Certain to reign as the best disappointment of 2012, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the heavily hyped prequel-of-sorts to his 1979 classic Alien, is a work whose visual splendor can't be denied but whose narrative content will divide audiences as swiftly and completely as the executioner's ax separated Marie Antoinette's head from everything else.
Grappling with no less than the issues of God and creation, it drops clues for audiences members willing to dig deep but will conversely seem like so much hogwash to viewers who feel its philosophical prattle is no more weighty than that displayed on The Jetsons. The former group will leave the theater satisfied, feeling they've somewhat conquered (as Winston Churchill would put it) "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." The latter contingent, however, will be more apt to ape Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind by asking, "Wha' happened?"
Neither faction is necessarily wrong. Prometheus is clearly the type of movie that rewards viewers who put their faith in it, but that's not to diminish the frustrations of those who grow tired of trying to play along. Certainly, there's enough dopiness on display in the more straightforward storytelling - "Aw, what a cute alien! I'll try to pet it just like a kitty cat!" - to bring the brainier aspects of the screenplay into question (and not to take a cheap shot, but it probably doesn't help that one scripter, Damon Lindelof, previously penned the limp Cowboys & Aliens, while the other, Jon Spaihts, wrote the lambasted dud The Darkest Hour). But fans of science fiction - and fans of Alien - could do a lot worse; for starters, they could be watching any of the post Alien/Aliens sequels.
After a mysterious, stand-alone prologue that brings to mind the opening sequence in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey more than it does Scott's original Alien, the film introduces us to scientists Elizabeth Shaw (original dragon-tattoo-sporting girl Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have just made a wondrous cavern discovery that suggests aliens were once among us. Fast-forward a couple of years to a familiar sight in the Alien series: a spaceship in which all of the human occupants (including Elizabeth and Charlie) are in deep sleep, headed to a distant planet with the possibility of making contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms. The only one not slumbering is David (Michael Fassbender), an android who passes his time shooting hoops and repeatedly watching Lawrence of Arabia.
Once the crew members awaken, we get to meet the rest besides Elizabeth and Charlie: Chilly mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), sensible ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), and other assorted passengers, some so dumb that their inevitable demise can be happily chalked up to the thinning of the gene pool. While some folks remain aboard the ship, others venture down to alien terrain, at which point matters get really crazy: Unidentified canisters ooze toxic black goop (not to be confused with Gwyneth Paltrow's equally toxic blog, GOOP), one earthling inexplicably turns into a zombie of the robust variety (no slow shuffling here), Guy Pearce pops up in the least convincing old-age makeup since young hunks Leo and Armie went that route in J. Edgar, and the humans anticipate possibly coming face to face with God (spoiler alert: It ain't George Burns).
Prometheus is ofttimes a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, full of grand sights and even grander ideas. It neatly ties into the Alien universe without being slavishly devoted to it, and some of the set pieces compare admirably to ones from the first two franchise films (including an abortion that would be opposed by no one except Operation Rescue yokels).
As expected based on his remarkable four-for-four batting average in 2011, Fassbender takes top honors here, playing Michael as 2001's HAL personified - although whether he's ultimately a heroic droid or a villainous one won't be revealed here. I also responded to Rapace's quiet strength, Elba's empathic streak and Theron's ruthless rationale (her Meredith Vickers might seem like one of the baddies, but as an authority figure, many of her decisions do make sense).
The rest of the performances are disposable, keeping in line with the ill-fated characters they animate - characters as doomed as the chances of this interesting oddity ever reaching the lofty pop-culture heights of the 1979 gem that gave birth to the whole cycle.
In space, no one can hear you scream, but in a movie theater, everyone can see you shrug.