At least a few moments of such pure enjoyment were necessary to alleviate the otherwise crushing cumulative horror that is finally the ground note of Prometheus: the horror of time, of the future, of the past, of the infinite spaces within which nothing exists but what is to be feared. The likable presence of Idris Elba and his concertina is about all that anchors Prometheus to any recollection of the pleasures of earthly life, especially since the only trace of sexual tenderness in the film leads directly to embryonic horror remedied by an automated C-section. What is at issue, it seems, is not the horror of alien life but of life in any form; not the existence of monsters but the monstrousness of existing. The dread that rises to the surface here hints at a culture variously afraid of sex, afraid of Darwin, afraid of DNA, afraid of aliens—afraid no matter which way it looks, forward or backward—and finding its way at last, as a last resort, to a planet of death.
[This is more a discussion than a review so if you’re really concerned with Spoilers and such well, duh, don’t read it]
From the moment Prometheus was announced fans of the Aliens series started wondering what kind of origin story they were going to get. And from that moment on the people behind actually making Prometheus tried to insist that this wasn’t about “making a prequel” but about making a movie that just happened to be closely tied to the franchise. But nerds, being how they are, insisted on their obsession with a potential origin, something fantastic to set up the world that Ellen Ripley first stumbles then strides then stomps into. Fitting then that what Prometheus actually is is a fun science fiction film in its own right which uses the Alien world as a touch stone but focuses on and outright abuses the very idea of seeking for meaning in life, particularly in origins.
First let me get out of the way that the movie does pretty well in capturing the feel of the two best films in the series. Most positive remarks on the film (even in the negative reviews) have pointed out how Prometheus is very much a horror film. Like the original Alien there’s the monster that we never quite see in the right light to understand what is it is, there’s the monster(s) that even after presumed death seem to keep on coming, there’s the general gore, there’s the specific blood and sweat from the juggernaut heroine, there’s the TENSION and, of course, there’s even the body horror. But I feel that the film does decently in honoring the action blasting first sequel too. I mean, crashing one space ship into another in a topography-of-the-planet-altering, run-for-your-life-from-the-most-massive-space-debris-you-can-imagine action sequence is something worthy of the action-tension grandosity of James Cameron. (also running over the Scotsman monster in the ATV didn’t remind you of the similar scene from Aliens? Really?). And while I think Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is certainly worthy of Ellen Ripley in the accidental-badass-through-sheer-grit department, the most Ripley-like action is taken by the other badass female lead (Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers) when she torches that infected dumbass before he can get back onto the ship.
I could go on. What’s more important though is that Prometheus stands on its own. It is, after all, not named “Alien 0” or “Aliens Begins” or anything like that. And I really feel that it does mark its own territory, not least of all in the way that all science-fiction movies must proclaim their right to exist: by grappling with ideas much bigger than just “ooh, the future and technology!” The big ideas in this case being the search for meaning in/relationship with Creation, as both the Created and a Creator. The scientists central to the story are searching for some sort of translation key to the beginnings they’ve been researching to tie everything together. That is the big one. Then there is the Engineers themselves as creator (and destructor). There’s the genesis story of the Alien itself, a horrible creation gone awry into something perhaps more horrible. There’s even Vickers and David who have their combative/loyal relationship to their father/creator. And where does Weyland himself fit in? In true manner of all such TED-talking, corporate giant bastards he sees himself as outside (or more appropriately above) the others, unconcerned with the nature of origin, creation and gods (he’s been there, done that, built the robot) and is instead obsessed with what’s next (in the sense of avoiding what’s next in death and seeing what’s next in eternal life).* So they’re all striving with their daddy issues (or as daddy themself) and then everyone, god-like Engineers included, fails and dies because there are no answers and to hell with you for hoping so.
Well it’s a bit more complicated than that. As is the act of creation itself. The good old intelligent design vs evolution debate comes up, of course. You have your examples of “hand” crafted living organisms - David, the “biological weapon”, and apparently humans themselves. But then none of these crafted organisms seem to do well enough for their creators. The Engineers want to eliminate their creation (just look at us, you can imagine why). David serves dutifully but with failure. And the biological weapon winds up being the bane of the hand that crafted it. What comes out on top finally, despite all these thought-out machinations, is mindless, dirty, death-fueled evolution. There are no tidy answers, just gruesome accident. How is the Alien created after all? Through a horribly messy, convoluted, accidental process (involving many horrible deaths). This is creation. A GMO that mutates into something “natural” (which spurs our wonder as to what is meant by “natural” anyway).
The line between what is “natural creation” and “unnatural design” is both stark and blurred. Sure, we can somewhat discern one from the other here but functionally they’re both the same bloody mess produced by AND producing unintended and brutal consequences. You want answers? We’ve got them in spades and they’re all mangled carcasses you’d hardly recognize for whatever organism they were in the first place. Other than that, you’re going to be left wanting and keep looking to the stars.
To court answers about existence, creation, and origins is to court death. And not that death is the end and you inevitably fail, but that death itself is (or holds) the answer to the question, “What is life?” Funny enough it’s the one character who wasn’t searching for big answers to big questions who finds them (actually, it perfectly figures that this would be so…) In every review or discussion on the film I have thus seen there is one crucial line that has not been mentioned. In those moments where Weyland is dying, Weyland the character most obsessed with living finally meeting the other side, he says, “There is nothing”. He is at last looking behind the mirror that we presume to be existence and seeing life and its quest for, well, anything as a sham. And David, our supreme human act of design-based creation, a simulacrum resultant of a simulacrum of playing God, who lives-if-you-can-call-that-living in a state of inhumanity, neither life nor death, being only the mirror itself David confirms that nihil ex nihilo with the most simple, “I know.”**
*Weyland is the Edison, the corporate inventor who has, allegedly, given so much to humanity but guess what, he’s an asshole (that hologram scene with the dog even recalled to me the His Master’s Voice painting w/ the Edison Bell cylinder phonograph).
**therefore…. he is?
Aside: I was tempted to take every whiny, nerdy, petty, dickish complaint about this film and address them one by one. There are just so many and that seems to be the thrust of criticism of this film. It’s sad/pathetic. I resisted in order to write something a bit more constructive, but there’s one instance of Selective Suspension of Disbelief in particular I wanted to note: Everyone wants to cry about Vickers and Shaw running straight instead of to the side when trying to outrun the spaceship… listen, that’s not exactly a scenario you train for. Do you know how many people I see get caught in the subway doors when they think they can make it? Or who stumble UP the steps? Or zig left when they should have zagged right and walk right into another person or something? I have a feeling that all the nerds pissing themselves over that scene would have, in the same situation, gotten crushed by the ship anyway…