Director Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece "Alien" quarantined audiences in a spaceship where seven crew members faced a threat not of this earth.
"Prometheus," the director's sorta-kinda prequel to that landmark film, takes some "Alien" DNA and grows a franchise reboot that lacks the scares, smarts and suffocating tension that made the original unforgettable.
Ah, what could have been, given the subject matter, the sterling cast and the visual presentation that Scott and his indefatigable crew deliver without a sturdy screenplay to do it justice.
The year is 2093, and two scientists are leading an expedition to a planet they believe holds the key to the origin of mankind.
Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and scientist/boyfriend Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) head a group of travelers who awake after a two-year slumber to see if their hypothesis is correct. Along for the ride are members of Weyland Industries, a synthetic humanoid named David (Michael Fassbender) and a host of other players you won't blink an eye over when they meet their maker.
The planet in question has a host of frightening shocks in store for them, some reminiscent of past movie scares. Meanwhile, crew members all bring very separate reasons for embarking on this voyage, a narrative conundrum that could have worked to the film's benefit had the screenplay offered some semblance of coherency.
For a while, "Prometheus" makes it feel like it's 1979 all over again. Scott excels at creating new, disturbing worlds. And, given the modern CGI toolbox at his disposal, he carries out his visions with nary a visual hiccup to interrupt the experience.
All those exquisite visuals, the tasty set design and Scott's assured look at our future selves slowly peel away to reveal - next to nothing of substance.
Surely, Scott's own "Alien" is light years superior to what's on display. That film boasted a sense of claustrophobia that has yet to be rivaled by subsequent fright films. And "Alien's" characters mattered. We rooted for their survival knowing the creature was an unstoppable killing machine.
The slack character motivations in "Prometheus" torment us at first, while we wait for those ol' franchise tricks to play out. Oooh, that evil corporation, what does it have up its sinister sleeve? And why is Charlize Theron, playing a corporate type even more robotic than David, so removed, so frigid?
In "Prometheus," no character emerges as irreplaceable save Shaw, and mostly because she survives a surgical scene so intense it rivals the signature chest-bursting sequence from "Alien."
Even Fassbender, who makes such a marvelous early impression, is stranded by a screenplay that leaves its characters to fend for themselves. Early on, we see David mimicking an old video of Peter O'Toole with his foppish hair and wry grin. While the other crew members sleep, he strolls the ship's halls, occasionally sinking no-look baskets in the rec room.
it's a crime that the story - and the screenplay - abandon this fine actor with so much to give.
And why in the world is Guy Pearce buried under pounds of old age makeup to play Weyland Industries' head honcho? One suspects the Blu-ray extend-o version will supply some reasons why, but that doesn't help people who pay full price expecting an "Alien"-style experience.
"Prometheus" constantly flirts with us, conjuring provocative themes about our hunger to learn the roots of civilization, but it's simply not smart enough to provide answers or sly open-ended resolutions. The story threads dangle, left untouched as the film's calamitous final reel comes our way.
Great science fiction theater makes one leave the theater abuzz with inner conversations. The more you think about "Prometheus," the smaller it becomes - with or without "Alien's" considerable shadow.
"Prometheus" ends with a nod to the greater franchise in play, but it merely warns us that an "Alien" series reboot is under consideration. It's a moment both unearned and unwanted given what came before it.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies