As production on "Prometheus" drew to a close and promotion began, director Ridley Scott said that the film had "strands of 'Alien's' DNA" but was not, strictly speaking, a prequel, as had been rumored.
True as far as it goes — but that's only part of its inheritance.
"Prometheus" combines DNA from "Alien" with the metaphysics of Mr. Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982). Alas, it's also infected with a weaponized strain of the worst storytelling faults of television's "Lost." The resulting hybrid is a muddled disappointment.
As the film opens, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe they've found a clue to humanity's origins in a series of cave paintings spanning tens of thousands of years and several continents.
The two embark on a cross-galaxy trek in the hopes of discovering humanity's creators, whom they call "engineers." Joining them on their quest are Weyland Industries minder Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and David (Michael Fassbender), an android harboring secrets and existential dilemmas. In penetrating the riddle of their creation, they, along with sundry (disposable) crew members, uncover a threat of extinction — their own and that of humanity itself.
Those familiar with the "Alien" franchise will recognize key elements: Weyland Industries is a precursor of the evil Weyland-Yutani mega-corporation that dominates the action in "Alien," "Aliens," and "Alien 3"; a spaceship similar to the wreck discovered in "Alien" makes an appearance; and the so-called "space jockey" that first appeared in Mr. Scott's 1979 feature shows up.
Superficial resemblances notwithstanding, the new film might as well take place in an entirely unrelated film universe. Mr. Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof aspire here to more than a tightly plotted horror story like "Alien" or a taut, action-adventure bug-hunt like "Aliens." "Prometheus" is a sprawling space epic pondering Big Questions. Who are we? Who created us? What happens if we meet our creators?
What happens if our creators hate us and want us dead?
This is territory Mr. Scott covered previously in "Blade Runner." Injecting a dose of metaphysics helps separate "Prometheus" from its xenomorph-infested forebears — but it's ultimately a crippling narrative distraction. Again and again, "Prometheus" introduces a new mystery — like, to take one example, the meaning of the ancient pictograms discovered by Drs. Shaw and Holloway — and then either refuses to resolve it or does so in only the most cursory, unsatisfying way. Given Mr. Lindelof's history as executive producer of "Lost," which had a similar penchant, it's fair to ask how much of this is his fault.
"Prometheus" feels like one long first act; it's all setup — including setup for a sequel — with little payoff.
The most frustrating aspect of this teasing — or, less kindly, sloppiness — is that "Prometheus" is a propulsive action-thriller that deftly mixes comedy and drama and rarely leaves the audience bored. Most of the performances are captivating, with Mr. Fassbender and Miss Theron especially impressive as the icy minions of Weyland Industries. The action occasionally feels a bit tacked on, but what else would one expect from a big-budget studio release?
Similarly tacked on is the 3D, which feels utterly unnecessary and is clearly little more than a grab for a few extra bucks by the studio. Stick with two dimensions if you can.
CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
RATING: R for sci-fi violence, brief language and some intense images
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS