Prometheus (I) (2012)
11 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It appears many film fans - particularly fans of the ALIEN franchise - dislike PROMETHEUS with a passion, and some of the criticism the film gets is certainly justified. My own issues with PROMETHEUS are mostly script related; several characters seem surprisingly bland or underwritten, which could be due to the many rewrites the script went through, or because some scenes and dialogue that would have been important for the audience to understand the characters' motivations were cut from the final film for time. So PROMETHEUS undoubtedly has its share of problems, but I'm not interested in listing those; there are already whole blogs and even websites dedicated to PROMETHEUS' flaws. Instead, I would like to try to make a case for the things the film does well, because I believe there are some really nice ideas and concepts in PROMETHEUS that deserve to be appreciated. Once you disregard the science aspects (which are presented in such an annoyingly over-simplified way that they appear laughable), and instead approach PROMETHEUS as a sci-fi/mystery/monster movie - which, by the way, is how I view all ALIEN films - with some smarter than average twists, it delivers. Now before you start yelling at me, please hear me out.

The first thing I would like to talk about - also because it's the aspect I love the most about PROMETHEUS - is how the ancient Greek saga about the creation and evolution of humankind is woven into the story. I've often wondered why so many people who dislike the film claim to do so on the grounds of it not giving any answers, when it so clearly does: they may not be spelled out in detail, but in broad strokes, they are (nearly) all there in the title. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan who created (or "engineered") mankind. But he did much more than that; he became mankind's greatest benefactor and protector; he visited his creation again and again and helped the humans evolve by bringing them knowledge (which he did against the will of the gods) - and he ultimately even stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to humankind, which is the moment in their mythology/history that the ancient Greeks saw as the dawn of civilization.

In the ancient tale, Zeus was so enraged by Prometheus' betrayal - and mankind's greatest gain in knowledge - that he subsequently wanted to wipe Prometheus' creation from the face of the earth. His elaborate plan on how to achieve that goal involved sending a certain box to the humans - the infamous Pandora's Box - which, once opened, would unleash hell upon humankind. In the film PROMETHEUS it is implied that the creation of humankind is something the "engineers" (aka the gods) also regret - most likely because in a similar story beat as in the Prometheus saga, the engineer "monks" we witness at the beginning of the film help mankind attain too much knowledge (which, as our species' shockingly violent history proves, we humans ultimately always end up using to build weapons to murder one another in ever greater numbers). So consequently, for reasons Zeus would probably understand, the engineers end up declaring humankind as a failed experiment that needs to be terminated: and what better way to do that than with bio-weapons sent to Earth that function like little "Pandora's boxes"?

Another strong similarity between PROMETHEUS' engineers and the ancient Greek gods - in addition to the fact that the engineers obviously look very much like Greek statues of Greek gods - is that both are portrayed as being just as flawed as the humans. The gods in Greek mythology have all the character traits of ordinary people: they fight, they lust, they hate - and they make mistakes. What I absolutely loved in PROMETHEUS (because I found it darkly funny too) is that the engineers ultimately are no better than we are. They create bio-weapons they don't really know how to control: and they eff up big time before they get to destroy the humans, and they get wiped out by their own weapons. Their technology may be very advanced, but they haven't exactly reached a state of wisdom and transcendence, and the big question doctors Shaw and Holloway want to ask them will not get a satisfying answer for that very reason. This is something the android David instantly understands (which is another smart idea in the film), because he was created by humankind, and HE certainly never got a satisfying answer from us why HE was created, which is something he remarks upon to Holloway.

And David is also very aware that the humans don't treat him, their creation, as their equal; they are either condescending towards him or treat him with contempt: so why should the engineers feel and behave any different towards the humans? And knowing his human creators doesn't seem to have inspired a lot of respect for them in David, and he clearly isn't in awe of them - on the contrary; David actually sees himself as the superior being. This is hinted at when Holloway insensitively remarks: "They're making you guys pretty close (to humans), huh?" to which David responds with an icy smile: "Not too close, I hope." And yet, because David was created in the image of the humans (just like the humans were created in the image of the gods aka "the engineers"), he is so very much like them. David may lack human empathy and a conscience, but we learn early in the film that he is every bit as curious in his own way as Shaw and Holloway are. Only where Shaw is naive, he is reckless; like a child exploring the world around him, he wants to know how everything functions, but his quest for knowledge is not hindered by ethics or a strong moral compass. So it shouldn't surprise us that in the next darkly ironic twist, David, very much like the humans who created him and the engineers who created the humans, conducts his own little experiment. He too wants to create something new "just because he can".

And in the last (and perhaps meanest) twist of the film, we learn how right David was in his assessment of the engineers' probable mindset regarding humankind, when the last surviving engineer is revealed to have nothing but contempt for the "things" his kind has created. Instead of giving them answers, he just swipes them away like bothersome flies. So, upon closer inspection, the film is actually almost beat for beat a retelling (or darkly funny modern continuation) of the Prometheus saga, - as well as a clever exploration of the dynamics between creator and creation - and in that regard the film works surprisingly well.

On a side note, there's another story element in the film that is worth mentioning (although it will probably only be appreciated by film geeks and sci-fi nerds such as myself), because it's one that's virtually identical to a very important part of the narrative in another sci-fi film by Ridley Scott. In PROMETHEUS, Peter Weyland's life-span is nearing its end, and so he's travelling through space in a desperate attempt to find his creator and ask him for more life. Sound familiar? Of course it does: in Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER (1982), a group of androids (in the film they are called "replicants") who are used as slaves off-world, manage to escape to Earth. They're led by Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) whose life is about to end. By design, the life-span of replicants is limited to only a couple of years, so Roy Batty is desperate to find his creator, Eldon Tyrell, to ask him for more life. Now in PROMETHEUS, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof cleverly reverse the situation and put the human character in the unfortunate position the replicants from BLADE RUNNER find themselves in. And it's not just any human character who has to share the fate of the androids from the earlier film: Weyland is a creator of artificial life much in the same way Eldon Tyrell is in BLADE RUNNER: he is his exact counterpart in the ALIEN franchise. That story element seems to be a clear nod to Scott's cyberpunk classic, which is another little detail I liked in the film.

So, to conclude my musings in defense of this often derided film: the way I see it, PROMETHEUS' biggest mistake (apart from the uneven character work in the script) is pretending to be straight "hard" sci-fi, which it clearly isn't. What it is, though, is a beautiful looking sci-fi/mystery movie which plays with some very clever concepts, but remembers a little late in the story that it also wants to be a monster movie. And while it may be a flawed film, it's full of interesting ideas and certainly more original than 95% of the sci-fi/mystery/monster films that came out over the last 25 years - plus on a purely visual level, it's a feast. As far as I'm concerned, it deserves another look.

P.S. For those who are interested, this review was a much abbreviated version of an in-depth look at the film (which also provides answers to its most prominent questions), and you can find the full piece here:

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