Prometheus is a movie of grandiose ideas and imagination, as it should be with the tough acts and lengthy intermission it must follow. Director Ridley Scott seldom tackles science fiction, but when he does, it matters: He transformed the genre with only two films about 30 years ago.
Scott reinvigorated outer space terror with the original Alien in 1979 when the genre was going Spielberg soft. Three years later Blade Runner practically reinvented film noir detective yarns, while arguably providing a first draft of the future.
Since then Scott has worked earthbound, so the very least that his delayed return to futuristic fantasy should do is give audiences something bold in themes and execution, something to make us think one minute and squirm the next. That is exactly what Prometheus does.
The speculation during an inscrutable marketing campaign was that Prometheus would be a prequel to Alien, which isn't entirely true. It probably transpires in another corner of the same galaxy. Space explorers are mostly working stiffs awakened from suspended animation at the behest of capitalists. One passenger is an android with motives. There are creatures that could be genetically linked to Alien's queen monster, that similarly exist to kill. H.R. Giger's dreamscape design in the first film is recalled, like architecture imported across an ocean.
Yet Prometheus isn't a prequel until Scott declares it is, in an epilogue after previously reworking enough Alien shocks to hint at the connection. Scott is occasionally too derivative of himself, Stanley Kubrick's vision of space and artificial intelligence, and quasi-theology like Stargate. I viewed the resemblances as homage; some viewers may consider them merely unoriginal.
Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof offer a challenging premise, no less than the origins of mankind as an extraterrestrial experiment. Archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) discovers cave paintings from various millennia and locales all sharing the same image suggesting alien contact.
Elizabeth and her colleague (Logan Marshall-Green) hitch a ride on the Prometheus, a sleeker vessel than Alien's space barge Nostromo. The voyage to the source of those drawings is financed by a greedy corporation, with icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) in charge, aided by an android named David (Michael Fassbender) who cops his style from Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
Meredith's true mission collides with Elizabeth's, who wants to know if her faith in God creating humans is justified. The ethical and theological dilemmas are fascinating for such escapist fare.
Scott briskly blends the high-minded stuff with impressive boo-and-goo sequences, ratcheting tension in tight spots and dark caverns. One set piece — you'll know when you see it — should become a new milestone in horror, as John Hurt's tummy trouble did in Alien. While Prometheus isn't a slam dunk sci-fi classic, it is a movie the genre and Scott's disciples can celebrate.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.