'Prometheus' (R)

In 1979’s Alien, Ridley Scott turned a spaceship into a house of horrors, complete with one of the most terrifying monsters in movie history. In Prometheus, he uses a spaceship to go searching for God. See the difference? Scott is certainly not the first filmmaker to set out on this metaphysical voyage — even William Shatner tried it, in Star Trek V — but few could make the trip look this good. There are things in Prometheus you’ve simply never seen before (including some of the best 3D effects ever – best primarily because you don’t notice them), and there are a handful of set pieces, such as a sequence in which a character must conduct a bit of emergency surgery on herself, that belong on a clip reel of the director’s most exciting bits.

But the whole of Prometheus — which was written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, and rips off everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Event Horizon — feels derivative and passé: The film is a shiny, high-tech relic. The H.R. Giger designs and creations that once seemed primal and nightmarish now come off as set dressing. Once again, there’s an android who never loses his cool and may or may not be trusted. Instead of clear story lines and narrative momentum, the movie trades on college-dorm ruminations on spirituality and faith and existential dilemmas. Instead of an aura of dread or the thrill of discovery, you get an ambling pace and lots of navel-gazing reminiscent of the Matrix sequels. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a God? When does this movie get good?

According to Prometheus, scientists in 2093 are still going to be deriving great meaning from crude drawings on cave walls and using them to justify space missions worth billions of dollars. One day, I’d like to see a film in which two prankster cavemen smoke some wacky weed and draw some crazy-funny things to amuse themselves, only to inadvertently alter the course of mankind in the future. Prometheus initially focuses on a pair of researchers (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who travel to a remote planet in search of the proverbial “answers.” Along for the ride are the aforementioned robot (Michael Fassbender), an inexplicably uptight corporate executive (Charlize Theron) and the ship’s captain (Idris Elba), who you know is cool because he wears a baseball cap sometimes and plays a tiny accordion.

There is a whole bunch of other people aboard the eponymous spaceship. We never learn much about them, but they might as well have all been named Faceless Victim: In Prometheus, if you’re not played by a famous actor, you’re probably not going to live to see the end credits. How could a movie as creatively ambitious as this one feel so rote and mundane? As usual, Scott pays meticulous care to art design and production. But there’s an entire generation of filmmakers who grew up watching Alien and Blade Runner, so his work no longer seems quite as visionary. There’s a lot of cool stuff in Prometheus (I’m particularly fond of the horseshoe-shaped juggernaut spaceship), but there’s nothing especially memorable, either. What’s worse, Scott surrenders to the temptation of using CGI at critical moments, even though a lot of the film was shot on soundstages, with practical effects. The use of actual props and constructions only helps make the animated stuff jump out at you more. It was better in Alien, when Scott tried hard not to show you the monster, because he couldn’t.

Unlike, say, the Star Wars prequels, which felt like they existed simply because there was serious cash to be made, Prometheus does impart a sense of earnest intent. You get the feeling that Scott really was striving for something special here — the beginning of a new sci-fi franchise with a metaphysical bent. But when you base your movie on a fictional quest by mankind to track down the source of all life, confront our makers and question them, you’re setting yourself up for failure (unless you’re Stanley Kubrick; he could do anything).

What’s most disheartening about Prometheus is that this veteran director actually believed in this material. The movie is many things, but it isn’t cynical, and the sincerity makes you cringe: It leaves you longing for the cheap thrills and jump-scares of Alien. Scott is currently preparing to film The Counselor, a drama based on the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy. Call me crazy, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that script will be worthy of Scott’s considerable talents. Prometheus, for all its wonder and spectacle, feels like something more tailored to the skills of a Paul W.S. Anderson — a talented journeyman.

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce.

Director: Ridley Scott.

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof.

Producers: David Giler, Walter Hill, Ridley Scott.

A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 124 minutes. Vulgar language, sci-fi violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday June 8 at area theaters.