PROMETHEUS: Ridley Scott’s Hobbit: There and Forward Again


Prometheus (2012) – Directed by Ridley Scott – Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, and Patrick Wilson.

If you’re coming to this site for the first time, you need to be made aware of something right now: SPOILERS are coming. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. This isn’t one of those reviews that talks about the film in generic terms, this is a detailed reaction to the movie and I’m not going to limit myself. I’m telling you right up front that SPOILERS are coming, so don’t read on if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Go watch the movie and then come back.

I’m also not here to tell you why you’re wrong for disagreeing with me. I’m here to tell you what I think about movies, nothing more, and I’d love to hear what you think about the film, too. I’m sorely tempted to pull an Avengers and write up reactions to all the principal characters because with this reaction clocking in around 2,400 words, there’s still way more I want to talk about. I simply don’t have the time to do it this time around, but I love that this movie makes me want to write about it.

That’s that. We clear? Right, then, let’s do this.

In case you watched any of the trailers for PROMETHEUS and thought trailers were always an accurate representation of the film it was selling, here’s what PROMETHEUS is not: it’s not ALIEN, it’s not a horror movie, and it’s not a summer blockbuster. It’s really not even a Ridley Scott movie as much as it is a movie about Ridley Scott movies. While Scott is still going strong, at age 74 it’s a safe bet that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s turned in his most philosophical take on the subjects of life and death.

But since he’s still Ridley Scott, it is equally unsurprising that PROMETHEUS’ answer to these big, important, existentialist questions is that their significance comes from being the fuel that drives humanity on its journey, and not in being answered. PROMETHEUS strikes me as Ridley Scott’s Hobbit, serving as a prequel not just to ALIEN, but to his entire cinematic career. The questions and themes that return again and again in his films are present here, and so PROMETHEUS is contradictory, being both a prequel and a capstone, as if Scott has decided to make a movie in which he attempts to figure out, or coalesce, what he was doing in all of his other movies into this singular film.

And what does he find when he looks back on everything? He finds that it’s much more important to keep pushing forward than to look back, and that questions about where we come from are less important than questions about where we’re going. Life – the actual act of living – is, to Scott, something to be embraced. Questions fuel life, and we are defined not by the destination, not by the answer, but by the journey and the search.

PROMETHEUS is a fantastic movie that does not tell a fantastic story. Ultimately, the most truthful pre-release tease about what PROMETHEUS is came from Scott himself, who said that this film would contain the “strands of ALIEN’s DNA” but explore its own questions, and that’s exactly what it does. That the result is less successful than ALIEN should not come as a huge surprise, since 98% of all movies made don’t measure up to ALIEN. PROMETHEUS fails to live up to ALIEN because the narrative is often clunky and a good many characters are defined more by their appearance than their personalities. I don’t understand why an expedition into deep space would have such a poor screening process that two of its scientists would freak out and bail the second things get weird other than the fact that the story needs to have two scientists freak out and bail the second things gets weird so they can be the first sacrificial lambs to the film’s monsters.

In Dana Stevens’ review of the movie over at Slate, she writes: “Co-scripted by Damon Lindelof of Lost, this film shares that series’ love for nested mythologies and involute philosophical riddles. Prometheus is more interested in piling on big questions than in answering them.” Ms. Stevens is not impressed, lamenting, “Prometheus could have been an elegant, moody sci-fi actioner if only it didn’t strain so hard (especially in the final scenes) for weighty existential meaning. [...] As Prometheus’ characters wrestle with these slippery abstract questions, the concrete and immediate ones raised by the story itself go unanswered. What were the motives of our marble-skinned forebears in creating us, given that they now seem bent on destroying us? And what are David’s motives as he commits acts that seem intended to sabotage the ship’s mission? To judge by a closing teaser that links this movie’s rapidly mutating beasts to the multi-mouthed xenomorphs of Alien, we’ll have to wait until the next installment in the franchise to find out. After all the strenuous philosophizing that came before, the ending’s floppy irresolution feels less like a sophisticated embrace of ambiguity than like a profound cosmic cop-out.”

I’m not picking on Ms. Stevens, nor am I interested in pointing out why she’s wrong, because she’s turned in a well-written review, and other than one instance where she uses the “you” formulation that mistakes her experience for a universal experience, I really only disagree with her conclusions rather than her individual points.

I like PROMETHEUS. I like it quite a bit, though I can certainly understand why people do not like the film. In regards to Ms. Stevens, I simply don’t share her frustrations about the film refusing to answer many of the questions it raises, and I don’t feel like the film is straining for weighty existential meaning at all. The characters in the film struggle with these questions but I don’t think Scott, or the man he chose to re-work the original script he was given, LOST’s Damon Lindelof, struggle with them. I should point out here that I was one of the seeming few who absolutely loved the final episode of LOST, as well, and PROMETHEUS, as Ms. Stevens points out, shares a good deal with LOST’s overall structure of raising questions and building mysteries that it refuses to answer. Like LOST, PROMETHEUS ultimately decides that after building a mystery, resolving the mystery is less important than offering an emotional resolution. If life makes you lemons, Scott and Lindelof are interested in making lemonade, while Stevens is interested in finding out where the lemons came from – neither side is wrong, but I don’t think PROMETHEUS would have been a better film if we did get those answers. Learning why the Engineers did what they did would have provided an interesting answer, but it’s not an answer that defines the film’s characters, and PROMETHEUS is far more interested in examining how the characters react to questions than in answering the actual questions.

I can certainly understand how frustrating this is, and I certainly would not like all stories to be constructed in this manner, but I also have some love for movies that step outside of the box and that refuse to play it straight. And PROMETHEUS does offer answers – it’s just not the answers that its characters forward as being the most important. They’re here to learn about the great mysteries of the universe, but Scott and Lindelof are here to learn about them. And what they find is coded right in plain sight when Janek (Idris Elba) sings a little ditty after getting the invite back to Vickers’ quarters: “If you can’t be … with the one you love … love the one you’re with.”

In other words, embrace the challenges of the moment you’re in. Don’t let your long term desires interfere with the life that’s happening around you.

In 2089, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers a star map while on a dig with her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). It’s the same star map found across the globe on multiple archaeological finds from civilizations that had no contact with one another. Their find catches the attention of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in some atrociously bag old person make-up), and he funds a trip to the stars so they can find the so-called “Engineers,” whom they hope to find alive.

We’ve got a cast full of people with different goals: Shaw wants to find answers, Holloway wants to find the Engineers alive, Vickers (Charlize Theron) is the corporate agent who lurks in the background, Janek (Idris Elba) is the captain of the ship who is interested in keeping people safe and getting in Vickers’ pants, David (Michael Fassbender), a robot with mysterious, somewhat contradictory actions, and everyone else, who can be grouped under the title of Cannon Fodder.

PROMETHEUS would have benefited a bit from ALIEN’s technique with characterization, where the characters were simply but clearly drawn. Here, characters are a bit more slippery and it’s to the film’s disadvantage. PROMETHEUS is constantly creating doubt as to David and Vickers’ motives, and it throws in odd bumps in the characterization. After getting to LV-223 and discovering a man-made structure which contains dead Engineers and then returning to the ship in a storm, Holloway decides to play the grumpy drunk because the Engineers weren’t alive, and then be a dick to David because …

I dunno. It’s like his manhood is challenged by David’s very existence, so he’s always looking to make little digs at the robot. It’s hardly like David is all that sympathetic, either, because he comes back with one of the oozing metal cylinders and doesn’t tell anyone about it. Then he drugs David’s drink with a bit of the ooze that ends up infecting David, which, in turn, infects/impregnates Shaw after she and David have sex, which leads to Shaw having to enter a surgery tube (I forget the fancy name) where she has to cut out the fast growing alien fetus inside of her.

There’s a question with David about how much of what he’s doing is because he’s a programmed robot and how much is him expanding and potentially jumping his programming. While the crew is in stasis, he’s busy learning about them and simply acquiring knowledge. He likes to play basketball and watch Lawrence of Arabia, and when they reach LV-223, it’s David who has to wake the rest of the crew up.

The biggest narrative failure in PROMETHEUS is that the film doesn’t do a better job setting up David and Shaw as rivals. By combining David, Shaw, Vickers, Janek, and Holloway together in a chaos cloud from which David and Shaw emerge, it muddles the narrative focus. I think the movie would have been better off more clearly making David and Shaw the opposing signposts around which everything revolves, with the other characters filling the grey space between these two black and white positions, because that’s where the movie ultimately ends up, and if you’re going to raise questions that you don’t answer, I think you need to make a point to lock down the emotional conflict, and PROMETHEUS doesn’t do this as strongly as it needs to for me.

Where PROMETHEUS shines is as a spectacle; this is a gorgeously shot movie, whether it’s the ship’s interior or the exterior’s of Earth, space, and LV-223. There’s lots of great little visual touches, with the very-cool red survey “pups” and the blue survey suits working best.

Plus, there’s all the connections to ALIEN, which are not over-sold, but in clear evidence: the Engineer’s space ship, the interior design of Prometheus, the Alien-like creatures, and the H.R. Giger-esque designs that touch nearly everything on LV-223. And in the final scene, the Cthulhu creature shoves its tentacle down the Engineer’s throat and out pops what is clearly the first Alien that we recognize as “our” Alien.

There’s a whole handful of excellent action spectacles, from an Engineer’s initial appearance on Earth to the silica-based storm on LV-223 to the surgery sequence to the Prometheus taking out the Engineers’ ship to the Engineer vs. Cthulu-spawn final battle, but the real signature moment comes when David is on the bridge of the Engineer’s ship and activates the star map. I love scenes like this, where people are walking around inside of massive, 3D maps, and the visual effects team on PROMETHEUS nails it. David figures out that this Engineer ship was headed for Earth when the tragedy happened that cut it short.

What’s that tragedy? The Aliens took them out. Now, these aren’t the Aliens we come to know and love but a prior generation that are clearly modeled on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu more than Giger’s Alien, especially as it grows larger. The role of the Engineers and the Aliens are two of the questions that PROMETHEUS refuses to answer. The film indicates the Engineers did, in fact, build humanity because there’s a DNA match between the two species, and also indicates that the Engineers turned on their creation and were headed to Earth to wipe humanity out. This idea is enforced when the one, last surviving Engineer is awoken and starts killing people. (Which brings up another muddled plot point – Peter Weyland has been kept in deep freeze this while movie and then awoken to go see the Engineers. He’s hoping they grant him immortality, but instead they kill him almost instantly, meaning his whole appearance in space was kind of a pointless dud.) Why did the Engineers create humanity and then want to destroy it? Were the Aliens created by the Engineers to infest the Earth? The film refuses to answer and it doesn’t really bother me all that much because it works as a commentary on faith and how, in the end, whether one chooses to believe in God or disbelieve in God, we’ve yet to get an answer to the question of His existence. What’s important isn’t that we get an answer, but that we keep searching.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but not getting an answer doesn’t really bother me because I’m far more interested in what the characters do with the not knowing than I am bothered with not getting an answer. Both Shaw and David – the woman of religious faith and the atheistic robot – make it out of the film alive and they choose to work together to get off LV-223 and go exploring through space.

The key question that PROMETHEUS poses for itself is David’s, “How far are you willing to go to learn the truth?” All other questions and mysteries are secondary to this concept – what are you willing to do and how far are you willing to go to get the answers you want? Holloway was devastated when he thought there were no Engineers (and thus he dies a physical death that matches his psychological death), but Shaw and David kept pushing forward, and the film ends not with an answer to why the Engineers built humanity or why they then decided to wipe humanity out, but with Shaw and David staying on the hunt.

For me, it’s a powerful resolution, as the true believer and the atheist come together to continue the search for their answers. PROMETHEUS is ultimately about humanity’s never-ending quest for knowledge, and it’s fitting that its two survivors are those who were most interested in acquiring as much knowledge as possible. While it’s a difficult film with a muddled narrative, it’s also an exciting film for me to watch and think about. I can’t wait to see it again.

And therein lies the rub: In Tolkien’s Hobbit, Bilbo’s memoir is entitled There and Back Again, but for Ridley Scott, there is no going back again because a return home signifies an end to the journey, and Scott is too unsettled for tidy endings. The only real finality in his signature films (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator) comes through death, and those who make it to the end of Scott’s films are typically unsettled survivors – they may have made it to the credits, but the experience they’ve undergone has altered their worldview in such a way that they cannot mentally go home again even if they can physically go home again.

There and back again? No. There and forward again.

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8 thoughts on “PROMETHEUS: Ridley Scott’s Hobbit: There and Forward Again

  1. Always good to see another person who doesn’t mind not being spoon-fed every little detail and being given the chance to really question what’s going on behind the scenes. I love that this movie can actually spark a little debate about ‘wtf is going on’. Somethings really can be better if left slightly obscured and out of focus for the audience (from a cinematographic as well as storytelling standpoint). When we don’t ‘officially’ know every last aspect of a system, it can work a lot better as viewers, particularly in sci-fi. The Matrix and Star Wars are great examples of this. The Force was great in the original movies in that it just worked. Knowing later that it all came from space mitochondria on steroids took something away from it. Same with the Matrix. You get too far into the ‘how’ of the thing and everything stopped making any sense at all.

    I like that Prometheus leaves the viewer with some holes they can try to fill in on their own and I really hope that any future sequels don’t try to fill in the spaces too completely. The conversation about why and what-if has been fun (for me anyway).

    And for the record, my take is the Engineers have probably been seeding worlds all over the place for a long, long time, maybe trying to recreate their own species somewhere ‘out there’. When they fail, when a new species deviates too far from their preferred model, they come back to wipe the slate clean and try again someplace else. To do that, they created a biological WMD which can be easily transported and deployed anywhere, quickly grows and adapts to local conditions to become the perfect killer of whatever life happens to be around. Once the killing is done, everything goes dormant until new life shows up.

    On their way to ‘fix’ their Earth problem, a canister of this weapon accidentally breaks open, kills 99% of the crew, and we’re left with what’s there as the film starts.

    David, I assumed, was under the same type of orders Ash was in Alien, find anything of potential scientific or military value and return it to the company at all cost. That he learned along the way to be a very creepy human… well, that was just a bonus for the viewer. :)

    Just my 2 cents.

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    • That’s a lot of bang for 2 cents, Eric. :) Great, insightful comments, as usual, especially on the Star Wars/Force bit. Sometimes, explanations are exactly what we don’t need.

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  2. Pingback: On Prometheus – Digital Sextant

  3. I really enjoyed Prometheus, being an original Alien fan (and being born several years after it had come out). The film had broad, philosophical concepts, and I think that a lot of the viewers angry with the film didn’t want an intellectual film, especially with The Avengers, Spider-Man, Expendables 2, and other heavy action films this summer.

    For me, the take on the Engineers is that they intended to destroy humanity, and that we are immaterial to them. The film explores a different subject than sci-fi horror is accomodated to; usually, scientists experiment, unleash something horrible, etc., try to play God. In Prometheus, the archaeologists proceed on the assumption (or at least Shaw and Weyland do) of wanting to meet God. It is human arrogance that assumes that the power that created us would be personally interested in us. Don’t take me wrong, I’m a Christian, but I absolutely loved Prometheus’ answer to where we came from. None of the scientists unleashed any horror; the horror already existed, and we are part of it. Creation was the horror.

    That said, I look forward to the film on DVD and exploring the film again and again. I wish there were more mainstream films like this today.

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  4. This has been on iTunes now for $14.99 in HD for a few weeks. At first, I thought I would just wait until it was up for rent, but as that meant the advance discount would be gone, I decided to take a chance and buy the movie. After hearing a lot of mixed things about it, I heard enough good from people I trust that it would be worth the risk in buying it (plus if I had seen it in the theater here, it would have cost close to $20 USD).

    Turns out I made the right decision. As you said, 98% of movies released can’t compare with Alien, and even though this was related to Alien in different ways, plus had Scott helming it, I knew going in that it would not match up to Alien. And given Scott’s statements for some time that this would have a relation to Alien but not serve as a direct prequel, I wasn’t expecting any sort of explanation about the Xenomorphs or where they came from (plus as Eric rightly points out, an explanation can sometimes be very harmful).

    I didn’t notice a lot of the things you mentioned in your review, but this was just an initial viewing. I’ll have to go back again and pay closer attention. Overall, what I did get was a very excellent-looking movie that I really enjoyed, especially Fassbender (although to be fair, there’s precious little I wouldn’t enjoy Fassbender in). The story’s not perfect but I felt like I got my money’s worth, and when the lights come on at the end of the show, that’s all that really matters.

    Pearce was definitely a strange choice for Weyland. When he first appeared onscreen, my first thought was, “man, it would’ve been awesome if they could’ve gotten Ian Holm to do this part.”

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  5. I’ve said this elsewhere and will probably say it again. I like PROMETHEUS. I too, like the fact that it doesn’t answer the questions we want the answers to. And I have never watched an episode of LOST.

    However, the film is spoiled for me by Shaw’s surgery. Not that she has it, because frankly if I thought I had something like that growing inside me I’d want it out NOWNOWNOWNOW as well.

    It’s the fact that not all that long after having major abdominal surgery – complete with staples holding the wound closed – Shaw is running, jumping and climbing over and under things. By all rights, her suit should be half-full of blood and most of her intestines and she would be dead of blood loss.

    I have no idea why, after years of watching big dumb action movies, this bothered me. But it took me out of the zone the movie took me too, and all I could think was ‘How the hell can she be doing that after being cut open?!’

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