“Where do we come from?” is easily one of the most pondered questions of humankind. It’s the fundamental foundation of multiple schools of philosophy (or has, at least, inspired them) and has kept most of us guessing for eons. So, when anyone hears that Ridley Scott’s releasing a movie that’s got the answer, of course that gives them two reasons to see the movie: a) the answer to the great question (or at least a visual, artist’s representation of the answer) and the fact that Ridley goddamn Scott has come back to the box office.
And Scott’s return is visually triumphant. Prometheus is a movie with sweeping, realistic landscapes, otherworldly creatures that somehow don’t feel outside the realm of galactic possibility despite their CG composition, and large, science-fiction complexes that feel possible to the viewer. The only exception to this is the character of Weyland, played by Guy Pearce in absurdly terrible makeup. Pearce is a young actor and Weyland is a near-ancient character so really, the whole decision to even use him in the movie is baffling and the terrible cosmetics of the situation are unsurprising and come across as almost gag-like. At least initially, as he introduces himself as a doddering old and dying supporter of science and exploration.
And the classic Scott intrigue and suspense are at play as well here. Again, not hard to accomplish being that we’re dealing with questions that most of the audience are interested in anyway. But from the beginning, we’re drawn to scientists Shaw and Holloway and their quest to understand these giant beings that made us. As we cruise through the movie’s first third and discover their planet, examine what’s been left behind, and revel in Shaw’s DNA testing, we cheer and sit on the edge of our seats awaiting more. As the movie shifts towards an action focus in its latter portion, this feeling is less present, but still looming as we continue to hope that the pursuits of science (and the humans following them) escape the terrors of what they find.
For these reasons, it’s easy to say that Prometheus is an entertaining movie. But at the end, you can’t help but shake the feeling that you missed something. After all, for a movie that promises so many answers, it leaves you with a lot more questions than you walked in with.
For example, the very first scene of the movie features an alien creature (of the creator-species dubbed “Engineers” by Shaw and Holloway) drinking a black goo and being obliterated by it as a ship, presumably filled with others of his species watch on. He then falls into a water body and we’re cut to a shot of mutating strands of DNA. I’ve been told that this is meant to be a shot of the Engineers starting life on Earth, but, really, it makes little sense. The scene is ritualistic – the Engineer disrobes and takes a cup to lip as he’s watched over. But why? Did the other Engineers sentence him to death? Why did they wait just to see him die if they were trying to create life? Shouldn’t they have waited around to see if something happened after he died? And, from an audience perspective, how are we supposed to know that’s what is happening? As far as the onlooker is aware, this could easily be the planet of the Engineers testing out a new weapon of some sort, which we’re later led to believe is the case with a mysterious black goo the explorers discover.
Similar problems arise in the execution of the movie’s imposed philosophical discussion. After all, you can’t fail to have a philosophical overtone after pointing out one of the grandest questions in human history and saying “We’re going to find an answer here,” can you? The movie starts off well enough, focusing on Shaw and Holloway’s discoveries on Earth and their noble goal to venture to the stars to seek out their supposed creators. But things fall short when Weyland and Vickers (Charlize Theron) refer to them habitually as “true believers.” This is somewhat acceptable at the start, given the relatively unknown yet supposedly godlike nature of these supposed creatures (whose only evidence of existence are cave paintings), but as the plot advances and focuses more on a hand-me-down cross Shaw wears around her neck, the question becomes more ambiguous.
Are they “true believers” in the existence of these Engineers (which is later rather simply proved), or are they “true believers” in Christianity? Holloway never mentions anything about religion and despite wearing the cross and being highly protective of it, Shaw never does either. In fact, while it’s clear that the movie wants the cross to be a symbol of religion, it’s really nothing more than a memento that Shaw has more of a sentimental attachment to than anything else. Yet it comes up again and again as a forced issue with really no gain.
And then there’s the crux of the philosophical discussion wherein David and Holloway discuss the relative similarity of his existence (with humanity as his creator) and humans seeking out answers from their creators. For someone so supposedly interested in finding answers to this monumental question, Holloway really doesn’t seem to have any respect for the poetry of the situation. At all. As in, he pretty much tells David to blow off in such a manner that makes you wonder how this guy can really be a scientist interested in creation. I mean, for god’s sake, he’s staring the topic in the face and he tells it to go screw itself?
Character motivations can simply shift too dynamically without enough reason. When the Prometheus’s key scientific cowards decide to run from an Engineer corpse, they’re later confronted with a room featuring an obviously hostile life form which they confront without much of a second thought. What happened to the cowardice at an unknown dead creature? Why would they suddenly be willing to reach out and touch a much less intelligent looking and very alive one against their own advice of “don’t touch anything?”
Meanwhile, the android David seems to operate with little motivation, despite his alleged sentience. Perhaps he’s meant to come across as amoral or under the influence of his amoral “father’s” instructions, but mostly, his actions come across as counterproductive to the team’s mission. He experiments willfully on the crew’s primary personnel with no interference and little scientific basis and at times, the crew see to support his off-target aims without any second thought. One scene in particular comes to mind in this case, where David tells Shaw that she’ll have to be put into cryogenic stasis for the remainder of the expedition and, minutes later, the rest of the crew seem to exact his wishes without even taking a moment to give her condition a second opinion. It’s simply baffling.
And, of course, the biggest issue is that, at the end of the movie, there really are no answers. Just more questions. Without spoiling the movie, I think it’s safe to say that it’s a bit unsettling to go the entire way through a movie expecting to find out why things happened the way they happend. Why they Engineers feel the way they do about humans. Why they have this repository of evil black goo. Why they were running through this cave they built to the point where they’re haphazardly getting squished by doors they supposedly made themselves. Or, you know, why they made humans to begin with. But this is crushed by the fact that no Engineer speaks in the entire film.
Some have suggested that the ending sets Prometheus up for a sequel. I can’t argue that I’d go see it if for no other reason than I actually am interested in seeing what Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the answer is. But as for Prometheus, you’ll have to settle for an aesthetically pleasing, suspenseful flick that leaves the audience more than a little emotionally confused by the end. A movie built for the thrills and visuals, not the cerebral talking points, though, admittedly, its mysteries are a great topic of discussion after seeing the movie with friends.