Fan fiction can be fun, but even the good stuff usually crumbles when faced with the simple question "Why bother?" The urge to revisit the "Alien" universe and shine $130 million worth of 3-D clarity into one of its perfectly satisfying corners of ambiguity isn't inherently a bad idea, although anyone hoping for "Prometheus" to show the actual Space Jockey from the first film or how he ended up on LV-426 is going to be disappointed when none of that happens. Instead the film shoots for the moon, declaring from the off that his mysterious species is responsible for life on earth and has been beckoning us to the stars ever since; a plot whose stab at religiosity shares more DNA with "The X-Files" than anything else, right down to the mutating black oil that the Space Jockeys use to create their monsters. "Prometheus" is fan fiction writ very, very large.
Ridley Scott's films have been getting more and more wayward for 20 years, but the extra voltage he works up when he turns his eye towards the fantastical is undeniable. A lot of "Prometheus" looks grand, especially the early sequences of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her expendable cohort being picked off by a couple of mutated space maggots and a reawakened Space Jockey. The tech is nifty too, although why a team equipped with flying tennis-ball scanners that scout out the surroundings should ever be surprised from behind is an open question. So is the decision to make the Space Jockeys hulking muscle-bound bald guys in loin cloths, direct from Central Casting circa 1951.
Like a lot of Mr. Scott's films, it sounds much worse than it looks in both script and music departments. "Prometheus" has more than its share of limp dialogue, a lot of it falling on the shoulders of the luckless Kate Dickie; and it could have made more of the religious undercurrents that Ms. Rapace nicely plays. The film ends with Shaw setting off in an alien spaceship to meet her maker somewhere in the cosmos, which should be a shattering, poignant conclusion to a profound piece of character building — a theological warrior woman. Instead it feels like an invitation to tune-in after the break for Part Two.
That's partly since television now sets the tone and the pace for science-fiction, leaving movies to fiddle in the margins. Guy Pearce, already under pounds of old-age prosthetics as the scheming Peter Weyland, turns out to have been smuggled onto the spaceship in an ornate bedroom much like the one in "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's a neat joke, but the idea that any sci-fi film would choose to engage its brain on Stanley Kubrick's level seems further away than ever. In the meantime, "Prometheus" lets a handful of fine actors luxuriate in the richly detailed environments that come naturally to Mr. Scott, especially Michael Fassbender as the coolly menacing robot David and Charlize Theron's corporate amazon. The pair have a fine scene snarling at each other like a couple of cross blond gods.
And almost all is forgiven for the film's blatantly contrived centerpiece, in which Ms. Rapace performs an emergency Cesarean on herself to remove a foul squid-thing from her uterus before stapling her belly back together again. It's the only time the film dabbles properly with all the sticky reproductive subtexts that the original story played with so well, and should earn Ms. Rapace an award from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' gynecologists branch.