Ridley Scott's "Alien" is a genre-defining piece of science fiction. At the time of its release in 1979, it pushed boundaries and explored areas that other films hadn't yet dared to touch. As the years passed, the franchise continued, but with the exception of James Cameron's "Aliens," none of the sequels and spin-offs approached the quality or impact of Scott's original film. Returning to the well more than three decades later with "Prometheus," Scott answers some of the questions raised by the original films while at the same time asking audiences to ponder the answer to something even larger.
The question Scott asks is essentially, "Would you want to meet your maker?" As a species, this is a question that has been asked and re-asked by humans over the years. Striving for an answer has driven human progress as individuals push into the unknown. What would happen if that unknown became known? What would we do if there were no longer any questions to ask? Is knowing worth the cost?
In "Prometheus," Scott explores these concepts by combining the mythology of the Alien franchise with classic Greek mythology as well as Christian religious allusions. These details are interwoven throughout the story in subtle ways so as to not overpower the core plot, but their presence is unmistakable. Looking back on the film a few days after watching it, some of those connections become even more pronounced.
The most obvious mythological parallel comes from the title. To the Greeks, Prometheus was both the creator and savior of humans, having restored fire to early man at great cost to himself. "Prometheus" starts with one of the Engineers sacrificing his own life to seed Earth with human DNA and create human life. Later in the film, we see two different infected humans killed, both with fire, the very element given to man by Prometheus of myth.
Another core element of the Prometheus myth is his punishment for sharing knowledge with the humans. Chained to a rock with his abdomen torn open, Prometheus has his liver consumed on a daily basis. The imagery of an open abdomen appears multiple times in the film: on a mural in the Engineer's temple, when Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) performs a cesarean on herself and when the Alien Xenomorph finally makes an appearance.
Given that "Prometheus" is a prequel to the existing "Alien" films, the presence of a Xenomorph shouldn't be a surprise, but the film never explains the genesis of the creatures. Instead, in an explicit (if fleeting) shot, it establishes that the Xenomorphs have existed for thousands of years by showing us an image of an Alien queen in a mural. This particular shot is included in the "Prometheus" trailer. The closest the film comes to explaining the Xenomorphs is hinting that they were either the result of a biological weapon run amok or biological weapons themselves. Further supposition is left to the viewer.
Touching on the Christian symbols, the most direct representation of this is the exploration of Shaw's faith. Although her lover is firmly ground in science, a belief in God and the afterlife is a core tenet of Shaw's. The film explores what it would take to break her faith and whether or not a person of faith could handle knowing the truth behind human creation.
Scott's decision to give Shaw a first name of Elizabeth is likely not a coincidence, as the Biblical Elizabeth was also a barren woman of faith who conceived when all who knew her thought it impossible. Exploring the Biblical connection further, the Christian Elizabeth is described as blameless. This parallels to Scott's interpretation of Shaw throughout Prometheus. It also dovetails nicely with the name of the planet, LV-223. Assuming that nothing in the film is random, LV-223 could be an allusion to another Biblical verse (Leviticus 22:3), which states that anyone who is unclean and approaches sacred offerings must be cut off. Shaw's survival hints that these connections are more than accidental happenstance.
Other Christian allusions include the fact that Shaw's impregnation and subsequent alien birth occur at Christmas as well as the discussion that "something" major happened just over 2,000 years before the events of the film. That would place the mysterious "something" as right around the crucifixion of Christ.
Extreme hubris is exemplified in the character of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). An extremely old and rich man, Weyland has used technology to prolong his life, but even that cannot prevent the inevitable. As a result, Weyland commissions the Prometheus expedition for purely selfish reasons. He wants to meet his maker to request a cure to what ails him.
While the humans on Prometheus are busy searching for their maker, the android David (Michael Fassbender) is already among those who have created him. Unlike Shaw, who is searching for answers, David has his from the start. Clinical and dispassionate, David was created to be the perfect companion for humans, yet he can never understand the quest for knowledge that drives Shaw.
Fassbender's performance as David is one of the standouts. He deftly manages to convey an emotional coldness while simultaneously making the viewer wonder if there isn't some hidden agenda going on in that mechanical brain of his. As the film progresses, David's character is shown to be unconstrained by standards of morality, yet he never crosses over into villain territory. If anything, David's character is constantly shifting between different shades of gray. It's brilliantly nuanced.
Rapace is equally impressive, bringing to life a heroine who could easily be an equal to Ellen Ripley, without becoming a copycat of Sigourney Weaver's career-defining role. Showing us a character who has suffered great loss and had her religious convictions shaken, Rapace makes the audience care about what happens to Shaw. She may act rashly at times, but the motivation is always obvious.
Visually, "Prometheus" is an absolute treat, with stunning vistas, impressive sets and detailed representations of future technology and space travel. The corridors of the Prometheus are distinct from those of the Nostromo, yet the white-paneled walls evoke shared design elements that reinforce the idea that these two ships could have been built in the very same shipyard.
The scenes in which the Prometheus crew explores the Engineer's temple and ship are sure to delight "Alien" fans. No detail is spared, with the shots of the Engineer pilot pod being something that fans have waited decades to see. Rest assured that it was worth the wait.
Natively filmed in 3-D, "Prometheus" uses 3-D to create the sensation of depth. Don't expect anything to jump out of the screen at you, as there are no cheap scares here. Instead, the effect is one of looking through a window to give a "you are there" feeling. Most of the time, you won't notice the 3-D effect directly, but it does add to the immersion factor.
Perhaps the only real failing of "Prometheus" is that it relies so heavily on myth, religious allusion and the "Alien" franchise to convey its point. Viewers who are familiar with the source material will absolutely love it. Those who come in with little to no knowledge of the source may wonder what exactly it is that the film is trying to say.
At its core, "Prometheus" isn't a monster movie. It is a story about faith and the human condition. Much like Scott's "Blade Runner," "Prometheus" may not be an instant blockbuster, but it will likely age well as time passes. Expect this to be studied by film students and discussed by fans for years to come.
"Prometheus" is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
Editor's Note: Want to explore the classic "Alien" franchise a bit more? Don't miss our Aliens: Colonial Marines preview.
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