The quest to meet our maker occupies the thoughts of many of us during our lifetimes. Depending on our backgrounds, we all develop different, highly personalized conceptions of whom or what that maker is, impressions that often color our beliefs and worldviews for most of our lives. But what if we were to uncover evidence that calls those conceptions into question? The temptation to pursue that evidence would likely be quite strong, too, especially for those of us zealously committed to seeking the truth. Such is the case for a crew of intrepid explorers in the new sci-fi blockbuster, “Prometheus.”In the year 2089 on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover ancient cave drawings depicting early man gazing up at a distant astronomic configuration. They’re excited at this finding, because it matches comparable depictions found in a host of other ancient cultures, signifying a common image pattern linking them all. Shaw and Holloway believe that the skyward-looking figures in the drawings are pointing to the heavenly source of our species’ origin. And, based on that conclusion, they feel compelled to embark on a journey to find mankind’s celestial home – and perhaps those who gave rise to us a race of beings.
Two years later, the spaceship Prometheus sets off on that journey, embarking on a two-year trip to an earth-like moon circling a distant planet whose location corresponds to one of the heavenly bodies found in the ancient illustrations. With the crew in hibernation, the ship’s in-flight operations are managed by a sophisticated android named David (Michael Fassbender), who spends much of his time studying ancestral proto-languages in hopes that his linguistic skills will make it possible to communicate with any progenitor beings the crew might encounter.As Prometheus approaches its destination, the crew is brought out of stasis. The ship’s pilot, Capt. Janek (Idris Elba), and mission leader, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), assume command and prepare the crew for landing, though most of the expedition’s members know little about the mission and their roles in it. Not even a holographic presentation by the expedition’s principal sponsor, Peter Weyland of the Weyland Corp. (Guy Pearce), sheds much light on what lies ahead. Things become a little clearer when Shaw and Holloway brief the crew about their research, but even they aren’t entirely sure where they stand when Vickers explains what will and won’t be allowed upon landing. Everyone, it seems, has an agenda to pursue, and the objectives don’t always appear compatible.
Before long, Prometheus touches down not far from a colossal pyramid-like structure. Shaw, Holloway and other expedition members eagerly set off to go exploring, and what they find genuinely fascinates them. However, they also soon realize that things aren’t what they seem. In fact, it’s not long before the fate of the crew – and of the entire human race – is placed in jeopardy. The messages of the cave drawings, which the researchers initially assumed to be benevolent, welcoming invitations sent by mankind’s progenitors, quickly prove to be something else entirely.
As a general rule, I tend not to review many of Hollywood’s big-budget summer blockbusters, because, despite their entertainment value, they often lack the criteria I use in writing about metaphysical cinema. I was especially reluctant about this picture at first, because it’s essentially a prequel to the “Alien” series of films, movies that are most appropriately classified as horror, a genre about which I seldom write. However, given the quasi-spiritual underpinnings of this title, I decided it was worth a look.
Any film that attempts to address the truth behind mankind’s origins, whether based in science, mythology or spirituality, is embarking on a decidedly ambitious undertaking, and kudos are in order for any director just for making the effort to do so. Moreover, since any such story is decidedly a work of fiction, it’s unrealistic to hold the storyteller’s feet to the fire for verifiable authenticity. However, with that said, questions of clarity and credibility nevertheless remain, and filmmakers must be prepared to address them – and any criticisms that may arise from them – in connection with such projects.
“Prometheus” tackles the question of meeting our maker from several angles. Most obvious is the scientific front, with the film’s protagonists aggressively seeking to validate the ancient astronaut theory, which maintains that humans are the product of an off-world seeding project. They ardently seek evidence to prove that earthlings are the product of some kind of alien genetics experiment whose roots can be traced to a distant star system – and one whose creators may still exist.
Despite the prevalence of this scientific theme, there’s also a strong spiritual undercurrent running through the narrative, personified most conspicuously – and most ironically – through the experiences of Dr. Shaw. As someone who was raised a traditional Christian (and who still wears a cross around her neck), Shaw quietly wrestles with reconciling her scientific training and her spiritual upbringing. While she’s convinced that aliens (“gods”) made us, she also can’t help but wonder who made them (and, by extension, us), raising the possibility of some even higher power (“God”) at work in the greater scheme of things. So while it may indeed be possible to search for the gods, will proof of their existence sufficiently satisfy our curiosity about our creators or will it leave us unfulfilled, especially since there’s the possibility of something more profound, and more elusive, than what lies beyond any such “lesser” revelations?
And then there’s the symbolic mythological aspect implicit in the film’s storyline, which at times draws parallels between the experiences of the crew and those of its ship’s fabled namesake. Prometheus, the ancient Greek Titan who stole the invention of fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, was punished by his godly peers for this treasonous act for he dared to elevate mortals to a higher state of being, one more on par with their creators. Prometheus thus drew the ire of the divine progenitors for his act of “treachery” while simultaneously being seen as a champion of mankind, but one who overreached his capabilities and suffered unanticipated consequences as a result. And, in many ways, the crew of the Prometheus encounters a comparable fate as they attempt to ascend to a level equal to their own gods.Given these varying outlooks on the divine, one might be tempted to ask, “So which is the ‘right’ one?” Well, when it comes to making contact with our creator, it all depends on what beliefs we hold. Just as with any other aspect of conscious creation, whatever materializes in this area of life stems from whatever beliefs we hold in the first place. So, if we believe in a benevolent deity, for example, we’ll manifest one whose attributes are in line with those beliefs. At the same time, if we believe contrarily, our conception of god/God will, accordingly, reflect those qualities. And so it goes for the manifestations of the crew members of the Prometheus as well.
While all of this may sound rather simple and straightforward, unfortunately, these notions often become muddled in the film’s narrative, thanks largely to a poorly constructed screenplay. The foregoing concepts tend to receive uneven treatment, a condition made worse by the inclusion of other plot components, such as the agenda of the mission’s aging sponsor and the mixed motivations behind some of David’s behavior (who, as an android, is also the sentient handiwork of allegedly higher beings, his human creators). Throw in poor character development, a number of seemingly pointless scenes (some of which seriously stretch credibility), a barrage of revelations delivered in a rapid-fire succession toward the film’s end, a handful of events that attempt to pay homage to the film’s predecessor franchise and an array of sequences that appear to be included mainly for their visual novelty, and you’ve got a script that plays like it was put together by committee of amateurs. In the end, the story attempts to tackle too much and ultimately doesn’t do any of it well.
To make matters worse, the picture incorporates a lot of material we’ve seen before, not just from the other “Alien” films but also from other sources. Fans of The X-Files in particular will note a number of cinematic “allusions” that are straight out of the TV series’ mythology and characterizations. While it’s one thing to pay homage to a source of inspiration, it’s something else entirely to unabashedly copy it.In all fairness, “Prometheus” does have its strengths, most notably its positively stunning visual effects, perhaps some of the finest CGI work I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Its grand, sweeping soundtrack and superb sound quality enhance the visuals well, creating a sensory feast for the eyes and ears. And its acting is generally quite capable (especially Fassbender and Morgan-Green), even if the script doesn’t utilize some of the cast’s talent to its fullest (particularly in the cases of Theron and Elba).
Still, viewers are likely to come away from this picture feeling unsatisfied. Those looking for a deft treatment of a heady subject will be disillusioned by the screenplay’s clumsy handling of the material. And those just looking for a rip-roaring scary movie in the same vein as its predecessor franchise will be disappointed, mainly because … it just isn’t.
But perhaps the film’s biggest disappointment is that it doesn’t sufficiently answer all of the questions that it sets out to address. To be sure, when dealing with a sublime subject like meeting one’s maker, there’s bound to be some mystery that remains left unresolved (one of the strong suits of the aforementioned X-Files TV series from which this picture drew so much “inspiration”). However, one of the principal objectives of any prequel film is that it should address the questions raised by its “descendants,” filling in all the requisite blanks, something that “Prometheus” adequately fails to do. By doing so, the filmmakers are clearly setting up audiences for the prospect of a sequel (or, more appropriately, a “post-prequel”), but the means for getting there in this case are more than a little obvious, and the lingering gaps ultimately leave viewers more than a little unfulfilled.
Director Ridley Scott took quite a chance in returning to this highly successful movie franchise, and he should be commended for attempting to create something more substantive than anything found in any of its cinematic predecessors. However, when taking on a project like this, the support materials need to be on par with the narrative to make it work, and that failing is where “Prometheus” comes crashing down to earth. Had Scott worked with a clear, credible screenplay that ascended to the level of the subject matter (not to mention the talent of the cast and the director), the result may have been a brilliant piece of filmmaking, one that a tale – and topic – such as this deserves.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.