Prequels may be Hollywood's latest gimmick to repackage old franchises as new movies, but they have one definite advantage over traditional sequels. Whereas parts two, three, four, etc., of a series usually find the filmmakers coming up with plots that move further and further away from the story (and the spirit) of the first movie, a prequel is actually driving toward that original inspiration, which forces everyone involved to honor its memory rather than tarnish it. The Alien prequel Prometheus works best for that exact reason: Rather than trying to reinvent the franchise with new tricks (which is what Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, and those Alien Vs. Predator movies tried to do), Prometheus wants to return us to that uncertain terror that loomed over the 1979 original, when none of us knew what was about to come slithering out of John Hurt's stomach.
Prometheus takes place in the late 21st century as a team (led by Noomi Rapace's scientist Elizabeth Shaw and Charlize Theron's ice-cold corporate executive Meredith Vickers) journey to a distant world where the secret to humanity's creation might be found. The third integral member of the group is David (Michael Fassbender), an emotionally passive android who's quite capable of revealing a sense of superiority when Elizabeth's husband Charlie (Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green) treats him like a second-class citizen.
To the surprise of no one, their expedition goes badly, but director Ridley Scott (who also directed Alien) doesn't rush us to that inevitable showdown between humans and extraterrestrials. Instead, he lets the mystery build of how that initial encounter transpired, immersing us first in the world of the spaceship Prometheus and its crew. By doing this, Scott gets to remake the basic setup of Alien, which started off as a character drama aboard the Nostromo before the crew responded to that fateful distress signal, sending the film into horror-thriller territory. Audiences just wanting Prometheus to be wall-to-wall action will be disappointed, but I savored every second of the film's drawn-out opening. Because this is a Ridley Scott film, it looks astounding, but more than that, it has the same chilly dispassion that his Alien had. Never mind the fact that the budget is exponentially higher and the vision far grander this time around—Prometheus retains Alien's human-scaled drama that gives everything an emotional anchor.
If you're going to Prometheus, it's in part because you know horrible things are going to happen to the characters, but the beauty of a horror prequel—at least one that's done well—is that you can change up how the scares will occur. Simply not having Sigourney Weaver's Ripley around goes a long way toward disorienting us—for the first Alien movie in more than 20 years, we're not entirely sure who's going to make it out alive, if anyone. And while the horror framework isn't radically different this time around—as a rule of thumb, it's always bad when an alien goes inside you—there's a whole lot less of the relentless chase-chase-chase that started making the Alien films exhausting rather than exhilarating. Scott brings an elegance and dread back to this franchise, combining the creeping unease of Alien with the larger-scale action set pieces of James Cameron's Aliens.
The movie's look and tone are so beautifully thought out that it almost feels rude to mention that Prometheus's story is incredibly creaky. Going into detail would ruin key plot points, but suffice it to say that, approximately 80 years from now, some of our dumber scientists and business people will be responsible for unleashing an alien menace. The film's scene-by-scene construction is smoothly executed and confidently paced in such a way that it distracts you from the sizable plot holes. And despite a strong cast, these characters aren't terrifically well-drawn. This is hardly a criminal offense—most of the characters in Alien and Aliens were made of cardboard as well—but it's a reminder of how this series has always been led by its technology and by Ripley.
In Ripley's absence, it's the film's high-tech character who proves the most interesting. As the placid, hyper-intelligent David, Fassbender isn't doing anything that different from what we've seen from Ian Holm in Alien or Brent Spiner's Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the filmmakers have come up with an inspired bit that informs Fassbender's performance. David is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, which he watches while the other members of the crew are in hibernation, and he's drawn to the flawless beauty of Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence—so much, in fact, that David starts doing his hair in the style of Lawrence and parroting his lines from the film. This happens early in Prometheus, but it helps establish David's character, who envisions himself, like Lawrence, as a traveler in a strange land surrounded by those who make him feel like an outsider. For O'Toole's Lawrence, that journey led to personal glory but also madness. For David, the consequences turn out to be tragic in their own way.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.