Technically, Prometheus is neither a remake nor a reboot. It isn't even a franchise extension of the original Alien — "shared DNA" is how the filmmakers have characterized the curious bond between the two movies. They do share the same parent: director Ridley Scott, taking care not to draw direct connections (except in one instance) between the new movie and its 1979 predecessor.
With the new movie following the original's template almost point for point, though, comparisons are unavoidable. That's a distinct problem for this mutant offspring because Alien is one of the best films ever made, and Prometheus, sadly, is something of a mess — albeit a provocative and visually splendid one.
As befits an offshoot of the Alien movies, a franchise that seized upon icky taboos surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, it opens with an alternate Genesis travelogue through the genetic birth of life, as two researchers find a cave drawing in Scotland that matches primitive stellar maps all over the Earth — apparent clues to the origin of man. (You'd have to go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek: The Motion Picture to find a big studio film this interested in evolution.)
The discovery convinces shadow corporation Weyland Industries (corporate loathing being the hardiest strand of Alien's DNA) to dispatch the USCSS Prometheus research vessel in search of who or whatever issued that spark of creation. But after landing on an isolated planet, the crew finds a mystery more capable of ending human life than generating it.
A bigger mystery, after 30 years of rip-offs and sequels, is why Scott would revisit such familiar terrain. (And by "familiar," we're talking the basic story structure of Alien, even down to specific monster beats and killpoints.) The original Alien was a triumph of atmosphere and insinuation, an elegant fusion of all nightmares: trespass, violation, body horror, corporate malfeasance, chthonic marauders. There was no level of fear it couldn't sneak into your subconscious.
Prometheus aspires to loftier goals or at least pays lip service to them. Instead of jaded punch-clock jockeys, the script credited to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof makes the heroes idealists who believe they're bringing vital knowledge back to Earth. As such, they're far more dangerous — particularly the character who passes for an Ellen Ripley here, scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). She's as pregnant with religious conviction and hope as she is biologically barren, and if you know the Alien movies, that alone should start making you queasy.
But Prometheus applies a bigger, more blatant aesthetic that yields mostly diminishing returns. Scott is no longer the voluptuary filmmaker of 30 years ago who allowed for character detail and incidental beauty. His peerless eye for texture hasn't deserted him, and here he uses 3-D to enhance the isolation and eerie enormity of his alien landscapes. But he can't untrain his editorial impulses, and savoring an image this time around is like a battle — though there isn't an explicit CGI effect here as impressive as what he managed on Alien's limited analog means.
That's less troublesome, though, than his reduced attention to the movie's human elements. Outfitted with first-rate character actors — the wild card was then-unknown Sigourney Weaver — the Alien ensemble gave characters equal rooting interest and personality, and Scott added to the movie's verisimilitude by directing them to speak in an Altman-esque mutter — the murmur of people in a factory breakroom. By contrast, there are no genuine bonds between any of the characters in Prometheus. Their every move smacks of plot advancement, and even actors as capable as Charlize Theron (stuck in the Paul Reiser corporate-tightass role from Aliens) can't hide the seams — especially when they're left with an accent instead of a personality, like Idris Elba's captain. One actor manages to transcend, or at least complicate, his amorphous role: Michael Fassbender, playing a sinister android named David who's spiky and petulant behind the rictus smile of purportedly helpful technology.
But Prometheus comes into its own visually. The trillion-dollar research vessel is all clean lines and sterile handsomeness, in direct contrast to the rust-bucket majesty of Alien's Nostromo. And 3-D allows a pleasure that fans have dreamed of for three decades: letting the eye wander within a lavishly realized H.R. Giger environment. The Swiss conceptual artist has his fingerprints all over visual marvels such as the film's engineer pyramid, and such moments can't help but soar.
That said, there's a reason that Prometheus' buildup has focused so much on the giant Giger head that looms over the movie's landscape. Humanoid but not human, it lays out the film's central themes in one image, an economy of storytelling that its screenwriters should envy. Atmosphere is how a scary movie lives or dies: It's almost certainly why the original Alien has outlasted so many imitators. The filmmakers would likely counter that they've got more on their minds in Prometheus than making a scary movie. The truth is that the film they've delivered — a jumble of grandiose ideas laden with corporate-familial intrigue and ill-fitting spam-in-a-starship subplots — needs precisely the clarifying element of that unassuming aim.
As proof, there's the movie's already infamous centerpiece — a sequence of such unspeakable grotesquerie it could drive audiences screaming and puking from the theater. As with the Alien quartet, its monstrosities derive from pregnancy, and its details will be recounted with nauseating relish all summer. It's effective and memorable because it delivers on its clear-cut purpose of leaving you quivering in your seat.
If there's any idea that links Prometheus to its Alien kin, it's that ultimate terror can be a real mother.