20th Century Fox (2012) 124 min. R
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski; Editing: Pietro Scalia
Production Design: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Sonja Klaus; Costumes: Janty Yates; Score: Marc Streitenfeld
Stars: Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Idris Elba (Janek), Patrick Wilson (Shaw’s father), Sean Harris (Fifield), Ian Whyte (Last Engineer)
Director Ridley Scott has given sci-fi cinema some of the classics of the genre, and while his latest, Prometheus, is impressively expansive and uncharacteristically philosophic, thanks to some slipshod editing, meandering continuity and inexplicable character motivation it just misses the mark of greatness. Still, there’s much in the movie to commend. The premise of Prometheus, in which a manned space mission sets out in search of the alien species who engineered the human race millennia ago, was inspired by theories advanced in Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, which hypothesized that human progress could be traced to ancient aliens who interceded at some early point in our evolution.
Scott opens the film on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2089 A.D., where the interest of the scientific community has been piqued by the discovery of identical cave paintings across a far flung array of cultures previously believed to have had no contact with one another. It is surmised by two top scientists, Ellie Shaw and Charlie Holloway, that these ancient star maps pertain to the location in the galaxy of the ‘Engineers’ who tinkered with the genetic structure of human DNA in order to manufacture mankind. Underwritten by a wealthy backer with ulterior motives, Peter Weyland, the space station Prometheus embarks upon a mission of discovery. Setting off in search of the origins of life on earth, they instead encounter the seeds of its very destruction.
In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the alien ‘gods’ likewise left behind clues akin to those discovered on the cave walls here, inviting mankind to come find them and by doing so, prove themselves worthy of ascending to the next stage in human development. The Engineers here want the human species, whose evolution they similarly served to jumpstart, to come find them as well, but their dastardly motivations are entirely different. They want to keep tabs on man, to know when he’s reached a stage in development where he’s capable of designing technologies that can traverse such great distances across space. As Michael Fassbender’s android David demonstrates, mankind has even proven capable of manufacturing a form of (artificial) life, same as our Engineers manufactured us, thereby proving humans to have become equal to their creators in essence, and hence rivals worthy of annihilation. The Engineers are the real ‘kings’ Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers will later refer to, unwilling to step down and cede their position of supremacy in the solar system.
When Charlie asks him why he’s wearing a space helmet even though he doesn’t need it to breathe, David states the obvious fact that “You’re people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.” This idea of how humans see and define the alien ‘other’ amongst themselves is reiterated when missionary Patrick Wilson points out to his daughter in Ellie’s flashback that the Muslim God is different from their Christian one. Prometheus on the other hand attempts to put that notion into perspective, demonstrating what little difference there actually is between mankind’s various, warring religious factions by tracing their foundations back to the same common ancestral source. The earlier British cult film Five Million Years to Earth, released in the U.S. in 1968, the same year von Däniken’s book was published and 2001 came out, also used this idea of aliens visiting the planet at some distant point in earth’s past as its basis, positing that man’s ‘devil’ archetype could be traced to an ancestral memory of contact with these life forms. Prometheus sets out to prove that man’s concept of ‘God,’ which forms the foundation of all religious thought, can likewise be traced back to a remote alien archetype that interceded in human evolution, imprinting the idea of a superior, supreme being into our DNA.
A prequel to Alien, the genesis of Prometheus, which director Ridley Scott has described as containing ‘strands of DNA’ from the earlier movie, is almost as intriguingly tangled as the central question the film raises concerning the genesis of life on earth. The idea of restarting the successful Aliens franchise had been kicked around with James Cameron, director of the first Aliens sequel, as long ago as 2000. The eventual result was the 2003 hybrid Alien vs. Predator, with which Scott declined involvement, feeling that the King Kong vs. Godzilla crossover concept cheapened the high quality of his classic. Talks then turned to his developing a possible prequel to his original film, which would serve to resolve some of the loose ends it had left dangling, such as the origin of the alien species itself. Successive script drafts and pre-release publicity jointly conspired to distance Prometheus from its own point of origin in the belief that marketing the movie as a prequel to Alien would set audience expectations too high. It was a wise move considering the focus of the film has been shifted from high octane horrors to philosophical ruminations concerning the place and purpose of man in the universe. The tone of this prequel has been changed so drastically from its forebears in fact, you’d hardly know that the films were shaken from the same family tree. Instead, Prometheus could easily be seen as the sunset of an aging artist who’s begun to question his own mortality. As he stares into the face of eternity, Prometheus provides director Scott a sounding board to postulate on the bigger questions, as The Tree of Life afforded Terry Malick the opportunity to do last summer.
Perhaps the director’s most significant alteration to his original vision was to cast the short, soft spoken Noomi Rapace as his heroine after we’re given to believe that Charlize Theron, with her muscular, strapping, athletic frame is going to make for the more reliable Ripley replacement. Something odd has happened to Theron’s career here of late. Despite the acclaim the actress received for her work in 2011’s Young Adult, she hasn’t been cast as the female lead in any of the movies she’s made in the past year. Instead she appears to be retooling her persona in the brand new guise of a villainess. In addition to Prometheus, she accepted a reduced role with supplementary screen time in Snow White and the Huntsman, much as Julia Roberts did in her version of the fairytale, Mirror, Mirror, earlier in the year. It’s not quite clear if Theron’s recent career moves are by choice, to clear her schedule and leave more off-screen time to devote to her newly adopted son, or because the actress is approaching the age where Hollywood no longer deems her suitable for romantic leading lady roles, which would certainly be odd given that the Oscar-winning former model doesn’t appear to have aged a day in the last decade. Given Theron’s choice of material lately though, with the youth obsessed Wicked Queen of Snow White and her Prometheus role as the embittered daughter of an aged man in equally fruitless search for a fountain of youth (that’s Guy Pearce buried beneath all the latex if you can believe it; he’s like 2001’s rapid aged Dave Bowman rocketing out to the stars to meet his maker), age would appear to be very much on her mind of late.
Resentfully slinking around in the shadows, waiting for Weyland to give up the ghost so that she can slip in and inherit his trillion dollar empire, she seethes “A king has his reign then he dies. That is the natural order of things.” She’s like an heir apparent whose been kept on ice for far too long, making Theron’s Vickers further resent his greedy attempt to hold on to life with every last, grasping breath. She’d smother him herself if he wasn’t under constant guard so it’s impermissible that he should try to further extend his existence by seeking the secret of immortality from our Engineers. Theron is as entertainingly witchy as she was in Snow White, reveling in her empowerment with the same melodramatic flourish, which is likely why the filmmakers chose to crush her beneath that titanic, phallic-shaped steel spaceship that crashes back down to earth at the end. But while we’re meant to revile her, we can’t help admiring the bitch’s moxie, such as when she takes a flame thrower to Charlie rather than permitting his contaminated ass back on the ship (hey, she gave him fair warning). Her no nonsense actions put the lie to Captain Janek’s later claims about being dead set against bringing biohazard material on board. If that were true, he wouldn’t have been arguing with her about allowing Charlie to come inside. She seems to be operating from an entrenched position of excessive self interest, but she’s really doing what has to be done in order to protect the safety of the crew, given what we know of these aliens’ incubating habits from the other films. And though Vickers is meant to serve as contrast to our heroine, the extreme measures she takes when Charlie refuses to be quarantined aren’t really that far removed from Ellie’s own desperate act when pushed into a corner later with that do-it-yourself C-section.
Theron’s martinet character seems so arch that we’re not surprised when Janek asks her if she’s an android herself because, like Sean Young in Blade Runner, we have our own doubts. Despising David to the degree she does, being the child her father created and favored, the son he really wanted instead of the daughter he had, Janek’s insult hits further below the belt than he anticipated. We can understand why Vickers would promptly choose to have sex with him just to prove that she’s not a cold, passionless machine like the one her father built (though how exactly this is meant to prove her humanity isn’t clear; after all they manufacture love dolls for the same purpose), but that isn’t the same as saying that it makes sense that she would. Our movie instincts tell us that, if anybody, she would mate with David in an unholy alliance to engineer an icy, blonde bloodless master race, and this is precisely the point where the movie started heading south to my mind. I never bought it for an instant that this inflexible ramrod who harbors such a profound belief in her own innate superiority would stoop to having a cheap quickie, even to prove a point. Suddenly the director and writers Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof begin allowing their characters to behave absurdly by deserting their posts, leaving the men left behind in that cavern to their doom because no one is on the bridge watching. Two thorough professionals like these would never be off diddling about when they should be manning their stations.
Noomi Rapace is best known internationally for her interpretation of Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, but for Prometheus she couldn’t have moved farther afield of that persona. In this film, she possesses none of those dangerous, dark edged, kick ass qualities that characterized her signature role, even while she proves her Ellie to be every bit as resourceful and self-sufficient (David is dead on to admire her survival instincts). As this moony, idealistic, soft spoken scientist Rapace projects a far gentler demeanor, even if she does still appear a tad too old for her part. Prometheus is really about Ellie’s own deeply personal spiritual quest. When asked by the skeptical crew of rag tags how she could discount three centuries of Darwinism with a belief that humans didn’t evolve but were engineered, she openly admits she doesn’t know for certain that her theory is true, but “it’s what I choose to believe.” By mouthing that standard apologia, this woman of science sounds indistinguishable from the religiously devout who couch their language in similar terms when explaining how they can believe in the existence of a higher power at work in the universe, despite all evidence to the contrary. Coupled with her fanatical scientific fervor, Ellie proves to be a true believer on several fronts, one whose faith in her precepts, however questionable, refuses to be shaken. This scientist even wears a cross around her neck when in the field, like a bridge between her duelist beliefs.
When they prove their theories by locating the Engineers’ lair, jaded Charlie advises “Guess you can take your father’s cross off now.” But to Ellie’s way of thinking, proving both the existence of extraterrestrial life forms and that human beings were the product of their engineering rather than that of a divine creator, isn’t a contradiction in terms but spurs her on to ask the even bigger questions raised by these revelations, questions that have been nagging at her since she was a young girl helping her father in his missionary work. She accepts that the Engineers created us, but still needs to know who created them. She’s goaded on by Weyland with “So close to answering the most meaningful question ever asked by man. Or have you lost your faith, Shaw?” and even when events become harrowing and Ellie should take her personal safety into consideration, she’s drawn back into the path of danger over and over like a moth to the flame. She shares Charlie’s insatiable scientific curiosity, which is what draws them together. “It must feel like your God’s abandoned you.” A soulless David chides her, but the simple fact that Ellie emerges unscathed, the lone survivor of this disastrous mission, is testament to the fact that some sort of higher power seems to be watching over her. She has an angel on her shoulder so it’s no wonder she still believes. Her faith unshakable, she even posts her final log date as “the year of our Lord” 2094. It’s a brand new year and “still searching,” she’s setting out on a new mission of discovery, delving even deeper into space and the mysteries of the universe.
Given Scott’s professed aims to distance Prometheus from the Alien movies, it seems odd that so much of the set up and storyline and even the shock scenes seem to be just more of the same with the space station arriving on an alien world only to find a vanished colony and the lethal creatures that did in the inhabitants. When the explorers come upon an urn room in that hollowly constructed, cavernous tomb, Prometheus intentionally references all those similar scenes in the earlier Alien movies, where egg hatcheries were always being stumbled across. We’re taken on another long haul deep space voyage akin to that embarked upon in Alien, with the hibernating crew awakened from their cryogenic hyper-sleep chambers and slowly thawing from deep freeze. Apart from a spotty effort here and there, with characters like Janek and comic relief Fifield (Sean Harris), the movie makes no attempt to individualize the men comprising the motley band as characters of substance or impart upon them a personality. Consequently, we’re never quite certain at any given time how many people there are meant to be on board, much less exactly how many are eliminated in the ensuing melees, as we were in Alien. Though it’s been elevated with searchingly provocative questions concerning God and the origins of species not found in the original source, this movie’s overly familiar narrative structure still seems lazy. Despite the attempt to downplay the fact, Prometheus remains a pretty straightforward prequel, but for a summer movie market that’s been unrepentantly turning to remakes and revivals of dormant superhero franchises left and right of late, it must seem like the height of originality considering a fair measure of the younger film going public has probably never even seen Alien.
Prometheus’ self effacing tagline of dialogue “Congratulations on meeting your maker.” is a hoot considering just how many of the crew members on board literally soon will be, but it unwittingly raises its own creationist quandary. We see untold numbers of inquisitive scientists killed off during this voyage, and invariably the movie treats their demises like disposable horror movie thrill kills. In death however, we’d be inclined to believe that they’re more likely to have all the mysteries of the universe revealed to them in the hereafter long before science ever unravels them in the here and now. But this movie which presents itself as searching for answers to the bigger questions, never catches its breath, once the screaming starts, to suggest that there might even be an afterlife, that death may not be the end but a new beginning, a belief most all religions, including the one Ellie holds so dear, share in common. Death might have been depicted as a doorway to another life, as is implied by all those suggestive images of characters soaked in stillbirth being resurrected from cryogenic slumber after being dead to the world for millennia. Perhaps if Prometheus did raise this possibility, people like the terminal Weyland wouldn’t be so terrified to shake off this mortal coil.
Set as it is on a more theologically advanced plane of existence, Prometheus is horror taken to a higher level. With its deep thoughts and delirious, soaring cosmic imagery (Dariusz Wolski did the cinematography), this prequel is a far more ambitious affair than Alien was, and it starts out smarter. Rather than the Ridley Scott movie, it affects the high minded air of a Contact or a Solaris, with the search for signs of intelligent life in the universe ascribed the aura of a quest for God and the meaning of existence. But the movie falters. The intelligence of Prometheus isn’t sustained the way, say, Scott sustained the intelligence of Blade Runner, whose DNA is threaded just as finely throughout, with layer upon fascinating layer of deeper meanings emerging. Equal parts horror flick on the order of Alien and sci-fi high concept of finer moral fiber, Prometheus ends up feeling neither here nor there, uncomfortably caught between its heart stopping, visceral horrors and mind massaging metaphysical speculations. Forget the pacifistic Close Encounters meets The Day the Earth Stood Still sentiments espoused by dewy-eyed Ellie, Ridley Scott is all about the hardware, which may partly explain why the control panel on the alien space station looks like some sort of long range land to air artillery. The contrived machinations and clichéd horror schlock, such as when that zombie scientist returns from the dead animated by the creature inside him, is unworthy of the movie’s grand ambitions. The horror should grow out of the creation themes themselves, the way Ellie’s horrifying impregnation does. Prometheus seems so smart at times and outlandish at others. For instance, why in the world does Ellie return to David and the others who tried to use her body as a test tube to incubate the alien baby? This movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey retold in the hysterical key of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the 1995 Kenneth Branagh version), for the benefit of the blood curdlingly inclined who were bored by the Kubrick masterpiece. Actor Ian Holm played the director’s first duplicitous android in the original Alien movie, and with all the theological debate going on here concerning creation and what makes humans human, and whether androids have souls, Prometheus seems as much a continuation of questions more compellingly raised in Scott’s other contemporaneous sci-fi classic, Blade Runner. After all these years, the director is still trying to work out themes and ideas first posed in his legendary opus of thirty odd years ago and it’s admirable that he would openly invite comparison to his earlier masterpiece by revisiting these subjects in an attempt to more satisfactorily unravel and better understand them.
Blade Runner was a variation on Frankenstein (which was itself inspired by the myth of Prometheus), and this movie’s depiction of our alien progenitors seems modeled after Mary Shelley’s conception of her monster as a hulking, heavily built amalgam of bulging, oversize parts. The Engineers look like muscle bound albino refugees from the wrestling ring rather than the rings of Saturn, and it isn’t made clear if their questionable complexion is intended to indicate that our ‘gods’ were white or if draining them of their color is meant to make them seem racially indistinct (though its not likely one could mistake them for, say, Asian). Intended to be genetically flawless specimens, these Engineers appear so thoroughly like us from every physical vantage, they’re downright unremarkable. They resemble James Arness in the original The Thing from Another World more than the familiar, big domed grays. Their stature proves that there really were giants in the earth and the impressive height of the Engineers means that they tower overhead in a lordly manner that makes it impossible for them not to look down on their lowly human subjects. The interlaced influence of James Cameron’s ten-foot tall Avatars on Scott’s vision seems apparent, and such artistic hybridization suits the subject matter, especially given that Cameron is no stranger to the Alien franchise himself. When we notice no females among them we get an inkling of why these spacemen find it necessary to genetically engineer their offspring rather than going about it the usual way, and when one of their number does manage to give ‘birth’ at the end it’s not at all in the manner you would expect.
Breaching their extraterrestrial fortress of solitude, the scientists discover that the aliens have recorded their own holographic history (how and why is immaterial) and it’s as though a future civilization had happened across discarded modern surveillance footage eons from now. When these ghostly trace recordings replay themselves, they have the static quality of images from some broadcast station that went off air long ago. For those who appreciate the power of movies as a chronicle of the past, it’s fascinating to see the astronauts unleash these spectral images countless millennia old, initially believing the holograms unfolding before their eyes to be real, just as the first film audiences are said to have fled in terror at the image of an onrushing train. These trained professionals should know better though, be up on the latest technology, especially since we’d earlier seen Charlie himself walk through a lifelike holographic projection with rose in hand.
The reassuring musical notes issuing from the Engineers’ calliope-like organ with its egg shaped operating buttons sound vaguely like the pacifist strains used to initiate alien contact in Spielberg’s Close Encounters. Yet these evolved beings from such a highly advanced civilization supposedly more intelligent than ourselves react like ravening beasts when cornered at the end. It’s obvious that they look down on humans as insignificant, unworthy insects suitable for squishing but they shouldn’t, since we’ve proven ourselves capable of journeying across space to revive them from their self imposed slumber, in effect proving ourselves their technological equals. Mankind’s ‘God’ turns out to be mortal after all, as demonstrated when one specimen’s head explodes under the dissecting scalpel, and like Oz the great and powerful, who proved to be something less than miraculous when the curtain was drawn aside, hardly worthy of our awe and worship. Then again, the revelation of this secret is the very thing the Engineers fear, the reason they designed their biological super weapon to wipe unbelieving mankind off the face of the earth in the first place.
“They created us then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I want to know why.” Ellie states and though we never come to find exactly why these aliens were preparing for their war of the worlds, given our familiarity with religious parable, we can deduce that it’s for much the same reason a wrathful God rained down fire or flood on so many separate occasions in the biblical past. The slate needed to be wiped clean so that the creation process could be started afresh, until his creation turned out just right. “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” The Engineers want to exterminate us for no longer deigning to them, for daring to place ourselves on the same level as our creators, same as Prometheus was punished in Greek myth for stealing fire from heaven to enlighten the human race, placing them on a par with the pantheon. As Weyland relates “The titan Prometheus wanted to give mankind equal footing with the gods.” And the movie wants to function as a modern metaphor for the myth.
Android David likewise wants equal footing with his own makers, man. As with the tall, Teutonic Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, Scott uses the David character to again explore questions concerning where exactly the dividing line lies between man and machine, if the right to life of an android built by man should be accorded less value than that of a human created by ‘gods.’ Michael Fassbender has the looks of an icy young Christopher Plummer and the emotionally detached superiority of a Hannibal Lecture. He’s surgically precise, with the heel clicking exactness of a storm trooper and, perhaps slightly biased by the history of duplicitous and untrustworthy androids in Scott movies (the same way Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character was in the first Alien sequel), we take an instant dislike to him. Our alarm bells are triggered by how his automaton studies culture, soaking it up the same way humans subconsciously do, only in a far more methodical, matter of fact manner. He parrots it back in a blank, unblinkingly soulless style that just feels false. There’s something slightly off and ‘alien’ about him that makes us uncomfortable but we can empathize with his loneliness, emphasized in his introductory scene where he’s shown to be the only person awake aboard the Prometheus. Not needing to sleep like his fellow team members, he goes through all the perfunctory motions of daily life alone in the large, cold steel echo chambers. We also pity him when Charlie makes him feel like even more of an ‘alien’ by constantly pointing out how different he is from the rest of the crew and his small, pathetic gestures to fit in, making himself over into the image of his own gods, the human beings who manufactured him, breathed ‘life’ into him. He even dyes his hair the same platinum shade the young Peter O’Toole sported in Lawrence of Arabia, a movie which was also about a man who came to believe himself to be something of a God only to ultimately find himself humbled by irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Like Hal-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the bots in Blade Runner, even Haley Joel Osment in Spielberg’s A.I., David appears to possess human emotions that earmark him as more man than machine. His sense of inferiority to humans, of being something less than they are for all his superior qualities on other fronts, appears to eat away at the android in a manner it only should to a sentient conscience. When he creeps Ellie out by revealing he watched her dreams, we’re reminded of the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, upon which Blade Runner was based. David wasn’t spying on her secret, subconscious thoughts out of maliciousness, but from envy and curiosity because he has none of his own. His artificial state of being isn’t real life, which he is only capable of experiencing vicariously in this manner. Like the director, David is trying to ascertain for himself exactly where the difference lies between him and real humans. Treated as a glorified servant and viewed as a lower order of life by his makers, he wants to grow up, to be his own man. When Ellie asks “What happens when Weyland isn’t around to program you anymore?” David responds “I suppose I’ll be free. Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” While his answer, out of Oedipus Rex, displays a lack of understanding of human emotions, it’s certainly clear that he’d like his father dead, as much as his ‘sister’ Theron would. They’ve both been kept under his thumb, she sexually and financially and he as unwilling slave.
In a sense Fassbender’s David is presented as the movie’s Prometheus stand-in, stealing secret knowledge from the godlike Engineers in order to illuminate mankind. When he holds that hologram of the earth in his hands, he’s the image of Atlas supporting the world; he’s become a titan himself. He can also be taken for Frankenstein, both the doctor in his perverse attempt to artificially create life, and his own monster, crafted by man’s hands and bitter toward a maker who would endow him with a semblance of life he can derive nothing but sadness, pain and disappointment from. David is life without soul and has clearly been ‘engineered’ for nefarious purposes. We expect him to rebel against his human overlords at some point, developing his own conscience and rising up against them as the Blade Runner robots did, to the point where we are convinced that what he’s whispering to that reanimated alien in his foreign tongue is not that the gift of youth be bestowed upon Weyland, but that the gift of life be granted him (unfortunately we never come to learn what he actually does say to so piss it off). A hostile Charlie intentionally irks David by saying he forgot he can’t drink because he’s ‘not a real boy’ and, like Pinocchio, real is something David desperately wants to be.
Logan Marshall-Green’s Charlie, with his daredevil hubris in removing his mask and his constant, unprovoked needling of David, comes across as awfully moronic for a scientist. He seems to invite his unfortunate, guinea pig fate when he unwittingly strikes his devil’s bargain by declaring that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to satisfy his scientific curiosity. In response, David spikes the good doctor’s drink with the same bacteria that killed the Engineers, to observe how the organism grows and evolves in warm bodied human hosts. David’s coolly detached attempt to manufacture a new alien race for study by crossbreeding this strain of virus, using Ellie and Charlie as his test subjects, recalls the ‘love labs’ of equally cold and objective Nazi scientists who were likewise attempting to biologically orchestrate a lethal master race. Jealous of the humans, who seem inferior to him in all vital ways, David has begun playing God himself, just as those alien Engineers did when they created earthlings, and we wait with bated breath as he foolishly tampers with things man was meant to leave alone. David, who seems enthralled by all the other human sensations he can never experience, doesn’t strike us as particularly interested in experiencing the thrill of sex himself, as the Proteus computer in say Demon Seed does, at least through any more direct means than by playing puppet master with his proxies. More than likely he dabbles in these sexual experiments rather than indulging his carnal instincts directly because he’s meant to be seen as unformed, still the ‘boy’ Charlie calls him rather than a fully functional man.
There’s “nothing special about the creation of life.” the disillusioned Charlie’s observes after the discovery of the Engineers, “Anybody can do it.” His words are ill chosen however since, as the barren Ellie points out, she’s not capable of creating life as she’d like to. Just as he perversely gives Charlie what he asks for, David, through his unnatural act of ‘creation,’ also bestows upon Ellie the child she’s always wanted. The ironic kicker is in observing the atrocious results of seeing both their prayers answered. David behaves like one of those trickster genies who twists the words of his masters so that their wishes always backfire or spiral out of control in some way. The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for,’ is the controlling metaphor behind witnessing their dreams devolve into nightmares.
Scott had his astronauts’ space helmets designed with 360◦ visibility, rather than leaving their peripheral vision blocked off as it is in modern spacesuits. Internally illuminated, they make the bauble headed voyagers look like glowing fireflies as they explore the expanses of the Engineers’ cavern. This cave is approached as if it were the source of life, so it’s no coincidence that it’s been designed in the oval shape of a uterus, full of dripping womb water, which is all the more interesting considering the subsequent correlation of creation with childbirth itself. Amusingly, the threat of infection and quarantine which reoccurs over and over in the movie becomes an allegory for unprotected sex. When exploring this cave, for instance, Ellie and Charlie, suited up from head to toe, bump their helmets together because they can’t kiss directly, and I couldn’t help drifting back to that sight gag in the first Naked Gun movie, where Priscilla Presley and Leslie Nielsen engaged in foreplay covered in floor length condoms to eschew direct physical contact. Naked Gun came out in 1987, when the relatively new AIDS epidemic was forefront in the nation’s conscience along with the growing fear of unsafe sex, and Prometheus seems possessed of a similar terror at what type of virulent viruses could be contracted by engaging in such risky practices. When Charlie subsequently, and rather foolishly, removes his protective gear upon realizing the cave contains breathable oxygen, and encourages his companions to do likewise, he’s leaving them open for infection from all manner of alien organisms, so we’re not surprised when he catches something far more severe than a serious case of the pink eye. Charlie’s rash act is subsequently paralleled with the unprotected sex he actually does engage in with Ellie back aboard ship, which serves to contaminate her with his lethal bug. Removing their space helmets proves to have been just the first step on the road to contracting this interstellar STD.
‘Infected’ through sexual contact with Charlie, Ellie discovers that she’s impossibly pregnant despite the fact that she can never have kids. Her horror at the prospect, brief as it may be, touches on the same pre-partum paranoia Rosemary’s Baby did, the universal fear of having your body invaded by some alien organism and the attendant desperation to expel the foreign object. I imagine all women wish their baby to be born healthy, with five fingers and five toes, but the gnawing uncertainty concerning what exactly it is you’re giving birth to is magnified tenfold in movies like this. In Prometheus’ most harrowing sequence, Ellie terminates the suspense by performing a Caesarean on herself to remove the tentacled monstrosity growing faster than a stomach tumor, before it can burst forth from its human shell. Squirming about once taken out, it’s been designed to resemble an embryonic version of what would become the spider crab-like facehugger of the Alien movies, so our skin practically crawls when Ellie is forced to slide within inches of it in order to flee the medical chamber.
Unfortunately, titles like Prometheus and Species 2 and others that use their female characters like disposable human incubators, forcing them to give unwilling birth to alien monstrosities, come a dime a dozen. Vile concept that it is, it’s actually nothing out of the norm for this genre, like space age advocating of the idea that women should be forcibly kept barefoot and pregnant. What’s not so common is the movie’s final moments which depict the begetting of the acid-spewing alien species itself through the more violent ‘impregnation’ of that final rampaging Engineer played by Ian Whyte, in a manner that makes it impossible to tell whether the damn thing is dying or mating as it wraps its coils tightly around him in a death embrace. It’s primeval, like something out of Japanese octopus painter Hokusai. Perhaps it’s meant to be retribution, tit for tat after the earlier scene, to have a man undergo the uniquely female horror of being forced to carry to term a creature not of his kind. And this blob like organism that keeps growing bigger and bigger even after being expelled from Ellie’s body (“Big things have small beginnings.”), actually proves its fidelity in this final scene by saving its ‘mother’s’ life when she’s attacked by the Engineer. Cleverly playing one against the other Ellie escapes with her life.
While it purports to be exploring the genesis of man, Prometheus’ great gag is that this turns out to be a red herring, a question the writers know they can never satisfactorily answer. What the moviemakers actually turn out to have been tracing all along is the emergence of a species different from the human race altogether, the alien brood that would go on to populate Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi scream fest. The designs drawn up for them in this prequel were intended to suggest nascent versions of the more evolved and more familiar facehugger and chestburster creations from the earlier films and one would have to look to the animal and insect kingdoms for some parallel with what we’re seeing. Instead of spider crabs we have tentacled blobs and giant, flatworm amoebas that burrow into open wounds like parasitic bacteria. The fully developed humanoid creature that would be featured in the Alien films even puts in a surprise guest appearance at the end.
Scott’s conception of his creature from outer space has also been modified in the last thirty years. It is now conjectured to have been the result of some form of biological warfare that went terribly awry. The fact that these perfect killing machines are posited as the products of engineering, weapons of mass destruction, speaks more directly to our post 9/11 times in which the threat of biological terrorism looms like a pallor over the country. Moreover, in a nod to nuclear disarmament, our genetic forebears prove to have accidentally destroyed themselves, the biological warfare they were in the process of creating and believed they could successfully contain, having spiraled out of control. If Ridley Scott is really interested in rebooting the Alien franchise, this imaginative re-visioning for a new millennium is certainly the most creative way to go about it.