by Tony Dayoub
Who would have thought that Prometheus, Ridley Scott's triumphant return to science fiction, is not necessarily designed to evoke the picture it shares the most connective tissue with? 1979's Alien, only Scott's second film, was a horrific variation on the traditional haunted house movie trope in which a small crew of seven miners slowly gets picked off by an indestructible monster in the outer reaches of space. Alien's grungy, shopworn technology, its motley crew of unlikeable and all too human antiheroes, and the emergence of the spaceship Nostromo's whiny, female second officer as the film's lead were among the movie's innovative twists, spicing up a once moribund genre. Eventually, Alien inspired so many copycats it all seemed kind of old hat again. While ostensibly a tangential prequel—explaining a few of the more mysterious elements of Alien—Prometheus takes off on a different course, one especially familiar to those of us around in the '70s.
Back then, one of the prevailing theories being bandied about by pseudo-science writers like Erich von Däniken (author of Chariots of the Gods?) tried to explain many of the inexplicable technological leaps throughout ancient history by positing that contact with alien astronauts was somehow involved. Films and TV shows with similar themes, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Battlestar Galactica (1978) also explored such concepts. Even Robert Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) began development as a television series whose pilot would contend with such theories before ultimately morphing into a movie which would flip the idea on its head. What if we were not influenced by gods? What if, instead, it was we who influenced a god?
Prometheus considers both sides of the question. Rather than invoke the full scale of horror that Alien does, Prometheus strikes me as closer to those '70s science fiction films. Yes, there are legitimately terrifying consequences faced by the crew of the science ship Prometheus after naively initiating an inquiry into the origins of man. But the movie also considers questions of integrating faith with the scientific method, primarily through its two protagonists, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the enigmatic android assisting the ship's crew, David (Michael Fassbender). Continuing the Star Trek comparison for a moment, Shaw would be the Kirk to David's Spock... if Kirk and Spock were insignificant explorers in a Nietzschean universe. David is cold, logical, concerned only with fulfilling a mission he keeps concealed even from his employer, Weyland Corporation executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). However, whether David is entirely devoid of emotion is an ambiguous proposition. When the robot asks one crew member the question all of us want to ask our creator, "Why did you create me?" David looks positively crestfallen at the response: "Because we could."
Shaw tempers her inquisitiveness with a genuine desire to spiritually improve mankind, a quality so guileless in the harsh frontier of space, it practically seems ignorant. her selfless concern for life manifests itself when she realizes that the moon Prometheus lands on is a deathtrap. "My God, we were so wrong," she says. As the crew—some close to her, most not—begin to fall prey to the planet's more lethal aspects, her primary concern for protecting life overrides her intellectual need to keep advancing. David, on the other hand, is incapable of overriding his programming to dig deeper, willing to sacrifice anyone to fulfill his programming. But Fassbender still manages to make David strangely sympathetic by imbuing the character with the blank innocence of an automaton. Fassbender's performance reminds us that David is simply a mechanical instrument. You wouldn't get mad at a toaster for burning your toast, would you? Shaw is different in that there's a bit of Dr. Frankenstein about her. Shaw knows she is partly to blame for optimistically dragging the Prometheus and its crew out to a desolate void they aren't prepared to deal with, and she knows it is her responsibility to undo this mistake.
Even though Rapace is Prometheus's actual lead, after just seeing Theron in another film only two days ago I am taken with her subtlety in playing one of the corporate stooges that have become as much a staple of the Alien film series as its androids have. Vickers is insensitive enough and calculating enough that the Prometheus's captain, Janek (Idris Elba) asks her if she, too, is a robot. But she has enough of a concern for life that she resides in a continuum somewhere between the bloodless David and the beatific Shaw. The only question is whether Vickers is interested in preserving all of her employees' lives or just her own. For a while, and due largely to Theron's complex performance, you'll wonder if she is the unlikely person who will emerge as the story's hero.
Long after Prometheus decides to largely ignore the film from which it was spun off, it unfurls an intriguing premise. Yoking together the unlikely pair of Shaw and David, Prometheus sets up a profound direction of inquiry for its inevitable follow-up. Here's hoping that the sequel shall be a cosmic version of The Defiant Ones... rather than a sci-fi iteration of Midnight Run.