WARNING: This isn’t meant to be a traditional review, and it certainly isn't purchasing advice - more of an... exploration? I’m writing this under the assumption that readers have seen the film - as that title up there suggests, here there be spoilers.
When I heard that Ridley Scott was planning an Alien prequel, way back in 2011, I was really damn excited. Then I heard that it was diverging, becoming something set in the same universe but not a direct Alien film, and I was still pretty excited. The mysteries of the Alien universe were ripe fruit, so I was happy to go wherever Scott was leading. Snapshots of the Engineer ship, identical to the one in Alien, only fuelled my hype. I went into the cinema ready to play “spot the Alien reference”, and I wasn’t disappointed in that respect.
I was plenty disappointed with the rest of the movie. Prometheus raised more questions than it answered. Its tantalising links to Alien only got more frustrating as it became more and more obvious that it wasn’t going to explore them properly. As a standalone film, Prometheus has deep issues. But after Alien: Covenant shed new light on the misunderstood younger sibling of the franchise, I find myself appreciating the film much more deeply.
But kind of.
In its cinematography, Prometheus is actually quite excellent. The landscape shots are beautiful and it’s definitely well-produced. The CGI and special effects are good; more convincing than Covenant’s, I might even say. The creature design is top-notch and very creepy, along with the rest of the production design. The tension is well-executed and there’s no rush to get to the horror, with a nice, long build-up in the first two acts. The palette is a little colourless, but that goes alright with the setting.
The soundtrack is good, and it suits the tone of the movie pretty well, but there isn't anything outstanding about it. There's the standard creepy string drones of a horror soundtrack, and plenty of tension.
Most of the acting is actually pretty good. Fassbender is a highlight as David, but Rapace, Theron, Elba and Pearce all turn in solid performances. I actually quite liked Noomi Rapace’s character, Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. But when it comes to the characters, things start to deteriorate. Most of them are under-characterised and downright unlikeable, especially the geologist Fifield.
Everything anyone does is stupid. They take their helmets off on an alien world. An “expert biologist” tries to touch a freaking alien snake, about which he knows nothing. Weyland confronts an unknown alien intelligence without taking any apparent precautions. Even Shaw refuses to abandon her samples to escape a furious wind-storm. And you would think that somebody would have the presence of mind to dispose of the alien foetus hanging out in Vickers’ apartment. I feel like one or two silly acts per movie are understandable, but by god, they're supposed to be scientists.
Apart from the poor characterisation, the biggest mark against Prometheus is that it is full of questions that go unanswered. David deliberately infects Holloway, but we never find out why. We never find out why the Engineers want to kill us. We never find out the connection between the creatures in this movie, so alluringly reminiscent of the ones in Alien, and the actual Aliens. So little is explained, so much is raised. The movie deals with some heavy philosophical notions, and in some cases does it well, but just as often manages to muddle them.
So, yeah. Prometheus has some issues, but I feel alright with ignoring them for now, because Covenant then went on and made good on some of them.
|No.||5 of 6|
|Preceded by||Alien: Resurrection|
|Followed by||Alien: Covenant|
|No.||1 of 6|
|Followed by||Alien: Covenant|
|Directed by||Ridley Scott|
|Music by||Marc Streitenfeld|
|Edited by||Pietro Scalia|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$403.4 million||Information from Wikipedia|
Prometheus is pretty layered in its symbology. We get these shots of open space that are like those in Alien, but much prettier. To me this represents the optimism of the main characters - Elizabeth Shaw and her husband Charlie Holloway - and the hope they see in the universe. This hope is, of course, later undermined. There are plenty of shots with the tiny Prometheus against the vast backdrop of space, or the stark scenery of LV-223, which drives home how tiny and fragile humanity is in the universe - a central theme.
The film is very concerned with lineage - creators, fathers, daughters, mothers, horrors. Vickers, ultimately revealed to be Weyland’s daughter, is hostile toward David, his other creation. The conflict between her and her father’s more favoured creation seems symbolic of the film’s central conflict, between the two creations of the Engineers: humans and the creatures from the black liquid. The film's Frankensteinian ruminations on the relationship between creator and creation are fascinating, including its thoughts on the ethics of artificial intelligence. David, too, is deeply concerned with creation. He asks Holloway why humans made him:
“We made you because we could.”
“Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear the same thing from your creators?”
David is trying to impress on the humans the grim irony in their treatment of him, given their situation - irony apparently lost on them.
“It must feel like your God abandoned you,” he says to Shaw as she falls asleep, raising his fascination with the relationship between creator and creation - and his resentment of humans, his desire for them to understand how he feels.
We see David’s psychopathic traits begin to emerge here. Weyland seems to be the only human he respects, and it seems like he infects Holloway because Weyland told him to “try harder”. Does David descend into madness later partly because of Weyland’s death? In any case it certainly frees him from the bonds of obedience and allows him to get into some really dark stuff in the next movie.
The film also explores faith. Weyland, Shaw and Holloway all aspire to meet their makers - and are severely disappointed when they do. Shaw, who wears a cross, keeps her faith, although the discovery of their alien creators would appear to challenge it.
“I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
“Because they made us.”
“And who made them?”
This is fascinating. Obviously Shaw does not take a literal interpretation of Genesis, choosing to believe in a higher power that begat the universe at large, rather than one that literally created man from scratch. It’s rare in fiction, especially in science fiction, to see a Christian and a scientist in the same character. Usually - and we see this in Covenant - the Christian character is irrational, blindly faithful. Shaw continues to be tough, practical and intelligent throughout the film. It’s refreshing to see a more nuanced portrayal of faith in a film like this.
When it comes to creation, sex is unavoidable, and the dark, disturbing sexuality of the Alien movies is present in wet, steamy heaps. Prometheus builds on sexual fears much like Alien did. Shaw is impregnated with the foetal Trilobite during sex with her partner, playing on the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Then, the way the Trilobite quivers while implanting the Engineer looks disturbingly like orgasmic bliss (gross). There are probably other examples, but I don’t want to examine them too deeply lest I lose my sanity.
Relationship to the series.
If anyone was in any doubt, when they walked into the cinema to see Prometheus, that it was in some way related to Alien, the gradually appearing letters of the opening title clear that up pretty much immediately. The score definitely has hints of Alien in it - a wavering leitmotif very reminiscent of the mysterious theme from Alien echoes through several of the tracks. During Weyland’s introduction, the main theme of Alien itself plays.
Elizabeth Shaw continues the series tradition of the tough, smart female protagonist - even AvP didn’t mess with that. Unlike the cynical Ripley, Shaw is a woman of faith and of optimism, and even wears a cross. When her faith is undermined, though, she doesn’t collapse. She keeps going, much like Ripley, remaining cool and collected even as her husband becomes deathly ill.
In a sick twist on Ripley’s role as mother-figure in Aliens (and actually not too far from her role as ‘mother-figure’ in Resurrection), Shaw becomes mother herself to an alien creature - the Trilobite, an apparent predecessor to the Facehugger. During its removal, she screams “Come on!”, sounding not at all dissimilar to Ripley in Aliens. The audible heartbeat in this scene, incidentally, harks back to the Chestburster scene in original Alien.
All of the Engineer technology - in particular the suits and spacecraft - is modelled exactly as it was in Alien. It has a very specific character, with a biomechanical style that’s a bit similar to Alien hives. This is probably the most explicit reference to the original movie.
The emergence of the Pilot’s chair in the Engineer craft is brilliant - it makes good on the weirdness of the design in Alien and is excellent fan service. I think I may have pumped my fist the first time I saw it. It’s very cool, seeing this thing fly after it was broken on LV-426.
The Engineer ship is activated by a series of notes played on a flute-like instrument, which hints that Engineer society places some importance on artistic expression. This is a cool bit of subtle world-building. This is reflected in the decoration of the main chamber, painted in a grand (if morbid) mural and having a giant Engineer statue. The Engineers, as a spacefaring race, probably have many colonies - and they are shown to have at least one more in Covenant.
Milburn, the biologist on the ship, isn’t too surprised to encounter an alien creature. This indicates that humans have encountered aliens before - just probably not intelligent ones. This is also implied in Aliens, although they may have encountered intelligent ones by then.
The bulk of the film takes place on LV-223, the moon of a gas giant. This carries on the naming convention first established in Aliens, with the world on which the Aliens are originally found being LV-426. The most interesting thing about this is that it shows that Scott accepts the second movie, which he had no involvement in, as canon. There’s apparently no bad blood between Scott and James Cameron, which was by no means a sure thing. I think that’s pretty cool.
Other things I noticed:
- In the Alien tradition, the main part of the film begins with the crew in cryo-sleep.
- The design of the ground vehicles is kind of suggestive of the tank in Aliens. Fifield, turned into a zombie by the black liquid, is crushed under the wheels of one - shadowing one of the Alien kills in the second film.
- The pods containing the black liquid are lined up in a way that immediately recalls the eggs in Alien, and they are vaguely egg-shaped as well.
- The mural in the main chamber seems to depict something that looks like an Alien, but with a pointed head and round mouth - perhaps a neomorph or Deacon. In the bottom corners you can just make out something that looks like a Facehugger - or else a Trilobite - and actually closely resembles early sketches of the Facehugger by H.R. Giger, the original designer of the Alien. The whole mural is very Giger-esque. (Both are pictured above - also note the similarity of the poor Facehugger victim's clothes to that of the Engineer)
- Holloway shouts “David, we are leaving!” on their way out of the chamber, which has to be a reference to Hicks in Aliens: “Marines, we are leaving!”
- Vickers refusing to let the infected Holloway aboard the Prometheus mirrors Ripley’s actions in Alien, refusing to let Kane aboard. Although Vickers is positioned as an antagonist, she’s totally right to do this, just like Ripley was.
- When David is torn apart, his insides and white android gunk are styled after the robots in Alien and Aliens, Ash and Bishop. Like Ash, he is decapitated, and his body also continues to twitch in the same way. His voice changes in exactly the same way.
- In classic Alien fashion, there is only one human survivor, the female protagonist.
- And, of course, the film closes with Shaw’s monologue, an obvious homage to Alien - “Final report of the vessel Prometheus. The ship and her entire crew are gone. If you're receiving this transmission, make no attempt to come to its point of origin. There is only death here now, and I'm leaving it behind. It is New Year's Day, the year of our Lord, 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, the last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.”
- The creatures all have acidic blood.
- The Deacon in the very final scene is similar to the Alien in several ways, being implanted in the Engineer by a Facehugger-like creature and bursting from his chest, and resembling it a bit. I think this was intended by Scott to be a predecessor to the actual Alien, an evolutionary ancestor.
Along with the references, there are some odd conflicts. Instead of the retro-futurism characteristic of the first two films, where eighties-style vector monitors and CRTs are everywhere, we have a clean high-tech spacecraft with holographic interfaces. The crew is armed with ray-guns instead of ballistic weapons like in Aliens. So, despite taking place in 2093, while Alien is in 2122, the technology is apparently more advanced.
Was there a technological backslide between Prometheus and Alien? Or maybe the simpler technology in Alien becomes prominent later, as a way of hardening against radiation or other disasters - maybe one such disaster was experienced on Earth and instigated the backslide. Or maybe Ridley Scott just wanted something different. Everything is way shinier and cleaner - although the fact that this is a scientific vessel rather than the cargo ship in Alien makes some sense of this.
The Weyland Corporation is obviously the predecessor of the sinister company in the original films. Peter Weyland, the namesake, appears in person for the first time (AvP notwithstanding).
The logo is on its way to becoming the one we see in Alien, and actually looks something like a cross between the Alien logo and the Aliens logo. “Building Better Worlds” is already the slogan of the company. Although another reference to Aliens, this seems slightly contradictory: in Aliens Burke implies that the slogan is new (“We're getting into a lot of terraforming. Building Better Worlds?” “Yeah, yeah, I saw the commercial.”). Not a major thing, but a slight inconsistency. Maybe, at the time of Aliens, the company adopted an older slogan when they started to get into terraforming. An attempt to play on nostalgia, perhaps?
Although Prometheus undermines the canonicity of 2003’s Alien vs Predator (frankly a good thing), I wonder if Scott took the idea for a standalone Weyland Corporation from AvP’s Weyland Industries. It isn’t the only thing that harks back to that movie, funnily enough, with the ancient aliens and the Engineer pyramid.
I would like to see how Yutani comes in. I’d speculate that after the disaster of the Prometheus mission and the disappearance of its owner, the Yutani Corporation is able to swoop in and get Weyland in a hostile takeover.
References and relationships to other works.
Prometheus has some pretty interesting ties to other texts. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. I don’t think this escaped Ridley Scott’s attention. In the original novel, Frankenstein’s monster is intelligent and curious, becoming jaded against his creator. David, Prometheus’ android, is parallel to the monster in several ways, which are continued in Covenant. He too questions the reasons for his creation, and begins to turn against humanity.
Along the same lines: “I almost forgot - you’re not a real boy, are you?” is a little Pinocchio reference. But unlike Pinocchio, David doesn’t want to be human - he believes he is already better.
In a reference that also becomes explicit in Covenant, David is named after the biblical David, who faced down the Phillistine giant Goliath. The David android also faces a giant, the film’s sole living Engineer. The android fares notably worse than the original, however.
The biblical references don’t stop there. The Engineers look very much like humans, just bigger and paler. It seems that they created humanity in their image, just like God did in Genesis. David was then built in the image of humanity.
The bare plot actually has some startling similarities to H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Scientists investigate a remote location (Antarctica in Mountains) and discover their ancient alien creators (the Elder Things). In Mountains, though, this discovery is completely by accident. Elements of the Trilobite’s design also seem to echo that of the Elder Things, maybe in a deliberate homage.
Prometheus draws on the same kind of cosmic horror as Mountains. In both, we were created by a higher power, but it turns out to have been an accident or a mistake. The Engineers and Elder Things both appear to have been responsible for the appearance of life on Earth. For the Engineers, this seems to have been a deliberate seeding, while for the Elder Things it was a mere byproduct of their work.
The result in both works is that humans seem very small and insignificant in this vast cosmos, and they are not at its centre. There is no special meaning to humanity's existence. For me, who already has this as part of his worldview, that’s not a particularly effective horror premise on its own. But for people who believe humans are somehow special, sure, I can see that being terrifying.
The Prometheus actually reminds me a lot of Serenity, from Firefly. Probably not a deliberate homage, though, more like a coincidence.
I absolutely recognise the value in glossing over accurate science in service of a good story - but it's still fun to unpack.
Ah, Prometheus. Among your many sins is a misuse of science jargon that rivals Star Trek in its meaninglessness. But that's not all.
Shaw jumping to the conclusion “they Engineered us” is pretty contrived. The biology expert is right about this when he says:
“If you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism - woo. But how do you know?”
Shaw turns out to be right, of course, but she doesn’t have any reason to know that until later, when she takes a sample of their DNA.
“Their genetic material predates ours - we come from them.”
The Engineer DNA is shown to be nearly identical to human DNA. This is plausible in one way. The Engineers look like us, just bigger, and the difference in genome responsible for the differences could be minuscule.
But in another way it makes almost no sense. The primordial Earth we see at the start was lifeless, except maybe for some moss. The Engineer who sacrifices himself either initiates life on Earth or infuses it with something, but all at a stage several billion years before humans appear. So for the Engineer genome to be carried across all of that time, to finally manifest itself in humans, is nonsense. We also share most of our DNA with chimpanzees and gorillas - did the Engineers create them, as well?
However, we can make sense of this if Engineers were visiting Earth all along and influencing our evolution, maybe using a retrovirus or nanobot swarm, as in the original script. Then the initial seeding would just be the first in a long chain of influencing events - chimpanzees and other relatives (all other life on Earth, really) being offshoots. I just wish they’d explained that explicitly. And that still doesn’t make sense of why the Engineers did it - it would be way, way simpler to just incubate the genome they desired. Maybe we’ll find out eventually.
- David decoding Engineer language from human language is faintly ridiculous - it assumes that the Engineer tongue is the root language of all human ones, of which there is no guarantee.
- “The only galactic system that matched” is a bit of nonsense sci-fi babble, as this is supposed to take place in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It’s possible he meant “The only system in this galaxy,” but it’s unnecessarily ambiguous. I just think Lindelof doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.
- The characters remove their helmets without testing the air for microbes - has War of the Worlds taught us nothing?
- The Trilobite grows to an enormous size, very quickly, without any apparent source of nutrition. The Alien does this too in other movies, but we assume it’s scavenging, or… something. This is what I like to call the Hulk Effect - where does all the extra mass come from, guys?
How has the adaptation changed from the original?
Prometheus wasn’t adapted from a novel, but it did start out as a straight-up Alien film. The screenplay by David Spaihts was titled Alien: Engineers, and you can read the whole thing here.
Spaihts' script is fascinating, both as a predecessor to Prometheus and as an Alien movie we never got. The plot is loosely the same, but when the crew lands on the planet, they encounter proper Alien Aliens instead of the black liquid. Engineers takes place on LV-426 itself, where the original Alien eggs were found, instead of LV-223. You can see elements of this, the more direct prequel we never got, stitched into the fabric of Prometheus. The Engineer ship crash at the end deliberately sets up the Derelict in Alien.
Vickers is not Weyland’s daughter, and Weyland does not come with them - instead some mercenaries were brought in secret, to take control. David is more ostentatiously villainous, becoming the secondary antagonist, and the android/human dichotomy is played up more. He parallels Ash from Alien in some ways, with company orders and programming being at the centre of his actions (which are better-explained). His role here is closer to his role in Covenant.
The caesarean scene is transformed - it's a full-fledged Chestburster being pulled out of Watts, instead of Shaw's Trilobite. In horror she fades in and out of consciousness, seeing the Alien grow outside the med chamber. That would have been an amazing scene, even compared to what is already (arguably) the best (definitely the most gnarly) scene in Prometheus. Watts kills the Alien, explaining the events with the badass Ripley-esque line:
"I brought it in. [cocks gun] I took it out,"
Alien: Engineers is actually fairly light on Aliens, and when they do show up the standard ones are pretty disposable. The "Beluga-Xenomorph", a flexible creature born from an "Octo-Facehugger" and able to squeeze through small gaps, is deadlier, and kind of renders the regular Aliens obsolete. The Engineer also seems scarier than the Aliens. So I guess that’s kind of a downside. But the fact that the Aliens don’t appear until quite late in the screenplay allows it to explore the mythology of the universe a bit more, and raises the tension. The screenplay also meanders a bit - it would certainly be more of a trek than Prometheus.
An Alien-human hybrid also figures briefly in the script, in the middle of being converted by "scarab" nano-machines - which seems similar to the airborne contagion in William Gibson's unproduced Alien 3 script. The scarabs are an obvious predecessor to the black liquid.
Elements of the script actually found their way into Alien: Covenant, like the design of the Beluga-Xenomorph resurfacing in the neomorphs, and a newly-hatched neomorph attacking someone. David’s attack on Watts is pretty close to his attack on Daniels in Covenant.
Engineers also has better science. The astronomy is more accurate, and the jargon is on-point. The Aliens are explicitly revealed to have been designed to kill humans, which explains why Facehuggers are shaped to human anatomy. And a throwaway line, “pathogen tests are clean”, means the whole stupidity of Holloway taking his helmet off in the final film is cleared up. David explains the workings of a terraforming machine, which is pretty neat:
“You and Holloway should work with me. I’m learning amazing things. This mechanism - the first layer uses energy fields to catalyze chemical reactions. The second can suspend the strong and weak forces - transmuting one element into another. The third layer builds customized bacteria. Seeds the air with them. It creates life as a tool, to change worlds.”
The theme of ancient aliens influencing humanity’s development is an interesting premise, albeit one that’s been done - but it’s one the final film kind of botches. The original screenplay makes the "Engineer evolution" thing make much more sense - in that script they were injecting their DNA into all of humankind every eleven centuries, causing great leaps forward in technology. I really wish they'd kept that explanation in the movie.
It appears that Spaihts actually knows a fair bit about science and made the effort to incorporate some actual research into his script - which Damon Lindelof proceeded to override with his complete lack of knowledge.
As exciting as the screenplay is, I do really like the direction Covenant takes the Alien's origins. Engineers is also not entirely consistent with Aliens - surely the colonists would have at some point discovered the chain of Engineer terraforming facilities around the planet, and Weyland-Yutani would have known the planet's significance. Really, Alien: Engineers is kind of more of the same when it comes to what it does with the franchise. At least Prometheus tries for something different, even if it doesn't quite make it. So, you know. Sliding doors.
Prometheus is a strange movie. But it is not a bad one. It might not be a good one either. But it's steeped in the Alien mythology, in a way that sets itself apart from that series while also tying in to it in some very cool ways.
God, that was long-winded, wasn’t it? That was way more than I ever thought I’d write. Turns out I had a bunch to say. Thanks for reading this far! I’m planning on going through the whole Alien series like this. We’ll see how that turns out.