Why Prometheus Deserves to Be Taken Seriously

Ridley Scott’s last sci-fi epic was called an unsatisfying Alien prequel on release, but it’s far smarter, and bleaker, than many might remember.

20th Century Fox

The crux of so many arguments about Ridley Scott’s 2012 sci-fi epic Prometheus revolves around a simple question: Couldn’t Charlize Theron have just run to the left? In the film’s climax, Theron’s cold-blooded, calculating villain Meredith Vickers is crushed while trying to outrun a crashing alien spaceship; several observant critics online noted that had she just turned in another direction, she might have made it out okay. Many of the complaints about Prometheus upon its release (including my colleague Christopher Orr’s measured pan) fell along similar lines: Its characters seemed reckless and impulsive to the point of stupidity, exploring a hostile alien world with casual horror-movie arrogance that ends up getting them killed.

The idea of extra-terrestrial beings picking off humans one by one is essential to the Alien franchise, for which Prometheus served as a prequel. But in the original Alien (1979), directed by Scott, the victims were blue-collar space truckers caught off-guard by a mysterious creature. Prometheus marked Scott’s return to the franchise decades later, and though it did well at the box office, it also seemed open about its contempt for its characters. But in retrospect that attitude feels like a feature, not a bug—especially with the upcoming release of Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, which continues the narrative begun in Prometheus and takes even greater glee in wiping out its human characters.

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.

The most important element in Prometheus’s dynamic between humans and their creators is the one that recurs in its sequel Alien: Covenant, which hits theaters Friday. That would be David (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic being created by Peter Weyland as a sort of son, imbued with extraordinary computer-like intelligence and strength, but designed in man’s image, so as to make the humans around him comfortable. Robots have existed in the Alien franchise since the first movie (some of them hostile, others friendly), but in both Prometheus and Covenant, David feels like the main event rather than a supporting character. In Alien, Scott was most fascinated by his heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the creature stalking her. In his new movies, he’s drawn to David.

David is the logical end-point of humanity’s fascination with its own creation. Peter refers to him as a child, remarking that while David will enjoy immortality, he lacks a soul. Charlie, meanwhile, takes pains to remind David that he’s not human, as much as he tries to imitate them (in Prometheus he watches Lawrence of Arabia then begins to imitate Peter O’Toole’s look and personality from the film). In petitioning the gods, the crew of the Prometheus fails to realize they’ve become gods themselves—and not unusually, David is angry and confused by his creators, simultaneously exuding an air of superiority and a desire to be one of them.

In the end, these insecurities manifest as rebellion, with David harnessing the Engineers’ bio-weapon and using it against his crew mates. This betrayal is his own act of creation, a particularly devilish one—and Scott picks up this thread for his sequel Covenant, which sees Fassbender playing both David and a new robot called Walter, who has been designed to be more docile. Prometheus is not so much a film about the terror of aliens, but about the folly of man. In it, Scott revels in the foolishness of humans’ grandiosity, where cunning industrialists like Meredith Vickers end up as forgotten casualties of forces they can barely grasp. It’s a bleak movie, but hardly the silly horror flick many dismissed it as, and one that deserves a second look by anyone seeking intelligent science fiction from Hollywood.