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Prometheus (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated R

Prometheus has a mythology problem.

Like an increasing number of science-fiction and fantasy films of late, Prometheus eschews a streamlined narrative in favor of an overwritten labyrinth full of knotty mythology and laborious origin explorations. Instead of being allowed to get on with their own movie-ness, our genre pictures are being burdened by a love of lore.

Where did this begin? Perhaps with the one-two punch of the Lord of the Rings saga and the Harry Potter series, properties that – as adaptations of hugely popular novels – already came prepackaged with dense mythologies (and as a result weren’t fatally damaged by them). Alongside these and in their wake, however, have been other popular narratives emphasizing extensive background over immediate action. It was a weakness of the Star Wars prequels, a burden carried by almost every superhero flick and comic-book adaptation and a trend that nearly strangled the life out of an otherwise excellent television series such as “Lost.” The Matrix Revolutions, Alice in Wonderland, Tron: Legacy, John Carter, the latest Star Trek – rather than simply reveal new worlds, such movies build up the histories and traditions and trinkets of their worlds to the point that the vitality of the film at hand is nearly snuffed out.

The mention of “Lost” brings us back to Prometheus, for “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof is a screenwriter and executive producer here. A prequel to the sci-fi franchise that began with 1979’s Alien, Prometheus takes place some 30 years before the ill-fated towing crew of that film ever came across one of cinema’s most hideous monsters. Prometheus opens with an obscure prologue involving a figure new to the franchise (lore-bearing narratives love such prologues), then introduces us to a pair of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who believe they’ve located a planet that may contain human forebears. And so off they go, funded by the nefarious Weyland Corporation, which has provided the title spaceship, a project leader (Charlize Theron) and an android who’s just a little too eager to help (Michael Fassbender).

Prometheus aims to explain the source of the creature in Alien, but like Lindelof’s “Lost,” it tries to do much more than that. As the team lands on the planet and comes across ominous elements, many of which will be familiar to fans of the franchise, Prometheus begins to lay out a multilayered scenario involving various alien races, competing conspiracies among the crew members and vaguely spiritual ruminations on the origin and purpose of life itself (much time is spent discussing whether Rapace’s character is a “true believer” or a “skeptic”).

There are places for such thematic ambition and narrative density – I treasure the vastness of the Lord of the Rings films – but it’s worth noting that this approach is the exact opposite of that of the original Alien. Never mind that both it and Prometheus were directed by Ridley Scott. With Alien, Scott delivered a taut fright flick in which the intellectual provocations – namely Sigourney Weaver as a feminist action figure in story full of maternal undercurrents – arose naturally out of the inventive action and no-nonsense plot. Prometheus works in reverse: it plainly and repeatedly states its big ideas, spends much of its time on back story, then hopes the movie can be molded to fit.

Despite this strategic difference, Prometheus does nod to its predecessors in other ways. There is a plot thread involving Rapace’s character that ties into the feminist/maternal theme of the series. (My favorite line in the film is one delivered by a robotic surgery device to a desperate Rapace: “This medical pod has been programmed for a man.”) We also get new creatures – though in my opinion, more toothy orifices does not a better alien make – and there is Fassbender’s David, the latest in the series’ line of androids.

A fan of Peter O’Toole – he passes the time while the other crew members are in deep sleep watching Lawrence of Arabia – David is a delightful enigma, played by Fassbender with a rigid walk and a threatening sort of innocence. It’s unclear exactly why David is constantly getting in the way – ulterior directives, perhaps, or simply the tyranny of logic – but get in the way he does, often to disastrous results.

David is a distracting pleasure, however, from the mostly laborious proceedings, including much explaining about the historical implications of what is found on the planet. I realize a lot of people eat this stuff up – it’s why the movie’s marketing plan includes Weyland viral videos and why “Lost” was accompanied by so much supplementary online jazz during its run. But when the point of a movie becomes the explanation of its back story, I tend to lose interest. Never mind all the mythology and surrounding lore – I go to the movies for the films themselves.