‘Prometheus’ provokes deep thought

Sarah Contreras

I’m a big fan of movies that force the audience to think. More often than not, I leave the theater feeling as if the film powers that be have severely underestimated my ability to ponder, to handle anything complex. So when director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner) served up Prometheus on a big intellectual platter, I was ready for a much needed challenge.

Prometheus is, to be brief, a sort of stand-alone prequel to Scott’s 1979 Alien. The movie’s titular spaceship is navigated by a team of explorers intent on finding life on another planet. Note that I did not say “signs of life.” The scientists in this movie are done with signs of life–in fact, they have so much evidence that they’ve been blasted off into space to make contact with creatures that could potentially be our genetic ancestors. What they and their motley crew of travelers find is of course filled with terror, suspense, gore and disgusting humanoid extraterrestrials that are obviously the genetic ancestors of Alien’s famous skeletal baddie. Prometheus is slick and modern; combine that with some of my favorite actors and a favorite director, and I should have had a new favorite movie.

But the experience felt…off. It’s not that I didn’t like the movie, because there was plenty to applaud. I just had a few questions when it was all said and done. The confusion I felt as credits rolled was not something I anticipated. Either I missed something that I was supposed to get, or Prometheus’s ambitions were set too high.

In true Ridley Scott form, the movie’s visuals are stunning. Sweeping, uninviting landscapes are combined with large-scale set pieces that scream, “This is the future, and our technology is badass.” The film’s performances, however, are not quite as on-the-nose. Noomi Rapace (The Millenium Trilogy) is the fiercely religious and curious Dr. Shaw, who is bent on uncovering the answer of where human beings came from and what/who created us. She runs, jumps and suffers with the best of them, and is definitely more rewarding to watch than Charlize Theron’s (Monster, North Country) icy Meredith Vickers, the corporate drone sent to make sure no one steps out of line. But ultimately, their performances are not entirely what I would expect from two such celebrated actresses.

Perhaps their characters fail to shine because they are so incredibly outshone by Michael Fassbender (Shame, Inglorious Basterds) as the android, David. Not to get all fan-girl on you, but Fassbender brings it. He is cool, he is fey, he is as unhinged as any robot who has spent two years playing solo basketball and watching Lawrence of Arabia should be. David causes the audience to simultaneously feel sorry for him as well as distrust every move he makes. Because he is an android, he is tied to a life of servitude and outsider status. His constant bullying at the hands of crew members made me cringe, but then I remembered that David has no feelings. He manipulates viewers just as well as he manipulates the Prometheus crew; the effectiveness of David is a true testament to Fassbender’s talent as well as Prometheus’s writing team.

So if the movie is visually gorgeous and there is some more than decent acting, then what is wrong with Prometheus? I think it stems from the question the movie is asking. At first, the question seems to be, “Why do humans exist?” Shaw wants answers direct from the source, which is why she has traveled to a deadly planet. But, and I do not know whether or not Scott did this intentionally, the movie’s core question shifts to, “What does it mean to be human?” Take, for example, David. He is a machine, designed to understand but not feel human desire, emotion or passion. He is pure curiosity and obedience, which may seem cold and bizarre until viewers get to know the rest of the crew. Prometheus is manned by the most selfish, apathetic and power-hungry crew I’ve come across in recent years. They behave in such grotesquely negative ways (leaving a contact post to have sex, setting a crew member on fire in front of his fiance, denying another crew member a much-needed medical operation and then acting nonchalant when she does it to herself) that at some points, David seems more human than they do.

And then there are the plot holes. What are the aliens? How did they get there? Wait, why did they not try to rescue that guy? How did no one see that coming? Aren’t there multiple ships on this crazy planet? It is almost as if the movie makers ran out of film and budget to answer some glaring questions, but were so focused on Theron’s amazing cheekbones that they didn’t care. It is frustrating, and I have to wonder if Scott meant it to be that way.

Despite having read countless ruminations on the plot holes and bizarre actions, I still can’t quite put my finger on the message of the film. But the reason I don’t entirely hate this movie is that I find myself wanting to understand the message. I’ve been thinking for days, and to me that is a mark of a movie worth paying attention to. Prometheus will probably garner a second viewing from me, and if you’re into the sort of movie experience that lingers, it definitely deserves a first viewing from you.