In 1979, the crew of the space vessel Nostromo came upon a shipwreck, in whose cockpit sat the fossilized corpse of a giant man with his guts blown inside out. What was that all about, the crew briefly wondered, until one of them had his own guts blown out and there was their monstrous answer, along with the start of a longstanding if similarly self-eviscerating science-fiction franchise.
So everybody got distracted, and nobody ever bothered to inquire about the identity of the big guy in the cockpit. But now the crew of the space vessel Prometheus has a chance to look into that, and to append the franchise with a new beginning. What does it mean that their ship is named for a titan who got himself gutted for doing humanity a big favor once? Nothing, really, except an assurance that we are again among the greatest of the epic belly-bursters.
The prime mover of these affairs is director Ridley Scott, who more or less invented the modern sci-fi horror genre with that first “Alien” film, and now has warmed it over with “Prometheus” for no apparent reason other than the privilege of stealing back his own fire. Scott’s reclamation, expectedly engorged with pomposity and meticulous production values, seems necessary only because after so much hype it now just needs to be gotten over with. And maybe you could also say it revisits an age-old cosmological conundrum, asking: Can slick design make up for a lack of soul?
“Alien” had the good fortune to be made during a rangy moviemaking epoch, when even the most calculated scenes felt freewheeling, and everybody in them seemed like a rumpled, cosmetically imperfect character actor. If today’s movies are too exacting — both financially and egomaniacally — to abide those same dynamics, it’s no great loss to Scott, who started out in commericals and still stages everything as some grandiose trailer or supplemental PR featurette anyway. It’s almost like “Prometheus” couldn’t help but become an elaborate demonstration of its own auto-pilot.
And so it coasts, aloof to any need for inventiveness, through the stygian depths of Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and the incidental shallows of Marc Streitenfeld’s score. Having finally pried himself away from further tinkering with “Blade Runner,” Scott at least exudes more self-discipline than George Lucas, but there’s no denying that “Prometheus” suffers from its own kind of prequelitis. Sure, there’s a firmly commanded style, and a technically impressive equilibrium between the sleekly gadgety and the grotesquely suppurating, but so what? Before long it’s hard to tell between specific familiar franchise bits and general genre clichés, or to want to. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the latter a co-creator of “Lost,” somehow turn a surplus of expositon into a shortage of clarity. There’s a lot of spelling out of what still amounts to muddled nonsense.
Oh, did you want to know about the characters? Seriously? Well, it is meant to matter that not every member of the Prometheus crew has the same agenda. One of them, played by Noomi Rapace, is supposed to be a researcher who must reconcile her religious beliefs with perplexing evidence of humankind’s cosmic origins. When that fails, mostly because the movie can’t sustain its pretended interest, she must instead reconcile the regressive mandate to pose in gauzy underwear with a more urgent and comparatively progressive gynecological proactiveness. (Oh, you’ll see.) Meanwhile Michael Fassbender, as the inscrutable onboard android, gives a conspicuous homage to Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” a lofty model of cool masochism. The mission’s bankroller is an elderly tycoon played by Guy Pearce, in a performance distinguished only by distracting age makeup. And his corporate administrator, played by Charlize Theron, is a rigid bore. In one of too few humorous moments, the ship’s wisecracking captain, played by Idris Elba, asks her if she’s a robot too.
Everyone else is expendable, but not always in the grimly satisfying horror-flick way. Worse, perhaps: That goes for the aliens too. It turns out the first movie was right to not even bother inquiring as to the identity of the big guy in the cockpit. So maybe you’ve got to hand it to Scott for engineering this decades-deferred anticlimax with such straightfaced panache. OK then, how about a sequel?