In Prometheus, Ridley Scott's long-anticipated return to the science-fiction genre, the director confronts a philosophical query that has dogged mankind since at least 1995: What if God was one of us? Not us, exactly, but a bigger, paler, better-sculpted version of us. He appears early on, a cloaked figure perched at the edge of an Icelandic waterfall. He has a bodybuilder's physique, the skin tone of a naked mole rat and a glint of the uncanny valley in his eye. In a film orbiting the same existential themes as 2001—and following the same trajectory, leaping ahead in time several millennia, traveling from prehistoric Earth to beyond the stars—he is an ambulatory monolith, the key to humanity's total understanding of itself. His DNA is our DNA. We've got the pigment, he's got the six-pack abs. It's not a fair evolutionary tradeoff, but it beats coming from monkeys, right?

A think piece on the origins of man probably doesn't sound much like the Alien prequel you were expecting. After all, that movie—the tense 1979 splatter-classic that ignited Scott's career—wasn't concerned with much beyond creating a claustrophobic sense of dread, and it was perfect. For starters, Prometheus isn't a true prequel. It's an "expansion of the Alien mythos." As such, it has mythology on the brain. Just look at the title, which hints at the big ideas Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof are considering here. But the heft of their musings cannot weigh down the sheer, sprawling spectacle of the film's vision. Scott isn't a great philosopher. He is, however, a magnificent stylist. And Prometheus is the most stunning example of effects-driven storytelling yet this year. 

Oh, there are actual characters involved, too—though the most intriguing of them is also a technological creation. He is the android steward of a trillion-dollar spaceship, heading toward a distant moon to investigate the possible existence of extraterrestrial life forms. Ironically, his name is David, but you can call him HAL. While the actual flesh-and-blood crew is in cryogenic deep-freeze, he's spent the two-year journey studying linguistics, playing lonely games of HORSE and watching Lawrence of Arabia on a continuous loop, to the point of adopting the mannerisms of Peter O'Toole's vaguely homoeroticized T.E. Lawrence. Played with maximum drollness by Michael Fassbender, he is mesmerizing just mixing a vodka martini.

There are others, but it's best not to get too attached. Like its predecessor, Prometheus is fluent in the language of horror, and that means characters venture into dark places, mess with things that shouldn't be messed with, and generally make terribly unwise decisions. (Important life lesson: If a creature out of H.R. Giger's most whacked-out Freudian nightmare slithers up from the alien muck, don't try to touch it.) It gets nasty, too: Noomi Rapace's Dr. Shaw—standing in, ably, for Sigourney Weaver's indelible Ripley—must've seen Alien, because once her tummy starts rumbling, she hustles straight to the automated-surgery pod for an emergency caesarian. The procedure resembles one of those claw-crane games from Chuck E. Cheese's, only with a squirmier, gooier prize at the end.

That is, of course, a refried shock, a remix of a scene that blew minds and lunches three decades ago. But Scott still finds new ways to awe. The movie starts in a cave of forgotten dreams, and it's worth wondering if Scott took a tip from Werner Herzog's documentary about the ancient pictograms of France's Chauvet Cave, in which the German madman embraced 3-D as a way of crafting a more tactile viewing experience. With Prometheus, Scott folds in the technology with a similarly subtle hand. He uses it not to jab the audience in its nose, but to make palpable the wonder of discovering a new world, and the terror of actually exploring it. It's a stunning, horrifying success. 

Critic’s Grade: A

SEE IT: Prometheus opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cornelius, Pioneer Place, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville.