"In space, no one can hear you scream." That's what the ads for "Alien" promised in the summer of 1979. It's a great tagline that, in most cases, would have been more memorable than the movie it was attached to. But director Ridley Scott's chronicle of the ill-fated voyage of the Nostromo, a spaceship that took a deadly detour on its way back to Earth, proved to be much more than a typical summer chiller: It spawned one of the most enduring franchises in science-fiction history, turning Sigourney Weaver (who had her first major film role in the original "Alien") into a cinematic icon and helping to launch the careers of directors like James Cameron and David Fincher along the way.
Thirty-three years later, Scott has gone back to the beginnings of the saga with "Prometheus," one of those "origin stories" that lays out the specifics of how it all began.
Although it's a dicey move to unearth the roots of a phenomenon after audiences have been acquainted with the concept for more than three decades, "Prometheus" pays off. Scott's eye for arresting visuals and his gift for building nerve-shredding suspense remain very much intact; in fact, "Prometheus" is often so absorbing and puzzling that you may not notice the aggravating little holes in Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof's screenplay until after the end credits have rolled.
The dread in "Prometheus" comes not so much from the monsters -- the classic, acid-spewing Aliens we all know, with the jutting multiple jaws and sickly, glossy gray bodies only make a brief appearance here -- as it does from the increasing paranoia brought on by total isolation. The tone is similar to the original "Alien," in which the level-headed, amazingly resourceful Ripley (Weaver) is forced to helplessly stand by as her selfish, egomanical or just plain clueless co-workers are picked off, one by one. It's the classic nightmare scenario: You are trapped in an unfamiliar place with no one to save you as time runs out.
In "Prometheus," the crew of the eponymous ship, an environment awash in sinister sleekness, is made up of scientists and employees of the Weyland Corporation, the entity that is funding a mission to a far-off world that, if ancient cave paintings can be believed, may reveal the origins of intelligent life. It's the end of the 21st century, and two strong-minded women are overseeing the operation: fiercely intelligent researcher Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and no-nonsense executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Shaw, who has brought along her partner, the suitably starry-eyed Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), sees the mission as the culmination of her life's work, while Vickers apparently regards it as one more tricky step up the corporate ladder.
The other pivotal player aboard Prometheus is the highly sophisticated android known as David, played sensationally well by the always magnetic Michael Fassbender. While Shaw and Vickers are easy to read, David is a walking mystery: helpful, yet inscrutable and as charming as he is unfathomable. What happens when the true purpose of the journey is revealed -- and when the various motivations of the crewmembers materialize -- makes for an often riveting ride, full of weird little touches (such as a startling tribute to Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia") and engrossing gross-out sequences, including a scene involving robotic surgery that is certain to be one of the most-discussed episodes in the entire "Alien" oeuvre.
Rapace, who became an international sensation as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish versions of Stieg Larsson's novels, provides a fascinating portrait of a cautiously hopeful idealist who's never sure if she's pursuing her destiny or racing toward her doom. She's like a flickering candle that's valiantly trying to illuminate an enormous room. Vickers doesn't have nearly as much complexity -- one of the screenplay's shortcomings -- but Theron's icy intensity and severe looks make her a forceful presence, sort of like a classic Alfred Hitchcock blonde in outer space where, Scott demonstrates once again, no one can hear you scream.