If Alien (1979) was a movie very much about running away from something then Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s latest picture, is very much about moving towards. Yet far from answer questions raised by either we are left sort of hanging in suspense … is this a cruel tactic or challenge? Some will no doubt find the approach annoying and accuse the writers of not having thought out the story, but isn’t there something much more interesting at work if we bring our own ideas and judgements to the table? It’s not as if Scott doesn’t spell certain things out: he just doesn’t want to flog everything wholesale. Stanley Kubrick never gave many answers to his and Arthur C. Clarke’s infinitely more weird saga, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and some claim it the best film ever made. Not just in the realm of sci-fi: its merits push beyond the boundaries of genre cinema. And why do we need everything explained and tied up in a neat little bow? If you want dunderheaded spectacles with easy answers watch a Michael Bay film…
Prometheus is definitely big enough to carry its flaws in narrative and characterisation because there are other things at play. Story is but one component of a film and does not represent its sole worth. It clearly fits into the type of traditional cautionary tale seen before in sci-fi cinema and literature – the perils of being too inquisitive and ‘wanting to know the mind of God’, as Dr. Moreau might have said. Do such ambitions make ‘God’ redundant if we are equal to his ‘achievements’? Of course you’d have to accept the notion God is a presence in the universe in the first place for this to work (and Satan too). If you’re an atheist or antitheist it won’t cut the mustard – much like, say, the demonic possession film. This question of where God sits in Prometheus, based on the discoveries made by its various characters, is quite possibly only going to interest academics … if they’re even moved to be interested. Just when we think we can remove the Almighty, lead protagonist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (a scientist with ‘faith’ played by Noomi Rapace) counters with (referring to the engineers) “Well who made them?” Shaw wants her God cake and to eat it too. She has that get out of gaol free card: faith. Two other major questions posed in the narrative, also: ‘Are we meant to find the ultimate answers and are we mentally prepared for what they could reveal?’
Rather than discuss whether or not the film is ‘good or bad’, this piece wishes to explore some of the ideas and themes found (or maybe just imagined – but with good intentions) and reveal its hidden depths. You might find much to argue with or think some reasoning plain wrong. And if you think ‘What’s the point of this analysis, the film was total rubbish?’ Then one can reply “the merit of anything is entirely subjective.” These considerations are entirely up to you, of course.
Prometheus does exist in the same ‘movie reality’ as Alien, but not the same setting or a run up to directly related events. For a whole year discussion has reigned supreme on just what Prometheus actually will be. Expectations have been insanely high and whipped up into frenzy by a marketing campaign equivalent to a blitzkrieg. We now can say Scott has used Alien as a springboard to chase a new dream and story. It also allows for new design and conceptual possibilities to be aired whilst paying tribute here and there to Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger’s iconic sets. The trillion dollar spacecraft Prometheus is a first class piece of technology carrying very important people. The Nostromo is essentially a space truck/cargo ship. It wasn’t designed for rich travellers.
As the sequels to Scott’s 1979 classic developed the xenomorph killing humans scenario, somewhat repetitively, Prometheus explores the alien beings known bizzarely as the ‘space jockey’. But first, let us go back to the future … the year is 2122 and the Nostromo is returning from a deep space mission carrying mineral ore back to Earth. It is safe to assume that humans have been charting the stars and solar systems for a while and haven’t encountered anything odd or dangerous. What the crew take to be a distress signal (it’s actually a warning) is investigated and one of their number is attacked but seemingly unharmed. Overriding quarantine protocol insisted upon by Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (a scene mimicked in Prometheus) sees that something ‘alien’ is indeed brought onboard the ship. Kane (John Hurt) is actually with child (Star Child becomes Star Beast) and delivers, in a shocking take on giving birth. When he gives birth things take a turn for the decidely bad. A routine ride home becomes survival horror.
Only the android medical officer, Ash (Ian Holm), is intrigued by this meeting with an alien being and – under top secret company orders – charged with securing it for inspection. Ash even refers to it, in one scene, as ‘Kane’s son’. This unwanted child conceived by rape must be destroyed as an abomination and deadly threat, and to hell with preserving it. The xenomorph, as it became known, is a pure killer – a perfect organism – and the remaining crew hunt it down in the bowels of the ship without realising they are the prey. That is the narrative of Alien. Dan O’Bannon’s original script had been extensively re-worked by Walter Hill and David Giler into a terse and tense slasher movie in outer space.
However there is another alien in Scott’s picture that nobody – certainly not subsequent filmmakers – seemed to think much about. Even fans, beguiled by Giger’s ultra-weird killing machine, seemed to only refer to it in passing. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997) pretty much killed the series and there seemed nowhere to go but cross-polinate the series with another iconic monster, the predator creature, from John McTiernan and Stephen Hopkins’ Predator (1987) and Predator 2 (1990). Paul W.S. Anderson gave the world ‘Alien Vs. Predator’ (2004). One might fancy imagining for a second or more that this ridiculous entry – which makes a total mockery of the Alien series (but not neccessarily the Predator flicks) – spurred Scott on to make Prometheus and cast them out of the canon for ever.
The stupidity and tragedy of the Alien sequels was focusing on Ellen Ripley. Yes, she was a refreshing heroine but the films showed little imagination in attaching itself to one character and her encounters with the xenomorphs. Scott has proved with Prometheus that this world is much richer. Yet they became as ludicrous as the Jaws sequels in that the great white shark seemed to have a personal vendetta against the Brody family. Ripley just cannot get away from the bloody things. It created a poor (but successful financially) movie mythology and one senses Scott always understood this folly. So the director chose to go backwards but not directly to the source at LV-426. Prometheus explores, much like Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi extravaganza, our origins and our potential future. The myth of Prometheus, too, provided a handy symbolic context.
Connecting the dots between Alien and Prometheus is near pointless given there’s no matching of events from one to the other. Scott was not lying when he said that his latest provides good DNA for Alien. That really is all. We do not return to LV-426 nor do we discover how the engineer/space jockey crash-landed on that planetoid with a cargo of eggs. We can assume since the Prometheus spacecraft did not return from its maiden voyage that the Weyland Corporation, who we know are terraforming other planets, would prepare a contingency plan so that any subsequent and chance encounters with alien lifeforms be investigated, however, that is a wild stab in the dark bordering on fan fiction (for which I apologise).
If academics and film studies students had a veritable field day analysing Alien and discovering an abundance of subtexts, largely read as Freudian, it seems entirely wrong-headed to accuse Scott’s latest of lacking ideas or calling its grand themes somehow ludicrous. The focus here is very much offering a fancy, sci-fi alternative to monotheist creation myths and Darwinism. Imagine our origins engineered by aliens! Are we to scoff at the idea that this somehow sits as a very silly premise compared to an almighty God creating the world in seven days? … Only seven?
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey seems a major inspiration for Scott and his film. Funnily enough, Scott opens Prometheus with a direct quote from that film with ‘a’ world appearing from a slither of light. (There’s no real indictation it is Earth we see in the opening shot or sequence.) Here we have the action-adventure version as opposed to the type of flick critic Renata Adler said was “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.”
Prometheus is an existential sci-fi horror film that might not satisfy genre fans and audiences expecting an Alien repeat. Bigging it up as ‘the new Alien’ is something the marketing campaign did not discourage. Yet the warning signs were always there and it is fair to say Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker to repeat himself and this was never going to be a straight prequel or offer fans the same old chestburster action and characters running around corridors in the dark waiting to be picked off by the xenomorph. Instead, we get an ambitious and tantalising epic which bravely leaves questions, largely, unanswered. If Alien was a film about the dark then Prometheus is all about light. The dimly lit corridors and the isolated innards of a spaceship are replaced with, for most part, grand vistas and spectacular set pieces.
Scott has also been heavily influenced by Erich von Däniken’s tome, The Chariots of the Gods, a work discredited by religious and scientist types as completely bonkers and fraudulent. Yet it gives Prometheus a premise and something to work with. Brian De Palma touched on the subject a little bit in Mission To Mars (2000) and even the Scientology cult posits that we humans have alien origins.
As noted previously, of the Prometheus’s crew Shaw is the ‘true believer’, but finds her Christian views changed irrevocably into something more unknown. She might have gotten away with her answer to Holloway’s assertion that her crucifix is useless, but Prometheus is a film where at least Christianity and therefore other major religions and minor ones too, are seemingly discarded because these characters find something no other religion can provide: proof.
The crew of the Prometheus find, at the other end of outer space, that where they’ve been taken to is some kind of military installation or outpost, not a new civilisation. God might move in mysterious ways, but he doesn’t “build in straight lines.” What the scientists find is a further clue left behind by the engineers. Something happened here that cannot be explained but there are skeletel remains strewn in the corridors inside the pyramid. Perhaps it was an outbreak of some kind experienced. Could it also be the planet from the opening sequence and is this a slight of hand on Scott’s part? During the second and third acts, we understand what the liquid can do – cause mutation and alter things with terrifying results. “We were so wrong,” Shaw laments near the film’s tremendously exciting denouement.
The engineers might be our makers but they have no particular attachment to us. We are not their beloved children: we are Frankenstein monsters en masse, perhaps. We learn that the engineers were heading to Earth in order to erase humans from existence … why? That is a marvellous question left hanging! Rather than admit defeat the two survivors: Shaw and android David (Michael Fassbender) lift off at the finish and go in search of answers, meanwhile in the ejected med lab, something monstrous rips open from the carcass of the last engineer (that we know about, because there is more than one pyramid and more than one ship).
This last shot smacks of studio appeasement. Got to give the fans the money shot! It is actually a poor distraction because we know the xenomorph, as a species exists, from a mural on the wall of the temple inside the pyramid. It might be a figure of worship for the engineers. So we are not seeing anything of major significance unless this new star beast is, perhaps, the first mutation to mix with human DNA (which we kind of know about anyway from other the ‘rules’ of other Alien films where the xenomorph possesses characteristics of the host). The mix consists of Shaw, Holloway, the bioliquid, the engineer and the ‘baby’, that grotesque and vaguely facehugger-like monster Shaw pulls out of her in the med lab. Shaw no doubt clearly thanked God (whether existing or not) that it wasn’t a natural birth.
The engineers have the knowledge and capacity to play ‘God’ (as we understand the term) and for that they might be punished for this transgression. The bioliquid they possess can do scary things. It would be quite wonderful to think we humans are the true monsters…
A monster, as defined by director David Cronenberg is: “a distortion of something that has a normal, non-threatening form. The monstrous form is threatening and disturbing because it is beyond the pale of what we consider normal and therefore safe.” When greated with something foreign – especially in monster movies – the compulsion is to kill it. The threat can be deadly but maybe all stemmin from a few misunderstandings! It is a matter of perspective.
In providing for the development of humankind, are we ourselves the punishment? The ancient star map shows the way but maybe the engineers thought we’d never climb out of the mud and progress to the nuclear age and begin to explore the universe for ourselves? We are therefore the threat and the engineers were set to come to Earth and wipe us out. Then what happened to stop them? It is something for a sequel … that might never come. You can go to the moon and back if you want to but it costs money. It is the same principle with cinema.
Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway are convinced their findings hold an invitation and may finally give us that most enduring of questions: “Why are we here?” Does it cross their minds the the engineers are not some benign, cuddly sorts? Not really. They convince an old billionaire to invest in a spot of interstellar travel to check out the star map. Holloway is so overcome with excitement – with a dash of arrogance – that he turns impulsive and makes very dangerous decisions in his quest for discovery. “It’s Christmas and I want to open my presents,” he tells Captain Janek.
Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) is the man funding the whole expedition. Weyland is a ‘king’ whose reign is almost at an end. He believes that he can triumph death with knowledge gained from the engineers. It is as naive an assumption as Shaw’s belief in the ‘invitation’. The overcoming of death has been seen as a key instigator in the development of religion and has fascinated us for centuries. We’ve created an afterlife because the shock of an end, and a cruel finality, seems too much to accept.