As director or audience member, it’s difficult to approach a property with as much expectation built around it as the Alien series. In the 33 years since the first Alien film came out, both it and its sequels (of debatable quality) have spawned a library’s worth of critical analysis and design homages. Not to mention, it’s generated a lot of fan attachment. I am hardly exempt from this baggage train, considering that the original 1979 Alien is not only one of my favorite sci-fi movies, but one of my favorite movies, period. As you might have guessed, this doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to call a spade a spade. Or, as is more apt in this case; a near-xenomorphic-mess is still a near-xenomorphic-mess.
Unlike his Robin Hood-turned-Republican-allegory, Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus is by contrast daringly liberal, atheistic, and, dare I say it, pro-choice. This modern vehicle is an existential space horror flick packed with body horror, dazzling imagination, and little rational sense. Like the molecular structure of the self-sacrificing Space Jockey that kicks off the puzzling proceedings, the longer you watch Prometheus, the more it comes apart.
It should go without saying, but this entire discussion is rife with spoilers, start to finish. It’s a “discussion,” rather than a “review,” because I figure if you care about spoilers you won’t read this until you’ve seen it. Even so, you’ve been warned, and in bold and italics, no less.
With a knowledgeable audience as your base, it makes a lot of sense that Prometheus gets right down to the nitty-gritty. In plays with viewers’ expectation based on previous installments, knowing it has to in order to win over sci-fi purists and pop culture fiends. It only takes Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) ten minutes of archaeology in a Scottish cave to find the catalyst for the expected journey. The rest can get explained on the way.
Prometheus makes quick with the classic set pieces right after; a crew in hypersleep aboard an exploratory vessel. A mysterious planet. A sequence of spacesuit-clad scientists approaching an alien structure. It’s near impossible not to be taken in by the unabashed wonderment in such evocative compositions, and Scott knows what he’s doing here. From the Isle of Skye on Earth to the immense, desolate valley our ill-fated adventurers land in, it is clear that the tiny humans are already out of their depth. While the first Alien was about intimacy and claustrophobia, Prometheus is a study in agoraphobia. By immediately dwarfing the exploration, and their large ship, Scott gives us an ominous atmosphere that is more about building psychological tension than it is about masking the (well-anticipated) horrors to come.
There’s a lot to be said for anticipating anticipation, and sometimes it seemed like Prometheus was giving it a hearty try. I appreciated that we could forego awkward attempts to make the audience care about the near-nameless crewmembers. They’re cannon fodder, the Alien universe redshirts, and like so much else, Prometheus makes no bones about that obvious fact. It’s a refreshingly honest approach; be in the main credits, or be killed first. By the same token, however, heavy foreshadowed elements early on, such as the emphasis on an auto-surgery machine owned by automaton-like Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (a continuously villainous Charlize Theron), feel unnecessary.
What is perhaps most effective in the lead-up to the body count is not so much the depiction of an alien world, as it is the chilling representation of futuristic humans. An air of detachment pervades the cast, and, from their clothes, to their technological aptitude, every part of their existence seems just off enough to read as uncanny rather than familiar. The tech, splendid in 3D, is the only nod to current convention, as the Marvel movies, James Bond, and even the New Spider-Man have loaded up on what we clearly crave as a species moving forward; massive, responsive holographic interfaces. (A desire, the movie indicates, that we seem to share with our extraterrestrial predecessors.) Enough clues are provided that a vision of a total alien world emerges; Earth. Truly, we’ve been cast off without a single landmark in the endless black. However, this feigned depth is another shallow set-up, hidden by so much murky water.
We came for horrifying implications, but also for horror, and it is here that Prometheus absolutely delivers. Striking for the pervasively creepy, instead of jack-in-the-box scares, the film takes a turn into nightmare territory that is to be admired. Shaw, having just watched her lover be willingly burned to death to eradicate the infection eating away at him, awakens to find that her previously infertile body is host to a nameless horror. That this deadly parasite is transmitted via intercourse carries numerous implications. They take a temporary backseat to Shaw escaping from the David 8 unit that tries to enforce her ‘pregnancy’ by doping her. The greatest trait instilled in Shaw by Rapace is not a superhuman strength, but a kind of desperate, adrenaline-fueled determination, one that keeps her going as her whole world falls apart. There is no more wrenching way that trait is displayed than in Shaw running to the aforementioned surgery machine, shooting herself with a local, and letting her abdomen be cut open to get the alien out of her. From her awakening to her sliding out of the machine, gut stapled and splattered with blood, the entire section is easily the most tense, and most chilling, part of the movie. Mixing in allusions to birth, the body as battleground, and a female character’s absolute will to regain control belong in this series as much as slimy extraterrestrials. It’s what the Alien films do well, and what Prometheus does best.
It is impossible not to view what happens to Shaw as both violation, and a metaphorical pregnancy. She clutches at her lower abdomen, screams “Get it out of me,” and initially instructs the surgery machine to perform Cesarean, before being told that it is currently calibrated for males. But, no matter how I have seen other reviewers try to defend the corner, it is not a pregnancy. Shaw is frighteningly aware of that, and does everything she can in her state of total physical and mental shock to dispatch of her unwanted passenger. She hardly seems conflicted.
The thickest and most alien of plot points lies just ahead of this deep dip, regarding the big, overhanging “why”. Why? Why the creation of the human race, why the retribution ready to be leveled against us? Are we biological weapons, as a suddenly exposition-ready Idris Elba sweeps in to suggest? (Bless Mr. Elba for playing that essential Alien universe part, the guy who finally says, “This was a very bad idea.”) Or, are we, by the same token, seen as the secret key to breeding the ultimate weapons? The method employed by the Space Jockeys/Engineers is so convoluted to begin with that I was thankful to the Internet in the hours succeeding my viewing for providing me with this handy WMD breeding chart:
I’ll indulge the film briefly by questioning its holey logic. It’s presumed that, if the Engineers seek to eradicate the human race, a race they spawned, we must possess some kind of threat. Like so much in the visually juicy prequel, when examined closely, this motivation doesn’t have much traction. It’s Titan A.E. reasoning, and I was hoping for better. After all, the central theme of Prometheus, from its title to its careful laid story plans, is the search for answers. A good slice of sci-fi needs to be smart enough to give its viewership room to think, while actually dictating some of the conclusions. The rest is just expecting geeks like us to be generous with their theories. Maybe I should have been more apprehensive with Damon Lindelof, scribe behind hits Lost and J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek, co-manning the helm. Lost demonstrated a tendency to write the script into a corner where it’s clear the writers don’t really know the answers to the questions they’ve sets up. Prometheus smacks of this.
When you’re a Fan, capital “F”, as so many of us are, there’s a tendency to demand a lot from any picture in your favored genre. In the material we love, there can exist a well-acknowledged difference between what is good, and what is enjoyable. Fans want meat to chew after the credits roll, bits to tear and re-tear apart with other geeks of the tribe in front of the flickering lights of a web browser. I like tasty morsels to take away, and can respect a film that is intelligent enough to ask questions without feeling the need to answer every one. Puzzling out the unspoken is part of the thrill that lasts long after I leave the theater. But it is also the part of a responsible, audience-respectful movie to have some of the answers, any of the answers, and not expect its fans to do all the work. For better or worse, the quest for satisfaction in Prometheus looks like it’s being left up to us tiny, all-too-mortal human viewers.
Zoe Chevat is a Contributing Editor for Animation World Network and VFXWorld, as well as a feminist pop culture commentator on various websites, including The Mary Sue and Anime News Network. She holds an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. She lives and works in Los Angeles as both a writer and animator, and, as a relocated East Coaster, still finds the first part of this sentence to be unnerving.
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