Fundamentally, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about the search for truth and meaning. Under the guise of a 3D science fiction thriller, it begs most of humanity’s most basic spiritual and/or philosophical questions. Why are we here? Were we created, and if so, by who or what? Is there a purpose to our very being? The film does not presume to answer all of the above, although it does leave us with the strong possibility that such truths are not only out there but can be found. It’s no coincidence that the film’s title is also the name of the immortal Greek titan that sculpted mankind into existence from clay. He also enabled mankind’s progress by giving them the fire he stole from the gods; he championed us to such an extent that he would ultimately be punished for it, condemned by Zeus to endure an eternity of having his liver pecked out by an eagle.
Most potential audiences cannot be expected to see this film from a more introspective angle. It will be regarded primarily as the semi-prequel to Scott’s own 1979 film Alien, a great horror film in its own right but obviously devoid of any spiritual subtexts. Keen observers should be able to spot all of the references, from the overt inclusions of the “space jockey” and the crescent-shaped alien spacecraft to the subtler throwbacks in characterization, production design, and tone. I personally pride myself on having caught an instance in which a section of music from Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score was mixed into the soundtrack. Those seeking any obvious inclusion of the now well-known alien creatures are likely to be disappointed, not because the film lacks close encounters with extraterrestrials but because they introduce themselves through a deliberate and somewhat confusing process of evolution.
The story proper begins in the year 2089 when, on an archeological expedition on an isle off the coast of Scotland, scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave with a painting of a star map. This is but one of many star maps found around the world, which is unusual given the fact that the sites on which they were found belonged to ancient cultures separated by time and distance. Shaw, without a doubt a believer in a higher power, interprets these findings as an invitation from humanity’s outer space forerunners, dubbed the Engineers. Quite simply, it’s a chance to learn who we are and where we came from. Four years later, a privately funded interstellar expedition aboard the starship Prometheus arrives at the only logical location outlined in the star maps: A moon in a very distant part of the galaxy.
The crew consists of your usual grab-bag of mechanical and scientific experts, including Shaw and Holloway. Of particular interest are two characters. One is David (Michael Fassbender), an android; while initially no more than a machine, unclouded by emotions or morality, his mechanically superior ability to process and learn gradually gives him something of a superiority complex towards the human passengers. The other is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). She has been sent by the company funding the expedition, the Weyland Corporation, to monitor the crew. Level-headed yet elusive and controlling, we spend most of the film trying to determine what her hidden agenda is. Perhaps it has something to do with a holographic projection of the company’s long-gone founder, the deeply wizened Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).
After landing on the moon, Shaw and her team soon uncover a sprawling network of underground caves and corridors, which inexplicably produce an atmosphere capable of sustaining human life. Their expedition reveals the remains of an Engineer’s head, along with a vast subterranean cavern well-stocked with cylinder-like urns. Upon their discovery, the urns begin to leak a strange black goo. David is the first to discover this. As he secretly stashes an urn on the ship and conducts an experiment, Shaw is thrilled to learn that the Engineers’ DNA is identical to a human’s. But then begins a biological epidemic begins to infect the crew; it reaches such a degree that Shaw is forced to conclude that she was wrong about the Engineers’ intentions.
The original Alien achieved a shocking visceral thrill with the infamous chestburster sequence, a turn of events that audiences at that time could not have foreseen. Prometheus attempts to outdo its predecessor with its own disturbing birth scene, one that kick starts an unstoppable evolutionary process. As to whether or not it’s successful, that’s entirely a matter of personal opinion. I admittedly had a difficult time navigating the story’s biological path of destruction, as I found the link between organism and host convoluted. My response to the less tangible spiritual aspects was much better. Prometheus is at its best when it speculates on the unknown. Like Shaw, many of us have chosen to believe in something greater than ourselves. Unlike Shaw, we tend to leave it at that. She’s not content with mere blind faith. She will always be searching.