As this was a film that demanded extra attention, you’ll first find a review by Cliff Bugle and a second by Marisa Carpico. And even these wont cover everything there is to be said.
Director: Ridley Scott
Length: 2h 4m
Synopsis: In the near future, astronomers Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) make a key discovery that leads them to thinking that the Earth played host to alien visitors during a time before man even conjured the invention of language. They form up with a group of explorers that includes mission supervisor Meredith Vickers (Theron), several biological, geological, and technological specialists, and a robot named David (Fassbender) who is charged with mastering all human-made forms of communication. The expedition destination is a planet (later named LV-223) they suspect holds answers to the genesis of mankind. What ruins they find there, it turns out, were not only made by intelligent life forms, but incredibly ancient beings which share the exact same genetic makeup as humans. What those ancestors, referred to by the scientists as “Engineers,” were developing on that planet, however, proves to be treacherous in ways that could not have possibly been foreseen. With each new discovery the team’s mission faces greater peril, putting everyone’s lives in jeopardy – including Earth’s.
Analysis: For your own sake, it is crucial to understand exactly what it is that Prometheus is and – even more importantly – isn’t before walking into the theater. What it isn’t is a direct prequel to Scott’s 1979 Alien. What it is is an indirect prequel to Scott’s 1979 Alien. Allow me to explain: The iconic xenomorphs from the Alien franchise as we know them are not in the film, and in fact turn out to be of a more ancillary origin than we would have been likely to guess. The purpose of the film is not to discover what happenings predated those which set up the findings at the beginning of Alien, though some of what Prometheus divulges sheds significant light in elaborating certain details from that first film. What this newest entry into the Alien universe is intended to do is tell a story dramatically different from (but still related to) others in the series, imparting fresh motifs, themes, and cultural references to distinguish it from its sister films. The result is an almost completely new experience that will tickle your sense of wonder but similarly agitate the fundamental need for clarity.
The basic plot of the film is loosely based on H. P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, which also involves ancient alien astronauts and their bestowing of life on earth. To say much more may be spoiling, as there are details in Lovecraft’s work which are cleverly re-appropriated into Scott’s, but rest easy knowing the pivotal thematic elements of Prometheus are completely different from its source material. This is not a gong on Lovecraft, but an assurance that the film is a distinctively separate experience. Creating ties with Lovecraft makes a lot of sense with this series, as he too liked to intertwine the science fiction and horror genres. But if Alien could be described as a horror movie with sci-fi elements, Prometheus should be described as a sci-fi movie with horror elements. This is important to note, as this reversal signals a sharp variance in overall tone, objective, visual style, and expectations. Scott most certainly wants to excite his audience, but more than just wanting to scare them he has a greater hope of triggering astonishment.
Partly because it is so old, but mostly due to its craftsmanship, the first Alien has been deconstructed countless times by critics and fans alike. One popular interpretation of the movie is that it is fundamentally about rape and its relation to gender politics, with the life cycle of the xenomorph alluding to the violence of sex and agony of birth. The topic of giving birth returns in Prometheus, but emerges in a new way. There are no chest-bursters in the film (sad, I know), and to disclose what act replaces this allusion to birth would be spoiling; but suffice it to say that it is easily arguable that this new event pertains to the controversial subject of abortion. Other allusions to sex and genitalia also surface, but are far less overt than in the original film. Ultimately, this sexual motif would seem to function more as a way of connecting Prometheus with the universe of the Alien films and less as a prominent sub-theme associated with the overall story arch.
And speaking of the overall story arch, one of the more significant themes to take note of is that regarding spiritual faith; or rather, faith in some sort of cosmic order. Shaw, even after discovering that it was indeed the Engineers who spawned human life on Earth, still gave value to the small golden crucifix that always hung around her neck. When asked why she did this, she simply responded “because who made them?” And herein lies a provocative position, but one commonly found (less explicitly) in the sci-fi genre. What that position simply asks is why scientific exploration and religious faith are condemned to conflict. Why or how do the discoveries of the universe help to disprove the notion that they are nevertheless the creations of a higher being? Mutual respect for both science and faith affords Shaw the most important abilities of both biases, which include questioning the universe and allowing it to humble her. She is curious as to how and why the Engineers made mankind as we know it, but the genetic link between us and them also worries her. Their technology is impressive to the point of being seductive, but what kind of malevolence does it make them capable of?
After the first time you see the movie one of the closing thoughts you’re left to ponder over is what the need to know “why” means to the nature of humankind. Prometheus suggests in its own way the same thing that Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and countless other sci-fi stories do, which is that mankind’s hunger for knowledge is a double-edged sword. It would seem that for every history-making breakthrough we reap as much misfortune as we do precedence, and in this new would-be cautionary tale things are no different. What is most certainly unconventional, however, is that Prometheus by no means considers this facet of human nature as inherently bad. Not only does the movie make no apologies for this quality, but it actually ends on a note that celebrates it. We as a species have always recognized the gravity of our ambitions, even if we sometimes excuse ourselves of things we arguably shouldn’t (nuclear technology?). But can we not take pride in our insatiable lust for understanding, for how else can we be expected to better ourselves? Recognizing our dualistic nature as it does, the film argues that we should not let potentially horrific consequences deter us from pursuing ends which have an equal potential to advance us. Whether this stance is meant to be adopted by us or be considered ammunition for self-criticism, though, is left up for debate.
Analysis: Since production on Prometheus first began, the question about whether it was a prequel to Scott’s first foray into sci-fi, 1979’s Alien, has dominated the conversation. Fans with lingering questions hoped it would give them answers. The trailer was certainly promising – there were the same Alien howls, H. R. Giger-inspired ships and androids of questionable morality. Though its direct correlation to Ripley’s story is still up for debate, it certainly expands the universe of not just the first film, but the series as a whole.
Alien is, at its most basic level, a horror movie. It’s the story of a group of people trapped in a spaceship trying to survive the torments of a vicious alien. The screenplay, by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, referred to larger ideas like corporate corruption, but the film was chiefly concerned with frightening its audience on a more primal level. Scott built a dark, endlessly winding environment haunted by nightmarish creatures that were covered in slime and had acid running through their veins. The later films played more prominently with big ideas – militarism, body horror, motherhood – but what has always made the films a visceral, frightening experience are the terrifying aliens. And if judged on that aspect alone, Prometheus matches its predecessors.
The film smartly plays with the audience’s former knowledge of how awful these creatures can be and slowly builds a sort of paranoia. Scott uses the 3D technology to the fullest, creating stunning images and environments that immerse the audience in this world. The film’s first hour is so taken with its visuals that it nearly reaches the point of excess, but once the crew lands on the alien planet Scott smartly keeps the audience on edge, always waiting for the violence to begin. Though the dark and deathly quiet settings recall those of the claustrophobic, twisting corridors of the first film, the sets here are larger, with an unearthly sense of danger and otherworldly beauty. The tomb-like space of the alien ruins filled with gunmetal urns and a massive sculpture of a humanoid head seems both sacred and malevolent. The sets and images, which are truly spectacular, help build such a sense of apprehension that when the monsters finally appear, they induce utter terror. The level of violence the monsters reach is truly grotesque, and there is a scene of body horror so intense and visceral that it rivals a similar scene in David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
However, the film ultimately fails in its plot and mythology. Just as the visual style echoes its predecessor, so the story attempts to answer its unanswered questions. Mainly: Where do these creatures come from and who created them? Yet it also adds an even larger question: Why are we here? It’s an audacious undertaking, and one that, regrettably, the film fails to answer adequately. Damon Lindelof, who co-penned the script and is best known for co-creating and writing for Lost, expands the Alien universe’s mythology in a way that’s reminiscent of that show. The question of faith versus science, the ability to retain one’s soul in the face of adversity, the Daddy issues, the convoluted storytelling – it’s all straight from the Lost playbook.
Yet with that lauded pedigree also comes some of that show’s problems. Alien worked on a level of horror because of what it didn’t show or tell the audience. We didn’t know where the monsters came from or how Weyland Industries discovered them in the first place; so our minds were left to wander down the most sinister paths we could imagine. Indeed, there’s something to be said for mystery. By giving evil shape Prometheus allows the audience to accept and define it, thereby taking away some of the power of its otherness. What’s so frightening about the monsters in the original film is how utterly inhuman they are – merciless creatures with slime-covered, bony, pitch black bodies that could only come from the bowels of Hell. And, without spoiling how, this film takes that away a bit.
Unquestionably, the film’s most glaring weakness is in the way it answers the question of why humans exist. Like Lost, it favors a sort of spiritual mysticism that relies too heavily on the idea of faith instead of finding a satisfying answer. When the Lost finale aired, many fans felt alienated by the ending, saying the show didn’t deliver on its mythology because it offered an emotionally/spiritually-satisfying ending instead of an intellectually-satisfying one. Lost excelled at unfurling ever-expanding mysteries until the world became so big that there was no way to solve all of them. Prometheus shares that same deficiency. Certainly there is an argument to be made that we cannot fully understand our universe, but that begs the question: What’s the point of bringing up the idea when there’s no clear intention to seriously explore it? It is lazy writing parading as profundity, and every philosophical or psychological idea in the film is treated similarly. Big ideas are touched upon, but never put to good use. It’s a shame really, because Prometheus could have been a much darker, more interesting film. For a moment it looks like our creators might actually be malevolent, seeking to bring us to a violent end. Yet rather than explore that option, the film ends on a question of faith and belief in good. It’s a heartwarming take to be sure, but it’s utterly toothless. So rather than a bleak, frightening tale, what we get is a non-answer to an unnecessary question.
What has allowed Alien to stay relevant over thirty years after its release is that it set out to do something simple: frighten. And it continues to succeed because it doesn’t have an overcomplicated plot that tries to touch on too many subjects. It says something profound about the will to survive and maintaining humanity without trying to take on all of life’s questions. Prometheus misses the point. Like its namesake immortal it tries to bring fire back to humanity. However, its true mythological relative is Icarus, flying too close to the sun and ending up consumed by its arrogance.