'Alien," Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic, didn't just invent a genre -- a slasher film in space! -- it set the template for just about every extraterrestrial since. Even today, movie aliens look and act like The Alien, a grotesque, gooey combination of cockroach-underbelly and human genitalia designed for maximum revulsion. The influence of "Alien," with its justifiably famous chest-bursting scene, is inescapable.
Years after "Alien" devolved into action fare ("Aliens" and "Alien 3") and knuckle-dragging self-parody ("Alien vs. Predator"), Scott makes his long-awaited return to the material with "Prometheus." Does it do justice to the original? Well, yes and no. "Prometheus" repeats many past glories, and its plot is squishy nonsense. But its grand sets and intricate effects are dazzling, and in at least one scene, Scott almost manages to top himself.
After all the pre-release secrecy, "Prometheus" turns out to be a prequel, in which researchers Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are led by ancient cave paintings to a distant galaxy. Their crewmates seem naggingly familiar, but the actors personalize their roles: Michael Fassbender is creepily compelling as the android David; Charlize Theron is all corporate ice as Vickers; and Idris Elba makes for a likable Captain Janek. Rapace lacks the grit of Sigourney Weaver as the iconic Ellen Ripley, but compensates with sharp intelligence (and a convincing scream). The film's howlingly good centerpiece -- a one-up on that chest-burst -- belongs to her.
The script (Damon Lindelof, of ABC's "Lost," co-wrote) pretends to address high-flown themes of human creation, but "Prometheus" can't escape the low cliches of the horror genre, namely characters who court disaster by poking their fingers into ugly life-forms. What's the matter with these people? Haven't they seen "Alien"?
PLOT On a distant planet, scientists search for the source of ancient messages sent to Earth. RATING R (violence, intense gore, sexual themes)
PLAYING AT Opens Friday at area theaters, some in 3-D and IMAX. Many theaters will have screenings Thursday night at 12:01 a.m.
BOTTOM LINE Ridley Scott's first return to "Alien" territory since 1979 repeats too many past glories, but it looks fantastic and delivers the gory goods with gusto.