This past weekend marked the release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, a movie that has been much anticipated among the ranks of science-fiction fans across the globe. As an avid fan of the genre, and as an admirer of Mr. Scott, I have waited for this movie for over a year, wondering how he would administer to the secrets and rumors connecting this movie to his 1979 masterpiece, Alien. Prometheus, at least in the weeks leading up to its release, was cast as Scott's glorious return to the film that gave him some of his greatest notoriety.
I have read several reviews that are critical of Scott's ability to deliver on a film that many have built-up to be the masterwork prologue to the tradition of science fiction noir that he helped create. For those who felt that the film did not satisfy, but was something that was worthy of further discussion, I offer several points that I found effective in the film, based largely on the connection people are making between this film and his previous work.
I believe that this film is an attempt to express contempt for humanity. Scott has always been more comfortable with outsiders and outcasts. Even his non sci-fi films (e.g. Gladiator, Thelma and Louise) deal with outsiders who confront humanity's cruelty to humanity only to liberate themselves in death. Here are some reasons to support this claim and to support the film in what I believe are its under-expressed virtues. The movie serves as an elegant critique of humanity, expressing that people aren't able or do a terrible job being intellectually curious, that we're actually quite narrow-minded, self-interested creatures that have great difficulty asking really meaningful questions about our nature and our place in the world. Here are several points to consider:
1. Holloway sucks. Revise... most everyone in the film sucks.
Dr. Holloway is anything but a real doctor. He is a stupid man, incapable of appreciating the gravity of the moment he supposedly helped discover. He's brash, arrogant, and unable to appreciate sincere questions when given to him (note how he reacts to the very legitimate criticism thrown his way from other scientists during the "briefing scene"). Holloway represents the irony of most characters in this film. They are all there to study a new world, yet all of them, at their core are underwhelmed by what very well may be the greatest discovery of their time. This cannot be a mistake in the film. The biologist and geologist are the scientific equivalent of mercenaries who do everything to antagonize their peers and the world around them. These "scientists" and "explorers" in the film lack any sense of intellectual curiosity, expect for Shaw, who is ultimately spared.
2. The trip to LV 233 is made possible only through self-interest.
The trip itself was funded not for scientific exploration (that was the facade), but rather to further the physical well-being of Earth's wealthiest man, Peter Weyland, the founder of Weyland-Yutani corporation (who throughout the Alien franchise is responsible for "building better worlds").
3. Vickers is a raving narcissist... and we love her for it.
Even the half-hearted revelation that Vickers is Weyland's daughter reinforces the role that she plays in the film. She is a narcissist of the highest order. In our first encounter with her, we find her doing pushups immediately after being awakened from a 2 year state of cryogenic stasis. At first paragon of discipline, she proves self-involved, unable to think of anything but her image, obsessed with returning home. Her "home ship" is filled with Earth's luxuries. She poses as protector of the ship counter to Janek, captain of the Prometheus and another character who is ironically disinterested in exploration. Neither of them ever leave the ship, and the most emotion you got from either of them is based on their sexual tension for one another. It was a stroke of genius to cast the inimitable Charlize Theron in this role. Not only is she supremely gorgeous, she is capable of rendering a gaze that can stab a person a thousand times over with her piercing eyes. Her body emotes contempt for her less beautiful, less poised and polished companions. Janek may be the only exception (played by the equally sculpted Idris Elba) only because he embodies the physical beauty needed to meet the minimum criteria of the discriminating Social Darwinist. We are all seduced by Vickers -- again, enough that we are not paying attention to arguably the greatest discovery in human history. Under her power, the Prometheus isn't really the vessel of exploration we're led to believe, it becomes a vessel of nostalgia, a weapon ultimately used to protect the earth from an attack by those they sought in the first place, the giant ivory-skinned "Engineers."
4. Technology in the film gives us "me time."
The environments in the ship are always motivated by the desire to return home. There is a looming nostalgia for Earth that runs aesthetically rampant in the film. Everything must be reminiscent of home to have value to the characters in the film, and as a result, the alien features of the film are constantly treated with contempt, disgust, or bewilderment. Vicker's quarters is part of this equation, but so are the impressive homing beacons that map the inner portion of the "egg" (it's a prolate ellipsoid" not a pyramid -- someone should have taught these scientists geometry). These mapping drones do all the exploration in a slick, convenient way. This gives plenty of time for most of the characters to drink, or if they're lucky, get laid. Most everyone seems tantalized with the 3-D imaging and technological advancements that they employ instead of doing any real exploring upon the awesome, supremely humbling landscapes they have just encountered.
5. Robots aren't bad... they're just built that way.
David the Android is perhaps the strongest evidence along this line of critique. No other character is given the time needed to develop as a character except for David. Everything is mediated through him and his encounter with the world. Even Shaw, the only other redeemable character, is introduced through her dream state, which David carefully consumes and mimics like his favorite film (note he only pays attention to her dreams - do any other characters have meaningful dreams?). He has depth as a subject -- he is kind, compassionate, accommodating, and curious. Despite his loyalty to Peter Weyland, Shaw somehow relates to him. Both live in a world of charlatans. David hates Vickers, which amounts to much more than mere "sibling rivalry." She has been given the keys to everything but believes in nothing. He must endure heckling for being human, despite every attempt to accommodate his peers. His motives are deeply human -- including the need to make his father proud. I think that Scott was trying to question whether humans are the best keepers of humanity. He's done this before with Blade Runner, whose Androids struggled for the right to exist that humanity takes for granted.
6. Even the creators hate themselves.
The Engineer at the beginning of the movie kills himself akin to a Japanese honor suicide. Was it me or did you notice that the landscape in the Isle of Skye and the landscape in LV 223 are very similar? I had a hard time at first wondering whether the Engineer was on Earth or on LV 223. In either case, the Engineers (at least one) struggled with its decision to eradicate humanity, or at best realized it was no better for what it had created. This act of self-hatred can easily mark the Engineer's contempt for humanity. No one in the film is excused from this form of expression. Merriam Webster defines contempt as:
1. a secondary emotion, the feeling with which a person regards anything considered mean, vile, or worthless; disdain; scorn. 2. the state of being despised; dishonor; disgrace. 3. Law (disrespect for or lack of abiding by a code).
In a quest for the search for our creators, there is only one law. Hence, my next point.
7. Thou shall not have other gods before me.
Let's move onto a more theological point. The Engineers seemed obsessed with their desire to eradicate humanity, or so we're led to believe in the film. We don't know whether this is really their motive, but for the most part we can believe that humanity has failed them or has done something not to their liking. Did you notice the look the last surviving engineer made when he noticed David was not human? This film is less about exploration than it is contempt -- for humanity and for the failed, shallow use of technology that humans arrogantly enjoy. Remember God's first rule in the 10 commandments -- thou shalt not place other gods before me. The ideal of worship is not to worship meaninglessly, but as Thomas Aquinas describes, to have Fear of God. Does this ring any connection to the title of the film? Prometheus himself, defies the gods, gives fire to humanity, and in the end, is complicit in eliminating this fear. In the Aquinan sense, fear is not the act of being afraid. It is the sense of awe and wonder one feels toward the gods, or rather the feeling one has when it encounters something that is more than the sum of its parts. The characters in this film have lost their sense of awe and wonder. They are fully de-mystified, except for David and Shaw, who survive and, in the end, choose to continue exploring despite having the opportunity to return home.
Note that Holloway and Shaw (mostly Shaw) explain that the glyphs are over 35,000 years old, and that they have long since been forgotten by humanity. Later in the film, Holloway mocks Shaw for keeping her cross. Shaw's cross is evidence of humanity's turn away from the Engineers, but at the same time serves as the strange, uncomfortable reminder to the ideologues on the ship (especially Holloway) that faith and reason are capable of coexisting. The Engineers, perhaps, wanted humanity to carry on its legacy, to worship them, or perhaps to become something more than they had achieved. Humanity, at best disappointed the Engineers, and at worst, has betrayed them -- that is, if we are to believe they are in fact the creators and not another version of the angry siblings from a distant part of the universe. Look no further than Vickers to represent this point. Most people wanted questions answered in this film. But the film was more about asking elegant questions, which is exactly how awe and wonder play into the human equation.
8. Aliens with big tentacles rule.
In the end, we are left with the Engineer's "final solution," the biological xenomorph that made H.R. Giger a household name. They are the perfect expression of the fusion of biology and technology. They represent for this film and the films that preceded it a way of being in the universe that is immanent, foreign, and utterly devastating to man's current relationship to the universe. Some of my dearest friends root for the aliens in these films. I don't blame them. As I watched the film, half the audience was sending a text message or complaining about the price of the their Mike and Ikes. Those same people left the audience complaining that the movie sucked. "Wasn't that girl in those Tattoo movies?" "Chalize what's-her-name is totally hot in latex."
I wonder whether or not Scott was testing his audience. Did you go to his film to get answers or to ask questions? Did you participate in the world he so meticulously crafted and shared with us with awe and wonder? Perhaps Prometheus was intended to be a five minute film -- the first five minutes, filled with the creation of a new world, one unmarked by human contact. The remainder serves as a critique on how we screwed up those first five minutes ever since.
Even as a scholar of political economy, I have considered the first Alien film (and the many films inspired by it) a pointed inspection of the darker aspects of our humanity; a critique of the institutions we have built for ourselves as a race of beings who believe ourselves alone in a vast, unexplored universe. Alien, at least in this writer's opinion, broodingly expressed our relationship to latent capitalism, to the increased narcissism dominant in our social relations (forecasted well before the Facebook generation emerged), and our anxiety about the futility of life itself. Unlike the hopeful and idealistic vision of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, the Alien films questioned whether human beings are capable of escaping thinking about ourselves long enough to engage the universe meaningfully. Instead, these films characterize us as scavengers, as creatures whose only achievement once we have escaped the planet is motivated by self-interest, apathy, and cynicism. The aliens themselves are reminiscent of the dark, tentacle-bodied creatures made popular in 19th century pirate tales and science fiction stories like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Even then, these stories rarely expressed anything about the human communities that are dominant in our lives. Nations are reduced to patches on the gear used by totally badass mercenaries. Families are inconsequential or are tragically removed from the story immediately. The only institution that remains constant is the one-dimensional representation of the military-industrial complex, a slick mustached caricature of self-interest and villainy filled with pirates and talent-for-hire.
In the end, I think Scott was giving us a movie we deserve, a movie about our own folly. We demand from our artists that they give us a universal truth. Perhaps he gave us one -- that we are doomed if we fail ourselves as creatures of intellect, curiosity, and selflessness.