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Prometheus

directed by Ridley Scott

starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba

20th Century Fox

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In the middle of the last century, a science fiction film formula was perfected: In a distant or impossibly near future, an outrageously large spacecraft lands (or crashes) on a planet that often, conveniently enough, has roughly the same breathable atmosphere as Earth's. Its highly trained crew, usually including scientists, encounter alien life forms while making the same mistakes and exhibiting the same behaviors that ordinary people of the 1950s would.

No one took this seriously, even in the wide-eyed pre-Space Age. It was campy fun. In the early 1960s, Rod Serling sometimes took advantage of this, using the same cardboard sets and rocket ships to trick viewers into a trap -- and then springing it with some powerful morality plays and role-reversals that often slipped into the horror genre.

Almost 20 years later, Ridley Scott turned that old formula on its edge again with Alien, a tense, claustrophobic, and extremely focused masterpiece that audiences ate up without question. In other words, Scott made a tired sci-fi routine work by transforming it into a true horror tale; no one noticed or cared about technical details, its purposeful lack of character development, or almost nonexistent backstory... they were too far on the edges of their seats, too busy getting the bejesus scared out of them.

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Now, the legendary filmmaker returns with an origin-of-man flick that was initially billed as a "non-prequel," a movie that borrows a bit from Forbidden Planet and strives to incorporate some of the cerebral, but unfortunately not the surreal, elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The result is a too-ambitious-for-its-length, poorly realized effort peppered with savior references -- a visually appealing blockbuster that lays too much out on the table while simultaneously trying to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer. A flick that, in its attempt to add something new to the Alien canon, inadvertently and ironically reverts, albeit thinly disguised, to the sort of 1950s space adventure/monster schlock that the 1979 classic triumphed over.

As a director, it's obviously difficult to be cerebral -- or suspenseful -- when you're committed to a movie that's not very smart.

Prometheus begins in 2089 as a pair of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover some ancient art in a Scottish cave that is identical to other etchings found around the world. After theorizing that they're all celestial maps to a faraway genetic homeland, they find a patron in centenarian tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce in amazing makeup). Eager to find the key to life and longevity, Weyland sends them and 15 others on a corporate-funded mission to planet LV-223.

Of course, a motley, comparatively large crew of 17 indicates that roughly 10 highly educated, yet curiously blue collar workers have been assigned the roles of nameless victims.

Various demises will have to wait two years, however, as the crew sleeps in stasis. Well, almost the entire crew. While he monitors the ship, extremely high-functioning android David rides a bike, dribbles a basketball and completes his education on the human race's attributes and weaknesses by watching Lawrence of Arabia repeatedly. One gets the idea that David's getting ideas when he starts slicking his hair into a T.E. Lawrence 'do.

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Once the group is woken, they're informed of their mission via hologram. The pay was obviously so outrageous, almost all of them signed on to a trip in a custom-built, impossibly cavernous spacecraft with no prior knowledge of where they're going or what dangers could await.

Corporate whip-cracker Meredith Vickers (stereotypically icy Charlize Theron), of course is aware of the mission's goal. Like her sinister predecessors in the Alien franchise, she's also obviously holding a few things back as the starship reaches its destination.

The gang conveniently finds a giant, above-ground cavernous mound, and before they can swallow a second cup of wake-up, set off in search of alien life forms. It doesn't take long for Scott and script re-writer Damon Lindelof (TV's Lost) to temporarily panic, it seems; realizing that they've led themselves -- and the audience -- down a too-familar path, they greedily seal Prometheus' fate by spilling the rest of their cache of Alien cliches and hallmarks. One of these sequences (pre-enactments?) is truly nail-biting; the rest generally run counter to the notion of a fresh creation by a visionary filmmaker.

Prometheus' viewers will silently yell at the screen, "Don't take off your helmet!!" "Don't touch that slime!!" to no avail. Once one has laughed at or ridiculed a film, it's difficult to resume being thrilled by it. The cinema magic's gone. In essentially creating a postdated, step-by-step user's manual to Alien lore, Scott leaves the door wide open to absurdities and lapses in common sense that the viewer has the time to notice. And, rather than prod the viewer to speculate, to form his own conclusions when it comes to newer, footprint-free ground, Prometheus does the speculating and concluding for him.

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Additionally, Scott and Lindelof don't seem comfortable with the film's characters, or quite know what to do with them, other than to get 'em slaughtered and sacrificed. Captain Janek (uber-talent Idris Elba, with an inexplicable American accent), the story's designated "cool guy," sleepily receives the news that they've found the first tangible signs of life beyond Earth. It's just a job to the music-loving captain; he might as well be piloting a fishing boat. In fact, almost the entire hapless crew is less than thrilled with the monumental discoveries; one gets the impression they'd like to get back to napping. To be honest, suspended animation would be almost preferential to the the less-than-compelling dialogue they deliver.

Marshall-Green's Charlie Holloway serves a one-dimensional, dead-end function, yielding most of his screen time to co-leader and lover Elizabeth Shaw -- Prometheus' more intellectual, yet less badass version of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Rapace, acclaimed in Sweden's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, performs wonderfully with what she's been given to work with here, but unfortunately a fourth-quarter, unnecessary effort in establishing background is also humorously feeble.

Indeed, Scott serves up heroes without much of an emotional investment, and even more oddly, most of his potential villains are either ultimately let off the hook, or they vanish.

Yes, vanish. Vickers, all set up to be the human baddie, mysteriously disappears for chunks at a time, only to weakly surface towards the climax. One wonders if she's off executing a nefarious plan, but no... she's just gone. Perhaps the director's cut blu-ray will shed light on her whereabouts.

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In an alternate universe filled with slightly better scripts, Michael Fassbender (last seen as a younger Magneto) might've saved Prometheus. His truly creepy performance is first-rate; the non-human reveals more personality than any of his red-blooded shipmates. Given just a little more of a push in the right direction, David would be even more disturbing than his predecessor, er, successor in Alien.

But neither he nor the film is given that push. Together, their only real unpredictability lies in what doesn't happen, rather than what does.

To its credit, Prometheus rightfully boasts of beautiful cinematography, albeit not of the gritty, yet dazzling style that Scott is known for. Well-executed CGI, but not groundbreaking. The 3D is very good and crisp, but blends into the picture after a short while -- as all non-distracting 3D seems to. To counter these laudable aspects, the film's score (by Marc Streitenfeld) is underwhelming in crucial areas, just plain wrong in others.

It would be tempting to say that those who have somehow never seen Alien or James Cameron's Aliens would not be as disappointed with Prometheus -- but those folks should be encouraged to spend their money renting those two classics, instead.

Ridley Scott fans are advised to save their precious cash and time for the aforementioned director's cut, which doubtlessly will be an improvement on this bait-and-switch-and-fumble flick. There's probably a better story -- and an emotional payoff -- to be found somewhere on the cutting room floor.

Prometheus: www.projectprometheus.com