It’s been 33 years since Warrant Officer Ripley steered the Nostromo back to Earth after a hairy battle with one heck of an alien baddie.

At the time, Alien was a groundbreaking bit of sci-fi/horror mastery, due in large part to the stellar direction by Ridley Scott and the sense that terror was lurking around every corner. Now comes Prometheus, Scott’s pseudo-prequel that will no doubt dazzle and amaze, even as it sputters a little along the way.

Set thirty years before the events of Alien, Prometheus opens with a nebulous prologue about an alabaster, human-like creature who eats a little bowl of space goo and promptly meets a particularly colorful death. We’re not sure when, we don’t know why, and, frankly, we never really do find out why. But more on that later.

Next ting we know we’re in Scotland in the latter years of the 21st century as a team of researchers headed by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave full of paintings. They recognize the designs from a series of similar markings created throughout the centuries by civilizations from all corners of the Earth.

And they also recognize that it’s the last piece of the puzzle needed in order to search for the origins of life as we know it.

After a two-year cryogenic field trip to the far reaches of the universe, the duo (along with a team that, let’s face it, will be dead within the hour) lands on the planet they believe is Ground Zero for our species. But if it were that easy, we wouldn’t have a movie to watch.

As it turns out, this moon is a breeding ground for a rather disturbing kind of creature (despite once of the team’s ill-advised desire to ‘coochie-coo’ pet it). Before too long, John Hurt’s classic gut-bursting scene from Alien looks like a minor case of indigestion.

Scott still has just an eye for the incredible as he always had, though it has become much more refined (Alien was his sophomore film, Prometheus is his 20th). The world that he creates and the visual effects that bring it to life are among the most completely mesmerizing ever put on film. And here’s a case where 3D actually heightens a movie-going experience– finally.

The cast is as eclectic a mix as you would expect from a franchise that opened with the teaming of Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, and Ian Holm. Here Rapace and Marshall-Green are joined by ship’s captain Idris Elba, corporate honcho Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender as the android David. Along with the go-for-broke, excellent performance by Rapace, it’s Fassbender’s work here that will be long remembered; it’s disturbing, fascinating, and terrifying all at the same time.

…which brings us back to the stone-white guy eating the goo. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts and second-drafter Damon Lindelof both have a clear respect for the original films and have included just enough winks and nods for Alien fans, but they neglected to put as much effort into crafting a more coherent (and, frankly, thrilling) story. Lost fans know all-too-well about Lindelof’s modus operandi of keeping things vague, but here it just leads to unanswered questions, an overdose of religious allegory, and a somewhat disappointing lack of pulse-racing.

Aside from the pet-the-monster scene and a particularly gnarly bit of self-surgery later, the thrills are too sparse for Prometheus to merit a edge-of-your-seat spot alongside its hair-raising predecessors; it’s more like Alien vs. The Tree of Life than a prelude to ‘In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.”

Fortunately, though, Prometheus is ‘summer spectacle’ at its finest– an eyeball-popping trip to a far-away world– a 3D testament to the fact that it’s more about the journey than the destination.

4/5 stars