Ridley Scott's Prometheus plays like the Alien franchise's greatest hits. Scott, revisiting the 1979 sci-fi classic that made him famous, samples Alien, James Cameron's Aliens and the later films in the series for this state-of-the-art prequel, using plot points, situations, versions of characters and themes from those films to back-engineer his way into the day humans first ran into the ultimate alien killing machine.
It's a good-looking film with a first-rate cast. But Prometheus is to Alien what 2010 was to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's the difference between a masterpiece and a merely watchable revision of that masterpiece.
Late in this century, two scientists, played by Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Logan Marshall-Green, find the one last ancient cave painting that confirms their theory. Giants from the stars must have visited Earth. Maybe they even populated it. They call these aliens "The Engineers."
A few years later, we pick up their quest on the spaceship Prometheus. They're going to the place in the stars the cave paintings describe. They're going to meet their makers, they think.
The painting is "not a map," Dr. Shaw (Rapace) tells her paramour, Dr. Holloway (Marshall-Green). "It's an invitation."
We know better.
Onboard is a robot designed to fit in with the humans. David is played by Michael Fassbender with a lovely mechanical jerk to his every movement. He is emotionless, curious and always on task. Alas, he has a machine's morality. He is all about the mission.
A future trillionaire has sent a team of 17 to this distant star system. The scientists, Shaw and Holloway, are here with a geologist, a biologist, a working crew and a folksy, Southern-accented captain, played by Idris Elba.
The boss is Meredith Vickers, played by a steely Charlize Theron in a Doctor Evil/Bond villain suit.
They find the planet, touch down next to a pyramid (shades of Alien vs. Predator) and start poking around.
The first sign that this isn't the young Mr. Scott's Alien is in the demeanor of the crew. This is a seriously unprofessional bunch. Everybody breaks protocol. Everybody, it seems, has a reckless streak. Helmets are removed, alien air is breathed. Everybody ignores the first rule Mommy taught them: See something you don't recognize — urns arranged like the gooey eggs of Alien, for instance? Don't touch.
It's infuriating, the cavalier way the captain "warns" two members of the expedition that he's picked up alien "life" and "movement" on the ship's censors, the idiotic risks Holloway takes, the arrogant bravado of the robot, who randomly punches alien buttons and casually opens alien doors without weighing risks.
The ship is not the dark and cramped working vessel of Alien. It's a bright, open and cheery Star Trek set. That robs the picture of its claustrophobia, its dread.
Rapace is the heart of the picture, and she's wonderfully brave and soulful, as she was in the Swedish films that made her famous. Other choices don't work out as well. Theron is so villainous she should wear a curly moustache. Why Elba, a Brit, attempted a grammatically suspect Southern drawl is one of the film's great, clumsy mysteries.
But here's what dazzles. Instructions arrive by the best big-screen rendition of a hologram ever filmed. Ancient alien surveillance cameras replay the ghostly pixels of what happened to the people who built the pyramids, which had a function the Maya and the Egyptians never told us about. The ambitious script dabbles in Creation mythology, faith, belief and science's place in that conversation, although it muddles its message.
If you've seen the original Alien films in their pre-digital celluloid glory, with their damp sets, their surly but professional working-class crews and soldiers who make one fatal mistake, Prometheus is bound to disappoint. It looks great, but the rivets on all this back-engineering show. The script is overly complex where the original was lean, with a lived-in sheen.
Prometheus is worth a look, the first sci-fi film to challenge Avatar in dazzling visuals and eye-popping future tech. But Scott, trying to top himself, fails.