Arriving in theaters on the back of a portentous ad campaign, Ridley Scott's Prometheus assumes the air of something more than a summer movie, a blockbuster with brains that links the genesis and the ultimate fate of mankind beyond the stars. It is, incidentally, the story of an ambitious mission gone wrong.
The discovery of a cave painting on the Isle of Skye is the "X marks the spot" moment. Comparing ancient pictograms from the world over, an archaeologist couple, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), find a recurring image that depicts humanity's titan forebears pointing skyward to a formation of planets that are always arranged the same across all cultural boundaries. This is enough to secure shady corporate backing for a trip to a distant galaxy where precisely that formation has been discovered, a quest for answers as to the origins of humanity from the beings that Shaw and Holloway hope to find there: "We call them 'Engineers,'" Shaw says. "They engineered us."
Prone to ponderousness, Prometheus works best when it steps back from contemplating the cosmos to enter the domain of flesh-and-blood and hereditary terror. There are a few set pieces here that will find a place of honor among aficionados of body horror and all things clammy and viscous, gyno-phallic cave creatures and a scene of self-administered surgery that will stain the memory long after such significant-sounding bits of dialogue like "That being said, doesn't everyone want their parents dead?" have gone.
The events of Prometheus take place at the end of 2093, as the exploratory mission's crew awakens from suspended-animation stasis: Shaw and Holloway are joined by the ship's squeezebox-toting Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and, working according to her own mysterious m.o., mission director Vickers (Charlize Theron as an ice queen wearing her hair in a sculptural blond knot). There are also a number of superfluous crew members who might as well be wearing Star Trek red shirts, for on this trip to meet their makers, many will.
The deep-space deep-freeze commute will be familiar to most viewers from Alien, directed some 33 years ago by Scott, as will be the steel-ribbed, organic-industrial, H.R. Giger-deco interiors of the seemingly abandoned compound that the landing party finds — housing Engineer carcasses, mysterious bongo-shaped canisters, and prehistoric monoliths — upon setting down at the distant moon that is their star-mapped destination.
The script, by Jon Spaihts and Lost's Damon Lindelof, originated as a prequel to Alien, Scott's first hit, before developing into its present spin-off form. Rather than setting out, as scriptwriter Dan O'Bannon did with the original, to build the ultimate creature feature, these gimcrack philosophers have loosely sown Prometheus with Big Themes in hopes that one might perchance take root.
Shaw, a nominal Christian, simultaneously grapples with the mystery of creation and her own (routinely established) sterility. The title, citing the mythical benefactor who stole fire from the Gods for mankind, is also the name of our good spaceship, carrying a freight of associations of forbidden knowledge. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's story of man tampering in God's domain by creating life, was subtitled A Modern Prometheus. Scott's film features the product of a future Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender), the ship's android factotum and caretaker. David stars in the film's single most original sequence, using the Prometheus as his private playground while the mere mortals that he serves slumber, fixing his hair like Peter O'Toole's after watching Lawrence of Arabia and effortlessly sinking impossible hook shots in the gymnasium.
Fassbender gives a wry performance of crisp, precise gestures, but the character's programmed motivations and motives don't quite scan. One bit of business, which involves him slipping someone a mickey, is simply baffling, while scenes that reveal David betraying an expression of private pleasure needlessly tease one to wonder if he is really such an unfeeling automaton.
The same sense of buildup toward a payoff that never arrives — are we supposed to placidly await a sequel? — defines Prometheus. This feels less like deliberate open-ending than an inability to control tone and effect. Although supposedly our point of entry into the narrative, Rapace and Marshall-Green inspire no interest in their fate as a couple, and a scene that calls upon them to perform a wrenching act of sacrifice only reminds one how Brian de Palma, even with a problematic property like 2000's Mission to Mars, could invest similar material with eloquence and pathos.
Inviting comparison to The Tree of Life's formation-of-the-universe digression or 2001: A Space Odyssey's monolith overture, Prometheus begins with a freestanding prologue imagining our planet's infancy. Scott is swinging for the fences here — he is 74 and perhaps looking for a career-capping legacy film to tackle life, the universe, and everything — but his gifts have coarsened considerably over the past decade. With this overreaching Prometheus, Scott seems a bit like David carefully arranging his hair in imitation of O'Toole's Lawrence. He can still mimic the appearance of an epic, noble, important movie — but the appearance is all.