It took three years, but the world of big budget sci-fi finally has an antidote to the phony spiritualism and New Age warmth of Avatar. Instead of trafficking in the excitement of vicarious living through superior beings, Ridley Scott's Prometheus trades in the poisonous likelihood that outer space is a callous expanse with beasts more savage than those on earth. Like Avatar, it also attempts to cash in on the latest high-concept obsession with 3-D, to much less effective ends.
A team of scientists, led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" Rapace)—whose expertise seems to include archaeology, intergalactic travel, biology and surgery—goes looking for the origin of the human race at some forsaken corner of space. Unlike the walking crew-cut in Avatar, who adopts the native code of honor, has a spiritual awakening and gets a girlfriend while he's at it, the characters in Prometheus probably should have stayed home.
The story of Shaw and company takes place in the same universe as Alien, and anyone who's seen that movie knows that Scott's aliens aren't tribal blue people with righteous ways and big hearts. When the ship lands, you can almost hear Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now: "Never get out of the boat." It shouldn't come as any surprise that shortly after the crew leaves the ship (spoilers from here on out), they start getting infected by the bad juju they've stirred up, which picks them off, one by one.
Geologists and biologists aren't the only ones who don't survive: Even the superficial theme of Prometheus doesn't really make the cut. If there's a stated central idea in Prometheus, it's that faith gives us strength even if it's something we simply choose to believe despite the evidence. The question of how a search for our origins can reconcile itself with our religious convictions is clumsily symbolized by the value Shaw places on the cross around her neck. And according to the machinations of the story, that might be why she's able to beat the odds.
But if there's an implied idea in Prometheus, a feeling you get from it, it's that Shaw only survives so that there can be a Prometheus II, and that everyone who meets his or her end in this movie had it coming. We find out that Shaw and her boyfriend, who is also part of the expedition, can't have children because she's unable. But when she's pregnant the next day, you can bet the sonogram isn't promising. Scott's grotesque inversion of the idea of the birth miracle is the horrific centerpiece of the movie, a sequence that's totally unbelievable but so giddily sick that it doesn't matter. And neither, really, does the cross around Shaw's neck.
On their mission to locate humanity's beginnings, the crew keeps amusingly referring to meeting its maker, somehow unaware of the double meaning. The way the characters meet their maker—in the getting-killed way—is given much more aesthetic consideration than the quick exchanges about Darwinism, Lawrence of Arabia, cave paintings, what it means to be human and religion that litter the movie's dialogue.
It's hard to get firm footing as a human in the world of Prometheus: Holograms of your boss live on after death to tell you what to do; androids have personal philosophies that grow from their own creation hang-ups; and the species that created humanity might not be that different from humanity itself. But if the scenes with all the splatters and screams, by far the best elements of the movie, are any indication, humanity's most defining characteristic is its mortality. As we see from the systematic and almost gleeful way nearly every human aboard Prometheus is done away with, the cross around Shaw's neck is no great defense.