The clue to really appreciating Prometheus lies in its name—it echoes the Greek legend of the Titan who dared share fire with humanity, and was eternally punished by the gods for his crime. If Ridley Scott’s Alien is a haunted-house movie, a sci-fi spin on people being stalked by an unknown, deadly force, then Prometheus is a tragic spin on a more epic myth, a cautionary tale about humans seeking to understand their makers, as well as daring to imitate them by creating life themselves. Best of all, it’s a wry meta-commentary by Scott on the notion of the prequel itself. Watching Prometheus in hope that it’ll explain the origin of Alien’s mysterious creatures? Be careful what you wish for.
In Prometheus, a scientific space vessel, sponsored by the wealthy Weyland Corporation, lands on a distant moon after archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find ancient star maps suggesting prehistoric tribes encountered alien beings. Elizabeth and Charlie are searching for the so-called “Engineers” who somehow seeded life on Earth before departing for their home world.
Each member of the crew is searching for something different. Elizabeth wants to learn about humankind’s creators, hoping to reconcile these Engineers with her own religious beliefs. Meredith (Theron), representing Weyland, seeks industrial applications for whatever technology the crew finds, while her aged father Peter (Guy Pearce), wants to beg these godlike beings for the answer to eternal life. Each of these hopes is thwarted. Though the crew discovers an ancient Engineer ship and revives one of its occupants, the colossal being (he stands nine feet tall, literally a titan) responds only by attacking them, beating Peter to death after he asks for the secret to immortality. “There’s nothing,” Peter says as he dies, robbed of whatever fountain of youth—or vision of the afterlife—he sought.
Though he did indeed help seed life on Earth, the Engineer is revealed to have been part of a mission to eradicate it with a biological weapon (the kind that spawns familiar-looking alien monsters). He’s quelled only at the cost of almost everyone’s life, with Elizabeth (the lone human survivor) blasting off into space in search of the Engineers’ home world and, she hopes, more answers. It’s a marvelously dark ending for a Hollywood franchise film, a gross comeuppance for everyone, no matter if their motivations were selfish, scientific, or altruistic. It’s also gorgeously filmed by Scott, one of the few directors who can still inventively composite CGI effects and intricately designed sets together to create beautiful, often haunting imagery.
But that grimness is certainly largely due to the screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who massively re-wrote the film, which was originally scripted as more of a straightforward Alien prequel by Jon Spaihts. Lindelof, who co-created the TV shows Lost and The Leftovers, has long been fascinated by humanity’s relationship with its gods, and the pathos (and futility) that comes with trying to understand them. In Lost, the characters grappled with the religious figure of Jacob, the magical protector of the island everything revolved around, who could be as frustratingly aloof as the show itself. On The Leftovers, humans are confronted with the “sudden departure,” a Rapture-like event that spirited 2 percent of the world’s population away without explanation. In Prometheus, the characters seek the aggressive and silent Engineers, who once created us and now seek to destroy us for unknowable reasons.