Ridley Scott’s Alien was originally pitched by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as “Jaws in space,” and Scott has said that he took on the effects-driven science-fiction film in part because he was impressed by Star Wars. Now, over three decades later, the 74-year-old Scott returns to Alien territory for a sprawling magnum opus with philosophical and existential aspirations as soaring as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.
Alien has been called “a haunted-house movie in space,” but its driving anxieties reflect fallout from the sexual revolution, with a pervasive subtext of disordered sexuality. I think it was the Catholic writer Christopher Derrick, in Sex and Sacredness, who wrote that when sex is no longer viewed as sacred, when Venus is no longer revered as divine, she becomes demonic. The shadow of that demon haunts the darkened hallways of Alien’s spaceship Nostromo.
Prometheus is overtly preoccupied with even larger questions: Where do we come from? Where do we go when we die? What is faith? Does God exist? Prometheus peers back in time to the origins of human life on Earth and touches on the sometimes ambivalent trajectory in the human psyche toward, or perhaps away from, whoever or whatever has made us.
The scope of the production and the story are so much vaster than Alien that it’s unsurprising that Scott has hedged about calling Prometheus a “prequel,” preferring instead to say that it is set in the same universe and “shares strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak.” It’s a fateful choice of words, since strands of alien DNA are what sets the whole drama — the whole story of human life on Earth — in motion.
The film opens with an Adonis-like extraterrestrial in a pristine landscape — Earth in the distant past — serenely drinking a black liquid that immediately exerts a catastrophic impact on his body from the cellular level up. Within minutes, bits of tissue and DNA washing down a river are all that’s left of him … thereby presumably seeding the Earth with the building blocks that eventually produce the human race.
The idea of exogenesis — the notion that life on Earth, or, in this case, human life, has an extraterrestrial origin — is an old one, but the shattering mechanism displayed here makes a nasty beginning to a film that’s full of nasty moments, with precious few grace notes.
True, Alien itself was a claustrophobic horror film best known for deeply disturbing images. But in the first place, Alien’s baseline mood was workday routine, punctured by a freak encounter with monstrous evil. In Prometheus, there is nothing freakish or accidental about the encounter with alien horror; it is the secret truth of human existence. Prometheus gives us alien horror as worldview.
In Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley was repulsed by the android Ash’s admiration of the alien as “the perfect organism,” a “survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” The obvious implication is that such humanistic values as conscience, remorse and morality — “delusions” though some may consider them — are what makes us human; without them, we are monsters ourselves.
Prometheus offers little scope for such humanism. Until a gratifying bit of old-fashioned heroics toward the very end, when the future of humanity itself is on the line, none of the largish cast emerges as particularly likable, sympathetic or even interesting. Behind its lavish production design is very little in the way of heart, spirit or even ideas.
Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green play a pair of romantically involved archaologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, who discover a recurring pattern of dots in cave paintings that turns out to represent a distant constellation with at least one body, a moon, capable of supporting life — an invitation, as they suppose.
Charlize Theron is in full-on ice queen mode as Meredith Vickers, the enigmatic officer of the corporation that funds the mission to the alien moon. Almost as chilly is Michael Fassbender as an android named David, here because there’s got to be an android in these movies.
Inexplicably, Guy Pearce appears briefly in unconvincing old-man makeup as Peter Weyland, the CEO of the corporation, raising the question why they didn’t just cast an old man. (If Pearce doesn’t appear without makeup in the sequel, I may ask for my money back.) Only Idris Elba as the jaunty ship captain seems like an actual human being, even when he’s crudely hitting on Vickers.
The nominal theme of faith is treated with daunting glibness. “It’s what I choose to believe,” Elizabeth’s father tells her in a flashback when she’s 8 years old, explaining his confidence that her departed mother is in a better place. As an adult, Elizabeth repeats her father’s line, referring not to her ostensible Christian faith, but to her confidence that the aliens they call “Engineers,” who created human beings, await them at the system in the star chart.
For the skeptics, Elizabeth’s “belief” is equally absurd, whatever the facts turn out to be. “You want to just throw away 300 years of Darwinism?” a biologist asks incredulously in response to her theory that human life was intelligently designed (in the process incidentally overshooting the publication of The Origin of Species by two-thirds of a century, given the setting in 2093). But when mankind’s link to the Engineers is confirmed, her unbelieving boyfriend comments that she might as well take off the cross she wears around her neck, since, obviously, there’s nothing special about creating life.
Neither of these comments makes the slightest sense. Exogenesis wouldn’t negate Darwinism; and the Engineers didn’t create life from non-life; they only seeded Earth with their own DNA. At least Elizabeth counters Charlie’s comment about creating life by asking who created the Engineers — to which Charlie responds with dogmatic agnosticism, and there the matter ends.
Certainly there is a quasi-religious dimension to the quest for the Engineers, our makers. In an unsuprising and pointless twist — I guess it’s a spoiler, but I can’t see that it matters — it’s revealed that the elderly Weyland, whom the crew members were told had died on Earth decades earlier, while the ship was in transit, has in fact traveled with them to the alien moon (if the charade is explained, I missed it) to seek out the Engineers, in whom he takes the same interest that many a dying person takes in prayer.
Another spoilerific but shrug-worthy twist: Meredith Vickers is revealed to be Weyland’s daughter as well as his heir — and it seems her father’s goal of cheating death is not on her list of preferred outcomes. On the contrary, she’s all for the previous generation going the way of all flesh to make way for the new, as is the natural order of things. You could say she’s the perfect organism, a survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.
At some point, of course, the movie starts with the gooey and bloody and running and screaming, and existential questions generally fall by the wayside. The alien morphology takes on a bewildering variety of new shapes and forms — it’s impossible to piece together any kind of life cycle; it seems capable of whatever would be grossest and most revolting at any particular moment.
Revolting to the audience, at least; crew members at times are absurdly immune to the horror, notably when a supposedly smart biologist tries to make friends with an obviously menacing alien protuberance displaying cobra-like warning signs. Another revelation takes the original film’s problem of sudden acquisition of biomass to an even more ludicrous conclusion. At least the alien in Alien was wandering a ship where theoretically it might have encountered food stocks; here’s a beastie that grows to hydra-like proportions on thin air, apparently.
In one set piece Scott goes all-out to surpass the shock value of the infamous commissary sequence in the original Alien — and while he succeeds, the new scene flattens the sexual subtext of the original by literalizing it (sorry, yet another spoiler): not only literal sex and pregnancy, but literal abortion. This horrific sequence overwhelms an intriguing earlier exchange in which a discussion about “creating life” segues into a discussion about the trauma of infertility, threatening to reverse Alien’s reproductive fears — until we find ourselves back in Alien-esque gestational nightmare land.
To an extent, the film ends with the pieces in place as we find them at the beginning of Alien — and yet not. The alien ship is apparently where the crew of the Nostromo find it — but the giant alien pilot, the Space Jockey, inexplicably doesn’t wind up where he’s meant to be, perhaps because we needed another action scene. (Of course one could always say — and I’ve since learned that Scott has said — that this isn’t the same ship, planet or Space Jockey that we find in Alien — which just increases the number of theoretically random convergences between the two films. For another example … watch David.) The denouément has suggested that there’s more to come, and Scott has hinted that he’ll need at least two more films to bring it all full circle. Oh joy.
Perhaps that’s why the film is so cagey about its aspirations — why, after over two hours, it feels like little if anything is resolved. Perhaps Scott is saving all the answers for the sequels. It’s worth noting that the film does end with an oblique affirmation of historic Christian faith, but it’s a character’s answer, not the movie’s.
I don’t mind that Prometheus raises big questions without ultimately answering them. Unanswered questions are abundant in life, and there’s no reason you can’t have them in art. I do mind that Prometheus raises big questions and has virtually nothing interesting, insightful or thoughtful to say about them. If the questions aren’t interesting in this film, why should anyone care whether they’re answered in another one?
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Much gruesome sci-fi violence and body horror, including (I am so not kidding) a self-administered automated abortion of an alien pregnancy; recurring profanity, obscenity and crude language; brief sexuality and offscreen sexual liaisons (nothing explicit); murky religious themes. Discretion strongly advised.