Building Better Worlds: "Prometheus"

At a key moment in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a precocious android, David (Michael Fassbender), looks closely at a contaminant DNA-filled vial and whispers, “Big things have small beginnings.”  It’s a knowing declaration applicable not just to the evolutionary potential of the gooey alien material, but to the progression of movies throughout Scott’s career, from his mainstream breakthrough in 1979, the original Alien, up to this highly anticipated “prequel.” We’ve seen Scott, the designer who broke out directing commercials, fashioning Alien with the deepest of 35mm blacks in the cramped and claustrophobic quarters of the Nostromo ship, where passengers are picked off one by one by H.R. Giger’s nightmarish phallic/fetal xenomorph monster, and now, 33 years later, shooting in digital 3D and showcasing his already masterful wrangling of computer generated imagery with no expense spared.  As if to deliberately distance itself from the franchise it spawned, the opening images of Prometheus display a limitless and fertile natural environment.  Scott seems to propose a Renaissance mural of unbounded preternatural creation such as we’ve seen in other Scott epics of the deep past, as in 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Robin HoodAlien, on the other hand, is a tightly controlled horror film of suspended silences; its terror is intimate.

Prometheus may also be a very personal film. It’s the work of an aging artist (Scott was 74 at the time of its release) anxious of his dwindling time while pressed to “create worlds” in the service of corporate behemoths. Prometheus' corporate mogul Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) may be an amalgamation of Scott and Rupert Murdoch (whose company, Fox, bankrolls the Alien saga), a fascinated seeker running out of time, death looming over talent and money.  As a director with an endless number of films in development, Scott's mortality is an afterthought for the viewer. Few filmmakers work as well with new technology as he does. Prometheus, taking cue from Scott’s idol Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey, has technology as a new organism, always evolving, finally becoming the undoing of its master and creator.  This idea, working alongside the picture’s execution as a special effects summer blockbuster marvel, gives unexpected resonance to a film that stumbles during its rushed final act.

The “aliens” are both the engineers and the engineered – us and them, humans and androids, viewers and CGI-generated motion picture; as viewers, we are experiencing both whole new geographies and intimate memories as the products of mechanical construction.  David mimics Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, suggesting the influence of manufactured images on our everyday reality. In 1979, watching 2001’s visual effects progeny of Alien, Star Wars, Superman, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, could we have presumed that the otherness of fabricated worlds would become so ubiquitous?  I believe this is something Scott is wondering about in Prometheus, a futuristic haunted house story.

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The brutal and beautiful landscapes that begin Prometheus are interrupted by the shadow of a perfect circle hovering and clashing with the wild anthropomorphic shapes we might read into the rocks and valleys.  The atmosphere is not science fiction but antique myth.  Instead of the flashing environs of Alien and Blade Runner, Scott is touching the fairy tale quality of Legend, the dark ages of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, or perhaps the ascending Renaissance of new worlds in 1492: Conquest of Paradise.  Instead of a civilization’s nadir, Scott takes us to a beginning. 

A monk-like figure stands by the water and disrobes.  With the deliberateness of a priestly ritual, he drinks something. His body contorts, eventually disintegrating into the water, which is soiled with his contaminated blood.  The computer generated camera eye takes us into the blood vessels, and then the DNA, the microcosm equaling the macrocosms of the geography with which the film opened.  

It’s a puzzling introduction for a picture people have been waiting some time for, a clamorous reversal of Alien’s dread silences.  The blue humanoid creature of pure muscle, a demigod, looks like an ideal product engineered by graphic artists, while, in the context of the story, apparently is the engineer of our own species. He is a humanoid version of Kubrick’s mysterious monolith from 2001, the guide for humankind’s evolution four million years ago.  But there is a treponomal infection to Scott’s vision of the alternating eons in contrast to Kubrick’s detached enigma that culminated in the famous Star-Child looking back at us.   Scott is making a commentary on his medium of filmmaking, and his flirtation with abstraction might ensure Prometheus’s fate as a disappointment that fails to catch fire with fans; simultaneously, Scott indulges in fan-service, steering headway into an over-plotted narrative, externalizing his abstractions to the point of irritation. Plot—and thudding philosophical dialogue—threatens to obfuscate visual poetry.

--At least in relation to existential questions (faith and science; beginning and end; human and alien; human and god).  Prometheus works as a meta dialogue:  a science fiction special effects film working against its predecessors in its bid to enter the canon – Kubrick, Avatar, and Scott’s own Alien and Blade Runner. In the film’s setting, 2089, we see archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Green) exploring 35,000-year-old cave drawings in Scotland – setting the narrative in motion as other cave drawings reveal how our ancestors are pointing to a cosmic map, “an invitation” to meet our makers when the technology is ready. 

Four years later, the spaceship Prometheus (named for the demigod who was punished by Zeus for giving fire to men) is approaching the ancient star-map’s pinpointed destination.  The passengers, including Shaw and Holloway, are hibernating.  David oversees day-to-day operations, his curiosity leading him to explore all facets of human knowledge and language, being tutored by holograms.  In his spare moments, he not only appreciates Lawrence of Arabia but also the digitized memories of Prometheus’ passengers.  

And so our memories are motion pictures, pixelated and streaming. The stupendous design of the ship by production designer Arthur Max, alongside Scott’s orchestration of images, immerses us in a sense of complete hyperreality with screened images and holograms displacing and dismantling a sense of spatial reality and private memory.  Like on social media, Elizabeth Shaw’s remembrances of her late missionary father (Patrick Wilson) are accessible to strangers, and as David watches, Shaw’s memories are colored with quick dissolves to images related to what is spoken about: the memory is edited like a movie.  The videoscopic theme finds interesting (if purely coincidental; one loves to read into things) reference in the casting of Prometheus' chief medic, played by Kate Dickie, who portrayed the surveillance woman in Andrea Arnold’s terrific noir Red Road (2006), manning CCTV cameras that encroach the private lives of citizens.

The images dictate our framing of what’s real. In Shaw’s memory, her father’s sense of heaven and God are sculpted by what he “chooses to believe.”  He knows that there are alternative images of God and the afterlife, but he has selected the image that fits him – a Christian one.  The android looks to Lawrence of Arabia and sees his double in T.E. Lawrence, who runs his fingers through flames, even decisively coloring his hair to match Peter O'Toole.  “The trick is not minding that it hurts,” David repeats Lawrence's line in reference to putting finger to flame. The truth, which for Scott may be direly cthonian (reinforced by his subsequent film, The Counselor), is deflected by the images we hold up as sacred, be it Christ’s passion or a David Lean epic (both of which are also quite troubling and none-too-cozy). Neither prayers or the movies can be relied on to save us; Shaw’s father would die from the same Ebola that ravaged the people to whom he preached. But people still choose to believe in them. The illusions point to a desire to transcend what Lawrence calls “only flesh and blood.” The movies are escaping from spatial reality, much like the ascetic and gnostic and Platonist seek another world.

The digital immersion of easily accessible “worlds” weaved by technological wizardry unlocks convenient treasures and marvels, but also steals away our sense of time, holding the immediate problems at bay: family, death, and hideous monsters that want to eat you, nom nom.  Two conflicting forces on the ship are the Weyland Industries steely corporate head, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), at times more robotic in her disposition than David, and the captain, Janek (Idris Alba), an earthy, well-humored skipper who doesn’t have illusions.  Vickers spends most of her time in a special module (described as a “lifeboat”) with a manufactured environment, a “separate world” of walls that have sundry frontiers on display. She can be psychologically buffered from her present environment, existing out of time, helpful given a troubled relationship to her past (Peter Weyland is her father, and apparently not a good one, preferring the android David to her).  Janek comes out of hibernation and sets up a Christmas tree, because the crew needs a holiday “to show time is still moving.”  It’s Janek who inquires if Vickers is an android, while also insinuating that perhaps the two of them should have sex.  Her attitude to sexuality is reactantly automatic: she gives him a specific time and place, without the slightest hint of carnal impulsivity. 

David is purely for utilitarian purposes.  For the crew, or even his maker Weyland, he has no soul.  These are the stakes of technological ingenuity aligning the corporation to Hollywood: Weyland Industries is, according to its slogan, “building better worlds,” and even building better people. The hyperreal ghost world has equal footing with the real world, conveyed when the crew evaluates their mission and are guided by a hologram of Weyland (Guy Pearce), who interacts with his viewers as if he was actually there.  Weyland is ostensibly dead, and so Holloway says after being introduced by the hologram, “I never had to follow a ghost before.”  

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Everything is “ghostly” in its screened rendering: what’s not alive is increasingly encroaching on real spectators, reinforced by Prometheus’ 3D exhibition.  The Prometheus crew will explore the caves – or tombs – of the alien planet, and be startled by holograms of the long-dead hosts running through them: a “found footage” memory awaiting interpretation and anticipating bad things to come, much as our memories of 1979’s Alien, built into our cinematic memory as we walk into the theater to see Prometheus, make us anxious for what Ridley Scott has in store this time (and, like the Prometheus passengers, many viewers are underwhelmed by what they’ve seen).  The real world is "manufacturing" air, and so the film's two first casualties are the men fascinated by organic matter, the geologist and the biologist (the latter playing like a Crocodile Hunter spoof).

David grapples reality and emotions better than we can, again taking Lawrence as his model.  The machine is creative, while people, domineered by the corporate Weyland structure that renders everything holographic in “building better worlds,” are stuck in a zero-sum game. The scientists, Vickers reminds Shaw and Holloway, are now merely employees.  The most interesting of camera POVs in the caves is taken from David’s perspective.  He is the one most insistent on seeing things.  The machine sees all, and everything in this brave new universe is mapped out (by “pups” that traverse through the alien corridors, recording space), while Janek and his shipmates watch myriad screens like an audience. David is the most captive of viewers, sitting himself down in the central Engineer module and watching a hologram recording from two thousand years ago, our extraterrestrial creators readying something before their stock of WMDs gets out of hand and destroys them.

David also has the agency to create links between his existence and what he sees in films like Lawrence of Arabia – though his words (“There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing”) are not quotes of O’Toole’s Lawrence, but reference the keen observations of the “Other,” Prince Feisal, who admonishes Lawrence for thinking so simplistically about the desert-dwelling Arabs, just as the Prometheus crew overlooks the motives of an android (or the Engineers).  The full context of the Lawrence of Arabia allusion focuses on Lawrence voicing his loyalty to the English and to the Arabs.  “You are an Englishman,” Feisal (Alec Guinness) says. “Are you not loyal to England?”  “To England and to other things,” Lawrence answers.  “To England and to Arabia both?” Feisal responds. “And is that possible? I think you are another of these desert-loving English. Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There's nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with? Because we are little people; a silly people; greedy, and barbarous, and cruel.”  Perhaps David senses a futility in the Prometheus mission, which is, we come to understand, a mission for the fountain of youth, eternal life. It is the enthusiasm that colonialists have for discovering new worlds, not realizing the problems that will ensue with indigenous populations. Lawrence doesn’t understand the Arabs, just as the crew doesn’t understand the Engineers, or how the Engineers possibly don’t understand the humans, or how the humans don’t understand what they’ve created with David.  As with T.E. Lawrence, what the characters find in the desert drives them mad, tearing the veneer of stability away. Their tragedy, in a film of gorgeous backdrops and visionary set-ups, is their limited perspective, demonstrated in the refrain of technologically mediated POV angles (evidently of great interest to late-period Scott, who has the same motif in Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Martian, and Alien: Covenant).

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Kubrick’s ghost of 2001 (and The Shining) haunts Prometheus from its first image to its last.  Scott opens with the camera overlooking a planet silhouetted by a sun, recalling 2001’s symmetrical row of spheres; the beauty of this introduction, further evoked in a major key score complementing the planet's terrain, is juxtaposed against the ending.  Whereas Kubrick’s use of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra suggests symmetry and an order, one step in evolution connected to the next, Prometheus isn’t about “straight” lines (Kubrick's alignment of planets) but how nature is quite rude, rapacious in its courtship. Two parasitical attacks suggest forced oral sex, beginning with a snake-like creature ramming itself into the biologist’s mouth, eating him from the inside; a woken Engineer is grabbed by a tentacled beast and shoved into a toothy orifice (a caustic channeling of a male fear of cunnilingus, anticipating some of The Counselor’s carnal hilarity).  Sex (creation) is messy in the Alien universe, and Scott’s lush beginning is greeted with the antithesis of Kubrick’s Star Child at the end – the familiar, H.R. Giger-designed xenomorph: not a new creation of infinite possibilities, but a harbinger of pure destruction and blind parasitical infestation. 

Fantasy is a respite, and mindfulness a bid to reconcile with the growing monster. David is enthralled by memories and old images, while Janek, the most human of the crew’s passengers, appreciates the symbolism of a Christmas tree and a musical instrument once owned by Stephen Stills.  He is able to see the big picture, unlike Vickers (who hopelessly grapples for life until the future quite literally descends and crushes her in the form of a spaceship).  Janek altruistically flies the Prometheus into the spacecraft heading to earth for a biochemical attack, a moment in Prometheus that is a little hard for an audience to accept.

Yet the act of altruism chimes in with the key motif of the film. The gaps in logic in Prometheus are there for a reason. Progress! Ingenuity! And also taking one’s helmet off! Touching the snake-creature! Religion! Altruism! And then there’s the improbable forgiveness Shaw grants David at the conclusion. It doesn't make any sense. However, so the film argues, that’s its human character.

History looms over the tightly-enclosed lifeboat modules of the present moment. It’s another clever twist then that Scott alludes to The Shining, as Prometheus is also a haunted house story (its follow up, Covenant, will be a take on the somewhat similar “old dark house” idea).  Like Jack Torrence, Shaw has her axe and nervously walks through the Vickers module with its stately music and décor, evoking the gala ball occurring at Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel (the melody seems to be of “Put On a Happy Face”).  Like Vickers, Kubrick’s Torrence wanted to exist in his own little world (the Overlook), safe from the outside world’s intrusions or responsibilities.  The way that David watches Lawrence of Arabia shows that art may keep history alive for us, an idea further reinforced when the two unfortunate scientists – the geologist and the biologist – come upon a heap of Engineer corpses and compare the site to a “Holocaust painting.”

With every new techie advent, how we produce images and how to consume them changes. After David has malevolently poisoned Holloway with the alien bacteria, the archeologist perceives the contaminants moving in his eyeballs.  Afterwards, Holloway collapses in the haunted corridors and repeatedly demands Shaw tell him what she sees in his face.  Back on the ship, Shaw – infected by Holloway during a sexual encounter ten hours before – wants David to let her see what is rapidly growing inside of her.  Scott will soon challenge our capacity for “seeing” with the next scene, a stunning and grotesque caesarian-section in a robotic surgery pod.  Creation – of which the infertile Shaw mourns that she cannot contribute – is colored as something vile and fearful.  Pulled out of her abdomen is an embryotic cthulu, which will soon be the ferocious cunnilingus monster. It wriggles above her in the steady hands of surgical robot arms as she is stitched up. She slithers out of the pod and hobbles for her life.

We have just seen an elaborate and horrifying sequence of unbelievable special effects ingenuity, so disgusting that we should ask ourselves if the technology was worth inventing in the first place.  It is the most memorable of virgin births, relating to how we may read a Christ allegory into the film (the Christmas tree; the fact that the Engineers on this planet were wiped out 2,000 years ago; Shaw’s barrenness making her something of a Virgin Mary; the surgery is referred to as a caesarian, when it’s really an abortion).  Prometheus prepares the way for the anti-Christ; when we look upon the Engineer mural and shrine, there is a mural of what looks like the familiar xenomorph: this is prophecy.  The new creation, as alien weapon or technology, is a savior, as we see David reflexively rescue Holloway and Shaw from a brutal sandstorm and then poisons Holloway. The savior is the destroyer.

Certainly a troubling element in Prometheus that has several viewers shaking their heads relates to the religious questions of the astronauts, when I think a great deal of Alien franchise fans probably share Janek’s disposition. He doesn’t care about the questions: they want action, not theology. It is clunky and nearly detrimental writing when Shaw talks about her choice to believe, or her declaration at the film’s conclusion, when her will to be absurdly curious is identified as a trait of her “human-ness."  As with visual effects in cinema, there is no return to earth in Prometheus, but a stubborn flight from reality.  What would the elderly Weyland, in bad movie make-up, hope that his Engineer tell him?  His day is at an end, and now old-age makeup will be the work of graphic designers.  At this juncture, who cares why we are here?  I feel Scott may be on to the hokey and hackneyed starry-eyed deep questions posed, as when Holloway says to Shaw, “One small step for mankind,” and she responds, “Seriously?” 

Beyond the debates, long-winded questions, and the theology, there is silence.  The trillionaire Weyland lies dying after his creator has struck him down and left him to die.  “There’s nothing,” he says, suggesting what he knows what lies on the other side of the existential door.  The android David replies, “I know.  Have a good journey, Mr. Weyland.”  As David quotes Lawrence, Weyland is quoting the end of The Wages of Fear, another classic film where the absurd journey sets aspirations and nightmares on the same mantel. The journey is black, and after the abundance of things we've seen courtesy of Ridley Scott and his design team previously, Christ that's sad.

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Movies and religion inspire us to believe in more than nothing. The viewer gazes, fascinated, and wants to see more. The engineer, Ridley Scott, wants to create and show more. The plot holes of Prometheus, working to mar the experience, may be remedied by the possibility of sequels: a new trilogy with lots of world-building, a promise that saps undermines the integritas of the last two hours (the sequel, Alien: Covenant, while also contributing the world-building, is meanwhile wholly satisfying experience, its demonic cliffhanger part of its devilishly harmonious consonance). We are left with the filmmaker’s ode to seeing, which evolves with the creative/destructive tools of his craft.  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) famously said at the close of Scott's most celebrated film, Blade Runner (1982), shortly before his imminent death.  “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.” For Scott, "nothingness" equals a decline of vision; for as Kubrick’s Star Child turned to us with open eyes and gazed, the Giger xenomorph bears destructive teeth but has no eyes. Technology can open our eyes, or it can dull our vision.  Whatever its flaws, Prometheus wants our eyes to be active and to seek through its dimensions and engineering. 

Originally written in June 2012 and revised, for better or worse, throughout the years.