In the warm and pleasant summer of 2012, I left Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with a sense of majestic confusion. The film had cast a spell of bewilderment that has been hard to untangle in the intervening years. This was in stark contrast to my fellow patrons whose vivid and graphic reactions were as acidic as the Xenomorph’s blood from the acclaimed horror franchise. To say that Prometheus is a film that causes passions to run high (on both sides of the debate) is putting it lightly. On subsequent home viewings, the film has unravelled into a peculiar concoction that oozes with astonishing cinematic craftsmanship while simultaneously being confounding in its writing. Watching the film is akin to witnessing the last dying gasps of a conceptually ludicrous vaudeville production that is delivered with a considerable amount of gusto.
Conceived as a picture that retains the spirit as well as the DNA of 1979’s Alien: Prometheus chronicles a scientific expedition to the far-reaching moon of LV-223 for the purpose of finding the Engineers. They are beings who are considered the creators of humankind. In the writers’ audio commentary, co-writer Damon Lindelof states “For me, Prometheus was all about making an Alien-Blade Runner mash-up, using the best themes from both movies and dropping them all into the same world.” With this in mind, one could read the film as a reversal of the hefty metaphysical strife of Blade Runner. Crucially, Lindelof articulates that Prometheus is about a human who goes to ask his creator for more life whereas, in Blade Runner, it was the replicant Roy Batty who desired the same goal from his maker (Eldon Tyrell).
While this is a conceptually sound idea, the execution is infuriating in its sheer amateurishness. At its worst, Prometheus indulges in a fetishism for vagueness, a trait that emphatically espouses clarity as a troublesome menace to good writing, and it has plagued many films from The Force Awakens to Star Trek Into Darkness. Culturally, it is truly poisoning the movies; turning them from engaging pieces of art to novelty items that are supposedly orgasmic in their surprises. Instead, they are about as clever as a ten-year-old shouting boo.
Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) is the man in Prometheus who seeks his creator’s wisdom to eternal life. However, his role in the film is regulated to a cameo as Lindelof considers his constant presence as detrimental to his vision of inane mysteries. There were scenes that had a young Weyland talking to his android creation David. (Michael Fassbender) However, they were exercised in favour of pointless intrigue. Worse yet, Weyland’s appeal for eternal life when meeting the lone engineer on the moon is on the cutting room floor. There is depth in a character expressing his desire, however, Lindelof didn’t get the memo. Blade Runner’s power came from Roy Batty’s violent and rhapsodic presence as well as a desire that blurred the line between human and android. Moreover, Batty truly learnt the value of mortality in his mournfully reflective final moments. By comparison, Weyland barely registers as a human being.
There are many instances of Prometheus decimating its depth in favour of a smooth two-hour running time. One of the picture’s sub-themes is how children view their elders. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) still clings to her father’s impactful words about choosing to believe as the lynchpin for her faith. David perceives Weyland as an obstacle to what he understands as freedom, slyly surmised when he says, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead.”
However, Meredith Vickers’ (Charlize Theron) relationship with her father, which is chiefly illustrated in a scene with Weyland in the third act feels superficial and sketchily developed. Theron’s best moment of acting is when she expresses her admiration for Weyland in the past along with her current source of disdain for the old man. The manner of her delivery and body language (in the moment she is kneeling down at her father’s side and placing her face on his hand) puts one in mind of the process of growing up; as it showcases a child’s shifting relationship with their parents; going from sweet and idealistic admiration to bitter resentment over major differences. Sadly, the moment is not present in the finished film, and consequently, the scene in its current incarnation feels like a race towards an eyebrow-raising revelation.
One does get the distinct impression that the third act of Prometheus collapses under the weight of its hide and seek antics. The most emblematic aspect of this quality comes from the portrait of the Engineers whose presence were scaled back as the production of the film wore on. In particular, a scene when an Engineer converses with David was cut because Lindloff found “it robbed him of any coolness or mystery.” The opening sequence originally had a number of the humanoid aliens and a striking moment in the initial filmed final confrontation had the lone Engineer observe a flickering colour projection of a young girl playing the violin. Contrary to the co-writers’ sentiment, the incomplete portrayal serves only to make the apparent divine beings seem like generic slasher movie fare as opposed to the fascinating creatures who were ascetically inspired by the works of Michelangelo.
In other regards, Prometheus is incredibly postmodern in its approach. The underhanded machinations of the corporate sleazes from the franchise are given overt life by Vickers. The basketball scene from Alien Resurrection is amusingly homaged here; proving that whether one is a Xenomorph/human hybrid or android that your physical prowess is proven by scoring a stupefyingly hard basket.
More noteworthy is the film retaining a quality that has permeated the series and imbuing it with striking immediacy. The Alien films have always had a subtle judgement of humanity. In the first, our survival instincts are found wanting compared with the seemingly perfect Xenomorph, whose biology and design makes it the perfect embodiment of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. In Aliens, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) maternal instincts are tragically found wanting when she discovers her daughter died while she was in cryosleep for 57 years. They are eventually tested as she must face the nightmarish Alien Queen, for the life of a little girl she has bonded with through the course of the movie. In Alien 3, the judgement is religious in nature as the lone Xenomorph is viewed as the physical manifestation of God’s vengeance for all the prisoners on Fury 161. They believe that the creature is punishing them for their sins and their salvation might come from destroying it.
In Prometheus, David proves to be a constant source of judgement as his various responses towards the crew carry an underlying sense of delight at the fact that he is not a human being. A particularly amusing moment is when he says “Hopefully not too close” when responding to Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) about simulated humanity.
In the context of the many androids that have pervaded cinema; David is less Pinocchio then a curious entity with negative intentions. Director Ridley Scott masterfully conveys this in David’s first appearance. The android walks into a darkened room; the pitch blackness of the cryo room represents his insidious impulses and the brightly illuminated background evoke his flourishing inquisitive nature. His morality is surmised in the scene when he is watching Lawrence of Arabia, and the titular character says “The trick William Potter is not minding that it hurts.” David repeats the line like a mantra. Fassbender’s performance is captivating because it submerges any aspect of the android in favour of a seemingly aloof disposition that hides a remarkably dangerous edge.
Even with its woefully executed premise, Prometheus strangely captures the spirit of Alien in a unique manner. In my revisit of the original picture, I was struck by how it felt like a terrifying evocation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror combined with a potently nasty sexual subtext. The primary strength derives from the sheer insignificance and helplessness of the human characters in the face of a motiveless creature of instinct. One notable scene melds both facets to disturbing effect: Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is reduced to paralytic fear when she gets a glimpse of the creature. Her unseen and audible death sounds like rape is occurring rather than swift dispatching.
Prometheus’ sumptuous visuals and direction make humanity seem like an inconsequential species; the potent fear comes from the sheer unknown of meeting our makers. To this end, the picture achieves a certain amount of awe and terrifying wonder in its speculative musings. Humanity has never looked less worthy of consideration in any other Alien picture. The title ship looks like an insect while its travel through the galaxy as overarching clouds and looming landscapes diminishes its scientific and technological endeavour.
Scott’s cinematic artistry particularly shines in the opening sequence due to a series of aerial shots capturing earthly landscapes. The series of shots feel like a reinvention of the famed “phantom-ride” shot (in early cinema, director G.A. Smith, would put a camera on the front of fasting moving trains, which would provide a ghostly effect) and gives the audience the distinctive feeling that Earth is being viewed as a single-celled organism on a petri dish.
Despite this, the psychosexual subtext of Prometheus is lacking. Elizabeth Shaw cannot give birth and a plot point results in her removing an alien foetus from her belly. The sequence is undeniably great in its feverish intensity because of its uses of close-ups and graphic detail. Nevertheless, the permeating idea seems to be uninteresting and has the same amount import as someone shrugging their shoulders and saying in a detached manner, life is tough. Whereas, the subtext in Alien is riffing on instances of grotesque interspecies violations and a genuine horror of gender swapping birth.
The lingering existential question of Prometheus is what does the seemingly divine dimension add to the franchise? The answer may come in Alien Covenant or the various other planned instalments, and that potential vagueness might be most maddening of all.