Prometheus is touted as director Ridley Scott’s first science-fiction film since the profoundly influential Blade Runner , and has had the Internet in a speculative tizzy for almost two years over the back-and-forth “is it a prequel to Alien or not?” hullabaloo. Because of this, moviegoers will enter the darkened theater with years of buildup and wildly varying expectations. Most of them will want to see the iconic, shiny black “xenomorphs” and the nightmarish facehuggers, hoping for a glimpse into the secrets of their creation. They’ll also want to know who or what the “space jockey” is, why he was in that chair on that crashed ship, and how it all leads up seamlessly to Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo stumbling upon all the madness on LV-426. If that’s the movie you’re expecting, prepare to be utterly crushed, because Prometheus features none of these things. Instead — perhaps in an unintentionally meta way — Damon Lindelof, a writer rapidly gaining infamy for perceived botched endings (See LOST) and providing unsatisfactory answers to questions,  has turned in a movie that’s essentially all about disappointing resolutions.

Make no mistake, Prometheus is clearly set in the universe of the Alien films, as we are quickly thrust back into a world where the immoral Weyland Corporation runs half the galaxy and the instantly recognizable techno-gothic grotesqueries of artist H.R. Giger populate a desolate alien landscape. We do get to see the enigmatic space jockeys, only here they are referred to as “Engineers,” whom scientist Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her Tom Hardy doppelgänger boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe are responsible for the creation of civilization after discovering the same cave scrawling in different parts of the world of an “alien astronaut” pointing to a group of planets.

Eventually, they figure out that the cave glyphs form a star map, which Shaw reads as an invitation from their creators to come for a visit, so the Weyland Corporation, under the leadership of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in old-age makeup), funds their journey to the alien system on the starship Prometheus, which is staffed by a blue-collar tough guy pilot (Idris Elba), a corporate ice queen with ulterior motives (Charlize Theron), and — since this is an Alien film — a lifelike android named David, played with brilliant creepiness by Michael Fassbender. David spends much of the early part of the film eerily pacing around the empty ship’s hallways watching the crew slumber in cryo-pods for the long journey to “LV-223,” spying on their dreams with a special monitoring device, and learning about humanity through films like Lawrence of Arabia. (In an amusing touch, David styles and colors his own hair to look like Peter O’ Toole.) Fassbender is heads and shoulders the best actor in the film, playing the role of a robot with a nuanced duality – he seems to want to be understood and accepted by humans, yet coldly sets things in motion that place them in harm’s way, and you’re never sure what his true agenda is until the final act.  Rapace’s perfomance starts off slow and pedestrian, but when the stakes escalate, she raises the bar on her own intensity level and effectively proivides the audience a rooting interest in a character driven by faith, yet emotionally destroyed by the discoveries she makes.

Frustratingly, what grabs Prometheus‘ ankles right before it can soar into space and become an epic genre classic,  is the structurally flawed script by Lindelof and Jon Spaihts that ultimately doesn’t provide enough answers and fails its supporting characters.  When things really start going wrong about 45 minutes into the film, the messy writing forces the crew into out-of-nowhere exposition dumps, baffling behavior, and idiotic decision-making (removing helmets in an alien atmosphere, haphazardly handling alien canisters filled with goo, reaching out to try to pet deadly alien snakes, etc.) in order to advance the  horrific creature carnage along and drive towards the climax, which, while fascinating, goes off the rails and wastes a golden opportunity to be truly meaningful.

Despite these flaws, Prometheus is riveting to watch. It’s a sumptuous, atmospheric visual feast with awesome design work and an intense, visceral musical score that keeps your pulse rate up and the hair on your arms at full alert at all times. The booming sound design was absolutely incredible to experience in the theater where I saw the film. I could feel the The low rumble of the star craft in the film vibrate through my chest. Every time I’m ready to call for the death knell of digital 3D, a true master comes along and proves why it’s a viable cinematic tool. It’s no surprise that three of the greatest 3D experiences have all come at the hands of  auteurs like James Cameron (Avatar), Martin Scorcese (Hugo), and now Scott with this lush and textured visual presentation. The 3D in Prometheus is simply breathtaking. The depth of field in the image is so tangible, it’s as if the movie screen itself slid up and out of view, revealing an open window peering out into a world of vast alien mountain ranges and endless star fields. I felt like I was on board the Prometheus, walking through its hallways, and later I almost instinctively raised my hands to cover my face as a flurry of mercurial shards from an environmental storm blasted through the foreground and background of the frame.

The creature design/fx, which features a nice blend of CGI and practical effects, is top-notch and produces some suitably creepy crawlies that cause agonizing deaths for the crew members.  The Engineers, in particular, are very disquieting in appearance —  impossibly muscled, with haunting red eyes and a waxy, pallid blue complexion. I hope we get to see more of these mysterious “space jockeys” in the future.

Mankind has spent eons trying to reconcile its existence, pondering the stars and asking the questions that are as old as time itself: “Why are we here?”, “Where did we come from?”, “What is our purpose?”  Prometheus is a film built on this quest for the secrets of creation, but ultimately it warns us that we might be better off not knowing for a myriad of reasons:  the answers may be spiritually insufficient, or they may only lead to more questions, or they are filled with existential horror beyond our comprehension. We’re a race that is constantly seeking the truth, but more of than not, the truth hurts. In the case of Prometheus, if the truth is that we are merely an experiment, created in the image of violent, planet-hopping deathbringers and their bio-engineered terrors, what does that say about our nature?