Prometheus Offers a Passionate Look at Human Identity

Warning: I don't talk a lot about the plot below, but I make passing references to events from the movie, and that may ruin some things for you. 

There was a showing of Prometheus starting at 12:01 am on Friday, and some friends were seeing it and urged me to go. I confess, I was pretty pumped about the movie just from the trailers, but I wasn’t sure how much of a relationship the movie had to Alien, which was also a fine Ridley Scott film (see here for my thoughts on the Aliens series).

It turns out the movie is VERY similar to Alien, but it is a prequel to that movie. The similarities are numerous. The main protagonist is a strong woman, the action takes place aboard a ship (the Prometheus in this case, the Nostromo in Alien) and an unexplored site (very similar to the exploration of the outpost in Aliens), the characters are far removed from human civilization, hypersleep is used, the mission is organized by a shadowy megacorporation, and there is probably much more. I found this to be one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a long time.

There is a lot of smart commentary about a range of deep topics going on. One of the primary themes of the movie that is almost impossible to avoid is the arrogance of the human need to know. From the mission briefing in which the crew scoffs at the fact that an entire mission was organized to see our creators when there is no clue as to why this race created humans or why they gave up on their pet project. All of this is blended nicely with the fact that our obsession with our creators mirrors the prejudice and insensitivity shown to David, the synthetic human (he’s not quite a cyborg) of the group. 

The theme is further driven home by the name of the ship, which was the name of the human being who tried to steal from the gods — or, in this movie, to know the secrets of the gods and of life itself — and the quest of the eccentric trillionaire who dragged everyone out to the remote planet just so he can get a shot at immortality. He cannot be satisfied with a limited human life (and this becomes important later, in my analysis of FECUNDITY) and that is his conceit, and in fact that destructive conceit of the entire mission. 

It is the hamartia of the expedition taken as whole and the viewer has this interpretation forced on them when everyone starts bringing all sorts of alien stuff back to the ship for "study." You find yourself imploring the crew "no, don't bring that back. Just leave it ALONE." 

The captain of the ship, on the other hand, becomes distinguished by his resistance to this flawed attitude embodied by the expedition. He doesn’t want to know his creator and couldn’t care less about dabbling in such profound questions.

He is the nihilist hero. He cares for nothing as a response to the fact that he literally woke up on a foreign world. His final act is a destructive one as he suicides into the enemy ship, but in this way, he saves all humanity. That act dramatizes an extremely Nietzschean point: that human survival will depend on rejecting many old questions that hold sway over us, but not perhaps, believing that EVERYTHING is valueless. 

Dr. Shaw asks the captain “don’t you care about anything,” and it turns out he does.

So much more is woven into this basic narrative as its secondary aftershocks in the world of these characters.

For instance, the callousness shown to David is mirrored back as he rebels against human beings. He is, in contrast to the cyborg Bishop in Aliens, very hostile to his creators. The line when he tells Shaw that he “watched her dream” in hypersleep was well-delivered by Fassbender and really creeped me out.

Then there is the way that religion is also put into this despairing and nihilistic situation. Dr. Shaw, the strong woman at the heart of the movie, carries a cross around her neck and David continually mocks it and tries to remove it, but after all the events of the movie, she still holds on to it. She refuses to give up her faith and her scientific curiosity, which again, I thought was the target of much of the movie (this movie is one of the most powerful interpretations I have seen of the glib phrase “playing god.”)

In Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film, he analyzes the Alien movies as a meditation on our relationship to our own fecundity, to our relationship to our bare reproductive capabilities. It’s not hard to see that humans have a very special psychic relationship to our own reproduction. Sex is surrounded by a host of rituals, taboos, and unspoken conventions, and this may be related to the fact that sex and our sexual organs remind us that we are not just persons who study and manipulate the natural world according to evidence and rationality, but animals who are simply part of the natural world, subject to all its cruelty and arbitrariness. 

The captain, when he asks to have sex with Vickers, is a way for Ridley Scott to suggest that we must become comfortable with sex in order to flourish. The creatures, as Mulhall persuasively argues, represent our bare animal nature. They reproduce and feed simply to reproduce and feed. They have no other purpose and the main characters’ reaction to them throughout the Alien series has been a kind of chastity.

It goes without saying that the notion of procreation is shockingly explored in Dr. Shaw’s alien pregnancy.

Two bonus points.

When the Engineer is woken from hypersleep, he brutally kills the people that have brought him back (I guess because he was programmed to go on a genocidal expedition to Earth and wants all the humans dead), but what is fascinating is that he does not immediately try to kill the humans he sees. David, the synthetic human tries to communicate, and from the facial features of the Engineer, he is successful. But there is not translation or subtitles. We do not know what was said to the Engineer. I find this fascinating because given David’s anger towards his human masters and calculating nature, he might have said something very provocative or downright deceptive. The Engineer only starts killing everyone after David speaks, and the use of a foreign language as a way to shield what was said from the audience is brilliant.

Second bonus point. The art of the movie is stunning, epic, and well imagined at every stage. One thing that was very powerful was the image of humans trying to seal themselves from their environment via their suits, and helmets, and tanks, and containment devices, which are repeatedly breached. Particularly, the scene in which two of the characters are down in the structure on the planet and come across a tentacle-like alien. At first, they are protected by their suits, but then the alien gets inside the suit, and there is the image of the alien curling around his head, yet the character is still insider his protective bubble. His protective gear has been breached, making his destruction so much more intimate, personal, and frightening. This is replayed later in the surgery machine. Dr. Shaw has just extracted the alien fetus from herself and is face to face, inside the glass cocoon, with a horrible tentacled creature.