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Director Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” is a visual marvel with solid performances, effective set pieces and a script just as scattered and derivative as the numerous knockoffs that arrived in the wake of “Alien,” to which this serves as a quasi-prequel.

“Prometheus” goes back to the beginning—literally, as the opening sequence shows a pale giant descending from the heaven to kick-start human life. Millennia later, we’re aboard the space vessel Prometheus, where a corporate venture is journeying to the cosmos’ outer edges to better understand how and why life began.

Leading the journey is archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who discovered ancient star maps in caves across the world and hopes tofind the answers to life’s deepest questions. Along for the ride are Shaw’s boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a crew of characters who are simply fodder for the slimy beasts encountered along the way.

Overseeing the mission is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a calculating businesswoman who makes no secret that she’s in charge and only acting in the best interests of her company’s CEO (Guy Pearce). Meredith is assisted by the inquisitive and charismatic android David (Michael Fassbender), who may have his own agenda and serves as an interesting illustration of the film’s creator-creation questions.

Prometheus lands and the gang finds an intricate catacomb housing a giant statue resembling a human head. Inside are dozens of canisters that begin to leak mysterious black ooze, along with the husks of some sort of biological armor. Something bad happened here, and it’s not long before the crew is fending off slimy tentacles, viscous space worms and worse.

“Prometheus” begins as a science fiction epic asking big questions, and the script by “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof hints at complex, thought-provoking answers. Yet while the film initially has a sense of awe and grandeur, it quickly devolves into a standard monster movie before becoming both a clunky “Alien” prequel and a set-up for “Prometheus 2.”

It’s three movies in one, and to be fair, none of them are bad by themselves. I appreciate the attempt to tell a thoughtful sci-fi story, and there’s a fascinating mystery in the early going. I don’t mind a monster movie, and when “Prometheus” gets scary, it’s very effective. “Alien” is one of my favorite films of all time; even if I don’t think we need any answers about the “space jockey” or where the titular monsters came from, it’s still fun to see Scott weave some of the film’s classic images and beats into this.

The problem is that all three stories never combine coherently and the movie shifts gears clumsily, at the narrative’s expense. The horror elements feel disappointing coming after the film’s thoughtful first half and many of the “Alien” cues feel shoehorned in. The tonal shifts make it difficult to maintain suspense, dread or atmosphere. The narrative is a convoluted mess trying to serve too many masters before conceding defeat and pushing any resolution to a sequel that may or may not occur.

Yet while “Prometheus” never becomes a truly good film, there’s still plenty to admire.

It’s exciting to have Scott back in sci-fi mode, and the “Blade Runner” director proves he hasn’t lost his knack for creating visually astounding worlds. From the intricately designed space vessel to the haunting cavern the team discovers, the film looks amazing, with a massive scope. While I’m traditionally skeptical of 3D, Scott uses the technology superbly, immersing us in dark and haunting settings and dazzling with us with awe-inspiring images—there’s an astounding moment involving a holographic map late in the film.

“Prometheus” benefits from a capable cast. In particular, Fassbender is fantastic as David, full of curiosity and so intent on appearing human that his artificial nature takes on a creepy vibe; it’s an interesting twist on the role of androids throughout the “Alien” franchise. Likewise, it wouldn’t be the “Alien” universe without a corporate lackey, and Theron brings cold-hearted intelligence to an underwritten role as Vickers.

I’m still not sold on Rapace as a leading lady. While the actress was fantastic in the Swedish adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” she doesn’t have much of a screen presence here, although I’m not sure if that’s because Rapace is lacking something or because the script doesn’t create Shaw as an interesting character—she’s the dogged believer looking for answers, but even that is sidelined when “Prometheus” becomes just another monster movie. The rest of the cast is saddled with thinly written characters that only exist to drive up the body count. Elba comes closest to creating a memorable character as the ship’s blue collar pilot, but he’s pushed aside for most of the film. Pearce, buried inexplicably under some very bad old-age makeup, is wasted in a pointless role.

But Scott still stages some gripping moments. There’s a great montage early on where we see David roaming the ship as the crew sleeps—he plays basketball, watches “Lawrence of Arabia” and creepily eavesdrops on their dreams. The buildup to the events in the underground catacombs is atmospheric and tense and there’s an experiment on an alien that is eerie and otherworldly. A sequence involving an impromptu c-section is deliciously tense, gross and terrifying, possibly the film’s best moment at recreating “Alien’s” tone of pure terror.

But that’s all “Prometheus” is: a series of well-executed, beautifully-crafted moments. As a story, it never gels. It’s too silly to be intelligent, too talky to be terrifying and too unfocused to ably set up the “Alien” franchise, let alone a sequel of its own. They say that in space no one can hear you scream—in “Prometheus,” everyone will hear you sigh.

Originally published in the Source Newspapers.

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