Director Ridley Scott has already given the science fiction cinema two of its greatest and most cherished films: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). His new genre film, Prometheus (2012) brazenly grasps for the same zenith in terms of quality…and largely succeeds. The film features twice the symbolic imagery of Blade Runner, and many, many times the implications of Alien.
In other words, this is precisely the kind of film I hoped Ridley Scott would give us. Prometheus largely exceeds my own sky-high expectations because it is provocative, challenging, infuriating, dense, and daring. Some of the specific questions that fans have hungered to have answered, like “what’s the exact life cycle of the creatures we see in the film?” are ultimately held subordinate to the committed exploration of Scott’s chosen thesis: that all parents -- God included -- in some manner hate their children, and that children, equally, despise those who gave them life. This the film's thematic terrain, and once you accept it (even if you disagree with the premise...), the film opens up and becomes infinitely more accessible.
In the distant past and presumably on Earth, a white-skinned humanoid – an Engineer – consumes a viscous black fluid and promptly begins to disintegrate. He tumbles into a roaring waterfall and his decomposing body fills the water with his DNA…the building blocks of life.
Gazing deeply into Prometheus’s DNA, one can detect how the parent-child relationship is expressed up-and-down in terms of the dramatis personae and the central narrative. In terms of the latter, man goes out in search of his “beginnings” or parents, the alien Engineers. And man’s child, the android David (Michael Fassbender), also embarks on the search for his own destiny or freedom -- beyond man -- at the same time.
Meredith Vickers is also defined in Prometheus as a child. She is the long-suffering daughter of tycoon, scientist and magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). Vickers has waited patiently throughout her adult life for her father to relinquish control of his multi-billion dollar company so that she can assume it herself; so that she can start constructing her own legacy.
Weyland’s other child is David, the android or artificial life form that he created. Weyland serves as both God and father to David. But he has created David not to be an independent entity or even an individual with a unique personality, but rather a living glorification of Weyland’s reputation as a genius.
What David’s act of foot washing signifies is not the love of a son for an elderly, infirm father, but rather a subtle warning to Weyland that he, perhaps, should be prepared to wash the feet (symbolically) of the Engineers rather than demand from these absent parents more life (fucker…to paraphrase Blade Runner).
In this reading of the film, an “unwanted” child, the human race, is created by an unsanctioned renegade, and the rest of the Engineers realize they must destroy it before the child threatens them and eclipses them.
I have read in many venues since Prometheus’s premiere how much genre audiences apparently dislike the character of Charlie Holloway, and how critics and viewers have grappled with what a “shithead” he is. Why is he so mean and condescending to David?
One of the key characters in Prometheus is Michael Fassbender’s effete android, David. As we witness early in the film, David has adopted as his human role model the character of T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. Specifically, he models his hair to resemble Peter O’Toole’s cut in that film. One also wonders if he is named David after that film’s director: David Lean.
Prometheus depicts the story of the space jockey – an alien engineer – and reveals to audiences more of that famous alien’s technology and history. As you can see from the Alien Movie Matrix that I printed below this post this morning, Prometheus also knowingly conforms to many of the tropes established in the Alien series. There are familiar character types, including an android, a company man (or woman in this case), and comic relief. In terms of plot situations, we get another pregnancy, plus new alien life forms, a heroic self-sacrifice (Janek), and a failed mission (Weyland’s quest for immortality). So for those who wonder if Prometheus is truly an Alien film, the component parts – the DNA – answer in the affirmative. A xenomorph may not hold center stage, but the conventions of the franchise play out all over again, in recognizable but adapted form. Using all the paints and ingredients of Alien, Scott has created a new masterpiece in the same vein.
Sometimes the route is direct, sometimes not. It depends, I suppose, on the host DNA and the amount of black goo utilized. But in the end, the weapon acts as just that, a weapon, and always creates a near-indestructible “beast.” It’s a clear enough dynamic: whatever intermediary medium is used, you start with black goo and end up with a monster that eliminates, hopefully, your enemies. I can see, however, why this kind of amorphous process rubs Alien fans the wrong way. It’s a big change from what we have seen before, and change is always difficult to reckon with, at least initially. Over time, as audiences come to accept Prometheus, I believe this concern will dissipate and people will start to recognize the film as, indeed, a genre masterpiece.
That sense of mastery rests in Scott's sense of composition, in the visuals he so carefully crafts to allude to other, great stories. The film's opening -- an aerial tracking shot across a primordial planet surface -- is incredibly beautiful, and reminds one (intentionally, we must assume) of the Dawn of Man passage in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As the camera move over roiling river rapids (a UFO hovering above), we intuit the sense of the swirling, turbid forces that give rise to life. Sequences later in the film, overtly Lovecraftian in nature, fill us with anticipatory dread. The temple of the Engineers -- a veritable necropolis -- is a vision inspired by Milton. Again, this is an appropriate allusion. The crew of Prometheus goes out in search of God and finds, instead, the devil. In Paradise Lost, man was tempted by the devil (and by the fruit of the tree of knowledge) to leave innocence and paradise behind. That loss of faith and innocence seems reflected in the film in Shaw's spiritual journey and loss of faith.
[Note: My friend Ed Erdelac noted on Facebook that the quote from Lawrence of Arabia is actually about Lawrence being insubordinate, not subordinate. The review has been updated to conform to the correct quote. Even though I mis-remembered the exact quote -- sorry! -- I think the point stands about Lawrence of Arabia...that David uses him as a role model and mimics his personality. Thanks, Ed, for setting me straight.]