The night I went to see Prometheus, a friend tried to wave us off, calling the movie a “hot mess”. We saw it anyway … and she wasn’t wrong. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have its moments, but the film is ultimately beautiful and flawed.
Prometheus began life as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror classic Alien, spun off in its own creative direction, and then arrived back in a widely erratic orbit around the xenomorphic film that spawned it. At its heart, the movie asks the big questions, most notably “Where did we come from?” but is reluctant to give us the answers.
Unlike Alien, which involves long-distance cargo haulers stumbling across an alien derelict, the characters of Prometheus seek out their fate.
While researching ancient cultures around the Earth, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovered evidence of alien visitations. Each culture, separated by thousands of miles and perhaps as many years, created artwork depicting first content with oversized humanoids. Those self-same humanoids clearly extended an invitation for us to come visit them, as each one pointed to a cluster of stars.
Naturally, we obliged.
Prometheus is at its best in the early going. There’s a breathtaking opening sequence that sends us flying through clouds to the surface of a terrestrial world, where one of the Engineers — as the giant aliens have come to be known — appears to sacrifice itself to bring life to the planet. I didn’t see it in 3D, but in the theatre I found myself wanting to see it in that format.
Flash-forward 10 minutes and we’re aboard the starship Prometheus, which has been dispatched to investigate the Engineers’ world. We see the synthetic human David going about his rounds, tending to the human crew as they cyrosleep their way across the lightyears. It evokes the quiet grace of 2001, all the while establishing David as an android with people issues.
Optimism infects the movie early on, from the awe-inspiring, majestic soundtrack to the goofy grins of the lead researchers, who just know they’re on the verge of re-discovering Eden. It’s understandable — these people think they’re about to meet their creator, and how could that creator harbor anything but love for them?
It’s an attitude that gets most of them killed.
“It’s Christmas, captain, and I want to open my presents.” –Charlie Holloway
Once on the planet, they discover an ancient alien complex, and everyone loses their frakking minds. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, because every single human crew member makes the single worst decision they could, given the circumstances.
We have scientists who — after only rudimentary atmospheric tests — decide to take their helmets off. Charlie Holloway assumes that the Engineers were terraforming. Since they made the air, it must be good, so he takes off his helmet.
People, if you are exploring a strange alien world, don’t take off your damn helmet! This is Biocontamination 101!
We have Millburn — a biologist so infatuated with cool new alien life forms that he decides he wants to make friends with a weird snake monster. People, if some grey horror rises up out of the sludge, do not attempt to pet it. It doesn’t want to be your friend.
Shaw and Holloway are so sure they’re right that when they see holographic recordings of Engineers running in terror from some threat (including one that gets decapitated by a door) they don’t stop and go back for weapons. They don’t even try and speculate about what’s happening; they just … press on.
The one crew member who does decide to bug out is the geologist Fifield. This is a man so brilliant that he can create probes to map the interior of the complex, yet so stupid that he gets lost trying to escape from it. I get he’s freaked, I get he’s panicked, but this is ridiculous.
This is in sharp contrast to the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Sure, they make a few bad decisions — you can’t have a horror movie without them — but they’re more understandable, and are consistent with the characters in question. When Kane touches an alien egg inside the derelict, we can excuse it — he’s just an ordinary guy thrown into exceptional circumstances. When Millburn touches the snake, he’s a trained biologist doing something profoundly stupid.
We see this time and time again. Characters act and re-act, but they rarely do so consistently. Dr. Shaw is one of the worst in this regard — unlike Ripley, who’s constantly trying to think through the problem, Shaw simply spins from disaster to disaster, never stopping to think, always stumbling on to the next encounter.
Perhaps the ultimate example of this is when Shaw becomes impregnated with an alien fetus. The thing grows with ridiculous speed and she’s able to use an automated medical bay to remove it in a cringe-worthy Caesarean section. Even after this, with her stomach hastily stapled back together, she never stops. Never demands answers. Never comes up with a plan. Never even mentions what happened. She pops some pills and then moves on with barely an indication that she just had her stomach stapled together.
“Engineers? Do you mind, um, telling us what they engineered?” — Fifield
“The engineered us.” — Shaw
The attraction of Prometheus was that it would explain where the xenomorphs of Alien came from. In a roundabout way, it answers that, but it leaves so many other questions unanswered. The Engineers created humanity and left all manner of signs behind asking us to come visit them. But as the movie unfolds we learn that the pyramid complex Shaw and Holloway have been exploring is actually a starship. That starship is stocked with bioweapons, and it is aimed at Earth.
Without waiting for us to find them, they decide to kill us.
Why? We don’t know. Ridley Scott seems content to handwave this away by saying they’re “dark angels”. He hints that the “Jesus” hypothesis — in which an Engineer comes to Earth, is crucified, and thus draws down the wrath of his people — is correct. Or at the very least, the Engineers did judge us for our medieval excesses and decided to wipe us out.
He wanted to ask the question “Where did we come from?” but he didn’t want to answer it in this movie. Watching it for a third time, it seems clear that he’s intent on setting up his “dark angels” and hinting at their motivations, but is saving any concrete answers for the sequel.
I’m skeptical we’ll get them, even if the sequel is made (and it seems likely it will be) but I have to admit I’m curious. The Alien mythology, even with all its flaws, is still compelling.
“Whatever that probe is picking up, it’s a lifeform.” –Janek
When I first watched Prometheus I found its lack of a coherent alien threat to make it a subpar creature feature.
I’ve changed my mind.
Prometheus packs all kinds of horrific creatures into its bowels. We’ve got man-mutants (one who almost turns, one who completely turns), an alien squid baby, worm weirds, the Engineers themselves, the adult version of the squid baby, and finally a prototypical xenomorph.
On second viewing, there are ties that bind here: it’s all about the same biological weapon manifesting in different ways. It’s about Pandora opening the wrong damn box, and finding hell inside.
There’s not the same sort of focused, laser-like vision we saw in Alien, but it does speak to the destructive nature of the Engineers’ creations and explains how things went so terribly wrong on the derelict ship that the crew of the Nostromo found on LV-426. The creatures are horrifying, but not particularly scary, not like Alien or even Aliens. They’re mileposts on the road to destruction, nothing more.
There is a cool smackdown fight between the adult squid monster and the Engineer. It’s not particularly scary; it’s more like a fight between Godzilla and King Kong than anything else. The impregnation of the Engineer and the subsequent reveal of the prototypical xenomorph is expected, but satisfying nonetheless.
But you don’t understand. You don’t know. This place isn’t what we thought it was. They aren’t what we thought they were. I was wrong. We were so wrong.
The ultimate problem with Prometheus is that it didn’t deliver what we expected. It explained the origin of the xenomorph from Alien, demonstrating they were at least partially engineered, but it asked big questions that it never really answered.
It’s possible that Prometheus 2 will give us these answers, but the big question is whether Ridley Scott will be able to resurrect his storytelling skills and create characters we give a damn about. It’s possible that the events of Prometheus served as a crucible for Dr. Shaw, giving her some much-needed real-life experience and shredding her earlier optimism. A more cynical Shaw might ask better questions, and that in turn could lead to a better movie.
I’m not holding my breath.