It's 2093, and it's still true that, in space, no one can hear you scream. After more than 25 years of directing earthbound dramas, war epics and period pieces, Ridley Scott has journeyed back to the infinite abyss of interstellar travel and extraterrestrial penetration, hitting fanboys' G-spots everywhere with a script that could have been filmed between Alien and Blade Runner. But he returns with a heavier hand than before, starting with that title: Prometheus is a reference to a Greek mythological titan who had a pivotal role in the history of mankind, which hints at the grandiosity of the stakes in Scott's film.
In this case, the Prometheus is also a spacecraft containing a sufficiently ragtag group of 17 explorers, including a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), a roughneck geologist who acts like a mercenary (Sean Harris), a HAL-like android (a perfectly cast Michael Fassbender), the apparent ghost of the billionaire who funded the operation (Guy Pearce in Benjamin Button makeup) and the billionaire's suspicious daughter, played by a porcelain Charlize Theron.
Their mission comes straight from the wild-haired, dubiously degreed experts on Ancient Aliens: to connect the dots in a series of prehistoric cave paintings that suggest, to the film's eager scientists, the creation of man by more intelligent beings. As the narrative begins, they've pinpointed the very planet where the creation could have taken place, blissfully unaware of the carnage that awaits them upon debarkation.
There are moments in this pseudo-prequel to the Alien franchise that remind us why Scott is a maestro of horror and existential dread, suggesting that he should work with these textures more often. Even seemingly benign scenes are imbued with sustained suspense, and more than once you'll be so gripped by the creeping terror that you'll forget to breathe – or blink.
Furthermore, Scott's first foray into 3-D offers the best use of the form since Hugo. He employs the extra dimension not just for thrusting alien appendages but also for a whirlwind of flying shrapnel, a hologrammed mass of cosmic blueprints and all other manner of virtual wizardry that flickers before our eyes.
Such attention to detail could have helped the logically impaired screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, which falls apart as quickly as the crew's pretentiously named vessel. In its second half, Prometheus degenerates into a contest to see how many slithery creatures can enter into or be extracted from how many human orifices. The story becomes a patchwork of ambitious tableau, each one cascading into the next, untethered from the messy necessities of plot or science. In the parlance of Smash, it's like watching only the numbers of a working musical, without the book to tie them together.
Then again, science is only the MacGuffin here. This is really a film about faith – specifically about the power of Christian belief to keep you safe against the most insurmountable odds. The deliverance of Prometheus' pro-religious dogma is so cornball that it's beneath contempt to criticize it, but it fits squarely with the movie's collapse of rationality. At any rate, my pulse continued to quicken right on through to the climax – long after my brain abandoned ship.