Reflections on “Prometheus”,
directed by Ridley Scott,
starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron et al.
A video presentation of these notes is available here
Although planned as a prequel to “Alien”, “Prometheus” takes its own direction with its path crossing that of “Alien” at various points.
“Prometheus” seeks to develop different issues, yet some of the themes are shared (or should I say originated) here – corporate funding and interests conflicting with science and humanity, expendable crew members whose main motivation is making money, and the presence of a tetchy android possibly with his own agenda who is treated with disrespect by a largely insensitive crew.
Here, however, the focus is on investigating the mystery of man’s origins through the scientist Elizabeth Shaw who desperately wishes to slake her thirst for knowledge, combined with the android David who, not unlike Ash in “Alien” apparently represents the scientific desire for knowledge (though Ash was corrupted by potential commercial applications), and is willing to use humans as a means of experimentation to further his own understanding and satisfy his curiosity.
While there is suspense, danger and mystery, we are being led in a different direction from that of “Alien”. Here we are seeking our makers and the whole question of expectation and reality is what is being explored.
“Alien” was dramatically complex, but thematically relatively straightforward – survival in a universe corrupted by greed in the face of a pure and lethal enemy. In “Prometheus” we are seeking answers to age-old questions about our origins and doubt is cast on the necessarily God-like status of our creators – thematically much more complex and challenging.
When scientist Holloway discovers his “Engineers” (the creators of mankind he has travelled a vast distance to meet) are dead and gone, he becomes depressed – not just because he can no longer fulfil his dream to communicate with them, but also because he realises how similar they were to us, suggesting that mankind is little more than an experiment while he had presumably hoped to encounter a superior race willing and able to supply answers but also (and perhaps more importantly), purpose.
In drunken despair, Holloway treats the android David almost with contempt, inviting his thoughts if he were to discover that he had been built simply “because we could”, which is of course exactly David’s situation. Ironically, Holloway now finds himself in the same position as David, whom he considers less worthy than humans because he was manufactured by man, yet he appears to expect David to willingly accept his position of inferiority, something Holloway finds hard to accept for himself.
It is at this point that David opts to use Holloway as a vessel for experimentation, introducing a droplet of alien material to Holloway’s glass of champagne which will have shattering consequences for Holloway. Why does David act in this way? Perhaps because he has been programmed to do so by his maker, Weyland, but more intriguingly, perhaps because he now regards humans as equals rather than superiors as they themselves were the product of manufacture of sorts. It may, of course, simply be revenge for the disrespect shown to him by Holloway, but David goes on to behave similarly with Elizabeth Shaw (though with a little more tenderness and consideration) who has always shown David respect and even gratitude.
This seems to mark a return to a theme in “Blade Runner” in which the creation develops beyond the creator in terms of experience and knowledge and is disappointed by the limits and weaknesses of the creator as he seeks not just answers but inspiration.
Perhaps an apt quotation might be “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” (R. L.Stevenson, “El Dorado”).
At the end of the film David and Shaw form a mutually beneficial alliance to help one another survive. Both have lost the basis of their “civilisation” or “order” – maybe just helping one another is seen as a perfectly good foundation for order when previous authority has been dismissed.
Shaw chooses to believe in something more than her surroundings suggest. She insists on wearing her cross, implying her willingness to follow a religious example, and she has questions to ask of her makers, questions she feels she has the right to ask, though she must also face the fact that her creators are not the morally superior beings she may at one time have assumed. David is now free from Weyland’s programming and will have to make his own decisions – just like Shaw. However, also like Shaw, David has adopted a role-model. He has “adopted” Lawrence of Arabia as his model, styling himself after Peter O’Toole in the 1962 film. It is interesting that both opt for intangible models a level up from their own perceived existence – Shaw wishing to believe in God, and David opting for a copy of a man, a sort of sculpted and modified version which will not offer disappointment such as a living person might.
T. E. Lawrence may offer more insight than simply a film hero. Lawrence was an independent thinker, rejecting the authority of his superior officers. He had great belief in himself and achieved much in the Arab revolt of WW1. He was also used by his superiors, though he was of superior intellect, as they channelled his confidence/arrogance to their own ends – similar to David’s position on Prometheus. Disillusioned and “lost” after the war, Lawrence sought another military home in the early 1920s in the RAF, changing his name to Ross, but was quickly exposed and left the RAF. It can be no coincidence that he then joined the Tank Corps under the name T. E. Shaw. Clearly, Lawrence felt he needed structure in his life, and structure is what is being sought by both David and Shaw, even if ultimately they will both be disappointed by the result of their search.
The film has been unfavourably compared to “Alien”, and I think this criticism is largely unfair. There is a pervading atmosphere of mystery as we delve into the unknown and wonder if there may be some wondrous revelation. There is also tension and excitement as the crew encounters alien artefacts and creatures – not as intense, perhaps, as in “Alien”, but the whole is on a much bigger and grander scale and does not play on the confinement of the original. Again, we are being taken in a different direction so to criticise this film for not being a repeat of the first film seems a little unreasonable.
Character development has also been criticised, but I fail to see this as a major weakness. The main characters are clearly defined and their stories are revealed. Granted, minor characters are expendable but they are well enough drawn to allow us to empathise, and it should be borne in mind that these characters are a colder and more distant bunch than in the original, and the whole premise of the film is different.
Character motivation and feelings are revealed in the course of the film and play more to its themes than its action. Interestingly, the relationship between Vickers and Weyland is made clearer in alternate scenes available on DVD, though the essential elements are nonetheless communicated in the theatrical cut, and may even add a greater element of surprise as a result of less interaction.
For myself, I felt the film delivered thrills and thought and as such it fits perfectly into the science-fiction mould.
A final point which may shed light on the themes of the film is that Prometheus is a figure (a Titan) from Greek mythology who was punished by the Gods for creating man and then supplying him with fire, allowing progress and civilisation. Could this shed light on the opening scenes of the film in which an Engineer is seen consuming something which causes a molecular breakdown? Punishment? Suicide? Sacrifice? Hopefully some of our questions will be answered in “Prometheus 2”, announced in August 2012!
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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.