When he directed Alien back in 1979, Ridley Scott's game plan was simple: take a B-movie premise – a monster running wild on a spaceship – and dress it up with first-class actors, expensive special effects, a brooding tone cribbed largely from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and plenty of blood and guts. But the experiment got away from its instigator: Scott couldn't have guessed that his film would spawn three sequels (five, if you count the Alien Vs Predator spin-offs), nor that the continuing character of Ellen Ripley, played by the extraordinary Sigourney Weaver, would evolve into a figure closer to a full-fledged tragic heroine than a standard damsel in distress.
More than three decades later, Scott has returned to the scene of his past triumph with Prometheus, which is something like a prequel to Alien – unless it's a companion piece set in a parallel universe. Either way, the year is 2089, and the Prometheus is a spaceship headed to an alien planet on a mission aimed at uncovering the origins of the human race or (depending who you talk to) the secret of eternal youth. No-one on board has anything like Ripley's gravitas, but Scott has persisted with the series tradition of giving women central roles: Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is the sleek, pragmatic corporate head of the expedition, while Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is the film's vulnerable moral centre, an archeologist who hopes to find meaning in outer space while retaining her faith in Christ.
By far the most intriguing character is the soft-spoken android David (Michael Fassbender), the ship's butler and a detached observer of humanity in general. Early on, while the rest of the crew remain in suspended animation, we learn he is able to spy on their dreams; shortly after, we see him watching Lawrence of Arabia, then mimicking Peter O'Toole's voice and gestures with fetishistic precision. It's a tightly controlled, weirdly camp performance, hinting at a sterile yet alluring narcissism – an intriguing choice for a film so insistently repelled by anything that evokes procreation.
On arrival, various crew members set out to explore the alien catacombs, usually solo or in pairs. Along the way, they encounter traces of advanced technologies seemingly left behind by a lost civilisation, while other unfriendly critters turn out to be very much alive. This dingy labyrinth is similar to backdrops used in the earlier Alien movies, and there's little here to support Scott's reputation as a constantly inventive visual genius; the sound tends to be more evocative than the imagery, particularly when a storm hits, though Marc Streitenfeld's music is mainly routine horror movie stuff when it isn't borrowing from Jerry Goldsmith's original Alien score. In fairness, the most effective scenes here are the straightforwardly horrific ones, especially an effort to top Alien's legendary “chest-burster”.
Just about all the iconic moments from the Alien series can be understood as grotesque parodies of sex and childbirth, but never before has this Freudian subtext been so lumberingly explicit. The “philosophical” themes of Prometheus, such as they are, revolve around the dangers of children coming to know their parents too closely, and vice versa. Could it be that our true creators are malignant, alien beings, like the Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft – and if that were so, what would that say about us? As we ponder this question, we're invited to compare and contrast David's ambivalent view of his own human “parents”: there are echoes here of the “replicant” played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, Scott's other major science-fiction success.
There's no doubt this ambitious project originally had potential; often it feels as if Scott hoped for something with the metaphysical heft of 2001 but lacked the energy to work out what he wanted to say. Probably his biggest mistake was teaming up with the screenwriter Damon Lindehof, best-known as one of the show-runners of Lost – the great long con of modern television, forever exploiting audience goodwill by promising dazzling revelations just round the corner. Given the expectations built up by Prometheus, anticlimax was probably inevitable, but the ugly, incoherent ending is nothing if not an admission of defeat.