Sunday, June 10, 2012


The first image in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" is a pale-looking superhuman man who is probably neither human or man. He stands on the edge of a cliff with some sort of spaceship far above him. Something horrific happens to his body, and he's cast into the water below with what appears to be cellular structures forming in the rushing water. Is this place Earth? Is this person or alien where humans came from? Is this showing us our beginning? From outer space?

Scott's first sci-fi feature since 1982's "Blade Runner" asks big questions about the origins of humankind. The promise is a deep existential journey with philosophical musings on God and meeting our maker. The problem with this quasi-prequel to his 1979 "Alien" is that the movie poses the questions, but the end result doesn't uphold the initial lofty ambition. In trying to expand his sci-fi classic into something more grandiose, an entire universe of possibility, he actually ends up taking a step back and muddling the story.

A spaceship named Prometheus heads toward an unknown planet following the discovery of a prehistoric star map by two scientists. They believe this distant location marks the spot where humankind was originally conceived. One of the scientists who made the discovery is an intelligent and brave woman, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy). She's a woman of faith but holds to the notion of a higher life form responsible for creating us. Shaw's boyfriend, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), is a fellow scientist who aided in the discovery. Together they get recruited to lead the mission aboard Prometheus, which is headed by a frigid corporate woman, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron in ice queen mode much like her role last weekend in "Snow White and the Huntsman"). She represents the company who funded the mission; they're not in it for the discovery, just the money.

We could've been satisfied with a top-notch thrill ride in space, but Scott and his writers Damon Lindelof (of TV's "Lost") and Jon Spaihts go for something bigger. This gives the movie a crippling split-personality disorder. On the one hand it wants to be a crowd-pleasing action-packed adventure full of ooey gooey guts galore and gross-out alien creature moments. On the other hand is the Terrence Malick aspirations, a minor version of "The Tree of Life," contemplating where life had its beginnings. Whether you go in expecting one or the other, either way you'll end up unsatisfied. Instead, we get left with an empty feeling of missed opportunity and disappointment.

And what more is a feeling of frustration in seeing just how well-produced the whole project is. What's inside the gift wrapping, however, turns out to be less so. You'll still feel like you're getting your money's worth because it sure doesn't look cheap, but the visual grandeur of it all becomes nearly disheartening to see all the wasted potential because it really is a technically profound and awe-inspiring film. The desired scope and sphere of the whole story, however, is never achieved. You may be fooled with breathtaking set pieces and some harrowing sequences of alien action, but these are only temporary distractions from the glaring plot holes, threadbare plot, incoherent narrative and countless unanswered questions.

What doesn't fail is the superb acting, most notably from Michael Fassbender as the on-board android, David. He's like a mobile and humanized version of HAL 5000 of "2001: A Space Odyssey." We're first introduced to him as he watches Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" carefully arranging his hair and speaking patterns to imitate the actor. Fassbender's performance here is a thing of beauty. He's restricted by a character unable to show true human emotion yet he uses subtlety to build up quiet menace and wit behind his robot's stiff frame.

"Prometheus" does kick itself up a notch in the end, and the last 30 minutes almost forgives what preceded. And if you walk away remembering one scene, it'll be the powerhouse of Noomi Rapace conducting self-surgery with an automatic operating table. It's a visceral and nerve-jangling scene that'll have you cringing and cheering. That moment alone proves this talented Swedish actress is going to have a prolific American film career.

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