Ridley Scott set new standards for big sci-fi storytelling in the last quarter of the 20th century, and now he’s engineered Prometheus for a 21st-century race of moviegoers. This is jumbo-size science fiction, with a handsome, impermeable titanium gleam — and a thick coating of creationism lite. In the deep space of the director’s deluxe, prequel-esque nonprequel to his 1979 classic, Alien, striking marble-skinned, monument-shaped beings of godlike intelligence share screen time with the cool old slimy-skinned, vagina-shaped representations of destructive extraterrestrial life known and loved from back in the days of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Prometheus elicits Alien memories for viewers who have them, but works on its own, too, as a model of a contemporary (and, as is the contempo mode, long-winded) sci-fi horror pic. The plot follows the fates of some foolish humans and one devilishly smart robot named David, all of whom encounter big trouble in outer space. The visual images impress as polished movie craft — Scott’s visuals always do — with icy, jagged iconography inspired by the otherworldly Icelandic landscape where parts were shot, and benefiting from Scott’s trademark attention to mood and wet things. The man likes his moisture.
But this time, he’s also a little lost in the misty stars. The title refers to the god of Greek myth who was punished for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans. But oh, mortals, beware the WTF? awaiting any who try to shed light on the heavy, heavy heaviosity of Prometheus’ mythology. Alien taught us that in space, no one can hear you scream. Prometheus teaches us that the gods must be crazy. At least that’s one interpretation of the unwieldy origin fable stuck onto this adventure tale like the creature clamped onto John Hurt’s face in Alien.
This we do know: A spaceship named Prometheus is heading toward a distant planet, following newly discovered prehistoric star maps that seem to suggest X marks the spot where humankind was conceived. One of the scientists who discovered those maps is the brave and capable Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, a pistol, especially under the harrowing surgical conditions that mark one of the movie’s ick-factor high points). Shaw is on board hoping to literally meet her maker: She declares herself a woman of faith, although faith in what we don’t know, because heaven forbid the script get theologically specific. Suffice it to say that Shaw treasures her necklace with a cross. And she believes the destination planet is the home of the greater beings — she calls them directors — who created Earth and humankind.
The other crew members have their own reasons to travel. Shaw’s boyfriend and fellow scientist (Logan Marshall-Green) has no use for faith, but believes in archaeology. The sleek, blond ballbuster played by Charlize Theron (in a second performance win of the summer season, after Snow White and the Huntsman) represents the corporation funding the venture and has her own not-so-nice intentions. So does corporation magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). It’s difficult to say what the supercilious robot David believes, since he’s a robot (played by Michael Fassbender as if he’s gleefully gliding on ball bearings), but David at least knows he’s got a maker. (Like fellow robot WALL?E, who studied Hello, Dolly!, David is a student of old movies, taking grooming and elocution cues from Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.) Meanwhile, the ship’s captain (Idris Elba) runs the rig with the old-salt harrumphiness of a Navy man escaped from Battleship. For relaxation, he pumps an old squeeze box once owned by the rock & roll demigod Stephen Stills — an instance of screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof having pop fun.
Faithful fans of Lost — the convoluted TV series co-created by Lindelof — ought to feel right at home amid the chaos. Did God, or gods, or higher beings create humans, and are they messing with us still? Or maybe it was mice who made men, as revealed to fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The answer is hazy; try again later. All one needs to know to understand Prometheus and honor Alien is that women can be tough fighters. That the characters with the goofiest accents get killed first. That nothing beats a really primo close-up of a gooey ET creature just before it goes berserk. And that, in the great tradition of the best sci-fi films, space would be a lot more boring without intrepid human idiots who touch stuff even when told ”Don’t touch that!” God bless them. B+