillionaire, hopes the archaeologists will discover some sort of alien technology that will enable him to prolong his life. Instead, of course, the expedition discovers horror, and the answers to some of the mysteries of "Alien," while excavating new mysteries that may require yet another sequel.

"Prometheus" opens with a scene that introduces one of the "remarkably human" extraterrestrial "engineers" at work on a planet that may be the primordial Earth. The men of this race (we see no women) resemble the comic-book versions of Greek gods, with ripped physiques and noble profiles. Are these our "parents"? Like "Alien," the movie is pregnant (sorry) with ideas about evolution and reproduction, and bursting with sex and birth imagery. The creature attacks are, essentially, rapes.

The movie is at its most interesting at its darkest. "Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?" the android asks, provocatively, after several episodes of violence. At times, Scott seems to be imagining a sort of twilight of the gods -- the death of God, depicted in science-fiction blockbuster terms. But, for better or worse, the cynicism gives way to hope, and rationalism can't supersede the sturdy faith of Elizabeth, who wears a cross around her neck, a gift from her father, as we learn in a flashback.

Whatever its flaws, "Prometheus" is a marvel of production design, state-of-the-art special effects and stunning cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski). Scott wisely uses volcanic locations in Iceland to represent alien terrain, rather than creating a phony digital realm, a la "Avatar"; the Prometheus is a much sleeker vessel than the earlier film's workhorse of a spaceship, the Nostromo, but the old-school realism of the planetoid's rugged surface is a reminder of the grit-and-grime environment of "Alien," which was a welcome novelty at a time when the future often was imagined to be antiseptic and clean.

The sheer ambition at work throughout Prometheus makes the occasional scripting hiccup a forgivable flaw.

It's easy to forecast Prometheus' biggest obstacle: getting audiences to buy into adult science fiction with a movie that is being touted as an Alien prequel. On the sci-fi spectrum, Prometheus is a lot closer to 2001 than it is to Alien vs. Predator. Viewers should understand what they're getting; it has less to do with action and shock killings (although there are a few of those) than with an exploration of space as a means of learning about what it means to be human. This is intentionally a very different movie from Alien; Scott consciously did not repeat himself, except perhaps in small doses. One could argue that Prometheus has more in common with Scott's other iconic science fiction endeavor, Blade Runner, than with Alien. Whatever its pedigree, however, one thing is clear: Prometheus is the antithesis of the "big, dumb summer movie." Its visuals and special effects can stand toe-to-toe with any of the season's spectacles, but are audiences ready for something with an intelligent, thought-provoking screenplay where the action is secondary? Prometheus is flawed, but stupidity cannot be numbered among its missteps.

PROMETHEUS © 2013 20th CENTURY FOX
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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