In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus gave humanity the gift of fire. Given its uses—cooking and warmth being paramount among them—this divine gift was secondary only to life itself, something he was also responsible for. As punishment, Prometheus was bound to a rock, and was visited each day by an eagle who feasted on his liver. As Prometheus has it, our Titan was a large, humanoid alien; our clay his genetic make-up and the planet’s water cycle. The alien who grants us life vomits, breaks apart, and ultimately disintegrates in a river. The price of aiding and abetting humanity is obviously quite high and, given human nature (read: fickle), not entirely worth paying.
Untold thousands of years later, scientist couple Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a shocking commonality in ancient artwork spanning time and continents: Gigantic beings pointing the way to a cluster of stars that, the couple postulate, could lead humanity to the origin of life on Earth. They find a corporation willing to fund them—the Weyland Corporation—and take off for a habitable moon thousands of lightyears away in a trillion-dollar spaceship. The two most important people on the ship are representatives of the Weyland Corporation; Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the mission’s corporate overlord, and David (Michael Fassbender), an android programmed to service the crew and look after the interests of the recently deceased Weyland (Guy Pearce), who is as much interested in the origins of life as Dr. Shaw. The Prometheus carries a spartan crew that includes a captain (Idris Elba), a biologist (Rafe Spall), and a geologist (Sean Harris), all of whom are your somewhat standard horror movie fall guys. The captain is stalwart and dependable, responsible for his crew and his ship. The biologist quickly reveals himself as an idiot. The geologist is the audience guy, knowingly afraid of tunnels, caverns, and the dark.
The science of Prometheus is questionable at best—a microwaved head here, a biologist reaching out to a snake-like creature displaying its fangs there—but Ridley Scott does a tremendous job of world-building from the beginning of the film. Every detail of the Prometheus is lovingly built, from the bridge to the captain’s quarters, suggesting a sort of openness not afforded to those aboard Alien‘s Nostromo. The caverns, which house endless vats of toxic, cosmic goo, are similarly wide-open spaces, clearly engineered by the race whose corpses line corridors and cram corners. Despite this difference, Prometheus still achieves a rare kind of atmospheric horror. The clean, white corridors of the ship are too clean, too white, as meticulously spotless as 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Discovery One. The cavern, while not at all the claustrophobic nightmare-world of The Descent, suggests the same kind of hopelessness, particularly as various team members get lost in its catacombs, futuristic GPS systems be damned.
Once the crew are off the ship and in the cave, things quickly turn rotten. Vickers could care less about missing or suddenly sick crewmembers, and David, with an unsettling calm, seems to know more about the cavern, the dead aliens, and Dr. Shaw than would be possible of a mere servant. Everybody on the ship has an ulterior motive, even Shaw, who, it seems, has undertaken this whole project as an elaborate means to prove the existence of God (or god-like creatures). Prometheus doesn’t pry much when it comes to Shaw’s faith or anybody else’s. It’s a clumsy metaphor, but her crucifix is less a symbol of Christianity than in a more simple belief: That humans came from somewhere and thus have purpose. The biologist at one point complains that Shaw’s belief discards hundreds of years of Darwinian theory—”Darwinian theory” being an odd way of saying “evolution,” given the phrase’s origin as a Creationist jibe—and that’s true for Shaw, at least. Shaw is a woman motivated by her faith in something more, which, one would figure, is a trait shared by fewer and fewer scientists, even in the near-future of the film. Were she right, a lot of elementary science would end up being dead wrong. But despite a genetic reading that shows us as a 100% match for the aliens lying around the cave in piles, Prometheus never comes out and says that Shaw is correct. In fact, it leaves two gigantic questions unanswered: Where those aliens come from, and why the alien at the beginning of the film sacrificed himself to seed our ecosystem with his genetic material.
Why? is the question Prometheus focuses on, as the crew determines that the space goo they found in the ritualistic urns dotting the main chamber of the caverns is, in fact, a biological weapon capable of working a horrible sort of magic on the human body, leading them to wonder why the same beings who made them would endeavor to destroy their creation. David, who has long mulled over the same question, comes to the conclusion that they did so for the same reasons humanity created androids: Because they could. By this point, David is a chilling double-agent. He is superficially nice to those around him, but he poisons Holloway without remorse, apparently aware of the eventual ramifications. There’s a particularly cruel streak within him, and what he wants isn’t clear to anybody, not even Vickers.
Prometheus appears to be about the Big Question, and, in a way, it is. Two things are clear by the end of the film, however: First, that Dr. Shaw is merely at the beginning of a journey that will (or won’t) reveal the secrets of the universe (whatever those are worth), and second, that Prometheus, like its predecessors, is a film about corporate hubris. The Weyland Corporation (which later becomes the Weyland-Yutani Corporation) is one of those giant multinational groups that spring up in science fiction, their aim being to further the human race so long as its profitable. The founder of the company, the deceased Peter Weyland, sincerely believes Dr. Shaw’s research and sends along with them two representatives: The cold, profiteering Vickers, and the servile David. Weyland has clearly been king of the castle for a long time and, in death, has left no clear line of succession. He refers to the android as his son and, in a posthumous recording delivered to the crew, looks far older than any man should. Discovering those responsible for human life has an obvious benefit, both in terms of achievement as a species and as a corporation. The aims of the Weyland Corporation are clear. They’re in the business of privatizing God.
But the aliens they encounter aren’t exactly godlike. They’re mortal. They’re mistake-prone. The same is true of Vickers, Shaw, the dead scientists, and even David, whose essential flaw is that he was programmed by flawed beings. Here, one species’ colossal mistake leads to another’s. The violent birth of one lifeform leads to the violent birth of something else. What’s thrilling about Prometheus isn’t just that it figures out a way of being a prequel that feels as vital as the films that spawned it, but that it branches off and explores new territory. It’s true that Prometheus has its flaws, but ambition is hardly one of them. In exploring human origins and hypothesizing the existence of god-like space aliens, it suggests that there is no god but chance. Prometheus isn’t hopeless, but it isn’t without a fair share of nihilism.
Prometheus. Directed by Ridley Scott. With Noomi Rapace (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway), and Idris Elba (Janek). Released June 8, 2012, by 20th Century Fox.