God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ’em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

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5 thoughts on “God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

  1. I agree with your assessment of the film. It’s flawed, but absolutely worth watching. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I saw it. I never understood why people were so quick to dismiss it.

    You make a lot of great points about the performances (I think Idris Elba is the best thing in this film) and the ideas/message of the film. I’ve always felt that the flaws in the film come from the disconnect between the thoughtful science fiction aspects of the film and the horror elements. I understand that the audience expects a prequel to Alien to be more of a horror movie, but it felt like the scary scenes were forced in by making smart characters act stupidly, rather than actually flowing from the narrative.

    Like

  2. Ben, that’s a very good overview of Prometheus, which I quite liked as well, although I agree that it is flawed and contains some inconsistencies (given that it is technically a prequel to the first Alien film). Back in the day, Alien was considered something special, and a few years ago, Prometheus would most likely have been considered a major sci-fi movie. But there have been so many so-called “blockbuster movies” over the years that the modern general cinema-going public have become entirely blasé about such things, so none of them stand out any more, even the good ones.

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