Numerous artists, from Ludwig van Beethoven to modernist composer Luigi Nono and Trappist monk Thomas Merton have found useful symbology in the legend of the great existential seeker Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) filters the legend through the director’s pop science fiction sensibilities. Prometheus is the most ambitious film of the Alien franchise, so it is not surprising that fans are not altogether responding to it.
Alien (1979) was, of course, Scott’s breakthrough. It is a film that holds up far better than many of the period. Alien borrowed from other films, including Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and numerous old dark house movies. A highly stylized film, its intensity is most nervously heightened early on. The infamous indigestion scene with John Hurt and the building tensions between Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver (climaxing with the two actors locked in a mortal combat involving a girlie magazine) create searing impressions. Weaver’s performance in the original film is a pitch-perfect example of femininity locked into Herculean survival mode when coming face to face with H.R. Giger’s impeccably designed monster of the house. Still, following the Jacques Tourneur rule, the most frightening of the man-meets-monster scenes involves Tom Skerrit, in claustrophobic setting, pitted against an unseen adversary.
1986′s Aliens (dir. James Cameron) was a rousing take on the Ritz Brothers (as redneck outer space Marines) versus a slew of aliens with a returning Weaver (complete with Joan Crawford shoulder pads and ray gun) leading the charge. While Cameron’s Aliens appeased twelve year-old boys fantasies, it was also filled to the rim with risible dialogue. Weaver, surprisingly, received an Academy Award nomination for her second turn as Ripley, even though her performance was nowhere as nuanced as it was under Scott’s direction. Her nomination is even more surprising when viewed today because she is saddled with eye-rolling, tough guy one-liners and a hackneyed scenario in the director’s cut (wherein we find that, during her hibernation, her only daughter had grown old and died. This, of course, gives impetus to Ripley’s later relationship with the the orphan Newt. Ok, we get it). Weaver, one of the most accomplished actors of her generation, is at her best when minimally directed. Her simple “no” in response to a request to allow an infected shipmate into the ship in the original elicits far more chills than does her fist-waiving, audience appeasing, Clint Eastwood imitation “Get away from her, you bitch!” in the sequel.
Scott is, simply put, a better director of actors than Cameron. Science fiction fables seem to find Scott at his most innovative and inspired. His last sci-fi opus was the brilliantly detached cult classic Blade Runner (1982). Considering how well Scott does in such alternative universes (Blade Runner is his most satisfying film), his avoidance of the genre over the last twenty plus years has been mystifying.
If Blade Runner was an apt project for Scott’s slick sense of pop surrealism, Prometheus is, perhaps, even more so. Clearly, this film is in an abridged state (Scott has said some forty minutes were excised). A full-fledged evaluation will have to be forthcoming with the director’s cut. However, even in this truncated version, Prometheus is an amazing motion picture. It is perhaps best approached, for now, as something akin to highlights of an opera, with its bleeding chunks of meat still providing a sense of wonder. Perhaps this film’s most remarkable quality is its organic, painterly texture. Some fans of the Alien series have complained about the narrative loopholes in Prometheus. Prometheus is not traditional story-telling and those looking for narrative logic would do best to look elsewhere (although, expecting narrative logic in a science fiction film seems like an oxymoron).
Like Blade Runner, Scott’s Prometheus is a sci-fi pop theology picture that asks unanswered questions, which, of course, is a more appealing kind of theology. The Jesuit Tielhard de Chardin proposed that man most likely achieved his current level via external assistance. Science fiction is the superlative vehicle for such awe-inspiring, sublime riddle-making. (I do not think it’s an accident that my quite thorough professor of the Hebrew Testament, Dr. Marti Steussy, also writes and publishes science fiction novels when she’s not teaching and writing theology).
The Prometheus of Scott’s grandiose opus is a silent, chalky-skinned enigma. He exudes grey menace and he exhumes something more, but we’re not really sure what. Apparently, Prometheus’ bad case of acid reflux starts something. Is it life on Earth?
It is the year 2093, the ship Prometheus carries its crew to a distant world. Among the crew are a pair of wise men, following a star of sorts—ancient cave paintings. These paintings point to the “engineers” of human existence.
On this world, a pyramid is discovered. The Ripley character here is divided between two women: the scientist/seeker Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and company suit Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, icily channeling Grace Kelly). Elizabeth still wears the cross of her Christian tradition, and is open to the possibility that universal answers remain divinely inspired. Her attachment to the imaginative symbology of faith annoys her soon to be martyred, Darwinist boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green).
Somewhat ironically, it is the company woman Meredith whom Scott gives the opportunity that Ripley was never afforded. When faced with the risk of contagion, Meredith takes matters into the hands of a flame thrower, rather than expose the crew, whom she is duty bound to protect.
Amongst this ensemble (all perfectly cast) are Fifield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall), who fulfill a kind of tragic-tinted comedy relief. The characters Fifield and Millburn are akin to the types of characters Hank Worden and Ward Bond used to inhabit in John Ford films. The scenes in which the two are stranded, exploring the pyramid caverns, are nail-biting indeed.
Underrated British actor Idris Elba lends steely charm to his supporting role of Prometheus’ captain Janek. Janek is a blue-collar type and follows an engaging arc when he perceives a higher purpose. Meredith touches a smile with Janek, but her guard goes up in light of paternal rejuvenation/rejection issues (in the form of Guy Pearce as octogenarian Peter Weyland—a kind of Robert Quarry as Beiderbeck, seeking the fountain of youth). Meredith’s shattered sense of security later morphs into survival mode. Although a small role, Theron makes it a compelling performance, which draws in the viewer.
Shaw’s intimate tragedy lies in that she cannot create. And she wants to create. This ability would bond her with the creator of life. David (Michael Fassbender), Prometheus’ android, malevolently provides that opportunity. Shaw’s decision regarding her unexpected “miracle” is, perhaps, the most intense, edge-of-your-seat, jaw-hitting-the-floor moment. It is an inversion of all the biblical miracle birth fables, perversely cast. All I will say about it is that it should probably not be seen by sensitive expectant mothers.
As superb as Rapace is in her survive and seek at all costs role, Fassbender tops her. His David channels Hal from 2001 (1968), Ash in Alien, Roy in Blade Runner, and Gigolo Joe in A.I. (2001). These inspirations build a bridge to David, who models his imitation of humanity from Peter O’Toole’s performance in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). We are never sure how to feel about David or his motives. He is alternately curious and fearless, compassionate and sadistic, empathetic and impersonal, knowing and ambiguous, a bit like the biblical David. It is this ambiguity that makes him the most unforgettable of the crew.
The interior sets of the Prometheus are ordered, sophisticated, artistic, clean and quintessentially precise. Perfectly choreographed to the visual design is composer Marc Streitenfeld’s intoxicating score. But, the jumbled questions and plots are in direct contrast. Duplicate DNA would seem to be the point of entry into the new Promised Land. But, rather than homogenizing the final, chaotic gaps of Scott’s epic jigsaw, which sprawls across creation much like T.E. Lawrence wandering across the vast desert, this DNA discovery only perpetuates the puzzle, further scattering it. To be certain, the director’s cut will be Prometheus‘ second coming, but it’s a safe bet that second coming will be another layered vignette.