The granddaddy of all science fiction films is, I think, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In its classic opening sequence, we see an alien object trigger an evolution in early hominids (the use of tools-as-weapons) and later another evolution that propels man (in this case Bowman, the astronaut) to another level of consciousness/existence. It’s pretty big-themed stuff that gets at who we are as a species – where we’ve been and where we’re going. But one major premise is clear: alien technology got us on our way.
THERE BE SOME SPOILERS HERE
Ridley Scott’s much-analyzed Prometheus also starts in the prehistoric past. Actually, it goes so far as to rewind the opening scene all the way to the pre-biotic past. In Scott’s film, a humanoid alien devolves by a waterfall and seeds the primordial soup such that its death introduces the building blocks of life to the Earth. Again, it’s aliens jumpstarting things.
As in 2001, we jump forward to the not-so-far-from-now future. There, archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her colleague/boyfriend discover an underlying theme in disparate early human cultures that all point to a certain star system. A trillionaire industrialist named Weyland is convinced to front a mission – in the titular spaceship Prometheus – to see who or what, if anything, is there.
A lot has been made about this film that both is and is not an Alien prequel. Scott has said that the universal setting is the same, but we’re to take Prometheus on its own. This is nearly impossible to do as a viewer, both because of the hype around the film and because some of the choices that Scott has made in it (I'm looking at you egregiously unnecessary final scene). In Alien, Scott made one of the greatest atmospheric scary movies of all time. It is essentially a haunted-house movie set in space. In Prometheus, Scott reaches for much more in a gorgeously shot film that is chock-full of cultural and philosophical metaphors.
In ancient times, Prometheus was the Greek Titan that is credited for forming man from clay and for angering the gods of Olympus by stealing fire (then only the property of the gods) and giving it to humans. As punishment, an eagle eats his liver every day (it grows back every night). Prometheus is both creator to humans and one that sacrifices himself for their evolution. The fact that the first-scene alien sacrifices himself for the creation and evolution of life is not lost on us. That the Christian faith espouses a God that willingly dies so that humans may live rings a bell. The fact that Prometheus has his guts opened up every day is not lost on those of us that have watched the seminal galley scene in Alien many many times. That Zeus punished Prometheus for his hubris is also probably worth remembering.
Shaw is portrayed as a Christian who has reconciled her scientific curiosity with the possibility that life on earth was “seeded” from somewhere else. When asked if humanity arising via alien intervention invalidates her faith, she asks rightly, “Who made them?” Of course, as we investigate what might be our beginnings, humans are also busy creating life of a sort – as seen in the android David (Michael Fassbender), who watches his creators strive to find their makers, while they treat him like a walking, disposable laptop – and if he could sense the irony in that, he would.
Of course, Prometheus isn’t all philosophy. There’s a lot that happens when they get to the planet and most of it isn’t good. The “engineers” – the term given to the planet seeders – are gone and it looks like they didn’t meet a great end. Of course, being human, we poke and prod and find goop and get infected by things. In 2001, our curiosity led us to a higher plane of existence. Here, well, let’s just say that your extended family isn’t always happy to see you.
Prometheus works hard to balance its thoughtful-philosophical aspects, with its goal to also be an action/horror movie – and there are some legitimate scares, including what has to be the Worst. C-section. Ever. I will admit that I found myself groaning a bit when a logical incongruity would pop up, or the redshirts would do typically trope-ish redshirt things so that we could have some extra jolts of the sort that don’t kill a main character.
There will be people that pick apart this movie because it’s not Alien or Aliens and that Shaw is not Ripley. But of course, these are the same people that would have picked it apart if it had been too much like those movies, too. Haters gonna hate – and by saying that the film was set in the Alien universe, Scott gave the haters all the ammunition they were going to need.
As a film, I thought the cinematography and music were gorgeous and I also thought the acting was good – Rapace and Fassbender are the heart of the film and get quality support from Idris Elba and Charlize Theron. In the end, Prometheus is a beautiful, if imperfect, attempt to be a summer blockbuster that also addresses some of the greatest fundamental questions facing humans: who are we and why are we here? It’s a “big theme” science fiction movie that has left me thinking about it for days after I watched it – and that’s something we get way too little of these days.