As the youngest of seven kids who all attended the same high school, I know firsthand how hard it is to live up to an illustrious predecessor. So I feel for "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror classic "Alien." If his latest film were allowed to be unaffiliated with a hit franchise and could be graded on its own merits, it would be a sleek scientists-in-space thriller.
Taken as a film that has to follow in the slime-encrusted footsteps of the elegantly terrifying "Alien" and James Cameron's intensely thrilling "Aliens," however, "Prometheus" can't help feeling like something of an also-ran. While it certainly delivers in many ways, the film ultimately winds up playing like very expensive fan-fiction for people who would have liked "2001" better had everything been explained.
Set at the turn of the 22nd century, "Prometheus" follows archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, looking a lot like Tom Hardy) into deep space. They have discovered cave paintings around the world from different eras that depict space visitors and a cluster of five orbs, and now the fine folks at Weyland Industries have paid for the scientists to go on an expedition to a corner of the universe that matches these ancient maps in the hopes of finding the creators of life on Earth.
If you've watched any of the "Alien" movies, you know that corporate interests are never to be trusted. And from the first film, you also know to keep an eye on the android; this time, it's David (Michael Fassbender), who's got the Weyland logo for fingerprints and a deep and abiding love for Peter O'Toole's performance in "Lawrence of Arabia." David and the icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) represent the company, the crew of academics (which also includes Rafe Spall and Sean Harris) are making the journey for science, and the grunts (led by Idris Elba's Captain Janek) are there to get paid.
Once they land, the travelers discover chambers full of very suspicious-looking goo-goo clusters, and as Weyland's agenda becomes known, the screaming starts. As does the eviscerating.
Scott certainly knows his way around a gleaming surface, and he also knows how to build extraordinary tension, particularly in one unforgettable sequence involving Rapace, an intrusive alien and a surgery machine. (If you're afraid of slimy beasts and operations, consider this a two-fer.) But his gifts as a filmmaker are undercut by the script by Jon Spaihts ("The Darkest Hour") and Damon Lindelof ("Lost"), which goes out of its way to avoid being even the slightest bit enigmatic. All of the major plot points are either utterly predictable or thoroughly explained by one of the characters, and that becomes kind of a drag after a while.
Nonetheless, there's tons of suspense, monsters-a-go-go and strong performances from the whole cast. Since the original "Alien" gave us Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, who redefined the notion of sexy women who were fully capable of ass-kicking, it's fitting that Scott cast two actresses very much in that tradition. Rapace, after being wasted in the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel, finally gets an American movie that plays to her intensity — not to mention the fact there's something almost alien about her unusual and beautiful physiognomy — and Theron, playing it cool and deadpan, delivers the complete antithesis of her camp-queen overacting in "Snow White and the Huntsman."
Alien DNA plays a big role in "Prometheus," but it's the DNA of "Alien" that this new movie just can't quite live up to. The less you think of this new film as part of that legendary series, the more you'll enjoy it.