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If you grew up in the 1970s, you may have a dim memory of “Chariots of the Gods,” an international best seller by Erich von Däniken full of dubious speculation about extraterrestrial influences on ancient earthling civilizations. The book, a kind of space age “Da Vinci Code,” inspired a goofy German documentary and, if memory serves, some earnest, anxious debates among sixth-grade protogeeks who shall remain nameless.
Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which arrived at the decade’s end, had a far more durable impact. If you saw it in a theater at an impressionable age you may still be seized by irrational, mortal fear every time you experience a touch of indigestion. A powerful, perfect blend of the space-travel and horror genres, “Alien” tapped into a deep, claustrophobic anxiety and an equally primal sense of adventure, the simultaneous thrill and terror of the unknown. The sinewy resilience of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the designs of the Swiss graphic artist H. R. Giger — including various horrible manifestations of the alien itself — have been etched into the pop-cultural DNA ever since.
In his new film, “Prometheus,” Mr. Scott, returning to science fiction after a 30-year post-“Blade Runner” absence, entwines the visceral, creatural dread of “Alien” with some of the quasi-mythic grandiosity of “Chariots.” Once again a vessel lumbers through the galactic void, and a diverse crew must contend with menacing weirdness outside the ship and growing paranoia within it. The Giger alien may still be out there. Something wicked lurks in subterranean tunnels, their walls etched in freaky runes. And hovering over all the scary stuff are some big, metaphysical questions about the origin and ultimate fate of humanity.