Is Prometheus a first (or a fifth) cousin to the film that put its director, Ridley Scott, on the map? The answer is tucked away in the final frame, and it's an emphatic yes. But even earlier, we have been given reminders of the Alien movies — from the appearance of the title like an un-eclipse to the space explorers who awaken from hyper-sleep and go unwisely where no man has gone before; from the android (Michael Fassbender) leaking white fluid to the seed pods spilling over with slime; from the doughty heroine (Elizabeth Shaw, played by a wan Noomi Rapace) to the callous company executive (Charlize Theron).

There are even superficial allusions to specific instalments of the (so-far) quadrilogy, like the Christian allegories David Fincher tacked on to the third movie (at the end of which Sigourney Weaver's Ripley died in order to save mankind) and the maternal/reproductive concerns of the fourth film, Alien: Resurrection. And yes, the sinister (and extremely wealthy) Weyland Corporation makes a return.

And yet, this handsome production is not quite Alien 5 (or Alien: The Beginning, for that matter). For one, it withholds its scares (for the sequels perhaps?) and pushes forward, instead, a host of heavy questions. What is soul? Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die? The plot kicks off when scientists on earth discover that all ancient civilisations — Egyptian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Mayan — incorporated into their art the same pictogram, which appears to represent a faraway galactic system.

And now, in the year 2093, the eponymous spaceship is headed to that system, ostensibly to search for those who “engineered” us. Shaw is convinced that this expedition will give her the answers. “How do you know?” asks a sceptic. “I don't, but it is what I choose to believe,” says Shaw, who wears her father's cross around her neck. Over three decades ago, in the prime of his youth, Scott wanted to make us scream. Now, older and presumably wiser, he wants to make us think.

That's his undoing. Prometheus is a perfectly serviceable piece of entertainment — I enjoyed the scanning orbs that map out uncharted terrains, and the conceit of a surgery-performing machine — but even the most underwhelming Alien films were filled with a frisson that this film simply doesn't possess. The quasi-philosophical tone (which comes off, at times, like Robert Zemeckis' take on Carl Sagan's Contact) cancels out the horror effects, and the genre underpinnings nullify the high-mindedness — there isn't a single decent scare.

After about three-quarters of the running time, you may still find yourself wondering where this is all headed. (One guess is that Prometheus is essentially ground-laying work for a series of sequels.) And not a single character stands out. We remember, from the earlier Alien movies, not only the heroine, but also Charles Dutton's reformed criminal, Paul Reiser's slime-ball company representative, Lance Henrikson's android Bishop, Carrie Henn's lost little girl, and — not the least — the aliens, those drooling, double-mouthed creatures. All we have here is a faint promise that the future films will be better.

Prometheus

Genre: Adventure/

sci-fi

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender

Storyline: The search for answers to Big questions results in much danger

Bottomline: Disappointing prequel to the Alien movies