Thirty years ago, on the basis of "Alien" and "Blade Runner," Ridley Scott looked as if he might become the most important sci-fi director of his time.
No matter that Harrison Ford played Rick Deckard in "Blade Runner," the way Scott made that picture it was as if "Star Wars" never happened.
Of course "Blade Runner" flopped on its initial theatrical release, and ever since Scott has restricted his time-travelling to the other direction: period epics like "Gladiator," "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Robin Hood." Until now that is, when the 74-year-old has decided to go back to the future, with a movie that's a prequel, sort of, to his first big hit "Alien."
Ironically "Prometheus" starts in the far-distant past, and though the opening shots look like another world it turns out we're seeing a primordial Isle of Skye, a remote outcrop off the coast of Scotland.
Flash forward several millennia, 77 years from today. Cave paintings discovered at this location convince an aging businessman to bankroll a wildly ambitious interstellar mission.
It's said that "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry only ever had one story idea, the one where Kirk and crew met their maker. It's giving nothing away to say that Roddenberry would have liked "Prometheus." So too Erich von Daniken, whose "Chariots of the Gods" is an obvious influence.
As in "Alien," a small crew wakes up from cryogenic sleep. The ship has been tended by a humanoid robot, David (Michael Fassbender), who's been boning up on ancient languages and rewatching "Lawrence of Arabia" during transit. If he models his forelock on Peter O'Toole, it seems like a good bet he's modulated his soft, impassive vocal pattern on HAL, the ship computer in "2001."
You may not believe it, but next to nothing happens in the movie's first hour and more. And this is probably the most effective and impressive part of the ride. The slow, atmospheric ascent to the top of the roller coaster as scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and colleagues (they include Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron) explore the mysterious planet LV-223. Not many filmmakers have the nerve to make us wait these days, but Scott knows his audience is primed for exploding chests and toothy extraterrestrials, and he enjoys playing on our trepidation while showing off the stunning production design.
Even so, before long the movie feels rushed.
When things start to slide for Shaw and her partner (Logan Marshall-Green) it's like watching a drag racer spinning its wheels, kicking up dust to hit the checkered flag at 90 miles per hour. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof have devised some ingeniously nasty set pieces, but after that deliberate build-up it's disappointing that it still feels like corners are being cut. There is nothing to match the shocking biological horror that erupted in "Alien," but you couldn't accuse them of giving up without a fight.
Scott has assembled an engagingly rough and ready, workmanlike cast, but doesn't give them anything interesting to say for themselves. Theron's brittle executive officer is just too close to caricature, and she's not the only one either. Although she's likeable enough I can't see Noomi Rapace's Shaw proving as durable as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley either. The movie's stand out is clearly Fassbender. So it's too bad David's actions don't make a lot of sense, at least not to this perplexed viewer, who couldn't be sure if the robot was following orders or following his own agenda.
The more you think about this movie, the less it stands up. Scott's philosophical grandstanding is just that; there's less here than meets the eye.
Mind you, it is spectacular. Dariusz Wolski's visuals are lustrous to behold, the CGI is amazing, and Scott proves adept at handling 3D. This is one sci-fi movie with a palpable sense of space.
And I'll say this: even if the movie's logic ultimately spirals down into a vortex of hysteria, horror and hokum, I enjoyed the bulldozer intensity of the climax, which barely keeps a lid on the crackpot cult movie that's wrestling for the soul of this multimillion dollar blockbuster.
It may not be quite the "Alien" resurrection we were all hoping for -- Wait! They already used that one! -- but it's at least as good as the second and third sequels.