In space, no one can hear you yawn.
More than 30 years ago, director Ridley Scott mixed technology and slime, sweat and acid-for-blood to create "Alien," a gothic sci-fi adventure that may well have ended manned space flight among moviegoers.
At once creepy and pulse-pounding, epic and claustrophobic, "Alien" took horror into new space and begat a string of sequels, one of which was good. Now, Scott has returned with "Prometheus," a prequel of sorts.
Scott's visual flourish has not deserted him. From other worldly settings in Iceland to production designer Arthur Max's spaceships and alien labyrinths, "Prometheus" continually offers arresting vistas and details, even in CGI.
The cast looks good too, with sleek leads Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender offering both templates for a cuter humanity and smart, nuanced performances that elevate the material. That's not to mention Idris Elba and Charlize Theron, though Guy Pearce, alas, appears as the Thousand Year Old Man.
Even the opening sequences promise another unusual journey. Speeding across a pristine landscape and climbing up a Niagara-like cataract, director of photography Dariusz Wolski's camera finds a cloaked figure. It is a monumental gray extraterrestrial, who doffs his clothes, swallows a pulsating gel and explosively dissolves into the waters.
Some time later, scientifically inclined couple Charlie Holloway Logan Marshall-Green and Elizabeth Shaw — no, not Dr. Who's Liz Shaw, but girl-with-dragon-tattoo Rapace — find yet another in a series of cave paintings, with a large gray hominid pointing toward a star map.
"I think they want us to come find them," Shaw says with a winsome smile.
The movie's strengths and flaws become self-evident soon thereafter. Playing the not-quite-human named David, Fassbender wanders an otherwise sleeping spaceship, monitoring the dreams of his traveling companions, watching "Lawrence of Arabia," practicing languages. Every moment suggests, "2001," "A.I.," "Silent Running," "Solaris," as well as Fassbender's audition to play T.E. Lawrence in the remake.
Some of these may be acknowledged as clever nods to the sci-fi audience, but the effect is a constant reminder of the movies one could be watching instead. That's even more pronounced when the spaceship Prometheus arrives at the distant moon that is its destination, the human crew awakes and serves up a steady diet of references to earlier alien movies.
There's the soulless corporate profiteer, the unruly grunts (who in this case are scientists without the big grants), the tough but jovial black commander, the android of uncertain allegiance, and the giant corporation whose priorities do not include the optimum health of employees.
The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof piles on more baggage in the form of Shaw's religious beliefs, presented as forcefully and clumsily as an airport Hare Krishna circle, and a just-for-the-heck-of-it billionaire seeking immortality subplot. When Holloway and Shaw reveal the reason for their deep-space voyage to the crew, she explains the evidence why the moon is the home of humanity's creators.
"Because I choose to believe it."
Unless, you're the Pope, that's the moment to turn around, program the ship for the return voyage, and climb back into your cryo-chamber for a nice sleep. But even this Chariots of the Yobs philosophizing does not sink "Prometheus." The initial exploration of the planet below revives interest, and again, the scenery is impressive.
But with all the spaceballs it already has in the air, "Prometheus" now tries to work in more references that set up the original "Aliens," a smart creature-feature that stood on its own, as well as its subsequent iterations. For some reason, Ridley Scott thinks he has a lot of 'splaining to do.
In the tradition of the Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, to say nothing of Lisbeth Salander, Rapace's Dr. Shaw makes for a rousing heroine, one who takes a licking but keeps on ticking. I would certainly pay money to see Noomi Rapace again, but preferably in more down-to-earth circumstances.
Dr. Shaw is stumbling through an overly complicated story. Like her character, "Prometheus" has trouble staying out of its own way. It has speculative philosophical elements, cosmic exploration elements, personal development elements, and business conspiracy elements. But even when "Prometheus" adds fire, the mixture of elements remains strangely inert. Despite its potential, it meekly goes where many, many movies have already been and gone.