"In space no one can hear you scream."
The immortal tagline that promoted "Alien" in 1979 tipped viewers that the now-classic science-fiction shocker was essentially a carnival ride through a haunted house in outer space. The shrieks were their own reward.
Thirty-three years later, director Ridley Scott is Sir Ridley Scott. He was knighted in 2003; he directed 2000's "Gladiator," which earned the Best Picture Oscar; and he's 74 -- closer to the end of his career than to its beginning. When he makes a Robin Hood movie, as he did in 2010, it's not a romp, it's a history lesson.
Is it any surprise that Scott's eagerly anticipated "Alien" prequel, "Prometheus," isn't content simply to shout "Boo!" at the audience? The new movie elicits screams, but also asks questions -- and not just any questions, but "the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind," in the words of one character.
Not questions like "Why in God's name is Ripley going back for that cat?," but such questions as, and I quote: "Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?" -- just like that, one after the other, in a monologue.
Can slime be sublime? "Prometheus" is gorgeous and pretentious, ridiculous and awesome. It is a movie inspired, in part, by the discredited pseudoscience of "Chariots of the Gods" author Erich von Daniken, whose theories about "ancient astronauts" were much discussed among my junior-high peers.
It's also a movie in which a woman programs a C-section for herself inside some sort of translucent auto-surgery cubicle that resembles a futuristic tanning booth. The wound is closed with Frankenstein-size staples -- pop, pop, pop -- while the monstrous bundle of non-joy is held in a clamp.
"It's not exactly a traditional fetus," comments the spaceship's humanoid robot manservant, played by Michael Fassbender, an actor whose long, almost simian arms, sculpted good looks and preternatural poise could, in fact, inspire a popular line of mandroids. (In a witty conceit, we learn that the robot has chosen Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" as his human role model.)
Fassbender is matched in ramrod rigidity by Charlize Theron, cast as a glacial corporation executive whose secret agenda is the real engine driving the "scientific exploratory vessel" known as Prometheus. "Are you a robot?" the ship's captain (Idris Elba) asks her, in all seriousness, in a scene that pre-empts the audience's expectation of just such a revelation.
Most of "Prometheus" takes place in 2093; but though the story's spacefaring scientists and engineers have many decades' worth of additional horror movies from which to learn, they still behave like teenagers in a post-"Halloween" slasher flick. Why else do they repeatedly risk exposing themselves to alien contamination? Why, when a small snaky creature that resembles a cobra rears up from the black ooze of an extraterrestrial cave, do they approach it as unguardedly as if it were a sleepy box turtle in a backyard?
Scripted by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the film follows the Prometheus on a deep-space voyage inspired by the discoveries of a romantically involved pair of archaeologists, Charlie and Elizabeth, who believe a distant moon may be the home base of the extraterrestrial "engineers" responsible for the seeding of life on Earth. Charlie is played by Logan Marshall-Green, while Elizabeth is portrayed by Noomi Rapace, in her first starring role in a Hollywood movie, following her appearances as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movies.
The expedition is funded by the Weyland Corporation, the same sinister entity that backed (or will back?) the mission in "Alien." Specifically, Mr. Weyland himself (Guy Pearce, in elaborate old-age makeup), a dying trillionaire, hopes the archaeologists will discover some sort of alien technology that will enable him to prolong his life. Instead, of course, the expedition discovers horror, and the answers to some of the mysteries of "Alien," while excavating new mysteries that may require yet another sequel.
"Prometheus" opens with a scene that introduces one of the "remarkably human" extraterrestrial "engineers." The men of this race (we see no women) resemble the comic-book versions of Greek gods, with ripped physiques and noble profiles. Are these our "parents"? Like "Alien," the movie is pregnant (sorry) with ideas about evolution and reproduction, and bursting with sex and birth imagery. The creature attacks are, essentially, rapes.
The movie is at its most interesting at its darkest. "Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?" the android asks, provocatively, after several episodes of violence. At times, Scott seems to be imagining a sort of twilight of the gods -- the death of God, depicted in science-fiction-blockbuster terms. But, for better or worse, the cynicism gives way to hope, and rationalism can't supersede the
sturdy faith of Elizabeth, who wears a cross around her neck -- a gift from her father, as we learn in a needless flashback.
Whatever its flaws in logic and story, "Prometheus" is a marvel of production design, state-of-the-art special effects and stunning cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski). Scott wisely uses volcanic locations in Iceland to represent alien terrain, rather than creating a phony digital realm, a la "Avatar." The Prometheus is a much sleeker vessel than the earlier film's Nostromo, but the old-school realism of the planetoid's surface is a reminder of the welcome novelty of the grit-and-grime environment of "Alien," which was continued, to some extent, in Scott's 1982 science- fiction film, "Blade Runner."
Rating: R for sci-fi violence, including some intense images, and brief language.
(John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. Email beifuss(at)commercialappeal.com.)