First published by EyeforFilm
According to Hesiod’s Theogony and Works And Days, after the Titan Prometheus steals fire and “the means of life” from Zeus and gifts them to mankind, Zeus vengefully sends to men the first ever woman, Pandora, whose jar is filled with evil, disease and death – while the immortal Prometheus is himself punished with eternal torment. Centuries later, when the tragedy Prometheus Bound appeared on the scene, Pandora and her jar had disappeared, as the myth evolved to tell a rather different story of divine injustice. Of course, none of these versions of the Prometheus tale featured chest-bursting xenomorphs (although they did include a chest-piercing eagle), but nonetheless Ridley Scott’s Prometheus comes from the same genetic material – and certainly brings back Pandora’s jar of mass destruction.
Although Scott has denied it, Prometheus is, among other things, a prequel to the director’s peerless 1979 SF horror Alien – and if all prequels are essentially origin stories, this one’s prologue goes back all the way to something like the Dawn of Man (born from a primordial sludge of hybrid alien DNA), before jumping ahead to 2093 and an interstellar quest for the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
In other words, the film borrows its structure, themes and even the odd key image from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cosmic ballet 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if its ongoing discourse on the relationship between robots and their human ‘makers’ has long been a part of Scott’s own filmography (Alien, Blade Runner) as much as Kubrick’s.
Here the robot in question is David (Michael Fassbender), who whiles away two long, lonely years aboard the deep-space exploration craft Prometheus, shooting hoops, studying linguistics, wandering the empty corridors, repeatedly rewatching Lawrence Of Arabia, obsessively emulating the intonation and even appearance of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence – and eavesdropping electronically on the dreams of the human passengers asleep in their cryo-chambers throughout the long journey. David is an Aryan, android Wall-E, dutifully carrying out his programming in a solitary vacuum while also yearning for a humanity that seems forever beyond his grasp.
When Stone Age paintings were discovered across the globe, all depicting the co-ordinates of a planetary system too far from Earth to be seen with the naked eye, a mix of intuition and faith led scientist and devout Christian Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to conclude that these ancient artworks were a message left by benign visiting aliens who might also hold the key to life on Earth. So, together with her boyfriend Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), she is now leading a space mission to the only habitable moon in this faraway system, in the hope of finding answers to the fundamental questions that bridge science, theology and philosophy – even if the moribund corporate executive Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) or his on-board representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) may have their own agenda in bank-rolling this exorbitant expedition.
Landing Christmas Day on an inhospitable moon that is alarmingly familiar from the beginning of Alien (even if its numerical designation is minimally different), the crew finds a terra-formed underground labyrinth full of outsize anthropoid corpses, easily misread murals and jars that should never be opened. Soon, inevitably, all hell will break loose, as grotesquely sexualised xenomorphs (in several previously unseen shapes and sizes), implacable Titanic ‘Engineers’, and other threats closer to home, all vie to bring destruction to a humanity defined by its faith, curiosity and capacity for self-sacrifice.
Subjected to a lengthy publicity campaign that has psyched Alien fans to expect nothing short of cinematic perfection, Prometheus is bound to disappoint anyone caught up in all the anticipatory hype – but viewed on its own terms, it is a film full of big ideas and even bigger spectacle. Shot in 3D, and slyly mirroring its own stereoscopic forms with a range of futurist holograms both human and alien that find their way into its visual fabric, this big-screen epic is immersive less for its binocular vistas than for their impossibly grand scale – and for the freakish immediacy of its creature effects. One orally-fixated xenomorph, combining a penile shape with labial flaps and a decidedly clitoral mouth, is perhaps the most unapologetically Freudian monster to have graced our screens since Aylmer in Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988).
At the same time, Prometheus poses questions about the relationship between human, alien, machine and divine, about the origins of life and the meaning of creation, and about the theological problem of evil – questions far bigger and more intriguing than might be expected from a mere cash-in prequel, even if they are no more answered here (how could they be?) than the question of how the giant ‘space jockey’ came to be sitting, dead with a burst sternum, in that big chair seen at the beginning of Alien.
There is, perhaps, something rather unsatisfying and cynical about the suggested deferral of any answers until the prequel’s now forthcoming (and heavily signposted) sequel – although, back in the day, Prometheus Bound too was only the first play in a dramatic trilogy. Meanwhile, however, we have the ancient myth of Prometheus re-evolved, the modern myth of Alien updated (as well as backdated), and the story of humankind’s place in the cosmos restaged as a search through space for the alien within us all.
That is more than enough substance to allow the occasional cheesy line to be overlooked.