Shattering sound design, knife-edge visuals, a cerebral maelstrom of startling concepts that will trail you home like vagabond dogs… PROMETHEUS, like the Greek god it is named for, descends on your shoulders with the fire of knowledge and, like the deity’s act of perdition, will leave you curs-ed that your wish was ever granted.
Ridley Scott‘s PROMETHEUS, like James Cameron’s AVATAR, is not just a movie but a moviegoing experience; promoted as a prequel to Scott’s own ALIEN (1980), if you came for H.R. Giger’s hissing and spurting xenomorphs, you were misled. In a good way. On its face, PROMETHEUS is an old fashioned haunted house movie (a dark abode haunted by ghosts reliving their tragic destinies), but on a level deeper than DNA, the movie stalks the hallowed ground of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and CONTACT, as a group of scientists trek to the farthest reaches of the universe, chasing down messages left during Earth’s primitive history, seeking the origin of Humankind.
And when we do encounter alien creatures, they are once again terrifying, stirring in us that “alien revulsion” that is built into our species, that Scott captured in the first ALIEN, and that was leached out of our sensibilities in successive ALIEN films (until ALIEN RESURRECTION 1997).
Treading eggshell-gently on von Daniken’s Ancient Astronaut Theory (Hi Giorgio!), opening scenes show archaeologists in 2089 identifying various ancient tablets depicting the same star system. They regard this as “an invitation” into deep space. And that’s where it leaps away from the AstroNUT tree branch, grasping for a more science-stabled limb, as PROMETHEUS gives us cinematic art in its beautifully detailed production design – the spaceship Prometheus, holographic computers and astounding technology. Then we slip onto hard science fiction, as we are introduced to the stoic resident android (aligning us squarely with past ALIEN forays), and a metaphor for his existence when the scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) eke out an origin tale of an intergalactic race they call “Engineers” who constructed Mankind then left for the stars. And that’s when the science-fictiony limb can’t hold our weight any longer and we crash onto the theology outgrowth. Because if their theories are proved correct, well, so much for Darwinism – the Creationists were right! (And so is Giorgio!) They’ve just been calling God by the wrong name all these centuries…
Like a writhing conceptual serpent, PROMETHEUS flails back and forth across religious and scientific theories, twisting our minds into shapes of Escher. The questions posed in PROMETHEUS of Mankind’s origin are not new – they’ve been reiterated in good and bad fiction through the ages, from Arthur C. Clarke’s epic Childhood’s End to the confused King James Bible, from Clarke’s and Kubrick’s senses-boggling 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) to the execrable MISSION TO MARS (2000), from the Sumerian poetry of Epic of Gilgamesh (2000 BC) to the Swiss snake-oil of Chariots Of The Gods? (1968), and even in director Scott’s own BLADE RUNNER (1982) – so these age-old postulations are a passe aspect of PROMETHEUS, but the execution of the journey for answers (by Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) is as wondrous a thing to behold as a henge made of stone.
Noomi Rapace is Ripley-raunchy (last seen as THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO; here with a real dragon under her skin, if you know what I mean), Charlize Theron is the schoolmarm-severe mission commander; Idris Elba is ragtag-jovial ship captain; Logan Marshall-Green is distractingly familiar (last seen in DEVIL as the Mechanic), and Michael Fassbender is android-cool as the “synthetic human” David, who is – like the other synthetics in the ALIEN series – working for the agenda of The Corporation.
Fassbender’s David is one of the best features of PROMETHEUS. We’re never sure how far to trust him, and even when we don’t trust him, we forgive him his sins because he is just so damn cool. He rewatches LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as his human charges are in hypersleep, fascinated by Peter O’Toole (a veritable doppelganger for Fassbender) snuffing out a flaming match with his finger (Prometheus inverted?). One of O’Toole’s flunkies tries it and screams, “It hurts!” and O’Toole’s reply: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
This theme will haunt the players in PROMETHEUS, as it haunts all of our greatest endeavors, including giving birth…
The corporate head is Peter Weyland, a name that runs deep in ALIEN canon (played by Guy Pearce in heavy centenarian makeup, and a performance that can only be fully appreciated when we see the deleted scenes of Weyland as a young man. Only in these deleted scenes do we realize Pearce is an actual alien – those painfully high cheekbones barely disguise his General Grievous endoskeleton.)
Though Scott has claimed this is a film unto itself, the ties with ALIEN run fierce and proud: ragtag crew in hypersleep, crew congregating around breakfast table, an android on the crew, disembodied head of android speaking, references to parentage (ALIEN’s computer was “Mother”; PROMETHEUS is overseen by “Father”), strong female leads, flat-bellied chicks getting down to their panties; the downed “horseshoe” spacecraft in ALIEN (this is the “haunted house” our adventurers explore), and those beings with the elephantine heads are revealed (they are the “Engineers” wearing helmets with trunk-like fronts).
The most unfortunate similarity though, is that of all the films in ALIEN canon, PROMETHEUS bears the most resemblance to the cheap spinoff with the interesting concept: AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR! Sorry, Ridley, I’m just calling ’em like I sees ’em.
Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?
— Harrison Ford, BLADE RUNNER.
The unanswered question of why the Engineers made us and then changed their minds need not be profound, but as prosaic as human fickleness. As one scientist tells David the reason why humans built robots, “We made you because we could.” And creators have the prerogative to destroy their creations. With extreme prejudice: Great Floods, brimstone, Ragnarok, Armageddon, acid-blooded xenomorphs…
The answer doesn’t have to be in Akkadian legends and Babylonian perversions and Greek tragedies; the answer is as simple as every human relationship, “Why did we get together – and why did we change our minds?” I personally believe Humankind has always been a slugnaut on the face of the cosmos; destroying this hypocritical, contradictory piece of flesh will mean nothing to the grand scheme of things.
Enter the Engineers. In their elephant helmets. Bearing xenomorphs.
The god Prometheus is a Jesus analogue (no matter how much Christians deny that their savior was stolen from Greek myth and other, earlier legends). Prometheus “sacrificed” himself for Mankind’s progress by bequeathing fire and other gifts; for his insolence in raising Man to the level of gods, Zeus punished Prometheus by “crucifying” him on a rock with an eagle eternally pecking at his liver in the same general vicinity as the Spear of Destiny supposedly pierced Christ’s side…
Of all the conjecture about what this movie’s opening scene means, the best explanation I’ve come across is that the Engineer who drinks the black goop and dissolves into the primordial stream (with the camera zooming into his DNA strands) – is the Promethean/Christ sacrifice: in seeding the Earth with his DNA (bringing “evolution” to this backward planet) he paid for it with his life. …So the Earth really IS 6,000 years old! Who knew that Pat Robertson was right and not a congenital imbecile?
For all its eeriness and otherworldliness, PROMETHEUS has its pitfalls. There are 17 crew members; we just know then, that some of them have been brought along as expendables, like STAR TREK crew members who beam down to a planet with a different-colored titty-shirt (“Uh-oh! Why am I the only guy in a taupe uniform? Does Star Fleet even make taupe uniforms? Shit! Here comes the cheap monster–auugh!”).
When the scientists outline their mission as one of breathtaking wonder rather than clinical science, a mohawked, tattooed geologist (Sean Harris) pipes up, “Bullshit! We came all this way because of a map?!” Now we shouldn’t fault Ridley Scott for casting an outcast from TRAINSPOTTING rather than our preconceived “type” for a geologist (in fact, the burgundy-mohawked Bobak Ferdowsi was the Flight Director who guided the rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars, and looks more like Ryan Reynolds than a crotchety professor, so maybe Ridley was ahead of his time in casting a guy who looks like a drug thug on a space mission), but of the 7 billion people on Earth, this expedition couldn’t find one geologist with more thrill for his avocation? His attitude was simply screenwriter arc material; i.e. he is so badass to begin with so that when he breaks down like a pansy, we can assume the danger must be Real Serious. But his ‘tude screamed inauthentic louder than he screamed like a pansy when that thing attacked him. I’d say that with a paycheck somewhere in the range of 2 kajillion space-dollars, there’d definitely be a Shut The Fuck Up And Do Your Job clause in his contract.
And why are characters never naked when they should be naked? We’re all adults, and this movie is R-rated. So why does everyone in interplanetary hypersleep wear irritating Movie Cloth Strips to cover their naughty bits? When Noomi is in a hospital gown, she rips it off and underneath – she’s wearing more Movie Cloth Strips! She enters the auto-surgery booth with her innards exploding – one would think she would rip off anything that might constrict the machine doing its work, but the sacred Movie Cloth Strips remain! Hell, even the surgery booth that is authorized to tear open her abdomen and stomach-staple her and administer morphine without prescription isn’t authorized to unglue those goddamed seemingly adamantium cloth strips for fear that someone might see a nipple or an actual vagina and become a terrorist or something. Idiot censors. And idiot society that would let censors run rampant over art with their hypocrisy and stupidity.
There are many “exposition” lines – dialogue inserted specifically for the audience lowbrows, that insults the intelligence of anyone remotely smarter than a seahorse. One of the worst offending lines: one astronaut says to another after the atmosphere is examined, “Two minutes without your helmet, you’d be dead!” Thanks for the heads up! Maybe I should have paid attention in Astronaut Training on that chapter titled Never Remove Your Helmet On A Strange Planet, You Frickin’ Imbecile.
That being said, even though these particular Movie Helmets are designed for maximum viewing of the stars’ smirky faces within, even though that jejune warning was issued, nonetheless, two minutes into the extravehicular activity – off come the helmets! Like Val Kilmer in RED PLANET, like Gary Sinise in MISSION TO MARS, like Dr. Zachary Smith in LOST IN SPACE, like any ’50s movie arrogant or stupid enough to believe that every planet harbors a humanly-breathable atmosphere, the astronauts in PROMETHEUS expose their bankable Hollywood mugs at the first sign of a lame rationalization: “Lucky for us those terraforming aliens were here before us and terraformed it, so that there’s oxygen in this terraformed cave. Did we mention the terraforming?…” Ironically, this helmet-off stupidity was rectified by ALIEN itself. (Remember Tom Skerritt and his crew EVA in the horseshoe spacecraft? We could hardly see anyone’s faces, yet every helmet stayed on. It took an alien facehugger to get John Hurt’s helmet off.) Now Ridley has bowed to the convention of his inferiors. And uh, terraforming.
PROMETHEUS does not pursue the question of what is going to kill humankind, but the bigger canvas of what birthed it. It’s an eerie, thoughtful fiction, masterfully rendered, but what can become annoying is when culties such as the Ancient Astronaut nuts and others try to skyhook this entertaining fiction to their mind-witheringly ignorant origin tales that are supposed truths.
Do not consider PROMETHEUS anything but Ridley Scott’s original vision of a fantastic science fiction tale (even though many elements of the movie have been inspired by culty theories, and two of the elements have been inadvertently stolen directly from my own screenplay, Human Dawn – the name of the ship and the elephantine masks). Let’s face it, even the original story, Prometheus Bound (attributed to Aeschylus), that tabulated the myth as we know it, is itself a fantastic science fiction tale that has grown to mythic proportions because its elements have been assimilated by Christianity for its own fantastic science fiction tale which, we are told blinkeredly and repeatedly, is Original Fact. Percy Bysshe Shelley would publish Prometheus Unbound in 1820 (inspired by Aeschylus’s book of the same name).
And this PROMETHEUS continues the legendary aspect of its predecessors in being totally Off The Chain…