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“Space Oddity”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

MY 3-D SCREENING of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” was preceded by a trailer for Tim Burton’s forthcoming “Frankenweenie,” due out this Halloween.  The titles of both films openly borrow from the 1818 classic that more or less invented the mode we now know as science-fiction, that is, Frankenstein, or the Modern PrometheusThe rebellion myth involving Prometheus was nothing short of indispensible to the nineteenth-century English Romantics.  Mary Shelley’s novel notwithstanding, husband Percy Shelley penned his own lyric drama Prometheus Unbound in 1819 while Lord Byron wrote his own short poem heroizing the Titan god, the fire-stealer who, in bringing fire to humanity, found himself eternally punished by Zeus, his liver pecked out by an eagle on a daily basis.  “Like thee,” he wrote in 1816, “Man is in part divine,/A troubled stream from a pure source.” What obsessed the Romantics about the promethean narrative was is its faith in boundless human potential, in boundary-breaking, in playing with fire just as the gods do.  Prometheus, as our ally, stands in for the human.

Accordingly, questions of origins permeate Scott’s “Prometheus,” which is the most intelligent, visually satisfying science-fiction film since “Avatar,” and similarly interested in corporate exploitation and the meaningful ways in which spacemen rage against the machine.  Literally a machine, the excellent Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) plays a white-blooded robot named David who takes his cues for seeming human from Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.”  A close second to David’s robotic rigidity is Charlize Theron as Miss Vickers, a bloodless corporate drone working for Weyland Corp. and overseeing a trillion-dollar mission aboard the vessel named Prometheus.  The goal?  Investigate the alien remains on a deserted planet, which gradually draws the shipmates into its abyss.  The consequence?  Bloodshed, lots of it.  “Prometheus” looks in two directions at once: forward to the future world of 2090 when companies have colonized outer space and backward to the filmic past of “Alien” (1979), the first of Ridley’s Scott’s two sci-fi films – his equally influential “Blade Runner” followed three years later. “Prometheus” functions as a prequel to that first film.  Proof that we are back in the world of “Alien” are the airlock doors and padded hallways of the spaceship, the pod-like sleep chambers and, of course, the threat of a foreign body bursting through one’s abdomen.  It is hard to imagine a more terrifying scene on film this year than the self-administered C-section scene in “Prometheus” wherein an octopus-like fetus is gorily excised.

While Theron remains in the same deep freeze as her performance in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” she is offset by warmer, more human characters such as Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) and her ill-fated husband Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green).  The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof foregrounds Dr. Shaw as a proto-Ripley heroine who demands some ethical accountability from her cruel captains of (space) industry.  After surveying the alien planet that holds the key to humanity’s own origins, he declares: “This is just another tomb.”  This is the eeriest aspect of Ripley’s masterpiece: space is a sepulcher, and with dim, brownish camerawork by Dariusz Wolski, we are plunged into a kind of puzzle.  “Prometheus” isn’t just a top-shelf work of space-horror with the power to shock, even revolt, its viewer, but the work of a director wiser than the one who directed “Alien” thirty years ago. With its milky-way moments reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even Malick’s magnum opus, “The Tree of Life,” Scott’s film goes deeper, to the DNA level of human life and its precarious place in a mysterious and often cruel cosmos.