Ridley Scott's ‘Prometheus' puts big ideas over big excitement

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but not, for my money, in a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie.

The director's great genre pieces, "Blade Runner" and "Alien," are mesmerizing, visionary works that share a common trait — Scott has seen the future, and it sucks.

In "Blade Runner," cities are darker, damper, more crowded. If the movie were a scratch-and-sniff, it would smell like a subway. And "Alien," a visual rebuke to "2001," was the most blue-collar science-fiction movie ever made — a space barge full of sweaty, lunch-pail guys, just as expendable next century as they are today.

Scott's "Alien" prequel "Prometheus," on the other hand, is clean. Squeaky clean. Kubrick clean. It's centerpiece is flawless uber-blonde Charlize Theron, hair in a stern bun, walking around in a rhinestone uni-tard straight out of "Star Trek." She commands a ship that's like a floating W hotel, spotless and modern. It looks like something built by a Silicon Valley tycoon, unmoored from the earth and now floating through space.

And it kind of is — the plot for "Prometheus" has a billionaire tech guy (Guy Pearce) sending researchers (Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green) into space to test their theories about the origin of human life. The researchers believe our ancient cave drawings are really clues left behind by an alien race that wants us to look them up. Also left behind by these aliens — astronomical clues as to their galactic address.

The movie takes its title from the name of the ship, which arrives at the assigned coordinates for a rendezvous with ….whatever is there, and we'll leave the rest to Ridley.

We can say this — Scott is fibbing when he says that "Prometheus" is only vaguely related to his original "Alien." Buffs get detailed info on the strange creatures ("the jockey") and ghostly machines from the original, and the movie hews to familiar "Alien" beats/ideas — crewman grappling with a treacherous unknown, an exploitive corporation, tension between the grunts (ship's captain Idris Elba) and the higher-ups, and there's a weirdo cyborg (Michael Fassbender, amusing) prowling around, at work on his own puzzling agenda.

And while the movie is a little pristine for my "Alien" tastes, it's gorgeous, and the 3-D technically perfect — Hollywood is making great progress in erasing the glitches that sometimes make their way to the exhibition process, and that's all to the good.

But the movie has a big problem — it makes almost no sense. There are eruptions of character behavior that appear to be detached from any knowable motivation. It's as though the script is John Hurt, and plot developments are something that suddenly pop out of his stomach and scurry away, while we all stare, mouths agape. The H.R. Giger aliens are bit players here — so discounted by the script that their presence is finally explained in an out-of-nowhere declaration by a character whom, as far as we know, has had no contact with them.

"Prometheus," instead, is preoccupied by its Big Ideas — how we acquired our DNA, what that legacy has to do with creation, with the universe, blah blah blah. Again, it's very Kubrick, right down to the prologue that appears to suggest how we evolved.

What we're left with is a movie that doesn't deliver either way. As a thriller, it's muddled, and as a Big Ideas movie, it seems to trip over its own double helix.

But Wait! In the final moments, a spaceship heads off to yet another final frontier, holding out hope that all questions will be resolved in a future sequel.

Who are we?

Whence have we come?

And why is Guy Pearce wearing all that make-up?


Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.


Directed by Ridley Scott. With Emun Elliot, Logan Marshall-Green, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall, Charlize Theron, Kate Dickie, Sean Harris. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language).