Originally published on May 17, 2017; republished in celebration of Director Ridley Scott’s 80th birthday.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus ends with the same perspective from which it begins—the last survivor of a species on a desolate planet. Both the nameless Engineer and Elizabeth Shaw were brought to their respective places by ships landing like gods from the heavens, and these simple spiritual overtones remain essential from start to finish. Where the Engineer died accepting his sole purpose (to create life), Shaw’s shipmates lost their lives accepting one they committed themselves to: finding their creators. They sought answers, and Shaw still seeks them with the more intellectually content android David.
This is as close to closure as Prometheus gets.
This notoriously divisive 2012 landmark subverts any expectations constructed by its status as an Alien prequel. It is not a straightforward, shadowy “killer in space” narrative for the majority of its runtime. Prometheus revels in operatic lights, bright blues, and expansive world building to the extent that some might not think to call it “horror” at all. Though it does skew a bit closer to the ponderous sci-fi ambiance of Scott’s Blade Runner, this is still a terrifying film in its own existential way, less an exercise in physical fear than a reflection on our obsession with creating, and with understanding the nature of creation itself.
Elizabeth Shaw, played gracefully by Noomi Rapace, is the key to the film’s thematic and emotional core. She is very much the inverse of Ellen Ripley, whose role over the course of the Alien franchise was to prevent Xenomorphs from reproducing and spreading to Earth. Shaw would much rather give birth than prevent it, and is defined more by dedicated belief in a higher power than skepticism of her corporate authorities. Though we can tell she’s a Christian by the crucifix she wears, she’s less a religious zealot than a spiritual optimist. Shaw’s late father convinced her belief is more important than specifics. “Everyone has their own word. Heaven, Paradise… whatever it’s called, it’s someplace beautiful,” he tells her in a hologram flashback.
Shaw’s arc is like an immovable object—she’s given fewer and fewer reasons to maintain her original faith as the film progresses, as if being tested by the creator she believes in. She’s surrounded by characters who question her blind devotion, including Rafe Spall’s Milburn. “Do you have anything to back that up?” he condescendingly asks her as if reciting lines for a debate class. Even the man most committed to her cause, her lover Holloway, has a narrow view about the potential of creation. He thinks all it requires is “a dash of DNA and half a brain,” to which the sterile Shaw replies, “I can’t create life… what does that say about me?” When she does give birth, it’s to a squid-like creature implanted in her by Holloway, and the script’s catalyst to reveal Peter Weyland’s presence on the ship—her stubborn spiritual optimism has been used as a mere vessel for an aging billionaire to find a solution for his own mortality. “If these things made us, surely they could save us!” he’s foolish and arrogant enough to hope.
The fear of mortality runs in Weyland’s family just as faith runs in Shaw’s. Prometheus has a hidden heroine in Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, who seeks appraisal from her father—a higher power to her. Vickers is locked in a journey toward self-improvement, working physically and mentally to become as strong a leader as David, who Weyland prefers to his own daughter. She’s visibly frustrated when her father bestows leadership of the crew to Shaw and Holloway, and later when David relays his message to her: “Try harder.” Try hard she does—she wants to be a calculated diplomat aboard the Prometheus, but is bested at every turn by an actual robot who can make the tough decisions without even feeling remorse. As an android, David is lucky enough only to care about the “what,” not the “why.” Where Shaw’s resolve is tested when she’s asked if her faith still stands, Vickers’ is tested when Janek asks her, “Are you a robot?” Alas, she was not created to be that way.
Prometheus is a deeply sad film for its two female leads. Both commit to their ideals, but Shaw and Vickers are met with greater insecurity and rejection, respectively. In what could be seen at first glance as an overblown climax of mass destruction, these women see an explosion in the sky as Janek flies the Prometheus into an escaping Engineer’s ship. Initially it’s divine intervention preventing a creator from harming his creations, but it soon leads to fire and brimstone falling from the skies, and then Vickers dies. Shaw is left in isolation to figure out what purpose is left for her. She wanted to figure out the truth behind her genesis, but was instead greeted with the Book of Revelation. Her big questions to the Engineer, “What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?” remain unanswered.
After her lover is killed and her monster unleashed, Shaw is asked three times if she still believes in her god. The first time, David observes, “You must feel like your god abandoned you.” She’s too preoccupied with the impending doom inside of her to take a definitive stance. The second time, Weyland reveals her real purpose on the ship and questions if she’s lost faith. She’s still recovering from shock at the situation, but you can see the worried gears turning in her head. The third and final time, David is once again the one to put her on the spot: “Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?” Once again wearing her crucifix, she changes the subject and takes the android’s decapitated head with her on her future travels. In Shaw’s final line, she confirms: “I’m still searching.” Her inner spiritual conflict is never given official resolution, but it’s clear Shaw has come too far to look back from her beliefs. As a self-identifying atheist, it’s doubtful Scott agrees with her stubborn decision. You might think this is how the man who went on to direct the gruelingly nihilistic The Counselor views the entire idea of faith, but look closer. Amidst the loss of life and betrayal aboard the Prometheus, Shaw’s naïve determination is commendable.
It’s easy to dismiss Prometheus as a disappointing horror prequel. Indeed, its worst moments are those when it’s shoehorned into the same type of monster film as its obviously superior predecessor, Alien. But this film captures a unique, implicit sense of terror—the thought that life is meaningless, without answers. The mechanical plot progressions that bring down other Damon Lindelof scripts (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Tomorrowland) are used more wisely under the coldly calculated hand of Ridley Scott. He creates a grand space opera of stubborn life forms who are compelled to create more life, regardless of the risks—his humanoid characters constantly interact with holograms, unfamiliar technology and mysterious creatures. The film’s greatest irony comes when Janek reveals the “planet” is presumably just a military base, saying the Engineers are “not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction at their own doorstep.” But human characters are still wiped out one by one, and the planet’s last remaining Engineer is strangled to death by the squid monster his own black plasmatic substance helped his creations to produce. Curiosity kills many cats in this film.
When viewed as a mythical Frankenstein story, Prometheus is heartbreakingly cruel. And as a conflicted tribute to spiritual devotion, it’s downright magnificent. This is a maddening but fascinating work by an aging creator. Like a real-life Peter Weyland of cinema, Ridley Scott is an ambitious explorer who asks loaded questions, and whether or not Alien: Covenant answers them, they’re ones to be pondered for years to come.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox