Prometheus, a beautiful and ambitious exploration of existential ideas Review

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The search for our beginning could lead to our end.

Ridley Scott had been interested in making a film that answered some of the questions left by Alien even before James Cameron was signed up to write and direct the sequel. Curiously, while the series moved forward in new and bold directions, nobody ever thought of going back to the beginning and revealing those mysteries.

After Alien: Resurrection‘s release Sigourney Weaver was constantly interested in a sequel that would allow her character to explore the alien world, and Scott and Cameron even got together to collaborate on a new film. Development was halted however when 20th Century Fox decided to make a crossover series that involved the creatures from the Predator franchise. Disappointed by that idea Cameron decided to leave but Scott remained interested in making his project a reality and after AVP failed to become a film franchise of its own, he took the opportunity to push on.

Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create was preceded with great expectations and anticipation. Both of Scott’s previous entries into sci-fi territory were after all considered milestones of the genre. But as the Alien series has proven, audiences expectations very often can kill a filmmaker’s attempt to deliver something new and provocative, and thus Prometheus resulted in a love it or hate it affair for many viewers.

Initially planned as a prequel to Alien, John Spaihts was hired to write a script that combined the alien species origin story with deep existential ideas, and that by the end was linked directly to the original film. But Scott grew increasingly more interested in exploring those higher ideas than repeating the formula. It didn’t help that after the crossover the alien creatures had been reduced to assets and stripped of their disturbing and frightening nature.

Controversial screenwriter David Lindelof was brought on board to rewrite the script and take it on a new direction, severing its ties to Alien, while still keeping it within the same universe. That approach is not always successful because the beats are still very familiar and you could even replace the new creatures and elements with the classic films at different stages and end up with the same movie.

Lindelof’s script also kept the crossover films outside of a continuity they didn’t belong in the first place, though funnily enough it still bears similitude to Paul W.S. Anderson’s film, such as the introduction of the founder of Weyland Industries, an ancient alien race being involved in the development of the human race, and the scientists exploration of a pyramid that holds dangerous secrets.

The greatest strength of Prometheus and what makes it a compelling new chapter in the franchise is not about how it tries to be a part or distance itself from the rest of the Alien series. It’s about the ideas that explores about faith, existentialism and enlightenment. These ideas are represented by the journey of two very different characters.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a scientist with deep Christian beliefs in search of an answer to the eternal questions of who we are and where did we came from. She sees the similar marks left by ancient cultures across the world as an invitation from our makers to return to them.

The title of the film itself holds the key to its meaning. The Prometheus represents the fire or technology that was given to humanity and it’s taking its crew towards a spiritual illumination, but such illumination is not given to anyone but true believers. Elizabeth is the sole human survivor of the horrific events that take place in LV-223, and the only one in the crew looking for something more meaningful than money or personal gain.

Then there’s David (Michael Fassbender), perhaps the most interesting and complex android in a franchise that has seen it’s fair share of interesting synthetic characters. David is a highly intelligent and curious droid, constantly exploring and studying he’s surroundings. As the film begins we see him watching and repeating lines from movies, playing basketball, learning new languages and watching the crew’s dreams while they’re in hypersleep.

Created as close replica of a human being (but not too close), David is struggling to find his own place in a world where humans are looking for to their creators in search of answers, while he is constantly reminded that he’s just a thing that humans made simply because they could. Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator? David replies to Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) when he’s reminded of that fact.

David might have no soul, and perhaps he might not be able to express feelings in the same way that humans do, but he’s clearly resented towards his makers. His actions throughout the film reflect his desire for knowledge and to become a creator himself using the Engineers technology to experiment with the humans around him.

Along with this creator and created explorations, there’s also an underlying and more personal theme of parenthood running through Prometheus. Vickers (Charlize Theron) is revealed to be the daughter of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), but the billionaire founder of Weyland Industries rejects her, claiming David to be the son he never had. Neither Vickers nor David are the children Weyland wishes he had, which causes both of them to resent him.

On the other hand there’s Elizabeth who lost both her parents when she was very young, and is unable to conceive children of her own. In a horrific twist Elizabeth becomes the unwilling mother of a monstrous creature that results from David’s experiments.

All these brilliant ideas and interesting characters at play are somewhat dragged down by the incredibly stupid actions of some of the members of the crew which is even more puzzling given they’re supposed to be bright scientists. Biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) chooses to play cute with an unknown and clearly menacing creature, while Holloway decides to take off his helmet without actually confirming the apparently breathable air isn’t contaminated. Mirroring Ripley’s strong attachment to the rules, Vickers succeeds in keeping the infected Holloway out of the ship, but even she ends trying to escape the falling Jaggernaut by running in the same direction it’s rolling.

Other than that, most of the main cast is an interesting group of people with distinct personalities. Sure there are those whose simply purpose is being meat for the carnage on screen, but you can’t deny the appeal and charisma of captain Janek (Idris Elba), perhaps the only character with his feet on the ground, and his pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong) who despite having a small amount of screen time manage to be very likable bystanders.

A divisive aspect of Prometheus is the revelation about who and what the fossilized Space Jockey from the original Alien was. We are shown that beneath what appeared to be an exoskeleton, these being called Engineers look like giant albino humans who share our DNA. While I thought the idea of making the Space Jockey’s race influential to our own existence was genius, many others disagreed.

The Engineers might not be the creators of life itself, but their technology has evolved to a point in which they are able to create life. Contrary to the idea that the Engineers created the vicious aliens we know from previous films, such creatures’ existence seem to precede the events of the film, and this is hinted at in the murals inside the pyramid the crew of the Prometheus explore. You can even make out a facehugger sculpted in the corner of one of those murals. Going into speculative ground, it can be assumed that like the greedy Weyland Yutani in previous Alien films, the Engineers tried to meddle with this dangerous life form and create bioweapons of their own, and this was their undoing.

While the classic creatures are nowhere to be seen, mirrors of them are spread across the film, the hammerpedes and trilobite standing in for the chestburster and facehuggers, and the closest thing to the mature alien is born in the final minutes of the film from the corpse of the last Engineer. Each of these creatures are beautifully designed on their own way, although I can’t but feel there was a missed opportunity by not bringing H.R. Giger back and we are left with shadows of his biomechanical style here and there.

Like every other film in the franchise Prometheus is visually a delight. From the opening sequence that shows a deserted and beautiful unnamed planet, every scene is carefully constructed and lit. The advances in technology have given Ridley Scott more tools to put his vision on screen and you’d be hard pressed to find another current sci-fi filled with so much imagination.

Musically speaking Marc Streitenfeld’s eerie and often times cold and menacing score is a perfect reflection of the unknown nature of the world the crew of the Prometheus enter. Much like the film itself, he ties his score to earlier films borrowing stylistic elements from previous composers but, with the exception of the use of one of Goldsmith’s cues when introducing Peter Weyland, he simply implies those influences.

But the weight of the spiritual journey of the characters and the soul of the film lies on a theme not composed by Streitenfeld. One of Scott’s former collaborators Harry Gregson-Williams was brought on board to assist with the score and he came up with a beautiful and noble sounding melody that is incorporated in key moments in the film such as the opening sequence and David’s discovery of the Engineers’ star map.

All these elements combine to form a complex film, a perhaps flawed masterpiece whose execution could have been better, its ties to the Alien franchise made clearer, some of its characters and their actions better developed. It is nevertheless a beautiful film that like every other Alien movie defied expectations and went in a bold new way, presenting big existential ideas that will keep its fans discussing and dissecting its meaning for years to come.

By the end of the film Elizabeth is left alone, and despite the horrific events she witnessed she chooses to keep believing, a sentiment that is not understood by David’s remains. David himself has lost his father figure and has no further clear purpose, but always a curious being he is intrigued by Elizabeth’s decision to keep looking for answers. The unlikely pair takes off searching for the Engineers’ home world where hopefully they will find further enlightenment.