There are messy chest-births, parasitic creatures and alien egg repositories. There’s even a smug, super-smart cyborg of questionable allegiance.
All that’s missing is Sigourney Weaver as Ripley … and a halfway original storyline.
To call Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” a disappointment would be an understatement. Though handsomely packaged and, in spots, visually stunning ‒ think Fellini in deep space ‒ Scott’s prequel to “Alien” is neither as single-minded nor as scary as the 1979 original, which, for all intents and purposes, was an Old Dark House chiller set aboard a lumbering space freighter.
In place of nail-gnawing suspense, Professor Scott doles out shop-worn existentialism, pondering ‒ yes, once again ‒ the Origin of Man. If this sounds at once pretentious and pedestrian, that’s because it is: Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (“Cowboys & Aliens”) are mining Kubrick territory, tracing our ancestry, not to God or the apes, but to extraterrestrials who back in the day seeded Earth with their DNA.
Little wonder we look longingly to the stars. We’re waiting for the return of our parents.
Of course Man has never been known for his patience. Rather than wait for the second coming, he rigs up the scientific exploratory vessel of the title and, in the year 2093, using cave-painting maps, charts a course for some distant planet. The answers, when they come, elicit a loud surround-sound yawn, just as they did when recycled for Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars.”
After an Earthbound prologue involving archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), we cut to deep-space and fall into lockstep with the original “Alien” as 17 crew members, including Shaw and Holloway, awake from a two-year cryogenic catnap. David (Michael Fassbender), a cyborg who models himself after Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” seems to be running things. That is, until Vickers (Charlize Theron) arrives on the bridge and reminds everyone that this is a privately funded venture and she’s the corporate honcho. You eggheads are so much excess baggage!
On the mystery planet things go pretty much as expected, with advance scouts wandering the ribbed corridors of what appears to be the ruins of an ancient burial mound. Deep inside, they happen upon sights that will be familiar to every “Alien” fan, including a horseshoe-shaped spacecraft and row upon row of egg containers. This being a prequel, the crew members lack our hindsight and casually go about their business, touching and cozying up to everything that slithers and hisses into view. The word “contamination” seems to have been expunged from their flight manual.
Obviously at a lull in his career ‒ waiting for the next “Blade Runner” or “Gladiator”? ‒ Scott has approached “Prometheus” as another presold entry in the “Alien” franchise. If it’s possible, this one is less suspenseful than the fourth installment, “Alien Resurrection,” co-starring a typecast Winona Ryder as the cyborg in their midst. A shame because this new installment boasts some excellent digital effects, especially during a do-it-yourself robotic C-section, and an impressive ensemble led by Rapace, Fassbender and Idris Elba as the pragmatic but good-natured captain. Once again, Theron chews and digests scenery, curling her lip and barking orders as if auditioning for another evil queen role.
An opening-day crowd was jolted to life during the gross-out moments, suggesting Scott and company, in their rush to go up market with an arty sci-fi entry, misjudged their target audience. “Alien” fans aren’t looking for answers to “the most meaningful questions asked by mankind,” as Shaw insists, they’re looking for something primal, like a cattle prod to the back of the neck. Just as things heat up and a couple of crew members are looking more like prime alien bait, we get this: “It’s like a scene from a holocaust painting.”
Enough with the art and mythological allusions. Bring on the phallic-shaped stowaways with the hydraulic dentures. Drool still rules!
PROMETHEUS ✮✮ With Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce. Directed by Ridley Scott; scripted by Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof. 124 min. Rated R (for violence, gruesome makeup effects)