Stardate 2093, and the Prometheus spaceship is homing in on a far, faraway planet that Earth people believe may hold the secret to their origins. On board: a crusty captain (Idris Elba), a corporate overseer (Charlize Theron) and a true-believer scientist (Noomi Rapace), plus the usual assortment of grumbling crew, whom we scarcely get to know because ... well, you know how these space adventures go.
Director Ridley Scott certainly does; he gave us the gross-out, nail-biter outer-space thriller Alien in 1979, and nobody will soon forget that film's deaths. Now, he offers Prometheus, a prequel of sorts to Alien that, besides taking an ill-advised walkabout on an unknown planet, also purports to explore Big Ideas about Life.
But barring some disconnected noodling about faith, the origins of life and what it means to be human, Prometheus doesn't stray far from the fill-in-the-blank standard space quest: "Our explorers, to their horror, discover that the planet is actually [blank] and the aliens are really [blank]." Once on the ground, the Prometheus crew explore what for them is uncharted territory, but for us, is all too recognizable: myriad tunnels, rooms full of oozing pods and alien HQs with surrealistic décor.
Two actors chiefly keep the film afloat: Rapace (The Girl With Dragon Tattoo) steps into Sigourney Weaver's boots as the bad-ass chick, and Michael Fassbender portrays Dave, the ship's major-domo, a human-like android far dreamier than the old HAL 9000 model. During the two-year space journey, Dave teaches himself ancient languages and re-models himself after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
But like his antecedent HAL, Dave seems too artificially intelligent for his own good. His form — somewhere between machine and human — should be the pivot for contrasting the seemingly mindless actions of the aliens with our more thoughtful humanity, but his motivations for some unprogrammed acts are never fully explained. And due to some unfortunate circumstances in the final reel, you'll have trouble taking anything Dave says seriously, even as Fassbender does his best to make the 'droid intriguing.
I'd have happily forgiven all those stumbles if the film had been more ... well, entertaining. I was mildly happy admiring the set design, flinching at the gooey monsters and hoping that the muddled plot might amount to something (it didn't). But Prometheus lacked the thrills, chills and tension that can elevate a rote space opera into a grab-you-and-shake-you audience-pleaser. This isn't a bad film — and it really looks great in 3-D — but it's like taking a safe journey to a place you've already visited.