It's ironic that Ridley Scott's Prometheus feels like the first real sci-fi movie in years, given that space invaders wreak havoc in practically every new Hollywood blockbuster. In those films, extraterrestrials amount to little more than cool special effects to bedevil America's Avengers, Transformers, battleships, etc. Prometheus puts alien beings and interstellar adventure within a framework of scientific and social ideas.
Audiences don't usually choose movies based on the potency of their themes: "Hey, guys, Prometheus makes a provocative comparison between the ethics of artificial intelligence and alien influence on human evolution!" A smart science-fiction movie gives people talking points in the afterglow of all the far-flung spectacle. Prometheus brings up more ideas than it knows what to do with, but its intensity makes up for its conceptual muddles.
Noomi Rapace, who played Sweden's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, portrays Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a late 21st-century archeologist who uncovers evidence that aliens contacted ancient humanity. Dr. Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), her professional and romantic partner, inspire the spaceship Prometheus to journey to another planet to seek traces of beings nicknamed "The Engineers" for their role in potentially shaping the human race.
Prometheus' crew includes a starchy supervisor (Charlize Theron), a laid-back captain (Idris Elba), and an android named David (Michael Fassbender), who has no soul but an intriguing inner life. The human crew spends nearly three years in hibernation while David spies on their dreams, studies linguistics, practices basketball, and watches old David Lean movies for fashion ideas. When the Prometheus touches down on the Earth-like world, they investigate a temple-like structure filled with mysteries, including ancient bodies of aliens, violently slain.
Fans of Ridley Scott's Alien will recognize H.R. Giger's original designs and plot elements from the classic space horror film. Prometheus brings up the backstory of the 1979 film, such as the nature of that skeletal "space jockey" found by Sigourney Weaver's ship. Prometheus features plenty of icky moments, including a horrific sequence of self-inflicted surgery, but Scott and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof show more interest in exploring other directions than Alien's bug hunts. Notions of reproduction, genealogy, and the nature of faith come and go quickly but stand up to scrutiny after the fact.
Inevitably, the Prometheus crew tampers with forces far more dangerous than they can imagine, and we roll our eyes at these scientific geniuses who prove so reckless with safety procedures. The film also unnecessarily ramps up the interpersonal conflicts by making characters gratuitously obnoxious, like Theron's absurdly hateful corporate overseer and Sean Harris' twitchy geologist, a Mohawked jerk so high-strung, he seems to have stumbled in from one of Guy Ritchie's botched crime capers.
As a director, Scott helms his most watchable movie in years. The imaginative art direction and tense set pieces give Prometheus a level of momentum missing from his historical or political films. Prometheus strongly reflects the sensibility of Lindelof, who specialized in hooking viewers with intriguing mysteries on "Lost," and then withholding satisfying answers. By the end, you're unsure how many of Prometheus' loose ends derive from the filmmakers' desire to set up sequels, and how many come from sloppy storytelling. But better a film with too many big ideas than too few.