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"Prometheus": Ridley Scott's Dazzling, Sci-fi Spectacle

"Prometheus," the long-awaited "Alien" prequel, is an enthralling popcorn spectacle.

Somber, spectacular and ponderous,  “Prometheus” virtually thrums with the desire to become a classic of science-fiction cinema, as well as a late-career landmark for its 74-year-old director, Ridley Scott. As movie buffs around the world already know, “Prometheus” is a long-contemplated prequel — presumably the first in a series of prequels — to Scott’s 1979 “Alien,” which blended the horror and sci-fi genres to powerful effect and announced the arrival of a distinctive visual and design aesthetic. That’s been Scott’s signature over the past 30-odd years; he’s made good films, bad films and lots of indifferent ones (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” anyone? “Matchstick Men”?), but they’ve pretty much all had the patented Ridley Scott Look.

So the first thing to say about Scott is that he has a mysteriously outsize reputation among his fans, who remain devoted to two Zeitgeist-shaping classics he directed many years ago (“Alien” and  “Blade Runner,” of course), and completely unaffected by all the ensuing mediocrity. I mean, maybe there are people who watch “White Squall” or  “A Good Year” over and over again. I’ve never met any. Furthermore, as jaundiced a view as I may have of Scott overall, I totally get it. Those two movies helped shape the sensibilities of several generations of moviemakers and movie critics and movie buffs, and continue to do so. I vividly remember cutting school with two friends to go see “Alien” on opening day in San Francisco, and sitting — quite literally — on the edge of my seat for the entire first hour. (One of those two guys, by the way, grew up to be an  Oscar-winner.)

The next thing to say, though, is that “Prometheus” damn near lives up to the unsustainable hype, at least at the level of cinematography, production design, special effects and pure wow factor. This tale of a deep-space mission late in the 21st century, several decades before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo will discover an abandoned alien spacecraft and its sinister cargo, is a sleek, shimmering, gorgeous and often haunting visual mood piece. No other recent science-fiction film, with the sole exception of  “Avatar,” has created such a textured, detailed and colorful vision of the human space-traveling future, and indeed it’s reasonable to assume that Scott conceives of “Prometheus” as a pessimistic counter-argument to James Cameron’s eco-parable on various levels. (Let’s not forget that it was Cameron who directed “Aliens,” the massively successful 1986 follow-up that turned Scott’s “Alien” into a franchise. I suspect there’s a lot more hay to be made in exploring their rivalry and, to wax pretentious for a sec, their artistic dialogue.) With its luminous 3-D graphics, deep-focus compositions in grays and iridescent greens and moody blues, its cat-suited females and broad-shouldered males, “Prometheus” is one of very few films in the recent 3-D wave to justify the pumped-up ticket price for those glasses. (The others would be “Avatar,”  “Hugo” and maybe  “Despicable Me.”)

You may have noticed that I’ve cranked out several hundred words about “Prometheus” without discussing its story or characters. Partly that’s because those things are a whole lot less important than, say, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, Arthur Max’s production design, and the art direction of John King, Marc Homes, Karen Wakefield and their team. Then there’s the fact that every nuance and hint and unanswered conundrum raised in the “Alien” prehistory concocted by screenwriters Damon Lindelof (a co-creator of “Lost”) and Jon Spaihts will be endlessly debated and dissected by fans after they see the movie. I don’t want to ruin the fun for folks who are already fascinated by the origins of the Space Jockey (that extra-large dead alien spaceman seen early in “Alien”) and the Xenomorphs (the human-incubated, many-jawed monsters) by issuing too many near-spoilers. And I shouldn’t spend too much time observing, for instance, that the whole thing seems to resolve into a cynical hodgepodge of bogus science and even more bogus theology, all of it crafted with an eye to fueling further sequels.

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