Note: it’s impossible to discuss Prometheus in the depth it demands without massive spoilers, so I’ll revisit the movie on Monday. This review contains some basic plot details, most of which can be gleaned from the movie’s promotional materials, but if you want to go in blind, please defer your reading.
“How do you know it’s beautiful?” one character asks another at the beginning of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his science fiction landmark Alien, about futuristic truckers who find themselves burdened with a uniquely lethal cargo. “It’s what I choose to believe,” she responds. So have we, lured into theaters by the astonishingly gorgeous marketing campaign for the dark, futuristic blockbuster about religious scientists hoping to reconcile science and faith in one daring exploratory mission. But like those scientists, who followed a recurring set of pictographs across the galaxy only to find their expectations grievously disappointed, Prometheus is not the miracle we’ve been lead — or lead ourselves — to expect.
In place of the Alien movie’s scathing portrait of a corporation that’s willing to see a crew of humans butchered to capture the potential basis for a weapon, to talk a woman traumatized in its employ into facing the same thing that nearly killed her, to abandon a colony to its death, Prometheus has a nearly-bloodness corporate dynastic struggle. David (a terrific Michael Fassbender), the android who is maintaining the crew of the spaceship Prometheus while they are in hypersleep on their voyage to a distant star cluster, turns out to have been a surrogate son to industrialist Peter Weyland. Weyland’s affection for him is limited, though, shot through with a kind of species superiority complex. In a hologram recorded before his death and played for the crew upon their arrival, he explains that “He is unable to appreciate his remarkable gifts because that would require the one thing David lacks: a soul.” But whatever Weyland believes about David’s capacity for wonder, his casual contempt appears to have registered with the android. “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind,” he informs the crew, a slight edge emerging from bland, uptipped lips. Later, he asks with that same lack of affect, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”
Weyland-Yutani’s willingness to betray its human employees to keep the Alien alive and exploitable set the company terrifyingly apart from the human race — in this universe, corporations aren’t people, they’re a predator species of their own. But in Prometheus, Weyland’s toxic relationship with his children is both more personal and more antiseptic than the grime of the Alien movies. The venom is contained to their cursed circle, the mission a pet project of Weyland’s rather than a corporate priority. Prometheus is willing to judge Weyland’s character, but not his company.
The movie doesn’t do justice to most of its other, more high-flying ideas, either. There are monsters and body-horror-inducing substances a-plenty, but for a movie that’s meant to answer an awfully specific biological question — Damon Lindelof told io9 he wanted to know “Where did that thing come from? It’s not really a practical organism if it needs a human to gestate. Was it invented by someone?” — Prometheus’s science is designed more to provide a steady stream of horrific images than a satisfying evolutionary or bioengineering narrative.
Similarly, the characters make decisions so stupidly self-destructive and draw conclusions so counterintuitive that it becomes difficult to root for them. The more logical and plausible horror is, the more effective it is because it suggests that the monstrous could grown organically from the everyday. By contrast, I’m not particularly concerned about a pot-smoking geologist making spectacularly poor decisions that lead to the death of half of my colleagues. Prometheus’s shocks may be sharp, but they generally fade quickly.
The exception is a sequence that transmute normal anxieties about rape, unwanted pregnancy, bodily autonomy, and birth into a powerful and lingering nightmare, and an opportunity for Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to demonstrate her unstoppability: sucker punches have nothing on a blow to the cesarean section incision. If Ridley Scott can be said to be a feminist, it’s less for his advocacy of a world beyond patriarchy, and more for his conviction that women have the will to survive the unimaginable. Ellen Ripley was a response to the horror trope of the Final Girl long before Buffy Summers’ arrival in Sunnydale, and here, Idris Elba’s ship’s captain defies the death order preordained for horror-movie black men.
“Big things have small beginnings,” David assesses coldly midway through Prometheus. But for all its visual splendor and strong performances, Prometheus is a reminder that brilliant, low-budget beginnings can be more compelling than their monstrous offspring.