On paper, director Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, in which a team of scientists discovers that life on Earth was designed by aliens, is about our search for what gives human life meaning. But like last year’s Tree of Life (TMT Review), another grandiose attempt to cinematize our distant origins to which Scott’s latest has been compared, Prometheus is more interesting for what it reveals about our relationship with film than with otherworldly realms, whether Godly or extraterrestrial.
Both films trace humankind’s lineage back to its point of origin, and, unsurprisingly given this pre- (and post-) human scope, place more emphasis on visual spectacle than their disjointed narratives. But with near ubiquitous complaints about its supposed plot holes, lack of character development, failure to definitively explain the themes it hints at, and attention to visuals above all else, Prometheus’ divisive reception is its biggest similarity to Tree of Life. In Scott’s new film, the epic search for meaning its characters embark upon as they travel to meet their makers is punishingly cruel and depressingly empty, likely mirroring many a literally-minded viewer’s attempt to decode film itself. But nobody ever went to the movies to figure it all out: both filmically and not, Prometheus is dazzling in its agnosticism.
The film opens with some of the most richly textured aerial landscapes ever put onscreen, soon interrupted by a hooded figure standing on the precipice of a waterfall while a spacecraft hovers above. He drops his clothes, revealing a not-quite humanoid form that’s freakishly white and exaggeratedly muscled, and downs the contents of a vial, which cause his body to disintegrate into its most basic elements. As the camera zooms through his skin, we see his DNA dissolve and then reform as it spreads through the water below. It’s the kind of pre-credits sequence that should be both laughable and forgettable, laden with ambitious CGI effects and seemingly disconnected from the rest of the film’s action. Instead, it drips with such uncluttered, visually haunting gravitas that it lingers clearly — enough that, when we later discover where it fits into the film’s puzzle, it falls into place without the help of bulky, graceless explanation.
As ridiculously contrived as its story gets, Prometheus continues to favor visual elegance over verbal exposition throughout its frantic two hours. It’s the film’s main stylistic link to the rest of Scott’s small but renowned science fiction oeuvre, including the 1979 spaceship horror show Alien, to which Prometheus serves as a prequel of sorts. Scientist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, who one-ups her role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for combining vulnerability and resolve while life kicks the shit out of her) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave paintings made independently by ancient peoples across the globe that show men worshiping a giant being pointing to a cluster of planets and, next thing we know, they’re on their way there aboard a scientific spaceship named Prometheus.
Fans of Alien won’t be surprised to hear that the mission is funded by a company with ulterior motives (which are represented by Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers) or that the mission’s robot David (Michael Fassbender, in, as everyone else has noted, a cleverly cast and amazingly performed role that finally adds some humor to the actor’s over-serious precision) is inscrutably amoral. (Although nitpickers will wonder why these characters in the year 2093 are dressed so 2012 chic — I think I have Holloway’s exact Henley — or why the prequel’s ship has holographic displays while Alien’s Nostromo, further in the future, only has dot matrix.) But even these familiar elements are here messier and more developed: David throws himself at mastering human culture – nearly all known languages, imitating Lawrence of Arabia down to near cosplay, shooting hoops while riding a bicycle, the usual – but coolly and surreptitiously poisons an actual human (albeit the film’s only douche). No longer relying, as Alien did, on suspense, Scott is free to develop this film’s world without regard for the thriller’s cramped generic conventions. It’s no accident that, while Alien’s terror intensified in air ducts, Prometheus is often at its most heart-stopping in wide, open plains.
Of course, the alien creatures, which are hypnotizing (one character dies because he can’t stop trying to sweet-talk a baby alien worm thing into playing with him; I can’t say I blame him), still occupy confined spaces, beneath the ancient ruin-like things the science team explores. But for all of Prometheus’ coldly vibrant extraterrestrial imagery, its most indelible scene evokes the present-day United States more than the alien worlds of the future: a ballistic sequence in which Shaw (spoiler alert) reprograms an automated surgical machine to give her a terrifying, life-saving operation after it informs her that it is only set up to operate on men. The seamless blend of action and politics is an eloquent response to the U.S.’s current attacks on women’s
Most other films would stop to congratulate themselves on their cleverness after a scene like that, but not even Shaw takes a breather after her stomach’s stapled back together: she’s too busy dodging vicious aliens and falling space debris — trying to survive even after she realizes there’s no point to her search for answers besides witnessing whatever spectacle comes next. In this case, probably a sequel.