Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s first science fiction film since Blade Runner (1982) and his return to the genre provides an opportunity to revisit some of the core preoccupations of his earlier work. Prometheus shares with Blade Runner more than its dark, foreboding mood and presence of android characters; both films are preoccupied with the nature of life, free will and the instinct of survival.
In Prometheus, life is abundant. In fact, its abundance becomes a source of danger for the protagonists as it blooms everywhere it can, given the opportunity – yes, even from the bodies of the human crew themselves. A kind of grey gloop stands in for what we can only imagine is the sort of single-cellular organism that might have kicked things off on this planet billions of years ago. Instead here, augmented by some fantastic alien technology by a race that the movie calls ‘the engineers’, its evolutionary potential is highly exaggerated to the point of being dangerous.
Scott’s skill with this genre remains highly evident. He has a particularly keen awareness of the need to place his characters in peril. In Prometheus, he does this with great deftness, slowly building the tension and raising the stakes as the crew of hapless scientists and their corporate lackeys land on a seemingly deserted moon and begin to explore. Everything that can go wrong does so until eventually the entire ship and crew are in mortal danger from infection by the mysterious but suitably creepy alien bio agent.
The ship’s overseer, played brilliantly by an icy Charlize Theron, steps in to bring some harsh medicine half way through the film in a valiant effort to stop things from spiraling out of control. But as he showed in the original Alien, Scott has a gift for letting the proverbial shit hit the fan despite his characters’ best efforts, all the while taking the audience along for the panicked result.
All sorts of barriers are breached: space helmets are penetrated, suits are ripped, skin is sliced, and microbes invade. In case it wasn’t already obvious to astrobiologists in the room: should you ever get to explore an alien world, DON’T TAKE YOUR HELMET OFF. Also don’t touch or lick anything.
Ridley Scott and his characters play fast and loose with the scientific method in this film, one of its weak points. The whole concept of interstellar travel and hypersleep is glossed over. Prometheus seems to take place in a post-singularity era, where highly-capable artificial intelligences walk among us. Yet human bodies seem even more frail than ever and it is clear from poorly scripted decisions that intelligence augmentations are not de rigeur for human characters in this universe.
Scott has made a few sacrifices in terms of science and plausibility in order to tell a compelling story that still addresses bigger philosophical questions. To wit, the opening scene features an expressionless alien engineer, standing on a barren riverbank that likely belongs to a proto-Earth. Behind the figure, a massive saucer-shaped craft hovers menacingly, then lifts away. The engineer opens up a can of the grey goo – foreshadowing – and takes a big gulp, before suffering the unpleasant results. It is evident from this scene that somehow the earth has been ‘seeded’ with microbial life (see directed panspermia). While the scene is evocative, it doesn’t seem logical. Why not simply shoot a canister of goop from space and let it do its thing? Surely a super advanced galactic civilization would have outgrown romantic, self-sacrificial gestures. This is just one example of logical compromises that Scott and the scriptwriters have made in Prometheus in order to advance the plot and convey abstract ideas to the audience.
Undoubtedly the best aspect of Prometheus is the multilayered onion-like symbolism that pervades the film. The engineers, burdened with the horror that their biological meddling has unleashed, suffer the consequences in ghostly flashbacks. Meanwhile the human characters, having recently created artificial life in the form of David the android, must endure the results as he starts to take on a will of his own. “Don’t all children,” David asks, “end up wanting to kill their parents?”
Like Blade Runner, it is possible to endlessly analyze the plot of Prometheus. Scott has left enough ends loose here that the film is simultaneously both provocative and frustrating. A sequel, already hinted at, might add more clarity to the story arc and answer some of the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic engineers. But even if no such sequel ever gets made, Prometheus has achieved its most ambitious goal, which is to pose big interesting questions in the face of deafening (cosmic) silence.