Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is a bona fide classic. It fascinated and terrified audiences in their droves, was a game-changer for the science fiction and horror genres and has sustained many years of critical kudos. But to say it was recognised as a “classic” at the time of its release, despite generally favourable reviews, is another thing entirely.

“You won’t see anything very original in the film,” wrote The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm. “Alien is not the seminal science-fiction film one wants from him (Scott),” complained New York Times critic Vincent Canby.

Now 74, Ridley Scott returns to the in-space-nobody-can-hear-you-scream genre he helped create, and anybody marred by the psychological scars inflicted by such belated dross as Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) knows all too well how these time warps can pan out.

Prometheus, for which hopes could barely have been set higher, is deliberately ambiguous in many regards but makes one message resoundingly clear: Ridley Scott should have stayed in space. It’s his first great film in over two decades.

The story hovers around a crew of explorers who awake from a two year slumber on a ship in “the darkest corners of the universe.” They have a rather sizeable brief: to discover the origins of human existence.

Billionaire corporate tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) funded the trip after the discovery on Earth of ancient cave wall paintings depicting non-humans and a star map; all that’s missing from this scene is a cameo from Werner Herzog explaining that these pictures were lifted from a hidden wall in Ze Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011).

The crew, headed by cap Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Weyland’s quasi-son David (Michael Fassbender), a robot perfectly textured to resemble a human being, begin exploring the environment outside the ship and make some shocking discoveries. When the action and intensity gathers momentum, and Scott returns to put a fresh twist on some quintessential Alien cues – i.e. an outer space operating table – the results can be electrifying.

Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic presence takes the top gong vis-a-vis performances, the audience uncertain whether this curious creation is a force of good or bad or just is; a blank, unfathomable, unreadable juxtaposition to the more hysterical supporting roles.

It may come as no surprise that Prometheus is atmospherically dazzling in a way that makes your eyeballs want to have a cigarette, zip up their pants and go out for breakfast afterwards. Scott’s visual approach, a deft combination of Alien’s sullen slow-moving moodiness and some whiz-bang state of the art salad dressing, doesn’t omit a whiff of Michael Bay’s chaotic “fucking the frame” mentality, which has had a corrosive effect on how contemporary action sequences are shot and edited.

With long, slow and patient takes, Scott’s cameras are not fucking but seducing, soaking up a magnificent futuristic mise en scene and using 3D in the best possible way: for subtle manipulations of layer and depth.

Whispers of Shivers (1975), The Thing (1982), Blade Runner (1982) and of course Alien echo in the film’s visual and story inventions, but Prometheus’ existential “where did we come from?” core gives it more scope and ambition than any of those films; note the way it observes, through visions steeped in Christian ethos, the ritualistic act of drinking from a cup.

If that ambition is never fully realised, you can hardly blame Scott for not answering the riddles of existence. Instead the thematic focus is on searching and questioning. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has a compelling cyclical structure that presents loud entertainment commensurate to a capacity for wonder; this time around, in a much darker and more insular sense. In its final act, the plotlines of Prometheus detonate pockets of bedlam, but even the zanier story tracks link back to classical cause-and-effect structure in ways that don’t treat viewers like 12-year-olds.

To borrow the title of Scott’s 2006 chateau-set wine swilling drama, 2012 has been A Good Year for appreciators of blockbuster science fiction, with director Andrew Stanton’s under-watched and under-appreciated John Carter taking audiences to the moon (well, Mars) and back. Like a great bottle of red, these two films may need to age and breathe before they get their deserved distinction, but it will come. That applies double to Scott’s stunning return to form.

Prometheus’ Australian theatrical release date: June 7, 2012

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