Let’s address the Engineer in the room

Prometheus is a visually stunning, universe-spanning, science-fiction epic, and is a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece, Alien. The movie attempts to weave an expanded mythology based on the lore set out in the original film but ultimately fails to achieve the director’s lofty ambitions. A meandering plot, the lack of a cohesive script, and a series of unrelatable characters make Prometheus the equivlant of film porridge. Others will argue differently, but Prometheus is a bad film.

If the original 1979 Alien is a low budget horror B-movie made into Hollywood gold by a talented director, Prometheus is the opposite: a Hollywood blockbuster made into a low budget B-movie by an appaling script and a failure to resolve any of the themes raised by the screenplay.

And for me that’s what makes Prometheus a fascinating film. I don’t much enjoy watching it on screen, for me what is going on behind the scene is far more interesting. In fact, Prometheus has become something of a muse for me since I first saw it on its UK released day on the 31st of May 2012.

I won’t go on about Prometheus’ plot holes, I promise

Goldmember

It would be too easy to go on about the plethora of plot holes in Prometheus, or I could talk about the series of bizarre decisions made by otherwise intelligence scientists.

I could go on for an age about the unnecessary plot twists, or the decision to dress up a fabulous actor such as Guy Pierce in a Goldmember costume. Instead, this article is about Ridley Scotts attempt to supplant a new mythology into the Alien franchise, raise a series of complex new themes, and how Prometheus adds nothing while taking away much from the series.

Prometheus is not an Alien film

Were it unrelated to the Alien franchise, and were it not to be directed by Sir Ridley Scott, Prometheus would have been consigned to the overflowing bin of science-fiction effluence shortly after its released. The movie would have been stacked on a shelf alongside such sci-fi trash as Pandorum, Battlefield Earth, and Flash Gordon — okay, I exagerate, it’s not quite as bad as those films.

What raises Prometheus about those films are the series of complex themes that the film raises, even if it ultimately fails to develop them, which make it a film worth analysing, if not re-watching.

Prometheus attempts to challenge the audience on the relationship between man, religion and creation myths. It asks the question: what would it be like to meet your maker, and find they were flawed?

The plot of Prometheus

In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway find references to the same star map from otherwise unconnected ancient cultures. Interpreting this as an invitation to meet with humanity’s creators they set off on a mission, funded by the CEO of Weyland Corporation, Peter Weyland, to travel to the moon LV-223. Once they arrive, instead of meeting their makers, they find a dead civilisation called the Engineers, and a host of violent creatures which kill most of the crew. Shaw and Holloway are assisted by the android David, but they are never sure of his intentions, which leads to conflict between the Engineers, the humans, and the machine.

The themes of Prometheus

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a titan who moulded the human race out of clay and, to the anger of the Gods, provided to them with fire thereby aiding in their development. As punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock and condemned to have his liver ripped out and eaten by an eagle…daily. Good times.

Prometheus: the creator and giver of life, condemned to have his abdomen ripped open is a theme which is repeated several times throughout the film, and had an obvious connection back to the original Alien. This theme is even clearer, if slightly too on the nose, in Jon Spaihts original screenplay for the film, then entitled Alien: Engineers:

But I guess we know why they never came back to us. Something killed them off – back around the time of Christ. Maybe He was one of them! A great teacher, sent from Heaven? Jesus. The last Engineer.

At the outset, Prometheus sets up a number of interesting questions:

  • How does the knowledge that mankind was created by an alien civilisation affect an individual’s religion and faith?
  • What does it mean to meet your maker?
  • What if your maker is a flawed being not that differnet to humans?

But first let’s go back to the original 1979 film, Alien, and what makes it so scary

Alien is an HP Lovecraft novel in physical form. Both Alien and Lovercraft are scary because the horrors they describe are unknowable. In the same way that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Azagaoth are only outlined in the minutest of details, so is the alien only shown in brief glimpses in snatches of light. Similarly, when we first encounter the Space Jockey within the alien’s spacecraft there are no explanations as to its origin, it simply is. There is no exposition given, the protagonists simple stand there in awe of what they’re seeing.

The “Space Jockey” from Alien

The creature is only scary if it’s both unknowable and completely believable.

Compare the Space Jockey from the original Alien, with the green crystal found in Prometheus. Both are mysterious concepts, unknown objects which the film never explains, and according to the film notes, in neither case did the writers have an explanation for them — they were just there to be enigmatic. But in the case of the former, the audience is convinced that some hidden meaning exists, while in the latter it’s clearly just a lazy plot device which is forgotten about two minutes later.

Science-fiction while showing us fantastic things must, at the same time, be completely convincing. The audience must never question that the people and organisations in the world they are being shown are genuine and that a real world exists behind the narrow frame of the story that we’re being told. Alien does this brilliantly, because of, not despite the small focus of the story. Prometheus fails on each of those points.


“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” 

In Alien we see a single ship owned by Weyland-Utani and a small group of misfits who you could meet in the canteen in any place of work. In contrast, Prometheus features a cast of faceless misfits who have no personality and no obvious relationships with one another.

Neither is Aliens an Alien film

James Cameron’s Aliens is a brilliant film, in fact I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the greatest action films ever put to celluloid. But, in my opinion, it’s not an Alien film, or at least, it’s not the sequel that the franchise deserved. I would go as far to say that Aliens is one of the reasons the series went off in the wrong direction after Alien 3.

Aliens, like Prometheus, makes the Alien knowable. It turns what was a mysterious eyeless creation, completely unsympathetic or communicable into a bug, an insect. Cameron does this injustice in several ways. First he makes the Alien part of a hive, a collective of drones or workers who can be easily destroyed — the creature is no longer a powerful beast but is instead a cochroach to be crushed. Secondly, he created the queen alien. In the original cut of Alien, the egg morph, but the queen alien gives sentience and organisation to the aliens and allows the audience to understand too much of the creature’s motivation.

Prometheus is a reboot of, not a prequel to, Alien

Despite protestations from the director, and the deliberate attempt to distance the film from the original Alien franchise, Prometheus just hits too many of the same beats to be considered anything more than a soft reboot.


There are far more parallels than those listed below, but this gives you a good placed to start from:

Alien

  1. The crew of a spacecraft get lured down to the surface of a strange planet.
  2. On arriving they set out to explore and find the remains of an ancient civilisation.
  3. One of the crew becomes infected by a parasite resulting in the birth of a deadly alien.
  4. On return to the spacecraft, the crew member is denied entry.
  5. The remaining crew members are picked off until only a lone female remains.
  6. End

Prometheus

  1. The crew of a spacecraft get lured down to the surface of a strange planet.
  2. On arriving they set out to explore and find the remains of an ancient civilisation.
  3. One of the crew becomes infected by a parasite resulting in the birth of a deadly alien.
  4. On return to the spacecraft, the crew member is denied entry.
  5. The remaining crew members are picked off until only a lone female remains.
  6. End

At the Mountains of Madness & The Call of Cthulhu

Prometheus owes much to HP Lovecraft. There are parallels to Prometheus in many of Lovecraft’s works, but most notably At the Mountains of Madness and The Call of Cthulu. I won’t go into all of the details here, but just read the short At the Mountains of Madness and tell me that Prometheus wasn’t lifted directly from those pages.


[The Great Old Ones] all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them.

The Call of Cthulhu , HP Lovecraft

2001: A Space Odyssey did it better

Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel touches on similar themes to Prometheus but deals with them with a far defter hand than Scott’s film. At the start of 2001, we find aliens tinkering with the DNA of a group of apes resulting in their accelerated evolution. We find that messages have been left for the human race in the form of a series of increasingly difficult to reach monoliths, and we are forced to ask the question, are the messages from an unknown creator, a warning to keep away, or an alarm system to alert the creators that their creation has got out of hand.

2001 is the science-fiction equivalent of Shakespeare, and a distance step beyond Prometheus limited grasp of such complex themes.

Why was Prometheus made?

If you pull at each of Prometheus’ plot threads one at a time, we find the whole bundle becomes unravelled. Apart from the facinating potential of Michael Fassbender’s android David, which ultimately suffers from the same fate of the rest of the film, there is no real point to anything in Promentheus, which makes the whole thing even more facinating.

Prometheus is far more interesting from the outside. The attempted expansion of a mythology that only worked when hidden in the shadows and the ultimate destruction it does to the original Alien film is as interesting as the themes it raises. And it’s for that reason that I’m sure I’ll still be watching YouTube videos dissecting Ridley Scotts failed attempt at Stanley Kubrick’s crown for many years to come.

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