I’ve been excited about Prometheus ever since it first announced years ago. Honestly, just the words, “Ridley Scott is returning to the Alien franchise with a prequel,” was all I needed to hear. The whole Internet was ecstatic. The first Alien has always been my personal favorite of the series, mostly because of Scott’s greatest strengths as a director–his ability to create atmosphere in a film. Alien was just a creepy film all around, even if you ignore the horrible space monster running around the ship and killing off the cast one by one. So, a great director returning to one of the greatest science fiction franchises in film? How could this possibly be anything but TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY AWESOME?!?
Of course, Prometheus’s relationship to Alien changed a bit since the project was first announced. Initially, it was to be a true prequel, then reports came in saying that it wasn’t a prequel anymore. Later, the official word from Ridley Scott himself was, to paraphrase, that it is a prequel to Alien, but not really, although it is related to the franchise, it isn’t a prequel but it is, but it kinda sorta is, maybe. Or to put it in simple terms, it takes place in the same universe as Alien, the Weyland Corporation who has long tried to use the Xenomorphs as a bio-weapon makes an appearance, and the Engineers (previously referred to as “Space Jockeys”) first seen as fossilized remains on the derelict space ship in Alien will have an appearance, but the Xenomorphs themselves will not be the focus of the film. Scott wanted to take Prometheus in a whole new direction, and I’m sure it would be strange to label the film as a prequel to Alien when it isn’t about the alien, so the ambiguity regarding it’s relationship to the rest of the franchise is understandable.
The reaction to Prometheus has been mixed, and I was bothered to discover that. I will agree that the film has its flaws, and I would rank it below Scott’s previous sci-fi offerings, like Blade Runner and the original Alien itself, but all things considered, this was a competently made, entertaining, high concept sci-fi film that is far superior to this summer’s other sci-fi offerings. Of course, that isn’t saying much when it’s only competition is Men in Black III and Battleship, but neither of those films has been receiving the hate and vitriol that Prometheus has been getting. To determine the cause of this anger, I took a trip down into that pit of sweaty, impotent rage we all fondly refer to as the Internet. Amongst the film’s opponents, the two most common complaints where coming from people who thought the film needed to be more like Alien and people who I’m assuming weren’t paying attention to the movie.
To the people who wanted nothing more than to see a Xenomorph wreak havoc for two hours, I understand the disappointment. Of course this is the main reason why Scott chose to distance the film from the rest of the franchise with its “kinda-sorta” prequel status. However, anyone who thinks that Alien was just a movie about monster killing dudes is so very wrong. The main thing that ties Alien and Prometheus together is something so much stronger than the appearances of Weyland or the Engineers. Both films are about a group of people who visit a new planet where they have no idea what anything is or what is happening. The real clever part about the title Alien is that it isn’t just a noun referring to the Xenomorph, it’s also an adjective referring to the situation the characters are in. That film is filled with mystery and unanswered questions, and that unknown is where the real horror comes from. Because of this, I see Alien and Prometheus as being so similar, if Prometheus wasn’t a part of the franchise, I would say Scott was just ripping off what he did back in 1979.
Of course, the mystery and unanswered questions of Prometheus brings me to everyone else’s complaint: the film is confusing and characters do things that don’t make sense. This really isn’t a hard film to grasp. I mean, this isn’t Mulholland Drive or L’Année dernière à Marienbad. I guess the biggest complaint was that it could be subtle at times and didn’t always explicitly say what has happening. Is that so wrong though? This has led some to make the claim the film becomes a jumbled mess of incoherent plot points and characters acting without any kind of logical reaction. And while I agree that the final third of the film feels a bit jumpy (most likely due to the fact that the film was rumored to be about 3 hours long and many scenes were cut), the film overall follows it’s own logic if you actually were to pay attention.
One complaint comes from the motivation of the Engineers. Why did they create us? Why did they want to uncreate us? Why did the Engineer at the end go crazy and start killing everyone. The first question is exactly what the crew of the Prometheus wanted to find out in the first place, but I feel like audiences were upset that they never found that answer. Well, of course they didn’t get an answer. “Why are we here?” is the oldest philosophical question there is, and nobody has ever been able to find a satisfactory answer to that yet. I doubt anyone ever will. In fact, the only time in fiction where that ultimate question is answered and the audience doesn’t feel cheat happens in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is only because their answer of “42″ is there to point out that you can ask what the meaning of life is, but you’re never going to get an answer you like. It’s a joke, and it works well with Adams’ humor, but Prometheus is a very different kind of movie.
That said, why do the Engineers need a reason to create human beings? If anything, they made us because they were bored and curious, and ultimately because they could. They’re like a kid making sea monkeys. It amused them. So why would they want to destroy us? Well, they once again grew bored with their little experiment and decided to move on to something else. They even said in the movie that there weren’t many planets with conditions similar to Earth, which is how the discovered the Engineers’ planet in the first place. If Earth is their only playground, or one of very few, they’d have to purge human life if they wanted to start up another project. In fact, the mysterious black goop is shown to change lifeforms into something new, maybe their plan wasn’t to kill us, but to evolve us further. The characters don’t know, the audience doesn’t know, and that’s why the film is scary. After all, since the Engineers are supposed to represent God-like figures, isn’t it always said that God works in mysterious ways?
This brings me to the next point. If these Engineers are highly intelligent beings, why does the only living one at the end go on an insane killing spree at the end? Doesn’t that just devolve him into another mindless monster? Well, yes and no. Let’s pretend that you are a member of the most advanced civilization in the galaxy. Your people create live for their own experimentation and amusement and you hold little regard for your creations. You go to hypersleep for a couple of thousand years, and you later wake up to find a group of your creations, after mastering the near impossibility of long range space travel, standing in your bedroom. They are somehow speaking to you in your native tongue saying, “Hey, so, we were wondering, why did you create us? Also, can you make this really old dude live forever? Thanks in advance.” Are you just going to comply? Hell no. You’d be freaking out too. Also, let’s remember all the religious subtext here. The God in the Old Testament is presented as angry and arrogant. Remember the Tower of Babylon? All of humanity came together to create this tower that would reach the heavens, but God got angry so he put a stop to that by giving them all different languages, ensuring that they would not be able to work together. The tower represents the full extent of the collective human potential, which makes our species a little more powerful than our creator would have wanted. Also, combine this thinking with the title, as Prometheus was a titan who stole fire from the gods in Olympus and gave it to the humans, once again angering the gods. As fire was humanity’s first great invention, making so much possible for our species, the fire here really represents knowledge. So, why did the Engineer want all the humans dead? It’s because they had grown too smart and that frightened him. Once a lab experiment becomes aware of it’s status as a lab experiment, it isn’t going to be pleased, which means it’s time to end the experiment. So did the Engineer devolve into a monster? Yes, but only in a very human way.
Which brings me to the next point, the one character who so perfectly puts all of the creation themes into perspective: David. In my opinion David is the best part of the movie. As a whole, many of the actor’s performances were lacking a bit, as is actually fairly common in Ridley Scott’s films. If setting an atmosphere is his greatest strength, directing actors is definitely his worst weakness, but that’s okay. I still love him anyway. Michael Fassbender, who was previously seen bending fass as Magneto in X-Men: First Class, pretty much steals the show from everyone else, even the horrible space gods. Fassbender is convincing as a stiff, emotionless android, but the great part in his performance is all the subtle hints at emotion we see. Of course, as far as every human in the film is concerned, David is not capable of emotions, wants, or desires–a distinction they use to separate from the human and android. Creator and creation. Master and slave.
Most of the crew holds a kind of resentment toward David. Just about every scene with Holloway and David shows Holloway as a complete condescending prick towards David. This is not so much as the perceived lack in David’s humanity, but because of the horror of what it would mean if David were to be more human. Humanity likes to think of our existence as special, as if our being here is meant for some kind of higher purpose. If a being where so easily created that can think, feel emotion, and live, then that takes away that specialness. This is one of the reasons why Holloway spends so much time in a depressed, drunken stupor after landing on the Engineers’ homeworld. He wanted to know for what purpose he was created, but is plagued by the fear that he may be nothing more special than David. His resentment toward David is nothing more than a resentment toward himself.
Back when the cast was first announced and it was revealed that David would be an android, I was curious as to what kind of role he would be playing in the plot. Would he be a malicious android like Ian Holm’s Ash in Alien? Or perhaps he would be more like the kind, eager to help Bishop from Aliens. He was neither. Despite being programmed to carry out Peter Weylend’s bidding, he was mostly driven by his own intellectual curiosity and desires. David demonstrates a crush on Shaw as he views her dreams as she is suspended in hypersleep in a scene that becomes more terrifying as you think about it. He is oddly protective of her, even though he may be confused about his own feelings. He attempts to justify everything as if he were doing scientific research, but it becomes obvious that he has developed romantic feelings. The performance is so subtle, and film never feels the need to spell it all out, but his internal struggle is obvious. Even when David contaminates Holloway with the black goop, just from the conversation he has beforehand, his motivation is half scientific inquiry, half revenge. David may have been an android, but his character had the most convincing humanity in the entire film.
Unfortunately, while I feel like David’s contaminating of Holloway was one of the best character moments in the movie, it is also the biggest plot hole. At least, to many viewers. The film does not explicitly explain how David could have known what the black goop could do. This all happens before they go back and find the two morons who wandered off alone dead from the mutated worms, so it couldn’t have been through observation. David’s mission came from Weyland, but Weyland seemed oblivious about the goop. He just wanted to find God and ask Him for a life extension. Of course, it’s better that Weyland doesn’t know because this shows David as being capable of working for his own reasons. However, when the crew finds the room with the urns, there is a mural on the wall with writing and a figure resembling a Xenomorph is carved in. Since it was established that the Engineers spoke a kind of hybrid of ancient languages, and possibly taught early civilizations to speak, David was capable of understanding everything. When they see the room, David notices the writing above the door and tries to get in. Somebody even asks what is in there, but David is silent. The viewers are never told what the writing on the wall says, but since there’s a Xenomorph on the wall, and the end of the movie shows a Xenomorph being created as a result of being impregnated by a black goop contaminated man, I think we can all take a pretty good guess.
David knew all along what he was doing, so why did he do it? Why did the Engineers create humans? Why did humans create David? Because they can.
I can understand why this film wouldn’t have an appeal to everyone. It isn’t a typical summer action movie like The Avengers, and it isn’t a standard, sci-fi fantasy film like Star Wars. But I still feel like most people are writing it off because they just weren’t paying close enough attention. It was an entertaining, clever, and rewarding film, which is a bit of a rarity these days in mainstream Hollywood. We live in an era of nothing but sequels, prequels, adaptations, and reboots, and even though Prometheus has ties to an existing franchise, it was able to do something interesting and new while maintaining the tone of its source. I think the biggest problem the film industry has, is that it thinks audiences are stupid. That’s why we get schlock like Battleship and Jack and Jill. If every film that comes out that is clever and subtle like Prometheus is met with the same kind of vitriol, then the number of intelligent films that are made each year will dwindle even further. Please prove to Hollywood that you aren’t as stupid as they think you are and that you don’t need every plot point spelled out to you as if you are a child. You know, they say that video games are becoming more and more like films, but I see it the like the opposite. Films have become more and more like video games with dumbed down, overused plots. Not that there’s anything wrong with a mindless movie every now and then, but let’s not let the medium deteriorate like that. Please?
With all that said, I really hope there is a followup. If nothing else, it’ll be worth it just to see what kind of wacky space adventures of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Magneto’s head will get into.