Given the enormous expectation surrounding Prometheus, and since trailers have already given far too much away, I’ll try and keep this review free of major spoilers. However, if you want to go in ”clean,” you shouldn’t read any further.
It’s 2089. Two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) stumble across a pictogram in a cave on the Isle of Skye. The image correlates with similar drawings discovered around the world, and is interpreted as a star-map inviting us to go and meet our makers. Dying multi-millionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) agrees to fund the mission, and so, carrying sundry scientists, the good ship Prometheus heads to the distant moon LV-223.
Coyly described by its director Ridley Scott as sharing “strands of Alien‘s DNA,” Prometheus plays out in the same gothic universe as Scott’s 1979 horror/sci-fi nightmare, in which some of humanity’s most primal fears congeal. Confined spaces, conspiracies, technology run amok, rape, infection, and outer darkness.
The celebrated tagline of Alien—“In space no one can hear you scream”—implied something even more disturbing. A scream of agony is bad enough. But what if there were no one there to hear you? No one who cared that you were suffering? The characters were trapped in a world apparently bereft of God. Or if God was there, he was relating to them as a bored schoolboy with a magnifying glass might relate to a slow-moving beetle on a hot summer’s afternoon.
But in Prometheus Scott doesn’t so much want to tell the story about the origin of the infamous Alien creature, but the origin of us. Do we have a Creator? And if there is a Father for the human race, what would happen if we met him?
The director’s own father—a Colonel in the British Army—barely registered as a presence for Scott growing up, and that gnawing sense of parental abandonment burns through some of his best films like blood from a wounded xenomorph. In Blade Runner, for example, the replicant Roy Batty finally meets his reclusive designer—“I want more life, father”—only to find him unable to meet his demands. Frustrated and enraged, Batty kills him.
In Prometheus, we hear the refrain again. Vickers (Charlize Theron) is estranged from her father. Shaw (Rapace) lost both her Christian missionary parents at an early age. The most striking iteration comes from the ship’s android, David (a wonderfully creepy Michael Fassbender). Though he apparently lives for the approval of his designer, he nevertheless asks, “Don’t we all want to see our parents die?”
But there’s another twist to this favorite theme. This time, the focus is not on the child who kills the parent, but—as the rapidly diminishing crew discover—the parent who seems hell-bent on killing the child. As the film comes to a close, we’re no longer asking, “Who made us?” but “Why did they make us, and why do they now want to kill us?” These are the questions that position the audience, none too subtly, for two sequels poised to follow.
Those who enjoy hunting for sermon illustrations at their local multiplex will find handsome pickings in Prometheus. For example, there’s the God who makes us in his own image. There’s the beguiling but deadly serpentine creature who kicks off the carnage. There’s the self-destructive human drive to attain God-like immortality and wisdom. And there’s the unsettling notion that our Maker is—contrary to our expectation—far from pleased with us.
Though visually seductive, Prometheus is not the masterpiece many hoped for. Yes, there is plenty of food for post-show metaphysical discussion. Will religious belief ultimately be destroyed by scientific discovery? What is David’s agenda? Who is the Prometheus of the title—us or them? But the ideas, often interesting in themselves, are too numerous and undercooked to cohere properly, and the film also suffers from occasional lapses of internal logic that sabotage its philosophical pretensions.
That said, the film certainly evokes gratitude that God has revealed himself to be graciously engaged with his creation. Far from being the absentee parent, the triune God is ever present, actively sustaining the entire universe by his Word, and tirelessly working for the eternal good of those who love him. Scott is right that our Creator is angry. But no human writer could concoct the devastating, disarming spectacle of that same loving Creator actually giving his own life in order to redeem an undeserving creation in rebellion against him.
Meanwhile, Scott speaks of himself as agnostic. He finds evolutionary theory too far-fetched to explain how we came to exist, and presumably finds the biblical account wanting. Ironically, the “grand mythology” substituted by Prometheus trades both of these for the idea that life on earth was created by an extra-terrestrial proto-human Engineer who seeded the planet (apparently via suicide) with his own DNA. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”
The script does at least have the intelligence to recognize that the discovery of the Engineers only poses a larger question, namely, “Who made the Engineers?” Characteristically for Prometheus, however, the answer is something of a disappointment.