It’s interesting that, after the one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott would abandon science fiction for three decades before coming back with Prometheus. (Coincidentally less interesting: the 16 films he made in between.) But there’s something to be said for walking away after doing such definitive work, especially in the case of Alien, which has informed every horror-tinged sci-fi flick made in its wake. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s brilliant monster movie spawned one great sequel before petering off into franchise hell, but Scott seemed to have been either uninterested in repeating himself or scared to try to top his only masterpiece.
Neither theory holds up in the wake of Prometheus, Scott’s return to the series he helped launch in 1979, but their motivating concerns infect its every setting and story beat. Though the rumor-shrouded production’s acknowledgement that the film had “Alien DNA” was meant as coy fanboy bait (if you must know, the film is best described as an un-prequel), it also also reflects just how closely the best Alien ripoff in years sticks to its archetype.
If that sounds dismissive, it’s because there’s a lot about Prometheus that begs to be dismissed. From the title’s allusion to Greek mythology on down, Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof are intent on bringing the director’s recent trademark of handsome self-seriousness to the production. The story starts with a pair of archaeologists (Logan Marshall-Green and original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace) in search of a race of alien “Engineers” they think are responsible for intelligent life on Earth. Their fellow space travelers include a scene-stealing android (Michael Fassbender), which ensures plenty of philosophically fraught meditations on the relationship between life-givers and their creations, and on and on from there with the occasional garnish of theism or anthropology. As hard as it must be for an ostensibly serious post-Battlestar Galactica sci-fi film to get any traction on ideas like these, moments throughout Prometheus betray a weird disengagement with its own philosophical debates.
Its big ideas are just window-dressing once the band of 17 scientists, pilots, and Weyland Corporation hacks touch down on the distant moon that cave paintings suggest might be the Engineers’ welcome center. What follows, and what defines Prometheus, is an extrapolation on a scene early in Alien that counts (even now, I promise) among the most mysterious ever filmed. Still, the script continues to show its seams, many the same sort that Lindelof struggled with as a creative force behind Lost, where mysteriousness was used as a narrative snooze button. Factor in the exposition dumps, logical leaps, and comically half-assed background characters and Prometheus’ lumpy two-hour running time makes it one of the rare films that feel either 20 minutes too long or an hour too short.
Here’s the thing, though: None of this is fatal for the movie, because out in front of all the heady chatter and myth-building is the kind of interstellar haunted-house movie that ignited the series in the first place. There are flaws throughout the film—deep ones—but they fade when the horror ramps up and Scott drops the straight-faced act, riding a pulpier sensibility to his most relevant work in ages. This side of Prometheus is huge, slick, and fun in ways Alien could never have been, and that’s honestly what ends up making the strongest impression.
Either way, it’s destined to be controversial. Crucial new chunks of the series mythology are made more or less clear, but other questions, old and new, are sold short or abandoned altogether. (Really, the line between teasing implications and cop-outs isn’t a particularly thin one.) Stranger still is the ending: though Scott positions Prometheus cleverly within the franchise, the more Alien-savvy viewers may find the final scenes almost deliberately confusing. Those sorts of decisions are all the more reason not to mistake Prometheus for the serious film it pretends to be, right down to the name. It’s not so important that the Prometheus myth has anything to do with what goes on, only that the word looks badass across the hull of a spaceship and the bottom of a movie poster.