Nearly a quarter of a century after giving birth to it, director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise, ready to expand its mythology rather than rehash the same old scares for a seventh time. That he would position Prometheus as a prelude rather than a sequel comes as little surprise, given one likes to show up at the party before the last guest poops on the couch, not immediately after. By “poops”, I, of course, mean “subjects us to Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007)”.
Besides, Prometheus’ link to the previous films proves somewhat tenuous. The origin of the phallic-shaped xenomorph is treated as a cumbersome afterthought, and we’re mercifully spared the sight of a plucky, young Ripley learning her iconic catch phrases in a universe-shattering adventure she’s somehow never mentioned since. Here’s what we get instead: a brand-new quest (with radically different themes) that fleshes out the Weyland Company’s interest in extraterrestrial technology and provides some background on the abandoned vessel the Nostromo encounters at the beginning of Alien (1978).
Specifically, the movie follows the titular Prometheus, a spaceship sponsored by the late Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to investigate a constellation that may hold the answers to our oldest questions regarding God, creation, and the purpose of existence. Each crew member approaches the mission with his or her own spiritual aspirations. Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace), for example, hopes to confirm her belief in the divine, whereas her husband, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), means to disprove it. Other characters put their faith in more mundane concerns, either intimidated by the possibilities or blinded by their ambition. Only Meredith (Charlize Theron) and David (Michael Fassbender) show a complete lack of wonderment, and I find it telling neither seems quite human.
In fact, the latter is an android, albeit not the kind James T. Kirk could shut down with a rudimentary philosophical loop. David is capable of abstract reasoning, initiative, and even curiosity, but he can’t relate to his colleagues’ existential angst. After all, he already knows why man created him and finds the answer somewhat underwhelming. This insight proves crucial to the movie’s central thesis. As such, Prometheus relies heavily on a meticulous performance by Michael Fassbender, who turns every second on screen into a cinematic event.
It’s rare that I get to praise a Ridley Scott production for its acting and character work, especially one with such stunning visuals. Take, for example, the opening sequence, in which an extraterrestrial being sacrifices himself to spark Earth’s evolutionary process, how it captivates our senses not with digital effects but with the boldness of its concept. The film displays as much creativity in its horror set pieces, like when Elizabeth tricks a computer into performing a C-section to remove an alien parasite from her abdomen. I’m not convinced the scene makes sense in light of all the running around that follows, but, dang it, how does one come up with this stuff?
Gore hounds should be warned, though, that Prometheus is not a visceral thriller in the tradition of Scott’s original Alien. If the latter boasted as its tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” this one should advertise, “In space, no one can hear you ponder the meaning of existence.” I love the philosophical issues screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof raise about human nature and spiritual longing, but I fear their ambivalent musings may be misinterpreted as incomplete mythology. Already, sci-fi geeks across the Web are accusing the movie of setting up mysteries without paying them off.
I disagree. Though the characters’ timeless questions about creation and purpose are never resolved (it’d be like placing two mirrors in front of each other and arguing which reflection is the last), Prometheus does provide solutions to its own inquiries. What are the motives behind David’s more insidious actions? Consider the myth from which the film derives its title. Why did the extraterrestrials change their minds about us? Take into account when, from a religious perspective, they initiated their new mission and what is asked before the last survivor loses his temper. Finally, what defines humanity as a unique case? The fact that we seek answers, of course.