Archive for the ‘prequel’ category

Leatherface

September 17, 2017

leatherface-teaser-750Fans of Mary Harron’s 1996 biopic I Shot Andy Warhol might want to know about Leatherface, the umpty-umpth chapter in the seemingly deathless Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. In the earlier film, Lili Taylor played Valerie Solanas, the disturbed woman who committed the titular act, and Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol “superstar” who took Valerie under her wing for a while. I imagined Taylor and Dorff — once possibly the queen and king of ‘90s indie cinema — laughing it up together between takes on Leatherface, in which they reunite as two people on severely opposite sides of the law. Here, Taylor is Verna, matriarch of the cannibalistic Sawyer family, and Dorff is Hartman, a Texas Ranger driven around the bend when his daughter suffers a cruel death at the hands of the Sawyer boys.

The thought of Taylor ribbing Dorff on set about how good his ass looked in a dress twenty years ago is funnier, and more entertaining, than anything in Leatherface. Which is a shame, because for the first time, possibly, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there are actual accomplished directors at the wheel and not schlock non-entities. The French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are known to international horror fans for their debut, the gore-drenched thriller Inside. Their next two features played at a couple festivals over here but didn’t otherwise make much of an impact, and they contributed a segment to The ABCs of Death 2. Oddly, all of those projects featured the fearsome actress Béatrice Dalle, but alas, the diastematic diva doesn’t figure in Leatherface, perhaps because the movie would then have to explain what a French woman is doing in Texas backwoods. (Or actually Bulgaria standing in for Texas.)

Inside had a relentlessness, a hungry gaze into the abyss, that made me hopeful for Leatherface. But the Gallic duo are strictured by the movie’s R rating; the body count is high, and blood becomes buoyant, but the movie cuts away from a clear look at the carnage almost spitefully, as if the directors resented having to stay within MPAA bounds. Instead of going goreless, like Tobe Hooper’s original masterpiece, Leatherface teases us with how bloody it could be but isn’t allowed to be. Still, these filmmakers have an eye, and much of the movie looks like some foul dark fairy tale with flesh-eating goblins and homicidal woodsmen. Set mostly in 1965, the film plays with 20th-century archetypes — the killer romantic pair, the kindly nurse, the sensitive boy in a dysfunctional family. The young man who will become the inarticulate, flesh-mask-wearing chainsaw killer Leatherface escapes from a corrupt mental institution along with aforementioned nurse (Vanessa Grasse) and sicko lovebirds (James Bloor, Jessica Madsen).

The psychos-in-love are so far out there they work a rotting corpse into their carnal routine. The nurse is as pure and blameless as you could ask for. That leaves the relatively good-hearted (though violent if necessary) inmates Jackson and Bud, the former stoic and smart, the latter hulking and inarticulate. I think which one ends up becoming Leatherface is supposed to be a surprise, so I won’t spoil it. At times, mostly in the dynamic between these damaged boys and the nurse, there is the slightest whiff of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, but just the stale aroma of a blown opportunity. Why not — Leatherface pays homage to everything else, never becoming its own movie.

The recently excused Tobe Hooper is credited as an executive producer on Leatherface, a probably-honorary credit. Hooper’s Chainsaw is often imitated, never duplicated (or bested, say I), a sui generis sweatbox odyssey that seems to owe nothing to any other film before it. Leatherface feels properly respectful, made by filmmakers who idolize the original, and that’s also its weakness: it’s a jumped-up fan film, and because it’s meant to be a prequel to Hooper’s movie it’s locked into whatever happens in that movie. It can’t deviate from what we know, and can’t truly surprise us, though I will say that Drayton Sawyer sure ages a hell of a lot between 1965 and 1974, and that we’ve now seen a Mama Sawyer but still haven’t seen a Papa. And two decades after co-starring in one of the defining mid-‘90s indie films, Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff ended up in Bulgaria yelling at each other and getting covered in sticky Karo syrup and having more fun, I hope, than I did.

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Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017

wonderwoman2Towards the middle of Wonder Woman, when the central heroine Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is running through the no-man’s-land (ha) of a battlefield and deflecting hundreds of German bullets, either you recognize the subtextual power of this image or you find it a typical bit of superhero-movie action. I’d submit the latter is not the most productive lens through which to view Wonder Woman, here as well as its earlier iterations. This ideal of strong femininity has always been greater than the sum of her parts. I could say that the movie has its flaws particular to its status as a superhero film inside a larger superhero narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman is an indelible symbol of sane female compassion against nihilistic male violence. She didn’t make the cover of the first Ms. magazine for nothin’, and this fourth movie of the DC Extended Universe (after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) stands well on its own and will gather deeper relevance than any other superhero flick.

Gal Gadot does what’s needed as Diana; the role is bigger than she is, but she gives Diana’s heroism a nice underlayer of sadness and regret. Diana has lived all her life with the Amazons on what we used to call Paradise Island, hearing about war (and its author, Ares) without knowing it. War soon invades the idyll of the island in the person of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with German soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s late in World War I, or, as Trevor calls it, “the War … the war to end all wars.” The retrospective irony of that phrase is bitter, as is Diana’s realization that there isn’t just one convenient supervillain to blame for war. Ares whispers in our ears; we take it from there.

Diana carves a swath through the German army, seeking only to defend or to deflect. She isn’t a stone killer, just as she wasn’t in the cheesy but beloved TV series with Lynda Carter, who could knock thugs or Nazis for a loop but preferred to be strong to be kind. Diana is, of course, a warrior, trained as such by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Wright and Nielsen, both 51 and seemingly still peaking physically, show us what power without masculinity looks like. Diana takes a bit from each woman. She will fight, but only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, her strength is hidden behind fake glasses and under a gray uniform, much like that of Superman.

Wonder Woman may be part of the doom-laden, ugly, “dark” and gritty DC film-verse, and by virtue of unfolding during one of the more costly and grotesque wars it certainly has its grim moments. But its director, Patty Jenkins — who helmed 2003’s excellent Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster and hadn’t directed another feature film until now — brings a refreshing clarity to it, a productive mix of gravitas and winking. At certain times, the movie seems very aware of being a cultural lightning rod with a lot of eyes on it. At other times it forges ahead swiftly (Wonder Woman runs two hours and twenty-one minutes but goes by fast), uninterested in anything outside itself and its musings about the nature of war and the nature of mankind.

As has become a tradition with superhero films, there are too many villains, though our time spent with them (including an uber-proto-Nazi played by Danny Huston and a mad mutilated genius named Dr. Poison played by Elena Anaya with a half-mask recalling Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire) is agreeably pulpy. Pulpiness is sort of baked into the concept; Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was working out ideas about femininity — seeing no reason why a strong woman couldn’t also be submissive, he contrived to put Diana in bondage in a bunch of the powerfully idiosyncratic feminist-cum-fetishist comic-book stories of the ‘40s. The movie’s Diana is briefly restrained, but not a lot of Marston’s thoughts inform the film, which is fine; Wonder Woman is bigger than he is, too. Lynda Carter can wear her, or Gal Gadot, but ultimately she belongs to all girls and women, a symbol of gentle power that can’t help but endure. Or persist.

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 10, 2013

OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFULAs the release of Oz the Great and Powerful drew closer, I had the nagging feeling that I should curl up with L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books before catching the film. Instead, it turns out I accidentally re-read another book far more relevant to the movie: Bruce Campbell’s riotous 2002 memoir If Chins Could Kill. Much of Campbell’s book talks about how he, director Sam Raimi, and a few other cash-strapped lunatics moved heaven and earth to make the first Evil Dead — talk about humble beginnings. These days Raimi’s a big shot with three insanely lucrative Spider-Man films under his belt, and Disney has handed him $200 million to make Oz the Great and Powerful, which, as a few commentators have pointed out, has essentially the same structure as Raimi’s third Evil Dead entry Army of Darkness. (Campbell’s in it too, as an arrogant guard at the Emerald City gates.)

The first half hour or so of this new Oz is basically Sam Raimi’s love of movie magic writ large — very large. Like the sainted 1939 Wizard of Oz, it starts out in black and white, in the boxy “Academy ratio” used by most movies until the ’50s. Cheapjack carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) rides a hot-air balloon into a tornado, which whisks him away to the land of Oz, and the screen widens and, like Kool-Aid pouring into a clear glass, everything fills up with dazzling color. Most everything we see from then on, too, was concocted in computers, and for a while the obviousness of the green-screen backdrops works for Raimi’s consciously artificial approach. After a while, though, the visuals become irritating white noise; the movie overdoses on relentless prettiness.

The people of Oz receive Oscar as a savior, the “wizard” they’ve been promised. He meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and two sisters, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Soon enough, Oscar pegs Evanora and her easily manipulated sister — who will become the Wicked Witches of the East and West — as the primary threats to Oz, but he knows he isn’t a real wizard — he’s just a flimflam artist, and Glinda knows it too. Far too much time is devoted to Oscar’s self-doubts, and the script hangs a lot of weight on bromides about believing in oneself, in ideals of goodness, and so on. We seem to pass a lot of time watching James Franco and Michelle Williams, sometimes accompanied by a talking monkey, strolling in front of fake backdrops.

As John Waters knows (and has written), the real meat of The Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch, who, it turns out, became the fearsome green-skinned villain because she was jealous of Oscar strolling in front of too many fake backdrops with Glinda. This motive is disappointing to say the least, but any scenes Raimi hands over to Kunis and especially Weisz as they spit venom and scheme are terrific fun. If nothing else, pop culture’s current swing towards fantasy and fairy tales gives actresses a chance to doll up in outlandish drag-queen ornamentation and vamp six ways to Sunday. Franco, grinning and smirking his way through his performance, can’t compete with the witches — including Glinda, whom Williams invests with a steely inner strength.

Eventually we’re treated to the spectacle of an Oscar-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated actress throwing balls of energy at each other, while Oscar and his new posse of tinkers, farmers and Munchkins jerry-rig various illusions to hoodwink the Wicked Witches’ evil flying baboons and restore Oz to its people. Oz the Great and Powerful is supposed to be about how Oscar the hokum artist grew into his role as the Wizard, but he just seems like a bystander a lot of the time. So does Sam Raimi. He sneaks in a few time-honored Raimi shots, like the ram-o-cam, but longtime fans of the director may wish they were re-watching Army of Darkness instead. Raimi said all he could, and brilliantly, with the story of a stranger in a strange fantasyland in that film. Movie buffs sometimes like to wonder what their favorite z-budget cult directors could do with some serious money, but on the evidence here, the answer is, not much that anyone else with $200 million of Disney’s money couldn’t do. When you can afford to do anything, you have no restrictions to push against, no sand to produce the pearl of creativity.

Prometheus

June 10, 2012

The elegantly designed Prometheus asks the Big Questions — where do we come from? who, if anyone, made us? — and kinda-sorta answers them. But if the movie is really about anything, it’s atmosphere. Director Ridley Scott, returning to science fiction after having made two of the genre’s classics (Alien and Blade Runner), brings a pleasant big-movie heft to the visuals, an almost cruel burnish only possible with lots of money and teams of well-paid techs. The look is handsomely antiseptic, much like the character David (Michael Fassbender), an android aboard the titular spaceship Prometheus. Passing the time (two years) waiting for the crew to wake up, David becomes enamored of Lawrence of Arabia, coloring his hair to emulate Peter O’Toole. It’s heartening, I guess, that in 2093 we will not only still exist but also remember 20th-century art; another character, the captain (Idris Elba), plays an accordion once owned by Stephen Stills.

These hints of personality and leisure have to last us a while, because most of Prometheus is about delving into — as mission director Vickers (Charlize Theron) puts it — “a godforsaken rock in the middle of space.” Our intrepid crew of scientists seek evidence of “the Engineers,” aliens worshipped by various unconnected ancient cultures. The Engineers, we’re to understand, created us. But why? For that, I think, you’re supposed to come back for Prometheus 2 and 3; this film is reportedly the first of a projected trilogy, though whether it’ll make enough bank to justify sequels is a more urgent question than any the movie asks. The maybe-part-one-if-enough-of-you-see-it aspect may explain why Guy Pearce appears underneath pounds of old-man latex as Peter Weyland, who funds the mission. I’m assuming the grand plan is to have the unlatexed Pearce return in a sequel or prequel as a younger Weyland; otherwise why didn’t they just hire an older actor?

The heart of Prometheus is the believer Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), whose entire career seems to hinge on proof of, well, intelligent design. I’m not quite up on what Richard Dawkins might say about this; whether we were created by a white-bearded Christian god or by strange-looking aliens gargling goo at the dawn of man, the point the film takes for granted is that we were created. Someone in the film snarks about two hundred years of Darwinism being chucked out the nearest air lock, but that’s about all the skepticism we hear among this cadre of scientists. Anyway, the impassioned Noomi Rapace is much the best thing about the movie; as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, she moves on an angular, headlong trajectory, and Shaw is about the only character visibly capable of horror and awe, sometimes both at once. (Charlize Theron, meanwhile, plays her second ice queen in as many weeks, and seemed to have more fun last week.)

Logic will not avail us here. Forget whether it’s plausible that a species of unpleasant baldies manufactured us for reasons as yet known only to them; what about the scene in which a character takes a series of running leaps when her abdomen was lasered open and then stapled shut only hours before? Not to mention the sequence in which two crew members, deep inside the womb of the godforsaken rock, suddenly decide to head back to the ship, then promptly get lost. They only exist, we gather, as alien fodder. Yes, here be dragons, or at least phallic slimy things and a big beastie worthy of Lovecraft at his most febrile. For weeks now, the marketing for Prometheus couldn’t figure out whether to sell it as a prequel to Alien or as a stand-alone scientists-meet-monsters epic. It is, if you must, a story that takes place in the same reality as Alien, and the final shot, much derided by Alien fans, strengthens the link. If you want to rewatch Alien and not think of the mysterious “space jockey” as what you pray to on Sunday, you might want to steer clear of Prometheus.

The movie wasn’t giving my brain much of a workout, but my eyes got a nice buzz. Prometheus is straight-up gorgeous, especially in 3D; Scott has conceived the shots for the added dimension, employing it with subtlety and for the occasional matter-of-fact spectacle. If the ads have intrigued you visually, go. Just be prepared for a plot that reminds me of various reviewers over the years admitting “I’m not sure whether this movie/book just rips off some Star Trek episode I never saw.” It’s an atmospheric thrill ride, though short on thrills until near the end, and certainly neither as intense nor as tight as Alien. It’s best perceived as an experiment by a director returning to the franchise he created, not by making a direct sequel but by drifting off to tell a related story. On the evidence, though, Scott can’t scare us any more, and his characters recede into the vast canvas of his own intelligent design. We can’t really care about who made us if most of the people onscreen aren’t us.