Prometheus is an Alien prequel that officially isn't. Director Ridley Scott has adamantly (and repeatedly) denied this movie's ties to his 1979 genre-shaping classic, but here's the dirty truth: It extensively informs the franchise, so it's a prequel.
Two decades ago, an Alien prequel helmed by Scott would have been cause for celebration. This is the director, after all, who effectively defined what it meant to be a contemporary sci-fi flick. (Try finding one today that doesn't ape Blade Runner's crowded urban dystopia or Alien's contrast between space-age sterility and hostile bio-developments.) But now, with more than a dozen duds to his name, Prometheus only had me tentatively excited about Scott's return to the genre that made him famous. Could he recapture the magic of Alien? Would he reach his early, unmatched heights?
No, of course not. Scott is not the director he was three decades ago, and he won't be again.
That said, Prometheus is a gorgeous movie. It's ambitious. It's gargantuan. It looks great. And, unfortunately, all of it goes to waste because of a rotten script. For that, thank Jon Spaihts and Lost veteran Damon Lindelof, who wrote a rickety story that's more interested in mythology than narrative logic and character depth.
Prometheus opens on Earth, in an epic, sweeping scene set hundreds of thousands of years ago, then immediately jumps to the near future, where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) make a historic discovery: cave paintings, located all around the world, referencing a giant man and a solar system in a distant part of the universe. With the trillion-dollar backing of industrial maven Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) -- and a sketchy theory that these giant men are the "engineers" of mankind -- they hop aboard a spaceship to meet their supposed makers, joined by an android named David (Michael Fassbender), the ship's captain (Idris Elba), a corporate overseer (Charlize Theron), and a handful of scientists and deckhands.
Sounds pretty good, right? It is, until it all goes wrong.
Before Shaw and company arrive on the planet, Prometheus lays the groundwork for an excellent meditation on God and creation. Shaw's religious faith clashes with Holloway's pragmatic disbelief about science, offering Scott the chance to air his message early and often. It's compelling, if only because it's such a rare, ambitious turn for a blockbuster.
Scott works in subtle ways to keep the mood tense after the crew lands, but his best move has nothing to do with Prometheus. Because of what we've already seen in Alien, there's a palpable tension to even the most mundane of scenes. When are H.R. Giger's monsters going to pop up? Whose chest is going to be burst open by a xenomorph? Where the hell are the facehuggers? Save for one visceral, terrifying scene where Shaw fights for her life on an operating table – and I won't reveal any more than that, because it's the movie's best moment – Prometheus fails to relieve any of that contextual tension. Instead, Spaihts and Lindelof throttle the story toward a climax that's driven by unexplained purpose, then dial back the intensity with a resolution that's equally cagey.
Ultimately, Prometheus suffers from a fatal case of impossible expectations. While it's certainly above-average blockbuster fare -- largely thanks to Fassbender's unnerving, inhuman performance, and its philosophical musings on God and mankind -- it falls short of its transcendent predecessors. It's appropriate, in a sense: Scott's had a problem matching ambition with execution since the epic one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner. G.I. Jane tackled military sexism. Kingdom of Heaven aimed for the thoughtlessness of holy wars. But, like the rest of his dregs, those movies had the pleasure of short, forgettable lives. They debuted, they failed, the faded away. Prometheus, thanks to its pedigree, cannot do the same.
Perhaps that's why Scott was so reluctant to call it a prequel.