Prometheus: Creator’s Angst

“Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future?”

-Rotwang, Metropolis

In Metropolis, Rotwang said this as he gestured with his mechanical hand at Maria, the robot he created to replace humanity with a race of beings of his own design. Expressionist filmmakers like Fritz Lang were not afraid to let his face stretch into extremes or to build sets that were reflections of that face, in towering forms that contained the emotions in physical constructs (the mind and décor moved in the same rhythm, as Conrad Veidt said once). In the boxed-in formula of a modern, high-budget blockbuster, Prometheus could not be expected to stretch physical truth so far. Yet, it has Lang’s shadows, if not his extremes. When the android David tinkers with human anatomy, he has become Rotwang and Maria in one man of the future (Fassbender makes one tempting Übermensch). Ridley Scott returned to Alien for the first time since 1979 and brought a form of Blade Runner to it, so specifically that it reflects its own inspiration in unmistakable echoes of Metropolis.

No amount of structural misguidedness (I'll get to that too) can prevent Prometheus from containing the most improbably intriguing continuation of a franchise of any recent series reboot. Prometheus does not defer to its original for every decision (it even defies it). Its watchability even after a decade comes from the crucial decision to go out-there with its dramatic beats, extreme with its visuals, and mythological with its characters. It fought a losing war against its initial reception, struggling to make intangible triumphs heard against observable flaws, but after ten years of being a comfort film to me, I want to give it the assessment it never got at the time.

Alien Sex Obsession

In Alien, humanity's desperate sexual desires tie its cruel imagery together. The men are made breeding stock by a vicious unknown; the belief that they can conquer their universe with knowledge devolves into their screaming terror of the vastness they actually inhabit. As a woman, Ripley places herself outside of their point-of-view, which by comparison makes her even more of a victim of a monster whose designer, H.R. Giger, imbued with an impression of sinister sexuality in every slimy curve. Even the robot they created as the best version of themselves is like a sex-deprived child. At one point, he tries to suffocate Ripley with a porn magazine for her attempts to deny him the ability to study the creature that is the perfect representation of the urges he lacks.

Like its monster, every inch of Alien has the personality of sexual tension. Giger’s designs make this literal with a ship plastered in rib cages and pelvic cavities, a creature whose first form is a slinking, vaginal spider that implants men with wombs and whose adult incarnation is a phallic rage monster that kills with oral sex. While this sexuality was always evident in the series' symbols, serving as the context of a horror or action story, it was never turned into a full narrative. I bring it up because Scott seems to have created Prometheus as a new canon built from these visuals above all else, ignoring the post-Alien narrative changes in favor of the original's focus on a feeling. The concept art has become the narrative.

The screenwriters Spaihts and Lindelof do not use Prometheus to answer the question of “how did A lead to B?,” which in their defense might have seemed like a false insistence that a series of four barely-connected films was coherent to begin with. Prometheus does not explain Alien, despite teasing the origins of the "space jockey" in the hope of a play-by-play prequel to the events of the original. Instead, it turns its sexual, thematic imagery into lore. This is not a tidy ambition but it's an interesting one, especially in a series whose four films were already irreconcilably different takes on a B-movie concept. Why not one more? Even the series' masterpiece is really masterpulp, designed around a sensation, carried by graphic art.

The Gods, According to T.E. Lawrence

Prometheus has acquired the reputation of a non-believer in the temple of its series and not only because of its mistakes. The film has a rhythm backed up by the designs of its sets and locations, even in its pacing, to convert the genre of Alien from horror to sci-fi, something none of the sequels attempted. It immediately places Prometheus apart in a way often interpreted as a failure of replication rather than a success of expansion. This observable change in genre is key to placing Prometheus in the context of its series, to judge it not on its failure to live up to Alien but its successes (and failures) as its own creation.

The first location is a reflective lake at the dawn of history, clean enough to show its mountains in reverse, as an unnervingly pale alien performs a ritual that results in life being seeded on earth. It's a scene straight out of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey but a point-of-view unknown to Alien. The low lights of the ship, the Prometheus, enclose its single moving inhabitant as he maintains its hard-lined utilities and stagnant crew, whose memories appear on screens above their medical coffins. This version of the film does not begin when the humans wake up – this time, the relationship that humans have with machines is shown from both sides. The planet they explore is a field of dust with one skeletal outcropping; inside is a combination of utopic tech and brutal biology, a halfway point between our current inventions and Giger’s slimy mantrap from Alien, with all its harrowing protrusions and whispers of sinister anatomy. If Veidt was right and the decor and emotions move in sync with each other, the emotions of the places in Prometheus move in the rhythm of a different emotional conclusion compared to the rest of its series. The film feels alien, even in a series about aliens.

These images are self-sustaining as great sci-fi settings, yet Prometheus' plot often nudges them in pre-determined directions, as though being a prequel was the script's burden rather than the design's advantage. Its greatest failure is not that it is irrational but that the necessity of containing and even explaining recognizable series symbols prevents it from making a lack of rationality feel purposeful. The silent era could have turned the gaps into a language of dreamlike logic; in a modern blockbuster, they feel like mistakes. This is as much the fault of the Prometheus script as of the formula the industry has created to contain it. The plot and emotions of Prometheus often seem like warriors clashing to a stalemate, which history has interpreted as its failure of intent, like a mangling of the monolith that Alien has become in the minds of those who love it.

But as the characters learn more about these images, they do not become empowered with knowledge of the Alien series. Instead (and this is key), they become more disillusioned about their actions – at the heart of the film’s grand science fiction ideas about creation is a testament to our desire to know more about ourselves. This is what saves its irrationality. It's why an anticlimactic moment, such as poorly telegraphed reactions to humanity’s discovery of alien life, cannot steal the soul from the emotional narrative of the film's high-camp fetishes for exploring, discovering, worshipping, breeding. The film’s many talented actors have their own mini-narratives about sexuality and faith that are like buoys in the storm of bad decisions. Discovering alien life is important, but not as important as what the discovery means for the rest of what they believe – if Prometheus could only get one of these right, I'm glad it was the second.

The parallel journeys of Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are told in serious emotional strokes even as the plot's logic seems to derail. The combination becomes a plea to take crude content seriously in the way that high-minded camp apocalypses of the 70s pleaded, and modern self-referring blockbusters cannot since they’re always one wink off from meta-smirking the stakes away. The people in Prometheus are not aware of the Alien brand. They take it all with devastating seriousness, which in 2022 is a rare, genre-defining feeling that has been denied to fandoms repeatedly in films like The Predator, Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, and many more.

To support its ambitions, Prometheus focuses a lot of energy on creating characters that dramatically thwart the series' icons, rather than recreate them. The android David (Michael Fassbender) is the film's major asset in its argument for itself, a skewed reflection of the loveable Bishop and deplorable Ash. He begins Prometheus as a watchful guardian of a sleeping crew; he’s who the replicants in Blade Runner might have been just as they started aspiring to be more. In classic monster film language, David is the creation that turns against the creator. But it takes a director with an expressionist’s ambition to give that character the film’s central role, rather than the role of a surprise secondary villain, enough even to base its entire thematic structure around him. David is not the secret villain of Prometheus. He’s the secret protagonist.

Scott imbues him with the ambition of T.E. Lawrence, whom David watches and admires in Lawrence of Arabia among hard shadows of sterile, functional ship equipment, surrounded by sleeping crewmen. He bleaches his hair to look more like Peter O’Toole, a purely human vice that brings his misunderstanding of people to a relatable level, so sad that it becomes funny. His aloof cruelty demonstrates how little we understand the universe even in ourselves, that we would create a machine with all our abilities and none of our inhibitions and think that the result would be pure. Fassbender turns the film into a grand comedy because he makes the final form of the cycle of creation a metaphysical dud – despite his coifed sureness, he throws the same intellectual tantrum thrown by all children of all gods, in any world mythology, including Alien's. He has a creation complex, as the entire sci-fi genre does, which makes him as addicted to the act of creating (regardless of its monstrous results) as a director addicted to making sequels. Had the film been made in the 70s, which at times it feels like it could have been, the part would have gone to Christopher Plummer or Udo Kier. The viewer is fooled into asking whether David lacks Lawrence's heart to control his ambition or if his recreation is more honest than we'd like to admit.

David is the dark reflection of Dr. Shaw, who reverses Ripley's cool resolve with vulnerable femininity. David is unable to create because his creator did not wish him to have the ambition that separates them. Shaw thinks the same thing of herself but with the capacity to feel guilty about it (she believes that God made her infertile but doesn't know what she did to deserve it). Her tragic self-appraisal should not be viewed as the film's failure to advocate for someone stronger. Her worldview deserves to be portrayed honestly, not despite but precisely because it does not fit the normal action hero typeface. Shaw's quest to find the answer to the question of why humanity was created is really a personal journey to discover why she was made without the ability to create. The audience may know that this ability should not define a person, but to Shaw, it's the ultimate question of self-worth. The film's best instances of drama (and horror) surround the answers she finds to those questions.

In the film’s tensest scene, she gains the ability to create life secondhand as a result of David tinkering with human anatomy. She uses sparklingly futuristic yet brutally imprecise technology to remove a monster from her womb in a tight surgical enclosure – the tension amps up to an intensity that Prometheus should have enjoyed, having built it so well. After enduring a situation that would make it difficult to stand, she's flung into the mechanism of a plot that seems to be happening off-screen. The audience rightly disbelieved the entire final sequence in which she runs from a falling spaceship, but losing the emotional investment in her physical trials in the film's previous scenes was a greater casualty than a little belief. That whole setpiece set Prometheus' final act on a terrible slant where you have to look past almost everything on-screen to see the greater intent beneath, and leave the theater holding onto the memory of what came before. It all seems motivated by the need to launch that ship from the first Alien, but in the plot of Prometheus, this isn't even "that" ship. The desire for recognition is on autopilot at that point, recognition for its own sake. It's not even working within the same continuity.

That crucial error in logical pacing, which becomes a problem of audience investment, causes Prometheus to lose its thematic momentum and its audience, who left not remembering just how powerful Fassbender and Rapace are during the core moments of the film, which begged to be continued in a scene of brutal reflection in the place of that blockbuster setpiece. The film's decision-making in its own climax is more mysterious than its cosmic riddles because it cuts into its allure like snark during an acceptance speech. Their relationship (especially after Covenant discarded it) feels painfully undone.

Beautiful Machinery

The backdrop to every flaw and inconsistency debated in Prometheus is a film that is technically superior to many sci-fi blockbusters regarded as modern classics. Wolski’s cinematography captures the grim beauty of the production design. A shot of David in a mirror or leaning over a pool table recalls many of the great shots in science fiction, including the covers that used to appear on Asimov’s quarterly magazine. Shaw on the operating table becomes angelic, shielded by white, and the superstructure that houses the alien laboratory and research vessel is a clear allusion to Giger’s unused drawings of the alien mound from the original film, which itself was amended from his design for Harkonnen’s fortress in Jodorowsky’s unmade adaptation of Dune.

The score by Marc Streitenfeld takes the film out of the realm of horror and gives it the sound of cosmic discovery. He makes it impossible to forget that the film at heart is about the inexpressible desire to find answers. Where the original Alien made humanity a victim of its vices in the form of a cosmic-sexual terror, Prometheus victimizes its characters using their best qualities above all – their will to make humanity better, to live longer, to seek and find the unknown. This gives the film a feeling of hopelessness challenged by an actress like Rapace. Her tiny frame and expectant face in the presence of so much terror brings the whole measure of human faith to bear on the horrors of cosmic uncertainty. She saves the film from being a simple horror movie (Alien: Covenant proved this point by removing her in a way so callous that it seemed to be bragging about its willingness to ruin its charm).

Before its release, Prometheus posted several viral clips that served as teasers for the film’s universe. They were not trailers – they assembled details about the world into a framework for discussions of theology and enterprise that it seemed reluctant to have in the actual film. Some of the best scenes in the Prometheus universe are in these clips, such as a fake TED talk by Peter Weyland, played by Guy Pearce in the only aspect of the role where it seemed pertinent that he be Guy Pearce at all, and a corporate commercial for the David 8 android by Weyland-Yutani. That the finished product only infrequently measures up to the world-building of these three-minute clips represents the disease of production that destroys ambition in the mechanisms of $150-million movies. They didn't have time for the TED talk, but they had time for the space cobra encounter, which has all the grace of the skits of the bumbling doctors in MST3K, just without the awareness.

Yet, just by presenting these clips, Prometheus builds a monument to the kind of fan that is willing to make room in their love of the original movie to recreate it as something different. Rather than replicate the appeal, the plot, or even the monster of Alien, Scott tried to represent its allure in a different way.  The same cannot be said for the more rationally paced and broadly emotional Aliens, which revised Ripley into the prototype Sarah Connor and recast the alien as a bug in a shoot-em' up game. As good as Aliens is at achieving blockbuster appeal, I understand why Scott wanted to pull the series back from simple social commentary and video game thrills. He tried to give it its mythology back.

The Cost of Power

As silent films often defied conventional narrative labels, Prometheus was never going to work as a typical blockbuster, all rolled out and sterilized with references and recreations. But in failing to understand that its appeal was in having atypical mythology, Prometheus is also a bad salesman for the kind of imaginative chaos that made a film like Metropolis work so well. Scott needed a screenwriter who understood the power of disorder and above all a producer who would let him wield that power discriminately. The imaginative emotional rhythm of those viral teasers needed to be in the film.

Even lacking the power to complete the vision, Scott dared to take the brand apart. In certain images, he made a film that has the impression of a masterpiece, chained up in a blockbuster that can’t quite become itself. I can see it in David watching a display of Shaw’s dreams in cryosleep, foreshadowing the engineer watching a video of a girl playing violin in a field, with brutal but parental curiosity. It’s in the hellish grime of the chamber where they store the bio-fluid, constructed like a place of worship, with a human face rising from the goo like a monolith and an engraving of the xenomorph in the configuration of Christ. Was Jesus an engineer? Was humanity their most treasured creation, their ambition and ultimately their failure to add to the universe their idea of the perfect organism? Is the xenomorph a literal reflection of our desire to find meaning? Does it pervert their creation or ours? Giger already drew it as an amalgam of human parts. What if it was an amalgam of our spirit too?

Prometheus is content to ask these questions in the background of a blockbuster, as though they can't mix any more than symbols from Alien mix with any movie that is not Alien. The unknowability of these ideas, punctuated by Shaw leaving to find her purpose as the final notes of the score hit the top of their choral revelations, elevates this film above so many others it could have been and any that tries to revive a franchise by simply recreating it. It even elevates it above Alien: Covenant, which made the cowardly decision to jettison everything Prometheus did well and replace it with gutter horror, finally turning the xenomorph into Jason Voorhees, slashing randy camp counselors in their (space) shower. For a viewer like myself, who still loves Aliens as the well-crafted blockbuster gut-punch of laughs and tears that it is, Prometheus has something that not even Cameron acknowledged in the series.

Scott must have had creator's angst when making Prometheus to turn back on it at the first sign of trouble. When David tampered with human anatomy, he didn't do it with a goal in mind – he took the best material he could find and let his curiosity reveal the gruesome results. With a cast that could have made an adaptation of Hamlet, Scott was reckless to pack them into a spaceship and make them endure a quest as futile as the fans', to find concrete answers to the origins of Alien. But they were reckless, and it was futile. Prometheus went on a quest for a feeling only posing as a prophecy. “What would you do to find answers?,” David asks an unknowing test subject for his evolution experiment, like Scott asking a hungry audience. “Anything and everything,” they reply. It is worth the loss of a fandom to have created a film that was willing to not answer.

Images are screenshots from the film: ©20th Century Fox/Scott Free Productions

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1 thought on “Prometheus: Creator’s Angst”

  1. A great essay as usual. Naturally I disagree with your views on Aliens (I found Sarah Connor to be a poor girl’s Ripley rather than the other way around), but I love your reading of David as protagonist. He’s by far the most fascinating character in the film and he brings an eerie otherness to the role. A joy to read, thank you.

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