Prometheus arrives loaded with the kind of overbearing prerelease hype that can kill a movie. For months, nerds have swooned over the thing as a sci-fi game-changer, something that nobody has ever seen before. Those coming to Prometheus looking for novelty are going to leave slightly disappointed. The by-the-numbers soundtrack opens with a soaring Star Trek–style theme suggesting honor and exploration. And the characters are all based on well-known sci-fi stock. Idris Elba is world-weary Captain Janek, the sort of guy who cracks wise but you know you can trust when the stakes are high. Michael Fassbender's robot David at first feels like a Data riff—an affable humanoid who learned his manners in the uncanny valley but claims to desire real human emotion. Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers is the bitchy corporate ice queen with a hidden agenda. They're all on spaceship Prometheus in the year 2093, trying to discover the truth behind ancient markings that suggest aliens might have created humanity, somehow.
But once you get past those early familiarities, things start to feel a little different than your standard sci-fi movie. Prometheus is stone-cold beautiful, for one thing, opening with majestic shots of a ferocious alien landscape, all rocky and seething and unforgiving (most of the movie was shot in Iceland). If you see it, as I did, in IMAX 3-D, you'll occasionally be overwhelmed by the detail crammed into every frame. As the crew of the Prometheus find themselves on this alien world, trying to unravel the mystery of their origins by exploring a mysterious construct, the set design contrasts with the alien landscape ("God doesn't build in straight lines," one of the explorers says, to differentiate signs of civilization from the world around it) and becomes more and more introverted and dark and weird and generally H. R. Gigerish. It's a balance that works.
Prometheus at times feels like a haunted-house movie, and like the most effective haunted-house movies, it's at its best in the quiet moments, when it's not charging headlong into cheap goriness. (And there are plenty of those gory moments.) The two most effective actors are Fassbender (his David is fastidious about hair care, and as his narcissism expands, he begins to gain an aloofness that brings to mind HAL in human form) and Noomi Rapace as a Christian archaeologist brought onto the mission as a consultant. Both, in their own way, are struggling with the question of why we're all here, and both are engaged in a more literal battle for survival.
It's been a while since a sci-fi movie has tackled these sorts of Big Questions, and Prometheus generally acquits itself well in that department, addressing matters of theology, faith, atheism, and free will with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. But the closer you get to the end of the movie, the more Prometheus discards those questions in favor of cheap fan service. In a few scenes, Scott has clearly handed the reins to studio heads who doubt the audience's ability to handle adult issues—not since the 1960s has a screenplay struggled so awkwardly to avoid saying the word "abortion," for instance—but the fact that this is a summer blockbuster powered by existentialism should not be glossed over. It's a cause for celebration that someone is bothering to use these well-worn tools of genre and film convention to try to dig into something a little more meaningful.