Why was Alien so effective? It’s summed up right in the tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

It’s the fear of the unknown — not to mention the fear of being so deep in “the unknown” that no one from the outside world knows what’s even happening where you are — that fueled the 1979 sci-fi classic’s engine.

It’s the main reason why, good as it is, James Cameron’s follow-up Aliens will never quite stand shoulder with the original. It turns screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and creature designer H.R. Giger’s Lovecraftian solitary death machine into an anonymous army of otherworldly Axis foot soldiers.

Ridley Scott, who directed the first film and now returns to the mythos with Prometheus, must at least be partially aware of this. How else to explain the mysteriously evasive publicity campaign for what, at the end of the day, is clearly positioned as a prequel to the 1979 film? Is it because Prometheus isn’t a haunted house/creature feature in space shuttle drag like the first one was that the studio’s strategy is to downplay their common bonds? Or is it because Scott, faced with a screenplay that tries to explain just about everything, is wrestling with some cognitive dissonance? Either way, there’s a lot of internal conflict inside Prometheus.

Roughly three-quarters of a century in our future, cute couple archaeologists discover a cave painting that matches other fresco findings, only this one they believe traces back tens of thousands of years beyond anything they’ve seen to date. Their hunch is that it’s an extraterrestrial map. They come to this conclusion without so much as a quick carbon dating.

Cut a few years forward to the Prometheus mission, a privately-funded, gajillion-dollar excursion to a distant planet upon which the two archaeologists (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) have been recruited for their insight about what exactly might be waiting for them there, and are met with predictable hostility by the crew’s collection of tech freaks, engineer geeks and android dweebs (namely Michael Fassbender, perfectly cast as a plastic servant with a sinister streak of fastidiousness).

They land, they search, they find, they regret.

If that’s all that was on Prometheus‘s plate, and if it was that scenario that was paired up with the new film’s neon Candyland adaptation of the original film’s green and cream set design, then it might have approached the level of “B movie done A-list style” respectability of the original.

But (and consider this your official spoiler warning, though anyone with any knowledge of Greek mythology should be able to guess by the title what’s at stake this time around) screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof can’t help but dissect Giger’s world for new age resonance. “Who are we? Where did we come from? Who’s out there?” Before long, the movie has repositioned the proverbial, terrifying “other” the alien creatures represent as both a mutation of “ourselves” and a product of our creators, who themselves are less divine than we ever expected.

As much as Lindelof in interviews has positioned the movie as an oozy defense of intelligent design, it seems self-evident that Prometheus is much more a depiction of evolution accelerated to violent velocity. Certainly the chronic stupidity of the movie’s human characters (which is so redolent that it’s hardly surprising to discover that our creators aren’t particularly fond of us) and their inevitable demise play like a $120 million adaptation of last year’s Darwin Awards, which is apt for a movie that shows a woman getting a snap C-section and then spending the entire rest of the movie running, crouching, jumping, and otherwise moving at all in the first place!

In the end, the movie’s (very interesting) failures are a little like looking directly into the mindset of Ridley Scott’s decision to revisit Alien in the first place. The closer he examines what has to count as one of his two or three successful movies, the more he risks making it die on the operating table.

In space, everyone can hear you try too hard.

Eric Henderson