As a Saturday afternoon science fiction adventure I’d give Prometheus a generous B. I enjoyed the film despite all the illogical thinking and action that drives the plot. The visuals are stunning. Great android character, and I always love a good artificial being. Appealing captain character, good hearted, but a bit clichéd. Not much other characterization, but the film flowed and kept my interest. Hope I’m not damning it with faint praise, but it’s that kind of flick. Fun enough, but don’t think about it too much. It’s pretty weird when the most appealing character is an android.
Prometheus is set in the same universe as Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) and all the other sequels, yet it’s not exactly a prequel or a reboot, and for the most part it’s not like the other movies. Prometheus has a new storyline and characters, with much better special effects. It does mirror some plotting of the original Alien, even down to some very specific outcomes.
We don’t get many space adventure movies anymore. Usually it’s invaders coming to Earth. I miss movies where we go to alien worlds, so that explains why I enjoyed Prometheus so much, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Space epics are about as common as westerns, my favorite movie genre. So if you’re up for a space opera, Prometheus might satisfy you – if you’re not too picky.
Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the movie, because I am picky, and I’m going to give everything away when I dissect the science fiction in Prometheus.
The Analysis with Spoilers
Science fiction is generally an idea genre, and the story has to make sense to the readers and watchers, even if its about something impossible like The Matrix or Inception. Prometheus is based on the idea that aliens seeded Earth with DNA. Now panspermia is an old idea, and Prometheus deals with directed panspermia. As a concept it’s rather farfetched, but I don’t have any trouble using directed panspermia as a plot device. But other factors in Prometheus hint at Chariot of the Gods by Erich von Däniken, which suggests ancient alien astronauts took a direct involvement with human development and claims that early humans couldn’t have done things without alien help, like build the pyramids. That I found offensive, so my hackles were up for any sign on von Dänikenisms. For whatever reason, the aliens that left the maps are dubbed The Engineers. At this point in the movie, the humans don’t know about the DNA, only the maps, and maybe implied interaction with ancient humans, so why call them The Engineers?
In Prometheus we are told the archaeologists Shaw and Holloway discover several ancient human cultures that have star maps that all reveal the same location. We aren’t told the nature of these star maps, which are unrealistically vague. We must infer that:
- Ancient humans observed spaceships coming from this location in the sky
- The Engineers caused a certain pattern to appear in the sky that was more obvious than stars
- The Engineers gave the humans the maps to tell where they came from
- The Engineers gave the humans the maps so future humans would travel there someday
- Some Engineers are warning humans about other Engineers.
Clue #1. We are shown an ancient Engineer seeding the Earth, and we assume it’s before life started. We are not shown the Engineers appearing to ancient cultures, but isn’t that implied if several ancient human cultures have the same map?
Contention #1. The archaeological evidence provides enough information to direct modern humans to the star system with the moon LV-223. This is very bogus and hard to believe from the evidence we are shown. If all of these ancient human sites held an actual alien star map that we could decipher, then that might be believable. But several smudges carved in stone like a constellation pattern is not enough information.
Contention #2. The Engineers left a map to their home world. In all first contact stories both aliens and humans are always worried about giving the location of their home world. At this time the humans of the story do not know the Engineers left DNA seeding the Earth. All they know about is the maps. Again, why do they call them The Engineers? Do they believe the they were ancient alien engineers who built early civilizations on Earth?
Contention #3. Shaw and Holloway want to meet The Engineers to ask them why? The implication is its an ontological question. That they are calling these aliens The Engineers because they created us. Later on in the movie David asks Holloway why he wants to meet his makers and Holloway replies he wants to ask why. And David asks why did humans create him, and Holloway replies because we could. Then David asks, will that answer be acceptable to you? Religious people, and people who believe in Intelligent Design feel humans must have a purpose. Shaw and Holloway feel The Engineers might reveal our purpose. I feel that’s both bogus and nasty. Is there any purpose we can be told that won’t offend us? Any prescribed purpose will make us a slave. Do we really want to be the children of superior aliens?
Clue #2. The map leads the humans to a world where The Engineers were building biological weapons of mass destruction. This doesn’t make sense either. Who gives directions to their secret military bases? Could a group of good Engineers have gone to Earth to warn us about evil Engineers? This makes sense but the movie never suggests that. Are they holding back for the sequel?
Contention #3. The Engineers have DNA that matches ours, and they look like us, and one of them gave his all to seed Earth with his DNA, so they are our makers? Actually, if you dropped off some DNA strands in a sterile ocean I doubt they would do anything. Panspermia depends on the initial building blocks of evolution to come from outside of the Earth. This ain’t that. Nor is there any reason to believe if they put the starting ingredients in our ocean, that billions of years later humans that look like them would appear on the scene. Evolution and DNA don’t work that way.
Clue #3. The reawaken Engineer immediately sees the humans and starts killing them. If the Engineers seeded many worlds how would they know if humans were from the evil Earth they wanted to destroy or from one of the good planets they wanted to preserve? Why would a species that looks like us want to kill us? We assume the target is Earth because the android David discovered how to read their computer system. If renegade good Engineers created humans maybe bad Engineers would always want to kill them on sight. But does that make us the cockroaches of the galaxy? Maybe the renegade Engineers are trying to create the saviors of the galaxy – us!
Contention #4. The Engineers created H. R. Giger killer alien and they were stockpiling the black goo that would be used to infect the Earth. How long has the Engineer’s ship lain dormant on LV-223? Why was Earth up for destruction? The movie is named Prometheus, and the spaceship is named Prometheus, but are we to assume the Engineer that seeded the Earth is a Prometheus? Remember your mythology. Prometheus brought fire to the humans and was eternally punished by his fellow gods by having an eagle feed on his liver. If the Engineer Prometheus defied his fellow Engineers to bring DNA to Earth, why would any of these ancient human cultures know about the Engineers? If they seeded the Earth before life existed, it would be billions of years before these ancient cultures even existed. If the Engineers came back to give them star maps, then the Engineers have been keeping an eye on Earth for a very long time indeed. Then why do they want to destroy it? Again this points to two factions of Engineers.
Clue #4. The Engineers were overrun by the H. R. Giger aliens, so they weren’t smart enough to protect themselves from their own weapon. The human ship Prometheus is fairly easily able to destroy the Engineer’s ship heading for Earth, so they aren’t all that powerful. And an ancient Engineer attacks a disabled Shaw but she’s able enough to fend him off long enough to sic the alien octopus on him. These ancient Engineers aren’t that capable, or they are damn unlucky.
Contention #5. Shaw and David the android know where the Engineer home world is and know how to fly an Engineer ship to it. Shaw wants to know why they wanted to attack Earth with the H. R. Giger aliens. We won’t know the results of this point until the sequel comes up, but it’s not the conclusion I would have made. Why didn’t Shaw go, “Fuck the Engineers, we’re flying to their home world to deliver they payload they intended for us.” Why does Shaw continue to believe the Engineers has something to tell us? Isn’t finding the plans and munitions to destroy Earth enough of a message? My gut reaction was much different from Shaw’s. It would have been the same as Lester del Rey’s “For I Am a Jealous People.” Since this is a very difficult story to track down I’ll have to tell you the plot. Earth is under attack by aliens. We learn that God is on their side. So we get mad and go after God and the aliens planning to destroy both, because we are a jealous people.
This movie seems to suggest that the only good alien is a dead alien. Are there no wise, gentle aliens inhabiting the stars that want to be friends? We’re to assume that Shaw is making the same stupid mistake about meeting the Engineers as Rafe Spall makes when he treats the alien snake as cute? Prometheus, Alien, Aliens, and all the rest tell us over and over again aliens from space are dangerous. Of course, these are horror movies, and like the template for most horror movies, all the victims are stupid and all the bad guys are evil. I hate this message in science fiction movies and books. Why wasn’t Prometheus different and had the Engineers be noble? Prometheus is a very cynical film.
Prometheus also sends another offensive message. Prometheus is a science fictional version of intelligent design. Why can’t people accept that life on Earth is an accident of evolution? This Chariot of the Gods approach has the same problem as theology. If God created us, who created God? If the Engineers created us, who created the Engineers? Why do we need an initial cause for our existence? Prometheus is anti-science.
Shaw and Holloway want to know why humans are on Earth. They are the driving characters of the story, yet their characterizations are extremely weak. This is the first flaw of the movie. By having a couple, the writers diluted the characterization of each. Shaw eventually becomes the main character of the movie, but we don’t know that until the last fourth of the movie, and she never gelled as a personality. Prometheus would have been far more gripping if Charlie hadn’t existed, and Shaw’s obsession was the main focus of the story.
The movie further dilutes the creation of strong characterization with the subplot of Peter Weyland, who wants to find the Engineers hoping they will bestow life extension on him. If this was revealed at the beginning of the mission, it would have created two strong opposing wills, and that might have worked, but leaving Weyland hidden on the ship till near the end as a “surprise” hurt the story badly. The character has no purpose and is killed off rather quickly. Meredith Vickers who seems to run things but isn’t the captain, and who might be Weyland’s daughter, is another pointless character.
Great science fiction needs great characters with a clear goals or desires. Think about Gattaca, we have Vincent a normal human living in a world of genetically enhanced humans. Vincent wants to go into space, so how can he possibly have the right stuff when the real astronauts have been genetically engineered? Prometheus doesn’t have strong characters because it had too many characters – nobody stood out, nobody’s goals drives the story. Shaw’s goal is rather unappealing – wanting to meet The Engineers to ask them why they visited the Earth. But isn’t that questioned answered when she discovers they brought DNA to Earth? Are The Engineers the Johnny Appleseeds of life in the galaxy?
Why does Shaw wear a crucifix without stating her Christianity? Isn’t this Chariot of the Gods plot in direct conflict with Christianity just as much as Darwin’s evolution?
I can buy The Engineers seeding the planets, but there’s no reason given why or if the Engineers visited ancient civilizations. Why do these civilizations leave records of star patterns in the sky? Did the Engineers come by to visit? Did they help develop these civilizations? And did they tell the people where in the sky they came from? Why? So we could come visit some day? Then why is the location a biological weapon repository? Why would you tell people it’s location? That doesn’t make any sense. In all first contact stories both humans and aliens are leery of revealing their home world. If the Engineers repeatedly left maps of where to find them, where would they point to? And why? Again, my theory that good Engineers were warning everyone about bad Engineers.
You’d think the Engineers would think like Match.com users and plan to meet in a neutral and safe location. We could also assume, a la Arthur C. Clarke, that the invitation is test of our readiness to be space travelers ourselves. It’s a sign we’ve evolved. The film eventually tells us the Engineers didn’t like how we turned out and planned to exterminate us with a black goo that generates the scary aliens of Alien/Aliens. Are these the bad Engineers going around undoing what the good Engineers have done?
The Engineers look like us. It’s implied we are their children. So why destroy us with H. R. Giger aliens? Are the monster aliens superior to us? Are they meant to stimulate our development with adversity? Are they some kind of punishment? What did we do?
Peter Weyland has a much more powerful need to meet the Engineers, he wants to keep living. I would claim seeking out aliens for advanced technology to be a greater driving force than religion and ontology, but it’s never really developed. In fact, the idea is developed so late in the film, and nipped in the bud so quickly, that I think it’s just filler.
My movie companions did not like how Prometheus tried to mix in religion with aliens. Neither of the two women I went to the show with are religious, and they just thought a cross wearing space woman was unreal. Why mix Christianity with von Däniken mumbo jumbo?
Clue #5. In the end, we movie goers get one thing out of the movie, we know where the H. R. Giger aliens come from and why. They are a biological weapon of The Engineers. We assumed they created them, but I supposed they could have found them on a planet and just used them. Either way, we have answers for past Alien movies in the franchise.
Frankenstein; or, A Modern Prometheus
A reader recommended I read “Is Prometheus anti-science? Screenwriter Damon Lindelof responds.” The interview gives me further clues about Prometheus. I had forgotten the full title of Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein; or, A Modern Prometheus. Lindelof talks about the film as “Frankenstein 101.” This works on several levels. It emphasizes that Prometheus is also a horror film, that it’s about science and religion, and it’s about monsters. From this analogy I have to ask: Who is the monster in Prometheus, and who is Frankenstein?
The obvious answer is The Engineers are Frankenstein and the monster are the H. R. Giger aliens, who appear to be created to thrive on humans. But if we’re to believe they were created to destroy us, does that make us the monster too? And what about David, is he a monster, and we’re his Frankenstein? And who is the Frankenstein that created The Engineers?
These are great literary allusions, but this doesn’t sidestep that the Frankenstein theme is also a form of intelligent design philosophy. I thought the movie was weakened by too many characters, but I think it’s also weakened by too many monsters and Frankensteins. That could have been solved by not having The Engineers seed Earth with DNA, and then the ancient human star maps would have been warnings.
However, in the end, even though I give Prometheus an overall B, I do give it an A+ for ambition.
JWH – 6/10/12