Why Prometheus Is Better Than You Remember

On the eve of Alien: Covenant, we look back at Ridley Scott's Prometheus and argue that the ambitious sci-fi epic gets a bad rap.

With the release of Alien: Covenant almost upon us, it is time to say something that is considered blasphemous in online circles: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is actually pretty good. There we just crossed the movie criticism Rubicon.

Anticipated with all the fanfare of a preordained masterpiece, 2012’s Prometheus arrived with more than a thud of disappointment during its opening weekend. Stuffed with quite a few stock background characters lacking in genuine motivation, and suffering from the most Lindelof-y of Damon Lindelof dialogue (i.e. stilted and aggravating), it was easy for many to write off the prequel to Ridley Scott’s first of many all-time classics, Alien, as a failure. For those who actually wanted it to be a genuine prequel to Alien, complete with xenomorphs and chestbursting facehuggers running around, this was doubly true.

But that “flaw” actually undervalues what makes Prometheus so genuinely bold and ultimately worthwhile: it bravely and defiantly charts its own course to peculiar, perverse, and sometimes glorious results. Here is a franchise movie flush with ambition, not least of which is due to it abandoning its franchise’s expectations beyond the general sense of mounting dread and psychosexual luridness (at least when Scott’s in charge).

For years, Scott had mused the problem with so many of the Alien sequels had been their focus on the titular Alien when there was a perfectly good “Space Jockey” lying around unused. Indeed, one of the most ominous images of the 1979 film is that of an elephantine biomechanical monstrosity long deceased, tied to his pervy spaceship’s proverbial wheel like the captain of the Demeter in Dracula. With Prometheus, Scott reverse engineered the franchise and made a whole film about the big guy (or at least his species). As it turns out, the Space Jockeys are what Scott and Lindelof dubbed to be “Engineers,” giant humanlike alien beings of incomprehensible motivation. They engineered not only the deadly eggs in Alien’s cargo, but humanity itself.

Turning to tinfoil hats’ favorite conspiracy theory—we were invented by aliens, manPrometheus crafts a stark and disquieting premise worthy of H.P. Lovecraft. If aliens created mankind, what if we could go meet them? And what if our attempting to do so only angered them in the process? As the film posits, the creatures have mastered biological genetic science and for apparently billions of years have been starting and monitoring life on countless planets. In essence, we as a species are now Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from Blade Runner, who goes to meet his human creator and begs for more life—as well as demands answers for why he was invented in the first place.

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This irony is made explicit in the film, as the crew of the Prometheus is oblivious to the fact that they are not there to discover the origin of all species, but rather to fulfill the dying wishes of their corporate leader Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). An ancient mummy walking among them, Weyland and his daughter Vickers (Charlize Theron) have spent over $1 trillion to pay for this star trek in hopes of discovering alien gods that can extend the life of Weyland. As he explains to his “God” in the extended (and better version) of Prometheus’ ending, Weyland considers himself a god like the Engineer, because he is a captain of industry who also created life in his robot… David. “And gods don’t die.”

Also with Michael Fassbender’s David comes the real virtue of Prometheus. Beyond all the bells and whistles that accompanies Scott’s painterly eye, the film has two characters that actually work as believable creations, and as luck would have it, they’re the two leads of the movie. The more important of the two is David, who like Ian Holm in Alien and Hauer in Blade Runner, is a synthetic robot. But unlike those films, Scott is allowed to finally make the robot the protagonist.

Fassbender is totally engrossing as the devilishly entertaining David. Here is a synthetic being who is treated as nothing more than a machine by man, or a trophy by Weyland’s sense of self-deification, yet he has more soul than anyone. As the only member of the crew who is able to stay awake for the decade long trip to the moon filled with black goo, David believes in self-improvement, learning multiple languages, mastering culinary arts and basketball. He even models his cadence and visage after Peter O’Toole in his favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia. If he is not alive, why is he so much more engaged in the mission than the others?

David is acting under Weyland’s orders when he starts experimenting on the other crew members as unsuspecting guinea pigs with the Engineers’ building blocks of life (and death), the black goo. But he takes a malevolent enjoyment out of selecting the crudest and apish among them for the furtherance of science.

Such is the fate of Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), a poorly written character whose most important role is that after he is infected, he passes along the black goo contamination to Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) the erstwhile main character of the film.

Shaw is an intriguing creation by the Swedish actress and her director, because she is so unlike Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Shaw isn’t a tough as nails blue collar survivor that can spit fire and curse like the rest of them; Shaw is a believer and thus a paradox. She is a scientist who unearthed the archeological evidence that suggests there is a star system whereupon our creators reside. She wants to meet these aliens, but nevertheless continues to believe in Jesus Christ, keeping a crucifix around her throat. She is educated and faithful, and totally not made for the action heroine archetype.

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But when she is subject to a “miraculous birth,” she is pushed to the edges of Scott’s most twisted body horror since Alien. As a woman unable to give birth, Shaw’s realization that Charlie impregnated her before he died is not a sign of salvation, but damnation. David takes a cruel sort of enjoyment—again proving even robots can be misogynists—in revealing to Shaw that she’s three months pregnant in a matter of hours… and that he is demanding she keep the baby.

Scott enjoys dabbling in and playing with feminist politics, but he takes it to an intentionally pitch black corner here. When the men, synthetic or otherwise, insist that Shaw give birth to an alien baby-monster that will likely kill her, she single-handedly performs a Caesarean-Section that in tone is closer to a self-performed abortion.

Not since characters sat down for dinner in Alien have stomachs churned with such precision at the cinematic marvel of Elizabeth being trapped with her own squid baby in a self-operation capsule. It is the stuff of demented nightmares. As is the multi-sexual organ creature it grows up into before being unleashed on another male attacker later in the picture, with whom it “moves on” faster than a Republican presidential candidate.

These are just a few of the squeamish delights offered by Prometheus. Like characters in a Lovecraft novel, the answers given in this film drive the space explorers to horrible depths, whether on their own operating tables or in the face of an angry God.

This is a film that builds to the idea that not only was our “God” decidedly mortal, but He (or they) are angry covetous beings who wish not to share their secrets or power. In fact, they’re capricious creatures who’d rather kill us all than answer why they created us—offended we’d have the capability, never mind the nerve, to ask in the first place. Their moon is no paradise, but a weapon’s facility that upon reaching, our reward is potential annihilation. The canisters of black goo that would eventually evolve into the alien of Alien are nothing more than biological weapons of mass destruction intended for Earth.

It is a pessimistic and apocalyptic concept that challenges religion, optimism, and morality, all realized on a grandiose scale with dazzling visuals.

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Some viewers are still frustrated with the lack of “answers” about why the Engineers invented us, or came to hate us, but it’s all there. When Holloway tells David, “We made you because we could,” there is a look of fleeting anger on the robot’s face. “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” David asks. That disappointing frustration is built into Prometheus by design. The idea of a benevolent God who cares about what you think is a fool’s errand to Scott, and to demand answers will leave you like the crew of the Prometheus, who other than Shaw and a disembodied David, found the knowledge of sweet oblivion for their troubles.

The movie ends with Shaw and David off to confront the Engineers on their home world—whether it is their deaths or not, Shaw will get her answers. So perhaps the only real disappointment regarding Prometheus is that this fascinating tease is mostly abandoned by its sequel, a movie more concerned with actually putting the “Alien” in the Alien prequel. How human of their ambition.