A mission to uncover the origins of human life yields familiar images of death and devastation in “Prometheus.” Elaborately conceived from a visual standpoint, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fier in the three decades since “Blade Runner” remains earthbound in narrative terms, forever hinting at the existence of a higher intelligence without evincing much of its own. Fox’s midsummer tentpole has generated considerable excitement since it was announced the film would share some story DNA with Scott’s 1979 horror landmark, “Alien,” and a marketing push promising comparable levels of gore and tension should ensure that “Prometheus” catches B.O. fire.
Establishing its intertwined themes of creation and destruction from the outset, the picture opens with eerily beautiful shots of a planet seemingly in the early stages of an evolutionary renaissance, then cuts to the grim sight of a pale-skinned humanoid ingesting a fatal toxin. Some time later, specifically December 2093, scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are aboard the spaceship Prometheus, leading a crew that hopes to make contact with the alien beings that initiated life on Earth.
Holloway is something of a skeptic, which naturally means he may as well have “dead meat” embroidered on his spacesuit. Shaw, however, is a true believer, someone who’s “willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism,” as one colleague snorts, and who pointedly wears a cross necklace under her lab coat. Having studied recurring patterns in ancient cave paintings the world over, she’s convinced the primitive images contain a message from the alien beings that created mankind, inviting people of Earth to meet their makers. This unfortunately turns out to be true in every sense.
Also along for the ride are a dryly efficient captain (Idris Elba); a corporate ball-buster (Charlize Theron) who challenges Shaw and Holloway’s authority at every step; and, most intriguingly, David (Michael Fassbender), a super-intelligent android who nonetheless possesses a dangerously childlike curiosity. Landing in a parched-looking valley on an unfamiliar planet, the scientists venture into an underground cavern whose malevolent contents immediately bring “Alien” to mind, and it seems at first that “Prometheus” will follow a similar outline, as the crew unwisely decides to bring specimens back to the ship.
Yet a key difference between this film and its predecessor is one of volume. Incongruously backed by an orchestral surge of a score, the film conspicuously lacks the long, drawn-out silences and sense of menace in close quarters that made “Alien” so elegantly unnerving. Prometheus is one chatty vessel, populated by stock wise-guy types who spout tired one-liners when they’re not either cynically debunking or earnestly defending belief in a superior power. The picture’s very structure serves to disperse rather than build tension, cross-cutting regularly between the underground chamber, where two geologists (Sean Harris, Rafe Spall) meet an ugly end, and the ship, where efforts to contain the threat are thwarted by the increasingly uncertain chain of command.
Scott and his production crew compensate to some degree with an intricate, immersive visual design that doesn’t skimp on futuristic eye-candy or prosthetic splatter. In the film’s most squirm-inducing moment, Shaw must climb into an auto-surgery machine to eliminate an alien attacker from her body; it’s a cleverly sustained sequence that hits the viewer’s recoil button even as its display of technological innovation fascinates.
Also providing flickers of engagement are the semi-provocative ideas embedded in Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay. The continual discussions of creation vs. creator, and the attitude of one toward the other, supply the film with a philosophical dimension that its straightforward space-opera template doesn’t have the bandwidth to fully explore. Indeed, the crucial question of why the planet’s inhabitants are so intent on wiping out a race they engineered is lazily deferred until a putative sequel.
Still, the film contains the ideal embodiment of its sly existential paradox in David, the man-made manservant whose soulfully soulless presence brings to mind both “A.I.” and “2001”; he’s like HAL 9000 with better cheekbones. In a particularly witty touch, Fassbender’s droll performance takes its cues from Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” a clip of which David continually watches as a model for how to behave around humans.
Other thesps are just passable, with the exception of Rapace, who gets to express intense physical and emotional agony in a register entirely different from that of her star-making turns in the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels. For the record, that’s Guy Pearce buried under pounds of disfiguring special-effects makeup in the role of the aging visionary who bankrolled the mission.
The ship’s moniker derives from the myth of a fire-stealing Titan who sought to eliminate the gap between mortals and the gods, and fittingly enough, there’s a warped Greco-Roman accent to the richly imagined visuals, particularly when the characters get a look at the malign beings in whose image they were created. H.R. Giger’s iconic design elements remain a key influence here, particularly in the gratuitous parting shot.