by Gary Westfahl
If Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a disappointing film, as I will argue, it is at least an interesting disappointment, offering unusual insights into both the powers and the limitations of science fiction in pondering what one character calls “the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind.” The film also provides an illuminating lesson about what happens when a director attempts to wrestle with such questions while simultaneously seeking to provide nervous investors with a sure-fire box-office success. Unfortunately, discussing these matters will require some “spoilers,” so potential viewers who wish to be surprised by all of the film’s revelations should stop reading now (although, for attentive and experienced audiences, little about this film is genuinely surprising).
While this film, despite disclaimers, is in fact a direct prequel to Scott’s classic Alien (1979), Prometheus is more centrally haunted by another distinguished predecessor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Its opening image of planet Earth, with a thin crescent illuminated from behind, recalls the first image in 2001; the film’s spaceship Prometheus displays two red spacesuits in a standing position that recall the spacesuits of Kubrick’s film; and there is even a scene in which an imperiled human, about to run out of air, hurries into an airlock and closes it just in time. Most significantly, this film also features a prologue set in Earth’s distant past, purporting to explain the origins of humanity. Here, it is an alien humanoid (vaguely and annoyingly resembling the Michelin Man) who seeds the sterile planet with his DNA and thus sets in motion the evolutionary process that would eventually engender beings similar to himself. Apparently wishing to have some later contact with the race they were spawning, like Kubrick’s monolith builders, these aliens also leave a calling card of sorts by inspiring various ancient civilizations to produce recurring portrayals of a giant figure gesturing toward a specific star formation, which scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) identify as an “invitation” for humans to travel through space to “meet their makers.” Presumably, these patterns prove that the aliens were paying regular visits to ancient humans, also teaching them to use language and influencing their artwork, yet the film will indicate that all aliens in the vicinity of Earth were killed two thousand years ago, well before some of these civilizations flourished, and that the aliens were in any event by that time now intent upon destroying humans, not interacting with them. But whether these purported alien links to human history seem rational or not, they do allow Scott to provide his alien planet with decorations that evocatively recall iconic images from various archaeological sites, most prominently an enormous head resembling the sculptures of Mexico’s Olmec civilization. (It is never explained why advanced aliens would still be bothering to construct sculptures and inscriptions out of stone, especially in a place later identified as an “installation,” not their home, but these features do serve to stereotypically suggest the antiquity of the facility the astronauts are exploring.)
In addition to 2001, many other works of science fiction have posited that humans were crafted by superior aliens; even the Star Trek universe, in the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Chase” (1993), has embraced the idea. But the most cosmic of all of these visions is Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), which brings a composite of several intelligent civilizations into contact with the all-powerful being who created not only humanity but the entire universe. The problem, as I have argued elsewhere, is that humans are inherently incapable of imagining true superhumans, so that the best approach, exemplified by works like 2001 and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), is to say little about them, allowing them to remain enigmatic and mysterious. When writers spend too much time in their company, there is an inexorable tendency to make the superhumans seem more and more like ordinary humans, which is both disheartening and illogical, and in keeping with the idea that familiarity breeds contempt, there is a particular inclination to transform the superhumans into villains, a reductive but gratifying simplification that simultaneously recasts inferior humans as triumphant heroes. Thus, the narrator of Star Maker must fight the tendency to regard the distant Star Maker as evil, and when Arthur C. Clarke returned to the monolith builders in his three sequels to 2001, he gradually refashioned the unseen aliens from helpful progenitors into dangerous opponents of humanity. In this context, it is not surprising that, when one of the aliens of Prometheus finally makes an appearance, he expresses only mute hostility toward his human children, requiring the surviving crew members to destroy him. Just as it made little sense that humans at the end of Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) were so easily able to disable the monolith constructed by enormously advanced aliens, it makes little sense that the humans here can so easily defeat a being who was capable of interstellar flight before the human race even existed; but such are the contrivances that human writers are forced into when they confront the impossible challenge of describing superior aliens in a satisfying manner.
It does not help matters that, in an apparent effort to add some emotional resonance to its story line, the film first floats the tired conceit that a search for advanced aliens represents a substitute for religious belief – abandoning the idea at the precise moment when the aliens begin to seem more like devils than angels – and then explicitly equates the uplifting quest to find humanity’s alien progenitors with an even more mundane desire, to reconnect with one’s human parents. This explains why Shaw, who lost both of her parents at an early age, is especially eager to contact these aliens, so much so that even after battling against an alien who tries to kill her, she still wants to have a chat with some of his friends. In contrast, the cold mission commander, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), despises her father Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), so she naturally has absolutely no interest in finding her alien parents. Indeed, when Vickers angrily tells her aging father that “a king has his reign and then he dies,” and when the robot David (Michael Fassbender) asks “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?,” the clear implication is that if humanity does indeed have alien parents, we are better off without them, since they now must be old and senile, and perhaps even dangerous. One might protest that, by their very nature, superhuman alien parents are not necessarily like human parents, but humans may always be driven to fit unfamiliar objects into familiar categories, explaining why this film is likening its transcendent aliens to evil people in general, and to evil parents in particular. It further transpires that Weyland, the man financing the expedition, is simply hoping that these vastly superior beings will be willing and able to extend his own lifespan. Thus, he may articulate the Big Questions that this film is purportedly pursuing – “Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?” – but nobody in the film is actually interested in obtaining any answers. Instead, Shaw just wants her daddy, Weyland just wants to avoid dying, and everybody else, as explained by geologist Fifield (Sean Harris), is just “here to make money.”
Further diminishing the impact of the film’s considerations of humanity’s origins and destiny is that the characters are regularly being threatened by, in the words of biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), one “elongated reptile-like creature” after another, all of them vaguely resembling the monster in the original Alien, which provide the film with several exciting scenes filled with slime and gore. (The eventually presented rationale for their appearance – that they were created by the aliens as deliberate weapons to destroy humanity – oddly might have originated in William Gibson’s rejected script for Alien 3, widely available online, wherein one character speculates that the Alien represents “the fruit of some ancient experiment … the product of genetic engineering … A weapon. Perhaps we are looking at the end result of yet another arms race.”) Such colorfully violent sequences, to be sure, are virtually de rigueur in the contemporary sci-fi blockbuster, but this film’s efforts, while technically impeccable, seem oddly dysfunctional. For one thing, 2001: A Space Odyssey is regularly criticized for being slow-moving and dull, but arguably, probing into the ultimate questions of who we humans are and where we are going requires a certain aura of gravitas, justifying the film’s ponderous pace. Here, it is hard to take this film’s attention to such questions seriously when characters must regularly forget all about them and instead deal with enormous tentacles seeking to engulf and ingest them. Furthermore, while scenes like the alien bursting out of a man’s stomach in Alien were stunning in 1979, audiences today have seen these sorts of things many times before; indeed, when one character in the trailer for The Watch (2012) that preceded the film* responds to seeing some green slime by mentioning the Nickelodeon Channel’s Kids’ Choice Awards, he conveys just how much the once-bizarre imagery of Scott’s original film is now embedded in American popular culture. To such jaded viewers, the alien attacks in Prometheus might seem regrettably tepid and sporadic; frankly, audiences seeking such thrills would be better off seeing a film like The Thing (2011) (review here), which eschews any philosophizing to focus solely on a series of bloody, disgusting alien encounters.
Overall, then, Prometheus might be viewed as the unhappy result of a compromise: Scott presumably wanted to make a film that would be a worthy successor in 2001: A Space Odyssey in thoughtfully exploring “meaningful questions,” but he knew that contemporary Hollywood would never support a film that emulated its chilly solemnity and absence of crowd-pleasing action. So, to get the film made, he would need to include some violent encounters with vicious alien creatures, even if they were executed rather half-heartedly. However, while “It’s Alien meets 2001: A Space Odyssey!” might work as a pitch to producers, it simply doesn’t work as a film. Trapped between its conflicting priorities, Prometheus proves a film that is far less intriguing than 2001, and far less exciting than the original Alien.
In other respects, Prometheus seems a curiously clumsy film, given Scott’s long experience as a director and impressive achievements like Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), and Gladiator (2000). Consider the character of David, whom we are told is a robot who emulates human actions, like wearing a space helmet in an unbreathable atmosphere, solely because it is more comforting to the humans around him. Yet in an early scene when he is entirely alone, he is illogically observed eating, even though he has no need to eat and there is no one around to see him. Later, inside the bridge of a downed alien spaceship, David turns on an immense holographic projection of the galaxy, presumably highlighting those worlds contacted by the aliens, and he seems thrilled and excited to find that one of these worlds is the planet Earth, as shown by the visible continent of Africa. But this doesn’t make any sense, since we have already learned that, as a robot, David cannot feel any emotions. Surely, it would be more satisfying to have a human character, like Shaw or Holloway, rapturously relish this cosmic construct. Given his professed lack of interest in the aliens, why does David engage in a dangerous experiment to determine the effects of alien tissue on a human subject? And why is David so fascinated by the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962)? As a robot servant to human masters, is he stirred by the film’s theme of oppressed Arabs rebelling against their colonial overseers? Is he simply enthralled because he happens to resemble the film’s star, Peter O’Toole? Or did director Scott simply think it would be neat to pay tribute to David Lean’s film on the fiftieth anniversary of its release? One has to feel for actor Fassbender, who visibly struggles to make sense of his character with little assistance from the script.
In addition to polishing and rationalizing its treatment of David, another revision of Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script might have also addressed the issue of an overly large cast, as the crew of the Prometheus seems cluttered with unnecessary and underdeveloped characters; only on second viewing was I able to pin down all of their names and duties, a problem one does not encounter with the seven-person cast of Alien. Thus, when three characters resolve to give up their lives in order to save the human race, the gesture incredibly has no emotional impact at all, since we barely know who they are. Any number of other minor infelicities might have been dealt with as well: since the alien spaceships observed near the end of the film resemble a large letter C, indicating a design preference, why is the spaceship at the beginning of the film shaped like a large disc? Since Scott is so good at including capable women in his human spaceship crews, why does every alien we see, in holograms or in the flesh, appear to be male? Given the obvious need to take quick action while piloting a spaceship, why would any intelligent alien have a key feature activated by the time-consuming process of playing a brief melody on a flute? (Or is this merely Scott’s homage to the music-loving aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind ?) And since Ripley’s cat proved a wonderful device for making her character more sympathetic in Alien, might this film’s Elizabeth Shaw have seemed more likable if she, too, had been given a pet? Since we are told that all contemporary films undergo innumerable rewrites involving both credited and uncredited writers, it is strange that Prometheus began filming with a script that still seemed to need some work. Perhaps there was some hurry to get the film completed in time to be released during the summer blockbuster season, although the fact that the film takes place on Christmas, 2093 suggests a December release was the original plan. (Yes, like other incongruous candidates I have reviewed like I Am Legend  [review here] and Apollo 18  [review here], Prometheus qualifies for inclusion in the Bizarro Christmas Film Festival.)
All in all, the most revelatory comment in this film might be Holloway’s observation that “There’s nothing special about the creation of life. All you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain.” Perhaps that is also all you need nowadays to create a successful science fiction film: a dash of DNA, in the form of some exotic, computer-generated creature, and half a brain, to devise a plot that will bring that creature into conflict with human heroes. In crafting Prometheus, Ridley Scott obviously sought to achieve much more than that, and one laments that he was unable to succeed. But one of his characteristic themes, observed in Alien, Blade Runner, and this film, is the negative impact of large, greedy corporations on all human endeavors, and the weaknesses of Prometheus might be said to illustrate that even an enormously talented director may prove unable to overcome the negative impact of the large, greedy corporations that now govern the production of science fiction films.
*The reference to The Watch as added as a correction to the initial post.