Answers? ("Prometheus," Part II)

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Attention: As far as I’m concerned as a film critic, there’s a moment in every film beyond which everything is off-limits to discuss in the review. Unfortunately, most everything worth talking about in Prometheus is after that invisible line, and in addition to how anticipated the film is, I thought it best to have a two-part review, one spoiler-free and normal, the other spoiler-saturated and speculative.

This is part two of my review of Prometheus. A spoiler-free part one can be found here, and if you haven’t seen Prometheus, that’s where you should go. Repeat: It is strongly recommended you do not continue to read part two until you’ve seen Prometheus. Also, I guess it’s worth saying there are spoilers for the other Alien films, but if you haven’t seen them yet have the time to read something like this, JUST GO WATCH THEM.

One of the best things about Prometheus is its subverting of familiar tropes of the Alien franchise to explore heretofore unexplored territory. Prometheus is a big-idea sci-fi film couched in the fetishistic paraphernalia of Alien/s. It considers creation and the created from its opening sequence to its last.

In the beginning, we see an alien humanoid creature on earth at some point in our planet’s prehistory. There is apparently no life on earth yet, or at least no human life. It is as the Buddhists say as life comes from death, creation from destruction, as the humanoid drinks an acidic liquid that kills him and breaks down his DNA. In the life-sustaining environment of water, the DNA replicates and presumably leads to human life on earth.

Take that, Darwin! Even as speculative science goes, it makes almost no rational sense, but then again I’m a dunderhead who thinks that evolution is real.

Who was the humanoid? The appointed instigator of life on earth by his home species? So the poor dude is just doing his job? And the humanoid species hasn’t figured out how to create life from its own DNA goo without committing suicide? Or is he a rebellious individual who has taken it upon himself to make life in this distant land, unbeknownst to or even against the orders of his race?

This question lies at the crux of Prometheus more than any other. To answer this question is to answer why the humanoids leave the archaeological record of the star map. It answers why they have the alien weapon cargo and why they were about to send it to earth to destroy humankind. It answers why an intelligent species might create humans and then later destroy them. In a little bit I’ll speculate some answers on these questions.

We’ve seen synthetic humans in the other Alien films (Ash! Bishop! Call!), but with David we’re finally allowed to fully see that relationship between creator and created. David is programmed to help Peter Weyland get his answers and, he hoped, his immortality. This is why David seems so sinister at times and so affable at others. He’s actually neither, he’s just following the directives of his programming. “Try harder,” he’s told, by which it means, experiment with what you find on LV-223 and see what happens. This endangers Holloway and Shaw, but David hasn’t been programmed to worry about that. David is an instrument, nothing more. He is designed to look and act human, but he’s not. “Menacing” or “friendly” are not applicable.

David killing time while waiting for the Prometheus to arrive is probably my favorite part of the film. What a perfect setup for what he is: Programmed to be human, which means even when no one is watching. Of course he could just sit in a corner until something happens, but that would be too robotic. Is he more humanlike because of his behaviors?

The question of David in the film mirrors its big questions: Why are we here? What were we created to do? Are we inherently good or evil? I like that at the end of Prometheus, David has run to the end of his programming and is now a blank. He is free after fulfilling his duty. His parent is dead. He now potentially experiences the freedom to want something for himself. He’s a lot like a younger Shaw. It’s a novel way to interface with the classic sci-fi questions of robots becoming sentient. (Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. did it best.)

Prometheus is billed as a prequel to Alien. It is, but I was surprised at the extent to which it’s not. My expectation was that Prometheus would, in the pace of its story, set up the occasion of the Space Jockey sitting in pilot seat in Alien, its chest blown out, to be found by the crew of the Nostromo.

That of course doesn’t happen. Sure, there’s a Space Jockey and he sits in a pilot chair and he’s in a ship exactly like the "Derelict" ship from Alien, but he ends up dying in the Prometheus’ lifeboat rather on than his own ship.

So, the planet of Prometheus is not the planet of Alien, as seemed to be the case during the advertising campaign. But that’s more readily apparent earlier in Prometheus: As the ship approaches its planet destination, it’s referred to as LV-223. Alien nerds know that the planet from Alien/s is LV-426. But the planetary information is such a throwaway bit of data in Prometheus, it’s not necessarily obvious, and certainly won’t be noted by non-Alien initiates.

How far away is LV-426 from LV-223? Two planets over? Two systems away? Other side of the universe?

Also different in Prometheus: the alien itself. This creature has a completely different life cycle. Is it the difference between biologically descended species, as seen in Alien/s — queen, eggs in waiting holding medium-sized tentacle “facehugger” creature, embryo implanted in host, and “chestburster” and mature creature — versus weaponized, Petri dish aliens — created somehow, vase in waiting holding microscopic seed which can be sexually transmitted, tentacle creature incubating in host body, tentacle creature comes out and grows really big, second embryo in new host, and final creature?

Part of the franchise mythology is that final alien form takes after its host. That could explain why the alien at the end of the film is different from anything we have previously encountered, but it doesn’t answer the life cycle in general.

These two major differences in the mythology of the franchise — different planet, different species of alien — is enough where one might argue Prometheus in fact does not take place in the same world as the Alien films. Prometheus could be more of an “inspired by” type of film than a direct prequel. H.R. Giger’s original designs don’t play into Prometheus nearly as much as Alien, so this could be Ridley Scott wanting to play in a different sandbox. For the record: I’m totally on board if this is the case.

Things that are apparently the same in both universes, however: The Derelict looks the same, and there is in fact a Weyland Industries. There is also pretty clearly an alien queen referenced as a work of wall mural in the big head chamber in Prometheus. Beyond that, I’m not willing to say anything is more than an echo.

But, in all likelihood, Prometheus is a direct prequel to Alien as expected. It was a bit jarring to me that it didn’t neatly fit up with Alien. Prometheus is essentially act one in a multi-act sequence that will finally set up the environment for Alien to happen the way it does. It made me like the film a little less upon first viewing, and led to many of the questions I have about the film as a standalone work, as enumerated in part one of my Prometheus review. (Upon second and third and fiftieth viewings, this complaint will probably fade.)

Prometheus plays, too, with the idea of audience expectation and its subtle repudiation. While Alien nerds are wrapping themselves in new characters mirroring old ones (Janek is Dallas, Ford is Lambert, Shaw is Alien Ripley, Vickers is Aliens Ripley) and new scenes mimicking old ones (helmet camera action, motion-detection identifying a threat, proboscises attack, acid for blood), constantly finding comfort in the similarities but not noticing the bait-and-switch. For Alien- and non-Alien nerds, the film keeps noting things that any seasoned moviegoer would know might come into play later, and then it goes out of its way to acknowledge them: When Shaw sees and discusses the life boat and the surgery machine, when crew members question each others’ agendas, when Janek asks Vickers if she’s a robot. Prometheus seems to have fun playing with the audience’s comfort zone, almost breaking the fourth wall. There’s a lot more going on in Prometheus than there seems.

Speculations:

#1 Go back to the original question: Why does the humanoid create life on earth, and why do the Engineers wish to now destroy life? A theory I think I picked up online somewhere the last year, though it’s possible I dreamed it: In the world of Prometheus, humans must be killed because we have acquired the true abilities of the “gods”: the ability to create life. With the development of the technology of terraforming, humankind is essentially a threat to the rest of the universe as we look to extend its reach. This could certainly be the point of view of the Engineers, who wish to stop us before it’s too late, and before there are too many planets with us on it.

This theory plays into co-writer Damon Lindelof’s interest in re-examining tropes from the original franchise. Terraforming has been a part of the idea all along, but it’s never been thematically or “morally” discussed.

This theory also lines up with idea of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Was the Prometheus humanoid a radical who, in creating us as he did, gave us technology we shouldn’t have? And is that why the “gods” seek to punish us? In his robe, he looked like a part of a religious order.

It also is similar to the conceit of Carl Sagan’s Contact: Humans will make contact with extraterrestrials once we are far enough technologically advanced to do so. So, in this thinking, the alien race in Prometheus gives us a map to visit them once we are advanced enough to identify and make the voyage. And once we’ve proven that we can travel across the universe, that’s the time for us to be destroyed. Of course, the aliens were far nicer in Contact.

#2 Lindelof has noted in interview that when he was young he thought Alien and Blade Runner existed in the same world. That’s an interesting idea, and one I think that is subtly suggested in Prometheus. Janek ask Vickers if she’s a robot, and it’s a question I was certainly thinking.

One crackpot theory I have is that Vickers really is a robot, a replicant such as those seen in Blade Runner. The nerd take away from Blade Runner is that it’s about a robot who doesn’t know he’s a robot (a point endlessly debated for going on 30 years now). How apropos would it be if Prometheus had the same thematic note, but that it also doesn’t truly reveal it’s secret in the film? Vickers tells Janek she’s not a robot, and ostensibly proves it by sleeping with him. But my recollection from Blade Runner is that Deckard and Rachael (who is definitely a replicant) have sex. Vickers having sex doesn’t shake me off the trail.

Charlize Theron plays Vickers quite coolly, and her essentially flawless (approaching non-human) physicality makes for perfect casting. Also, David calls Vickers “mum,” and Vickers calls Weyland “father.” Echoes of each other, synthetics looking at the world as children?

So I choose to believe that Vickers is in fact a replicant, bridging once and for all Alien and Blade Runner. And so I also believe that Vickers wasn’t killed by the crashing Derelict but in fact stood up after it ran over her and had quite the realization, finding herself not dead and probably damaged to the extent that she could see evidence of her syntheticness. I speculate that soon after we see Shaw and David heading to find another Derelict, they encounter Vickers and she joins the merry band. Vickers is on the ship heading off to Engineer home planet.

#3 Since we will hopefully eventually get to see how the Space Jockey got to LV-426 and had a chestburster, etc., I wonder if the dead individual encountered in Alien is in fact Shaw.

It was a big revelation in Prometheus that the Space Jockey doesn’t look like what it appears, an elephantine alien species (a species that has been explored in some comic book and video games), but that it is actually a helmet hiding a perfectly humanoid creature.

The flip side to that revelation is that anyone in the suit is going to have its identity hidden. And that would include Shaw. And whoever the Alien Space Jockey is, he/she is sending a warning to keep people away from LV-426. That sounds like something Shaw would do.

Detracting from this theory — and, really, any theory that says we’re going to see in future films how the Space Jockey got there — is that in Alien it appears that the creature has been there a very long time, fossilized and grafted into its pilot’s seat over thousands of years.

So either time travel is going to introduced into this sci-fi narrative, or I’m being too much of strict constitutionalist as it relates to the Space Jockey and Alien.

#4 There is a scientific theory, which I can’t wrap my head around, which posits that all of reality is a 3D projection of a 2D shell of information on the rim of the universe. Everything we know is, in essence, a hologram. Watching Prometheus reminded me of the theory. Holograms are a recurring thematic technology in the film, especially with the “recordings” of the Engineers that seem almost palpable even to David. In a film that asks where we come from and what’s we’ll find when we get to the origins of all things, I wonder if this could be a philosophical head space the film franchise is angling toward.

One of the biggest questions, which no one can answer yet: Will there be sequels? I pray that Prometheus is big enough where it counts that we will actually get the answers we want.

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