This was one of my most-anticipated movies this year…and it repaid that anticipation in spades. “Prometheus” is superb – one of the finest science fiction films I’ve ever seen. I could go on for pages about its stylistic execution, but ideas – HUGE ideas – are the driving force behind this film.
The film begins in spectacular fashion: an enigmatic alien, standing beside a primordial river, dissolves himself into the water…in doing so, releasing the DNA responsible for creating life. Several thousand years later, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover an ancient inscription pointing to a distant galaxy. Backed by a trillion-dollar grant from the Weyland Corporation, the crew of the spaceship “Prometheus” sets off into deep space, where they hope to find answers to age-old questions: Who created us? Why are we here?
The two archaeologists are joined by Weyland executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, channeling a starkly asexual persona), a good-hearted Captain (Idris Elba), android David (Michael Fassbender), and a few generic “Expendable Crewmen.” Upon reaching their target planet, which is oddly capable of sustaining human life, they locate a large structure…which holds both infinite questions and infinite horrors.
(Note: the following section contains philosophical spoilers. Read on at your own risk.)
Most modern sci-fi works seem to fall into one of the following categories: scientistic naturalism (examples: Asimov and much of “Star Trek”), mystical pantheism (examples: “Avatar” and “Star Wars”), or mindless destruction (examples: “Transformers” and “Independence Day”). There’s been a lot of Christian fantasy written over the last few decades, but not much Christian sci-fi…and that which does exist is pretty bad (with the notable exception of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”). “Prometheus” falls into none of the aforementioned categories.
If “Prometheus” were reducible to a single worldview, it would assuredly be Gnosticism. Gnosticism – an early offshoot of Christianity influenced by Neoplatonism – postulated a strict dichotomy between the material and spiritual universes. More recently, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould hinted at a similar notion when he declared science and religion to be “non-overlapping magisteria” – essentially, that science and religion seek to answer very different questions, and should not be mixed if possible. In practice, this means that science cannot speak to questions of ultimate purpose or meaning.
The core MacGuffin of “Prometheus” is the discovery that humans were created by aliens, with whom they share an identical genetic code. While this may answer the immediate biological question, it engenders many more – most importantly “who made the aliens?” On an even deeper level, however, “Prometheus” affirms that there is something fundamentally unique about the human soul…as C.S. Lewis would have termed it, a “God-shaped vacuum.”
Throughout the film, David the android cannot comprehend why Shaw continues to cling to her faith. As the movie draws to a close, David asks Shaw why she continues to seek for answers, despite the chaos they have witnessed. Her reply is simple, yet deeply profound. “Because I’m a human being, and you’re a robot.” It’s one of the most powerful arguments for belief in a higher power – that there is something peculiar to the human spirit, a longing that cannot be sated by the material world alone – that I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film.
The parallels with Gnosticism, however, extend much further than this. In Gnostic theology, the material world was created by an evil being known as the demiurge, whose attitude toward humanity was ultimately malevolent. The aliens of “Prometheus” share the same adversarial relationship with their creations…and the theme of animosity between creator and created is a powerful undercurrent throughout. When a sobbing Shaw confronts a living specimen of the alien creator-race, she chokes out just one question: “Please…Why do you hate us?”
For those who are paying attention to the theology, it’s an emotionally devastating confession – and the most moving line of the entire film. Shaw’s plea for understanding has been echoed by millions throughout the course of human history…how can God coexist with a world scarred by evil and destruction? The film’s response – again, operating from Gnostic principles – is to bifurcate reality into material and metaphysical spheres. The world of matter, beautiful though it may seem, is irredeemably corrupted…but the spiritual world remains untainted.
The God of director Ridley Scott’s universe may be very real indeed, but he does not appear to share the theistic characteristics of the biblical Jehovah. Rather, this God is more of a a “First Cause” in the Aristotelian sense…a transcendent, incomprehensible Creator distinct from his works. Viewed through this lens, Shaw’s spiritual quest remains entirely valid…she seeks to escape savage materiality by finding supernatural fulfillment. From a Christian standpoint, it’s a defective theology – and was pronounced heresy by the early church – but it does serve as a powerful catalyst for thought and discussion.
One last theological point deserves consideration. The film depicts not two, but three cycles of creation: the alien engineers, the human protagonists, and David the android. Early on, much is made over David’s lack of a real soul – a point which I expected to be repudiated by the film’s end, given the tone Scott took in “Blade Runner.” However, this doesn’t occur. By the time the credits roll, it is clear that a fundamental difference exists between man and machine…that humans carry within them a mystical spark of “life-image” distinct from the merely mechanistic. In the very substance of their genetic code, the humans are “image-bearers” of their creators…who, in turn, bear the image of whoever created them.
To briefly turn from the spiritual to the merely philosophical: Weyland Corporation executive Meredith Vickers is the consummate Ayn Rand heroine – successful, beautiful, ice-cold, and pragmatically self-interested. She is contrasted throughout with the Captain of “Prometheus” – a down-to-earth leader with a strong sense of self-denying morality. When the Captain lays down his own life to stop an impending disaster, Vickers cannot comprehend his altruistic sacrifice. Instead, she flees alone rather than joining him in heroic death. (For the record, there’s a veiled Christ-figure parallel here too: the Captain, an innocent image-bearer of his creator, sacrifices himself to avert the wrath of “god”). It’s a nice subplot that adds further depth to the film’s worldview.
If the foregoing discussion is any indication, there is a lot of food for thought in this movie. Critics of “Prometheus” have complained that the film doesn’t offer clear answers to the questions it poses. The answers are certainly there, but one must look closely. In the end, Ridley Scott demonstrates once again why he deserves the label “visionary”…Hollywood needs to start producing more cerebral movies like this.
Technically, “Prometheus” is a masterpiece. It’s gorgeously filmed, evoking the spectacular landscapes of “Avatar” while retaining the grime and grunge of “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” This is one movie that must be experienced in 3D, as it was filmed, to be truly appreciated. Acting performances are also strong – Fassbender makes a marvelous android, and Theron (recently seen as the flamboyant Evil Queen of “Snow White”) demonstrates her versatility. Notably, Rapace makes for an extraordinarily likable heroine – she doesn’t have Sigourney Weaver’s cold-eyed stare, but instead exudes a certain charming innocence.
Objectionable content is…well, pretty much what you’d expect from an “Alien” prequel. There’s lots of slime, blood, and screaming – and, to be frank, some of the most stomach-churning sequences I’ve ever seen. Scott knows precisely how to evoke tension and disgust, and he’s ratcheted things up since “Alien.” Though there’s very little profanity, and only a hint of sexual material, this is most assuredly an R-rated movie. (Personally, I found the film’s graphic horror distracting; however, this is more a matter of my own taste than of cinematic quality. This is a movie linked in both style and tone to the original “Alien,” and wouldn’t have worked as a purely philosophical odyssey.)
Is this movie worth seeing?
The answer is a rounding “yes.” While squeamish viewers (and those without a taste for sci-fi or philosophy) will hate it, thoughtful viewers will find a nearly inexhaustible wellspring of “big ideas” on display. The discussion and debate over this movie will continue for years to come, and that’s a good thing. Too few directors are bold enough to ask these questions…and the answers have eternal significance.
In short, “Prometheus” is brilliant.
Intense, philosophically provocative, and deeply redemptive. A masterpiece of sci-fi that succeeds on every level.
Normalized Score: 9.2
June 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm
Excellent review. I added this movie as one of my favorite science fictions. I like the fact that Shaw’s faith didn’t falter despite of the horrifying events and answers she got from finding the engineers. David’s own quest for meaning was also thought provoking. The conversation he had with Holloway was memorable,
D: “Why do you think your people made me?”
H: “Because we could”
D” “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear that from your creator?”
February 6, 2013 at 12:30 am
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what that particular branch of literature called “Science Fiction” actually consists of. Is it space-ships and monsters? Time machines? Galactic empires? Well, its all of those things, and often none of them.Science Fiction, broadly speaking, is story-telling that deals with the impact of organized knowledge on human beings. Usually, this means technology, and the way it changes us…
Take a peek at our blog page too
May 11, 2017 at 5:01 am
I always appreciate people that take the time, and have the patience, to dissect a dense film such as Prometheus. I can’t stand the typical reviews of this film; not enough aliens, no chestburster, etc. This film deals with incredible films, but it is very complicated. You’d have to have been familiar with gnosticism, theological literature and ancient mythology to really appreciate this one. But, then again, that’s the great beauty of replaying a film or dissecting it. I think it’s a rewarding experience.
I’ve just seen Alien:Covenant and I’ve got to say, I absolutely loved it. I’m glad that Scott maintained a lot of the themes of Prometheus–even expanded on some of them. But, again people aren’t satisfied, even when the man compromises on his vision by including the xenomorph. And, guess what, people are already saying that it’s just another rehash of the old formula. No one is satisfied.
May 11, 2017 at 5:02 am
edit: deals with incredible themes*