Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Space: the final frontier. Or is it the beginning of everything? That’s the question that Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s 2012 prequel to his own beloved Alien franchise, mutely poses in its opening scene, and it’s the question that fuels much of the film. With Alien: Covenant (the sequel to Prometheus), now in theaters, I’d like to look back at the film that is much smarter and more profound than it has any right to be.
Prometheus opens with breathtaking landscape shots that could depict the ends of the Earth or another planet entirely. This haunting beauty, threaded throughout the film, creates a sense of awe that foregrounds any and all discoveries about humanity’s origins – the visuals remind us of how small we are in the grand scheme of the cosmos, but many of the film’s characters have a long way to go in order to discover that.
Indeed, the interplay between humility and hubris is one of the most compelling dichotomies that typify the human capacity for invention and discovery. The title of the film (and, in-universe, the title of the spaceship used to transport our main characters) naturally calls to mind two overarching mythologies of humankind: there’s the Greek Titan Prometheus who defies the gods to bestow fire – the source of all advancement and creation – upon humans, and the more “modern Prometheus,” better known as the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both involve humans taking on the role of God(s) and acting as creators rather than creations. And both tales have tragically gory endings: Prometheus is condemned to be chained to a rock and have his liver pecked at for all eternity, and Frankenstein’s monster embarks on a murderous rampage as a rebellion against his uncaring creator.
The Alien franchise, skewing more towards horror than science fiction, certainly embraces grisly images such as these, and Prometheus is no exception. But Prometheus also introduces the fascinatingly complex character of David, an android built by humans, played with steely inscrutability by Michael Fassbender. “David,” it should be noted, offers another allusion to the hubris/humility dichotomy – on the one hand, David is the name of the Biblical figure who was a loyal and devoted servant of God, but it is also the name of Michelangelo’s iconic sculpture – one of the greatest objects crafted by man. In science fiction, androids are often utilized to showcase the gap between human ingenuity and humanity, to tease the question of what truly makes humans human. David, who placidly spends the film being scoffed at and belittled by his “superior” human crew mates, is the rare creation who does not want to be like his Creators, and his silent disdain at the whims of humanity is disturbingly delightful to behold.
But then there are the humans on board the Prometheus, led by intrepid explorers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Shaw and Holloway discover ancient cave paintings that point to a new creation story – one that began among the stars. Joined by David, Idris Elba’s Janek as the jolly captain of the Prometheus, a geologist, a biologist, and Charlize Theron’s sinister bureaucrat Meredith Vickers, Shaw and Holloway set out to quite literally meet their makers, whom they’ve dubbed “Engineers.” Though they call themselves scientists, Shaw and Holloway are, at heart, more like philosophers, seeking answers to the questions that have plagued humanity from time immemorial: Who are we really, and why are we here?
Co-screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are an intriguing and fitting pair to explore these fraught themes. As co-writer of Doctor Strange, Spaihts knows a thing or two about making explosive ego relatable, and Lindelof has extensively explored the interplay between faith and existentialism on both Lost and The Leftovers. Shaw notably sports a cross around her neck, and she tells a crew member who doubts her theory about the Engineers by replying: “It’s what I choose to believe.” Soft-spoken but passionate, Shaw represents a conflation of science and religion, an emblem of, perhaps, what it truly means to be human.
Of course, this is still a Ridley Scott space bonanza, so when Shaw insists on “no weapons” because “this is a scientific expedition,” we obviously know better. Outside of the sleek, futuristic comfort of the Prometheus, the “scientific expedition” is soon disrupted by globs of extra-terrestrial goo and some classic, slimy space octopuses. And let us not forget the no good, very bad day experienced by Shaw as her compatriots are picked off one by one and she activates her Ripley-esque badass mode. After a sterile Shaw is (miraculously) impregnated by an infected Holloway, she arranges her own caesarean section in order to remove the alien parasite. The scene plays out in terrifyingly grisly detail, a testament to the gothic horror of the Alien franchise while also serving as an homage to the mythical image of Prometheus himself, abdomen slit open, punished for his selfless act for humanity.
But for all its interplanetary splendor and technological wizardry, Prometheus most notably grapples with the vast concept of what it means to be human. This idea is explicitly addressed during a conversation between a beaten down – but not beat – Shaw and a smug David at the end of the film. David cannot comprehend Shaw’s need to understand why the Engineers eventually turned against their own creations (i.e., humans), but Shaw, a woman of faith, doesn’t expect David to understand. In the film’s powerful conclusion, Shaw’s tired but triumphant mantra shines like a beacon in the dark and unknown cosmos: “My name is Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.”