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MOVIE REVIEW: Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' sacrifices substance for style

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This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Michael Fassbender in a scene from "Prometheus." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Kerry Brown)

PROMETHEUS

(R)

3 stars out of 4

In the 33 years since director Ridley Scott's "Alien," there have been three sequels (only one of which -- "Aliens" -- was any good) and a spin-off ("Alien vs. Predator"), and none of them done with Scott's involvement. As early as 2003, Scott became interested in revisiting the "Alien" franchise but was deathly afraid of repeating himself or worse, reviving a franchise that had drifted into self-parody.

The closer Scott got to making this film, the more it became apparent that trying not to do it as an "Alien" prequel/origin project was an exercise in creative futility. He wanted it to be a "stand alone" story; something that only vaguely acknowledged "Alien," or, as he put it, "shared the same DNA."

Fox was kinda-sorta OK with all of this until Scott told the studio how much it would cost. Knowing the final post-marketing tab would land in the $250 million range, Fox gave Scott a green light but insisted on a heavy "Alien" connection. While there is a very good reason why the movie is titled "Prometheus" (it's based in Greek mythology), everyone (especially the audience) would have been far better served had it simply been called "Alien: The Beginning."

The first bit of much good news is how it looks. One of only a handful of movies actually shot with 3-D cameras, "Prometheus" is mind-bogglingly, off-the-charts, visually amazing (watch it in IMAX if you can). Stating after he shot it that he would never make another movie that wasn't in 3-D, Scott used the technology as more of a spice or enhancement and not a visual main course or substitute for story. Never once is there any cheap, in your face, bit of flashy subterfuge included to remind you that you're watching a 3-D film. "Prometheus" warrants four stars on each and every possible technical level, but this also leads to a bit of a narrative quandary.

With "Alien," Scott was working with a water-tight script and special effects that were at the time superior but in retrospect -- compared to what's going on here -- relatively basic. "Alien" was great mostly because of the story. "Prometheus" is very good because of its technology and is slightly weakened because of too many holes in the plot and carbon-copy characters.

The most glaringly obvious of the latter is with lead Noomi Rapace as Dr. Shaw, an ever-so-slight variation on Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from "Alien." Lending Shaw just enough grit and attitude from her character in the original "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rapace is instantly relatable and appealing but her performance never fully clicks.

Playing the default male lead, Michael Fassbender as the android David commands every scene in which he appears and completely owns the film. A mix of Ian Holm's robot from "Alien," Peter O'Toole (by way of a comical connection to "Lawrence of Arabia") and HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," David is afforded the luxury of never having to reveal any of his true colors until absolutely necessary. We're pretty sure he's not on the up-and-up, but his unerring logic, social graces, concerned but non-committal demeanor and sketchy backstory make him by far the movie's most mysterious, resonant and fleshed-out character.

Solely because of inopportune film industry timing, Charlize Theron's portrayal of an abrasive and tightly-wound executive overseer will strike many as a quasi-repeat of her role in last week's "Snow White and the Huntsman" which is unfortunate. Theron's bigwig would have had a much greater wallop had she not played essentially the same character in films released back to back.

The movie ends with a somewhat mixed bag. While any corporate suit (based on opening weekend receipts of course) could rightfully desire another pre/sequel, Scott and the screenwriters offer a more-than-satisfying connecting bridge between "Prometheus" and "Alien." The final scene does a fantastic job of presenting something that will result in multiple interpretations while offering an ending that is at once conclusive and open-ended. The filmmakers deserve extra credit for that next-to-impossible bit of narrative wizardry. (Fox)