Originally published on May 17, 2017; republished in celebration of Director Ridley Scott’s 80th birthday.
Even in space, everyone can hear the screams of discord brought about by Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe in 2012 wasn’t met with the critical accolades many were hoping for, nor did it meet many of the expectations that fans of the franchise had been waiting for since the property had gone off the rails in 1997. But Ridley Scott has never been a stranger to divisive films, with a number of his greatest, or at least most interesting, works failing to find an audience and critical reappraisal until years later. Prometheus is no different. The quasi-prequel charted new territory that only loosely anchored itself to the events of the 1979 film Alien. What began as a promise to explore the origins of the “space jockey,” on LV-426, evolved into something far grander in its aim: a multi-film project, steered by passion, that continues with Alien: Covenant, and is set for an undefined number of further installments. A large part of Prometheus’ divisiveness is tied to the fact that many were expecting the Alien film that Prometheus was marketed as, a film with deliberate ties and answers to the first film. Scott, on the other hand, deigned to deliver an original film that had parallels to Alien, but presented a different, broader focus. And Prometheus is original. In fact, it’s arguably one of the most original blockbusters we’ve seen within this decade. It dares to ask questions and deny easy answers. And despite some stupid and unrealistic decisions made by the scientists within the film (a factor we rarely criticize in other films of this ilk) Prometheus offers considerations that outweigh its occasional allegiance to horror tropes. Its sheer ambition in an age of adaptations, fully mapped out franchises, and sequels built on expectation, not only makes Prometheus one of the most original sci-fi films in recent years, but also one of the best.
Here are five reasons why:
5. “God Doesn’t Build in Straight Lines”: The Cultural Ancestry Within Cinematography and Design
Ridley Scott has never had an issue presenting visually arresting images in his films, and alongside cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, he creates a visual language for the film that’s steeped in mythology and an anthropological expression of our culture and the unknown, and an eerily familiar one of the engineers. Within this film’s opening minutes, we see a ten-foot tall hooded figure approach a cliffside, a container of primordial sludge in the palm of his hand. When he removes his hood, there’s something nobly Byronic in his blank, black-eyed expression. That sense of nobility amidst a mist-covered cliffside is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” the first statement of many, that the things that created us and the things we create, are ultimately reflections us. We see a similar expression of this through the android David, and his fascination with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and his Peter O’Toole inspired appearance. Even the titular ship Prometheus has similarities in its design that resemble a crouching mammal, a hulking pre-evolutionary ancestor composed of metal and glass. Visually, Prometheus steps away from the gloom and the crud-covered space rigs of Alien, offering a distinct visual contrast between the sharp angles and sleekness of man’s design and rounded designs of the Engineers’ ships and bioweapons. There’s a clarity to the film’s design and shots. Here, awe-inspiring grandeur creates fear, rather than shadows and claustrophobia as in Alien. The contrast and allusions of the designs and shots not only allow for the film’s epic scope, but also reflect the conflicts between humans and their makers. This is highlighted most deliberately during the film’s climax when the Prometheus collides into the Engineer’s ship. Not only is it a stunning display of sci-fi action but it also serves as a grand finale to the conflict of ideals and design at the root of Prometheus.
4. “Big Things Have Small Beginnings”: Proto-Aliens
Despite not featuring the incomparable xenomorphs, Prometheus does provide plenty of extra-terrestrial goodness. Not only does Prometheus provide a look at the alien gods who created humanity, but it gives us new creatures that are strikingly similar to the facehuggers and xenomorphs, yet different enough to create interesting theories on the evolution of these creatures. Whereas before Prometheus, we assumed that the xenomorphs were a race of creatures like any other alien threat to populate our movie screens, the film posits that they are bioengineered weapons of mass destruction born from our own meddling (and a fair bit of the android David’s as well). Prometheus gives us a first-hand look at the process of evolution that created the Alien, showing how they are a mixture of Engineer, human, and whatever native species existed on the planet the crew of the Prometheus land on. While some felt let down that the xenomorphs weren’t featured, a criticism that surely factored a great deal in the Prometheus sequel Paradise becoming Alien: Covenant, but the new species are interesting in their own right. There’s something fitting and thematically satisfying about the notion that our search for answers about our creations ultimately set off the chain of events to create our destruction and the first steps to the creation of the perfect organism.
3. “But Who Made Them?”: Shaw and Her Faith
Shaw never comes off as a Ripley knockoff, and Noomi Rapace creates a compelling figure who is just as necessary to the lore of the Alien universe in her position as an intellectual rather than a fighter, questions replacing the bullets and fuel tanks of Ellen Ripley’s arsenal. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is driven by her faith, and her scientific background doesn’t divorce her from Christianity, which is something of a rarity in science-fiction films. Scott’s films have frequently played with religious questions and themes but they’ve become more prevalent in the later phase of his career. Shaw isn’t out to prove or disprove intelligent design. She knows that it exists because her faith has made theory fact. Rather, her quest is to have a face to face with the gods, a quest that pushes Prometheus further along in its questions of intelligent design and theism than most other sci-fi films have even dared to attempt. The idea that we were created by alien beings, who Shaw believes had to be created by some other higher power, isn’t sacrilege as some Christian analyses suggested, but ultimately one of the most theist-minded considerations of our beginnings to take place in a blockbuster. The existence of aliens doesn’t deny the existence of God, but rather supports it, with science and faith intermixing to dissolve the idea that life beyond humanity gives credence to atheism. Shaw proves to be physically tough as well, and while a cut sequence involving a battle with the Engineer during the film’s climax may have proved how tough, it’s fitting that the greatest fight she puts up is putting her cross necklace back on and continuing her faith-driven search for answers.
2. “I Can’t Create Life”: The Cesarean Scene
Shaw’s C-section to remove the alien spawn inside her is one of the most visceral horror scenes to be depicted on film. It’s a standout moment of tension and terror that alone was worth the price of admission. Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently tweeted that the scene is equal to the chest burster scene in Alien and the shower scene in Psycho, and while we ultimately fall on different sides in terms of recognizing the film’s quality, those comparisons can’t be argued with. When considering the best moments of physical horror within the past fifteen years, it comes down to The Descent and this scene. While Prometheus may be more cerebral than Alien, this sequence proves that Scott hasn’t lost his touch for creating shocking moments horror. But it’s not simply watching Shaw’s abdomen sliced open and seeing the squid-like creature removed that gives the film such impact. What makes the Cesarean scene so terrifying is that it comes from a place of character and is tied to Shaw’s earlier admission that she can’t have children. The scene then takes on a new, twisted context of horror, with that in mind, playing a fear that is viscerally female and steeped in tragedy. There’s an added factor that it’s Shaw’s genetics that lead to the proto-Alien seen at the end of the film, and presumably the xenomorphs, giving her the same kind of god-like ability to create perfect specimens like the Engineers. On an operating table, designed only for males, mind you, Elizabeth Shaw becomes a god in her own right.
1. “Not Too Close I Hope”: David
Prometheus drove the Alien franchise away from the working class and towards academics in such a clearly decided choice that even the android is an elitist. David, one of my favorite characters to emerge on screen in the past decade, and actor Michael Fassbender’s favorite role, is fascinating to watch. There’s a deliberateness to his movements and facial expressions that’s counter-balanced by his willful experimentation with human interaction and alien environment he finds himself. He manipulates the events of the film to such a degree that none of the other characters ever realize that David is in fact the villain of the film, orchestrating Shaw’s alien impregnation, the death of her husband, and the awakening of the Engineer which results in the deaths of everyone except for himself and Shaw. While Alien’s Ash had ulterior motives, he didn’t question what he was asked to do. David on the other hand is entirely untethered to a chain of command. His sly humor initially makes him seem closer to Aliens’ Bishop than Ash, but as the film plays out, it’s clear that even his humor and temperament is a means of subterfuge. While he may have been built to serve Peter Weyland, David’s motivations are entirely his own. His free-will and fascination with life create parallels closer to the androids in Blade Runner than those we’ve previously seen in the Alien movies. Scott and the screenwriters, Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, plant the seed that David may very well be an android who is just beginning to figure out that he can become a god of his own, a factor we expect to see continue in Alien: Covenant. Of all the elements introduced in Prometheus, David is the one that we’re most excited to see in the rest of the franchise because he best speaks to the sense of mystery, and prismatic reflections of humanity that Prometheus introduced.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox