Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien Week: Prometheus (2012)

Director Ridley Scott has  given the science fiction cinema two of its greatest and most cherished films: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).  His 2012 film, Prometheus 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 terms of visualization, Prometheus is nothing less than staggering. And in terms of narrative and meaning, Scott and his controversial writer Damon Lindelof have forged an intricate puzzle box, one which remains available to multiple interpretations and deep analysis.

This high-minded, symbolic approach to silver screen science fiction has not pleased some of the more literal-minded critics and audiences.  Indeed, there is a fine line between creating an open-ended, ambitious work of art that provokes discussion and crafting a movie that is so open-ended and impenetrable that the narrative itself seems muddled. 

Although I remain sensitive to those who insist that Prometheus is so confused and cryptic as to be  meaningless, I remain delighted that Ridley Scott has crafted an elaborate, complex film; one worthy of multiple viewings, and which can be best understood through careful dissection and consideration of the text’s symbols and multitudinous allusions.  A thorough understanding of the film is gleaned not necessarily by following the 1-2-3 steps of the plot, but rather through interpreting the deliberate nods to earlier films (such as Lawrence of Arabia [1962] or Blade Runner), and reckoning with a consistently-applied leitmotif that contextualizes all the players -- including the alien engineers -- in a specific manner.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have long been concerned with the way that the modern genre film has determinedly eschewed sub-text, and spoon-fed us obvious answers to  mysteries and puzzles.  Prometheus flouts this convention, and practically begs for an engaged, active, thoughtful viewership.  I would be a hypocrite if I complained both about the lack of ambiguity in most contemporary blockbusters and then shouted down Prometheus for its commendable surfeit of ambiguity.  If the film errs somewhat on the side of being inscrutable, so be it. 

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.  

By charting the dynamics of the parent/child dilemma, Prometheus thus emerges as the ultimate “Generation Gap” film. The underlying, subconscious reason for this reciprocal relationship of apparent hatred involves our very mortality, a topic that Ridley Scott also explored meaningfully in Blade Runner.  Parents want to live longer and hold onto their supremacy until the bitter end.  And children -- symbols of a future that parents won’t live to see -- want to usurp established authority and become dominant sooner rather than later.

The problem with the human condition, Prometheus suggests, is that we cannot see ourselves simultaneously as both children and parents, and that this tunnel-vision regarding our self image provokes resentment equally in those we raise, and those who raised us. This central running motif about parents/children actually resolves -- albeit obliquely -- many of the problems I’ve read that people have with the film. 

Why do the Engineers hate us?  Why does Holloway hate David? What does David feel for Weyland?

All the answers – or at least most of them – can be excavated by comprehending the particularities of the parent/child relationship in question. If we go in search of our Creator, Prometheus warns, we must understand that our Creator may not like, let alone love, his creation. After all, we possess something he does not: an unwritten future…one filled with potential and possibilities rather than an already-inscribed history of regrets and mistakes. 

If you view Scott’s Prometheus through this lens of parent/child relationships -- and consider the imagery and symbols that support this reading -- you may begin to view the 2012 film as a work of art that asks some very important and pointed questions about our nature.  This is worthy intellectual territory for an Alien-related movie to explore, since so much of that franchise mythos has been about the pain and horror associated with “birth.” 

Beyond that painful physical experience, Prometheus suggests, the real horror awaits.  Birth is just the beginning of the pain.  Try living up to God's expectations...

“A King has his reign, and then he dies.  It’s inevitable.”

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.

In 2089 AD on Earth, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) put together the final piece of a strange puzzle.  In a prehistoric cave on the Isle of Skye, they find the sixth pictograph showcasing a star map; one pointing towards mankind’s destiny in a distant solar system.

In 2093 AD, Shaw and Holloway awake from cryo-sleep aboard the space vessel Prometheus, a ship under the command of Captain Janek (Idris Alba). With the patronage of the Weyland Company -- represented by executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and a polite android named David (Michael Fassbender) -- the two scientists explain their theory of the star map to a skeptical crew. 

Shaw and Holloway believe that mankind was created by a race of alien engineers, and that the pictographs in the prehistoric caves represent an invitation to seek them out.  Prometheus is now near its destination: a life-supporting moon around a ringed planet, called LV-223.  Here Shaw hopes to find evidence of man’s beginnings.

On the moon’s surface, an exploratory team discovers an Engineer construction: a giant earthen temple that generates its own breathable atmosphere.  Inside the temple stands thousands of vases which contain a viscous black fluid…possibly a life form, possibly a bio-weapon. 

When the containers start to leak, a chain of events is set into motion that will threaten not only Shaw and Holloway, but all human life on Earth itself.

“Don’t all children want their parents to die?”

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.

In terms of the former, most of the important characters in the film are developed in ways that signify they are either children or parents…or both.

Take protagonist Elizabeth Shaw, for example.  We learn from an early flashback/dream sequence that she lost both of her parents when she was very young.  Furthermore, she is unable to bear children herself.  Because of the absence of parents in her life, and because of her own inability to become a parent, Shaw is a woman of deep “faith,” viewing the Christian God as parental source of wisdom, support, and comfort.   She has fashioned a "personal" parent in the western, New Testament God image.

In need of a benevolent father figure to replace the one she lost all those years ago, Shaw “chooses to believe” that the Engineers are mankind’s creators, and that they are good, loving, wise creatures awaiting her arrival -- or return? -- with outstretched arms.  Her assumptions -- forged in the heartbreaking absence of human parents -- prove utterly wrong, and Shaw grows vengeful and bitter in the course of the film, determined to hold the Engineers’ feet to the fire for failing to live up to her personal imaginings of them. 

Why do the Engineers hate their own children?  Shaw asserts that she “deserves answers” to this pressing riddle.  This is so because she has erected her entire life and self-image around the myth of a loving God, benevolent father to the human race.  As the film ends, Shaw doubles down on her belief that the Engineers must love their grown children, and heads off to their planet of origin to confirm the answer she seeks.  This pursuit of her Creators is not one based on facts, since we have seen with our own eyes that the Engineers are unremittingly hostile.  Rather, Shaw's zealous continuation of the journey is the result of a closed mind, one which won't accept new data and new facts.  And yes, her character -- while heroic -- is certainly a comment on epistemic closure in those of faith.  One wonders, perhaps, if Shaw views herself as the prodigal child, one who has committed some (unknown) sin, but who will ultimately be accepted upon her return.  If she (along with the human race)  represents the Engineers' prodigal child, then the xenomorphs may be our more dutiful siblings...

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. 

But Weyland is reluctant to let go.  So reluctant, in fact, that he finances a mission to LV-223 on the long shot chance of discovering the secret of immortality from the Engineers…from God.  Late in the film, Meredith rails against her father for his failure to observe the accepted way of things. Like Shaw she is angry and embittered by her experience with a parent.  He won't let her complete the process of transformation...of becoming.

It’s inevitable, Vickers tells Weyland, that a king has his reign…and then dies.  But Weyland steadfastly refuses to end his reign, landing Vickers in a kind of arrested state of not-quite maturity.   Trapped in that purgatory, she is not respected by others, and her authority inside the company is constantly questioned. Vickers is always heir to the throne, but never gets to sit on that throne.  She watches her father's death not with dread or pain, but with something akin to acceptance.  It was time for him to go, and his last act -- going to an alien to demand more life -- was pathetic and needy.

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.  

Accordingly, Weyland is routinely dismissive of David, noting in front of others that although David is immortal, he possesses “no soul.”  The uneasy nature of the David/Weyland relationship is best expressed in a sequence in the medical bay, during which David washes his father’s feet.

Foot washing is a Christian religious ritual.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of the Last Supper, his final night on Earth.  In this tradition -- unusually -- the superior washes the feet of the servants, or the apparent inferiors.   Jesus said: “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example…that you should do as I have done to you.

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). 

David’s act of foot washing looks like one of subordination and respect, but in the tradition of Jesus, it is actually not subordinate at all.  Rather, David informs his father -- in the deliberately symbolic terms of foot washing -- that he should act just as David has acted.  He should wash the feet of the others, to humble himself before the Engineers.  But David knows that Weyland is arrogant and prideful and will not follow his example.  This suits David, because he wishes his father dead so that he can chart his own path.  He no longer wishes to take orders from the Old Man.

Another child in Prometheus, of course, is the human race itself.  It is the (perhaps unwanted…) child of the Engineers.  And in typically childish fashion, this child goes before its parents and demands answers about life.  The Engineers -- as parents -- however, clearly fear the humans.  The humans – their children – have in two millennia escaped their playpen (Earth) and sought them out at Daddy’s work, on LV-223.  This act suggests, perhaps, that the child shall eventually overcome the father, and eclipse the father. 

This deep fear, I submit, is the source of resentment on the part of the Engineers: they have created something that they can’t control, but which may outlive them and out-achieve them.  Now, if you read the net with any regularity, there’s much talk about the film's deleted “Space Jesus” and the idea that the Engineers sent an emissary to Earth, Christ, who was killed by humans.  That is the specific reason, apparently, that the Engineers dislike us.  But that omitted explanation was also rejected by Scott as too “on the nose,” and does not mitigate or undo the explanation I supply here.

In fact, the idea of a parent being jealous or vengeful towards a child conforms beautifully with the Prometheus myth, which the film evokes.  In Greek Myth, Prometheus is a God-like creature, a Titan, who created man from clay and then stole fire for mankind so that the child could stand on equal footing with his progenitor.  Prometheus’s punishment from his fellow Gods was everlasting torment.  Implicit in this story is the belief that the Gods -- the ultimate parent figures -- don't want competitors.  They fear that Prometheus's gift will make man an equal, just as many parents fear that their children, once grown up, will be equals...or betters.

One interpretation of Prometheus suggests that the Engineer seen in the prologue is either a Prometheus-like renegade or heretic who similarly gives the “magic of life” – his very DNA – to create man, perhaps over the ardent objections of the other Engineers.  Why does he do so?  We can’t know, of course, but perhaps this Engineer wanted to create something that was “good” instead of something destructive, like the black ooze biological weapon which – no matter which way you cut it, or what life form you utilize as intermediary – always ends up as vicious population control: a nasty, saliva-dripping xenomorph.

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. 

Another possible reading: the Engineer in the prologue creates man simply because he can.  This is a deliberate mirror of Holloway’s explanation for David in the film’s dialogue.  Holloway tells David that mankind gave birth to an artificial life form only to prove that it could create life, not out of love, not out of responsibility, and not out of any deeper meaning or emotional truth.

By extension, perhaps this explanation applies to the Engineers and the human race too.  The Engineers conducted a test (they seem to be experimenters...)…and humans were the (fearsome) and unexpected result.  Not all parents intend to be parents in the first place, after all.  For some, parenthood is an unexpected and unwanted burden.  This is the existentialist, nihilist interpretation of the film.  Man goes out into space in search of the meaning of life, only to get the answer that his life -- his very existence -- is meaningless. How does he know?  Because the Bible (er, God...) tells him so.

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? 

The answer, again, determinedly concerns parents and children.  As the Engineers view their creation with disdain, so does Holloway view mankind’s creation, David, with disdain.  But it’s not merely disdain…it is casual disdain. 

This rude and condescending behavior expresses Charlie’s hypocrisy, and his absolute inability to see himself as both a father and a son.  He goes to space to find his genetic father, while belittling and destroying mankind’s son...a miracle who stands right there in front of him.  Can’t he see that he is treating David in a way he would not want to be treated by his father or God?

I submit Holloway is actually a pretty intriguing character because of this casual, reflexive, unthinking rejection of David as a “lesser” being.  This is racism in its worst form, a thoughtless denigration of one of God’s creations.  And sometimes, this kind of racism exists in even the most enlightened individuals.  The point is that men – even great men like Charlie Holloway – can’t always see their own hypocrisy, or their own blind spots.  Charlie never gives voice to a specific reason for his hatred of David, he just blindly considers him inferior because David is artificial...just as generations have blindly considered African-Americans inferior because of skin color, or gay people inferior because of sexual identity.   

Does this racist behavior make Charlie a shithead?  I don’t know.  It certainly makes him a genuinely complicated character.  He seeks a God who loves him, like Shaw, one that he wishes to “talk to,” but yet he steadfastly denies that very love to David, a being created by man.  It’s a very elegant dynamic and point of comparison, and one that reveals how so many people of faith wear blinders in the face of their own foibles.   Charlie can position himself only as a child, shirking his responsibilities as father.

Weyland’s trajectory is similar to Charlie’s.  He has played God, but is not kind or good to his creation, David.  Yet Weyland wholly expects his God to honor a personal demand for immortality.  The Engineers have no reason to grant Weyland this prize, and in fact the brazen nature of the request only seems to confirm the Engineers’ apparent belief that man will eclipse them and threaten them if left unchecked.  Human appetites are boundless.  As Weyland dies at the end of the film, he warns David that there is only “nothing” (a reference to the desert, and Lawrence of Arabia).  What he means, however, is that -- going back to the existentialist interpretation of Prometheus -- God has no answers to give.  This is important information for David. Weyland has no answers to give, either.

Given the importance of the parent/child dynamic in Prometheus, the significance of the black ooze may just be that it violently makes parents of even the most unwilling organisms.  It usurps the normal life process and co-opts life for its own agenda.  And again, that may qualify as a cynical definition of “children,” at least according to some.  Children are a demand on time and resources, and the grisly bio-weapon of the Engineers forces unwanted parenthood on one and all. But the children of the black ooze are literally monsters, slavering beasts dedicated to murder, and therefore true weapons of mass destruction.  And yes, if the Engineers did create the black ooze, that makes the black ooze -- and by extension the xenomorphs -- our "brothers."

Now, of course, I don’t feel this way about children and parents.  I’m a happy parent of a delightful and wonderful five year old boy…who happily plays with Kenner Alien toys, incidentally.  But Prometheus gazes deeply at the reasons why parents and children sometimes gaze at one another across a gulf of suspicion and dislike.  Parents and children vie for resources and time in the quest to achieve dominance and immortality.  “Don’t all children want their parents to die?” David asks late in the film, and Shaw rebuts him, stating emphatically that the answer is negative.

But judging by the interactions between parents and children in the film, and taking into account the Prometheus myth, the film makes a case that David is right.  Parents fear children because the ascent of their offspring in some way portends the death of the creator.  And there's nothing more frightening -- even to Gods, apparently -- than facing annihilation and oblivion.  And children fear and hate parents because parents control them and hold onto precious life to the bitter end.

This is a rich, consistently-applied theme, diagrammed in character after character, and literally hard-written into the structure of Prometheus itself.  Of course, some will ask, if the Engineers despise their children so much, why give them an invitation to come visit?

The simple answer is that it’s a trick invitation.  Notice that the children are invited not to a home world, but to a dangerous weapons facility.  If the children come, they’ll more than likely be destroyed.  If you've ever been ambushed at a family gathering, you kind of get the point.  An invitation to "come home" isn't necessarily or automatically benign, is it?
“It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really:” David the Android, and the Lawrence of Arabia (1962) connection.

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.

By remembering some of the details and dialogue of Lawrence of Arabia, we begin to unlock the puzzle of David’s behavior and motivations.  Other critics have already pointed out, accurately, that dialogue in Prometheus deliberately and explicitly references Lawrence of Arabia on three occasions. 

These are when David notes “Big things have small beginnings,” when Weyland notes that the “key” to doing risky things is “not minding that it hurts,” and the commentary, finally, that “there is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”

Yet such references are only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. 

In ways important and complex, David clearly models his very behavior and actions after his cinematic hero.  For instance, T.E. Lawrence tells General Murray (David Wolfsit) in the Lean film that his manner looks insubordinate “but it isn’t really.” 

This is precisely David’s manner. He operates by an agenda that is seems insubordinate, but is not. Over and over, David ignores the orders of his superiors. Specifically, he opens the door to the temple vase room over Holloway and Shaw’s objections, and then de-activates the live feed showing his progress to the ship’s bridge, irking Vickers.  By and large, David -- like Lawrence -- “pretends” to be insubordinate, when this is not the case.  He is secretly operating by Weyland's command.  In other words, he is perfectly least until he can be free of his "father."

Also harking back to the filmic T.E. Lawrence, David recognizes his isolation and also independence from those surrounding him.  He is neither human, nor alien engineer.  He is singular in his nature. In Lean’s film, Lawrence describes himself as similarly possessing “no tribe,” and believes that this lack of specific membership makes him the perfect person to “execute the law,” as he tells Aida Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). 

Again, consider David’s behavior in Prometheus: It reveals no allegiance to any particular group, but rather a consideration only for David’s “law,” his personal quest, I believe, to “kill” his parents (Weyland and the other humans) and become, essentially, for the first time, a free man instead of a slave. 

When David suggests to Shaw that she rescue him from the alien bridge and return to the engineer spacecraft, he is essentially operating according his own agenda.  When he “views” Shaw’s dreams, similarly, we are led to believe that this is not something that was part of David’s recognized duty, since Shaw registers surprise.  David also lies to Vickers about Weyland and seems to suggest, to Shaw, that he would like to see Weyland – his “father” – dead.  Everything David says and does in the film is -- on some fundamental level -- related to his own desires and needs.  If those needs conform with Vickers’s, Shaw’s, Holloway’s or Weyland’s, that’s fine.  But if they don’t, David doesn't hesitate to take the path that seems to most benefit him.

Finally, David, like his cinematic mentor, seems to recognize the fact that he is virtually indestructible, or at least hard to kill.  He observes safety protocol and rituals, such as adorning a spacesuit and helmet, but these are affectations for the comfort of the nearby humans. David can touch biological black ooze without worrying for his survival, for instance.  And even when his head is severed from his body, he continues to thrive.

As T.E. Lawrence joked with Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) in Lawrence of Arabia: “They can only kill me with a golden bullet.”  Very clearly, the same assessment could be made of David.  He expects to be immortal, sans a nasty encounter or two with an angry Engineer.

The point of all these allusions is simple.  T.E. Lawrence suggests in Lean’s film that his allegiance is to “England…and other things,” a comment which cements his status as a man of uncertain or conflicted loyalties.  David could very well describe his sense of allegiance as being to “Weyland…and other things.”  He has thus learned from viewing Lawrence of Arabia how to successfully navigate conflicts and still achieve a goal he desires.  The Lean film is our visual cue to understanding David’s “nature,” and there are even scenes in both films where the David/T.E. Lawrence make mention of their emotional or unemotional state of “fear.”

The Lawrence of Arabia comparison is important in another way.  Specifically, in context of the parent/child dynamic the film explores so assiduously, T.E. Lawrence grants David the advice and wisdom of a mentor he actually likes, an important alternative to the cruel Weyland.  Similarly, the film itself is considered one of the greatest works of film art in history.  This is a status Prometheus hopes to achieve, only as a science fiction masterwork. 

In other words, David longs to be T.E. Lawrence, and Prometheus longs to be David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, metaphorically-speaking.  A key to understanding Prometheus is to understand what the text of Lawrence of Arabia means to both David and to Ridley Scott.  If you aren’t familiar with the classic film, you’re missing a whole avenue of interpretation and symbolism.

The Alien (1979) Connection: Too Much or Not Enough?

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.

The connection to Alien established, Ridley Scott is also creative the father here, and so we can also recognize his career DNA in Prometheus.

Specifically, the director has imported Roy Batty’s quest from Blade Runner to serve as an important motivating factor here.  Weyland, much like Rutger Hauer’s famous Replicant, is facing a built-in expiration date, the impending end of his life.  As Batty went to visit his God, Tyrell for answers about immortality, so does Weyland petition his God, the Engineer in this matter.  In both situations, the quest ends…badly.  But the connection between Prometheus and Blade Runner is made explicit in visual terms during Weyland’s holographic presentation.  Weyland’s office closely resembles Tyrell’s sun-drenched sky-rise paradise, right down to the majestic columns bracketing the frame.  Weyland is thus – interestingly -- both petitioner and petitioned in this film, both a Creator and a child; both Tyrell and Batty, essentially. But Weyland picks up the quest for immortality where Batty left off.

In terms of Alien, Prometheus certainly continues Scott’s penchant for showcasing grisly, unexpected births.  Here, Shaw’s alien “baby” turns into a protean, giant face-hugger-like creation, and uses the Engineer’s body to incubate a monstrous, vaguely familiar xenomorph. 

Again, I realize that many fans of the Alien series have been upset with Prometheus for not more directly creating a definable life-cycle for the creatures in this film.  However there’s an easy and simple enough way to understand the monsters: Every road that the black goo embarks upon leads to one destination, eventually: the xenomorph.

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.

Clearly, I’ve written a lengthy piece here, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Prometheus, its symbols, and hidden meaning. I think it's a wonderful thing to be given a film so rich in meaning, motif, and allusion that it can’t easily be digested or parsed in one 250-word review.  Before I close, I just want to comment, finally, on the canny design of the Engineers.  With their alabaster skin and haunting black eyes, they resemble – to me anyway – humanoid sharks.  There’s something fearsome and predatory about them, and by coincidence, no doubt, here’s a recent news story on the net suggesting that sharks and humans share a common ancestor.   Engineer DNA?

That’s a nice bit of serendipity that works in Prometheus’s favor, I think. But at least on a subconscious level, when we view the Engineers, we are viewing things that we already judge fearsome....human and shark natures. That's important to the success of the film's final act.  For here, the terror rests not on slimy shape-shifting aliens, but on a reckoning with these twisted, over-sized reflection of ourselves.  That fact fits in with the theme of parents and children too.  The Engineers are a mirror for human life, only with an overtly wicked visual twist.

It will be fascinating to see how Scott continues the story of Prometheus in Alien: Covenant, premiering today...


  1. John, thoughtful brilliant review of Prometheus. I love the way your reviews always build the case for your analysis. Ridley Scott is an impressive director with both Prometheus(2012) and Alien(1979).


  2. If I was an exec, my note to Scott would read thusly-"Burn the negative and let no one you were responsible for this."

    1. And it should have read "Let no one know you were responsible for this." I gotta proofread better :)

  3. I found this movie slow and boring, until the moment when supposed "scientists" fail to take any acceptable safety precautions and expose themselves to the elements, and THEN proceed to touch alien goo as if they were morons. This movie was HORRIBLE.


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