Tentacular Spectacular: Ridley Scott returns to the sci-fi genre with ‘Prometheus’

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What is it about tentacles that is so horrifying? There are a hell of a lot of them in “Prometheus,” director Ridley Scott’s sorta prequel to the “Alien” series. In fact, much of “Prometheus” is writhing tentacles and people looking incredulous at computer monitors. People say things like “It’s us!” when they see that alien DNA strands match the genetic makeup of humans.

These are the findings of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish “The Girl with the” films), an archaeologist convinced that some cave drawings she unearthed in Scotland prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Two years later and we’re in space. Shaw and her crew (featuring a cast of such hunky favorites as Idris Elba and Logan Marshall-Green) wake up after a deep sleep on the spaceship Prometheus, thanks to David (Michael Fassbender), an android, exactly like Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in the “Alien” films. He is sleekly made, distinctly nonhuman and sociopathic, with blond highlights for fun. He has no “soul,” no human emotions. But what makes him different from a robot is that he looks exactly like a human being and functions in many of the same ways (David is a cinephile, for example).

At the helm of the Prometheus is ‘top bitch’ Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, a teutonic woman who wears pants suits and drinks her vodka “up.” She has been sent by the late Dr. Weyland of Weyland Industries to oversee the mission and to ensure that Shaw and company do what they are supposed to.

Nobody ever uses the word “alien” in this film, which I liked, but the crew lands on an alien planet in a scene of spectacular (but not yet tentacular!) special effects that really make use of the 3D. I still got a headache and my eyes dried out, but that’s part of the experience, right? Confusion, pain and delirium. These are all things that people onboard the Prometheus really feel.

So they land on the alien planet and indeed find proof of extraterrestrial life. Then, of course, things go bad very fast. A storm blows through; a phallic tentacle thing smashes a man’s helmet and eats his face; hysteria settles over the Prometheus.

Though “Prometheus” is filled with graphic sci-fi violence (per MPAA jargon) and seems to be part of the “Alien” series, Ridley Scott, along with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, want to mount an entirely new mythology upon the one already established. There aren’t as many cute in-jokes as I would’ve expected to reference the original films, (though a neat little epilogue augurs the return of the xenomorph, that nasty alien creature terrorizing the “Alien” series). What’s more is that Ripley, the gutsy gal played by Sigourney Weaver in the original quadrilogy, is sorely missed here.

Ridley Scott directed the first “Alien” in 1979, a film characterized by its claustrophobic sense of terror and dread and its unnerving quiet in space where no one can hear you scream, as the film’s tagline boasted. That prickly sense of foreboding and aesthetic asphyxiation is nowhere to be found in “Prometheus” —  a loud, relentlessly energetic action movie of sorts. There’s some disturbing stuff about wombs and non-traditional fetuses in “Prometheus,” but mostly the terror diffuses into straight-up action.

Considering the fact that this is a 3D film with a summer release, intended to be seen by everyone and their mothership, Ridley Scott and his team succeed, for the most part. I was never bored once, which is saying a lot because I am a person who hates action films. The 3D is used to great effect, with rushing waterfalls bursting into bottomless abysses, the topography of the alien planet rendered with crunchy texture and, of course, the cuddly tentacles, which hug your face.

The interior design of the Prometheus possesses Kubrickian grandeur and gloss, with rooms opening onto rooms and holograms and squishy buttons. The 3D truly allows you to inhabit this space, however murky those glasses make everything look. The colossal ambition of the production design hinders the sense of terror that is the stamp of the original films because we’re often too absorbed in oohing and aahing at the money spent on this huge production. But even when things get a little “Avatar”-y, Ridley Scott brings it home with an overwhelming feeling of stress as everything starts spiraling out of control and Shaw and her crew realize that these cave-drawing aliens — who may or may not have created Earth and human life itself — are not as benevolent as their stick figures portended.

The film, of course, has no real ending. This is not because life has no real endings. It’s because we want to know that there are future films in place, that the saga can continue. The commerciality of this film is hard to ignore. But even so, it’s a breathless entertainment, chockfull of enough gizmos and gadgets to curb your attention deficit for two hours. By the time I walked out of the theater, “Prometheus,” like butter in a hot frying pan, already fizzled from my mind. But it’s pure escapism, a step into a world and a reminder of the quality of films Hollywood is capable of making even when another banal Adam Sandler man-boy movie is on the horizon and Katherine Heigl’s face is everywhere. Someone should really sick a face-hugger on that thing.