Hey, aren't people still arguing about what Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey means? And so, if you come away from Ridley Scott's nerve-jangling puzzler Prometheus scratching your head and (no spoilers here!) asking why so-and-so spiked whosie-face's cocktail, and wondering if the Book of Genesis needs to be rewrit from scratch, well, such is life - or life at the movies, anyway.
Unfortunately, as much as director Scott - an extraordinary visualist, if not visionary - would like to think Prometheus belongs in the company of 2001, it really doesn't. Very much a prequel to Scott's 33-year-old sci-fi scare-'em-up Alien, the new film likewise finds a crew aboard a Weyland Corp. ship making its way to a far-off, mysterious orb. A battle of phallic and yonic symbolism and a lot of icky slime await.
Set in the late 21st century, Prometheus actually begins on some dramatic primordial cliff face, where a giant guy covered in talcum powder drinks something strange out of a cup, drops it in a waterfall, and causes everything in sight - himself included - to implode. Cut to a pair of new millennium archaeologists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), exploring a cave and landing their flashlights on an elaborate pictogram. They are thrilled by their discovery - this is the handiwork of ancient artists, to be sure, and the circle of planets depicted in the painting matches images created by other ancient civilizations around the world.
Profound implications, these. Profound enough for a trillion-dollar space expedition to be launched. The good ship Prometheus, with a crew of 17, is off.
While Shaw and Holloway, dreamy-eyed scientists (and lovers, too), are ostensibly the leaders of the team, tell that to Charlize Theron. In her tailored jumpsuits, sporting a look of icy calculation, the actress who is so good (and bad) as the Queen in Snow White and the Huntsmen here plays Vickers, the Weyland rep aboard the exploratory vessel. Her agenda is very different from Shaw's and Holloway's.
And then there is David (Michael Fassbender), whom we first see bicycling around the eerily quiet Prometheus, bouncing a basketball, and watching Lawrence of Arabia on a huge screen. (And repeating Peter O'Toole's line: "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.") David is to the spaceship Prometheus what Hal was to 2001's Discovery One: the artificial intelligence in charge. Only David is a robot in human form, looking, with his blond coif and chiseled features, not unlike O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence. As the crew lies in hypersleep for the three-year voyage, David has free run, and free rein, of the place.
When they awake - achy and nauseated - David's stint as the android in command is over. Or is it?
Prometheus has some amazing set pieces (a cavernous pyramid with its vast span of cylindrical vases and sphinxlike forms), amazing gizmos, amazing visual effects. Filmmaking technology has advanced light-years since the 1970s, when Scott and his Alien gang were busy with miniatures and matte paintings, and Prometheus is dreamily, and then nightmarishly, vivid, dazzling.
But narratively, it's a mess. There's a through-line Darwinism vs. creationism thing going on that ping-pongs big religious and philosophical ideas, but whiffs the return. Motivations remain unclear. Relationships are defined by wispy strands of plot, not human (or robotic) interaction. Idris Elba, who plays Prometheus' captain, Janek, fools around with an American accent and a button accordion that he claims once belonged to Stephen Stills (talk about throwaway pop-cult references!). The essential and the tangential are accorded equal weight, or no weight at all.
It is Rapace, the Swedish actress who gained worldwide recognition as Lisbeth Salander in the original adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, who ends up the true heroine of Prometheus. What the diminutive Dr. Shaw endures - wrestling with many-tentacled creatures and performing a bit of rather major surgery on herself (staple gun, stat!) - is more than most girls can handle. And yet handle it she does.
She may even be ready for a Prometheus sequel. She's already packed her duffel bag with the stuff that matters.