In Defense of Prometheus
2012’s Prometheus takes place in the Alien cinematic universe, 29 years before the events of the 1979 classic. Prometheus received generally positive reviews. It does hover around 70% and 7/10 at just about every major film rating site so it is far from being considered a perfect movie. However, I think it’s a great movie and I believe a lot of criticism for it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what Prometheus is really about.
If you haven’t seen the movie it is about a pair of scientists, played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, who have discovered ancient illustrations across numerous eras and civilizations depicting a series of planets very far away. Since there’s no way these civilizations could discover these planets with their primitive technology, Dr. Shaw (Rapace) and Dr. Holloway (Marshall-Green) take this as proof of not only the existence of aliens but also extraterrestrial contact with human beings. Shaw and Holloway believe the inhabitants of these planets created human life and are thus dubbed “The Engineers.” They manage to get an expedition funded by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. With a top notch flight crew, a team of scientists, an android named David (played by personal favorite Michael Fassbender), and a corporate overseer (Charlize Theron) they set off in search of answers to some very big questions. Why were we created? What is the meaning of life? And a third question asked later in the movie, why would our creators want to kill us?
For those who haven’t seen the movie these questions go unanswered. This is almost always the main focus when talking about Prometheus. Critics who hate it, John Semley of Slant Magazine said “maddeningly unresolved plot threads and cornball cosmic mysticism” and gave it a 38/100, say it’s shallow and the refusal to give closure is a waste of immense potential. Those who love it tend to believe the outstanding visuals and general mood of the movie makes up for its perceived short comings in plot. Then there are those who believe the unanswered questions are not a short coming at all, but instead are a strength. Roger Ebert called it “A magnificent science fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn’t have the answers” and gave it a perfect score. I side more with Ebert than anyone else here but I have my own opinion.
I believe the questions asked are just character motivation and the answers don’t matter. The questions of who are we? And what is the meaning of life? And their potential answers are the reasons someone would be willing to fund a trillion dollar space mission but they are not the reasons Prometheus was made. Prometheus has the classic set up of a team of scientists investigating something mysterious only to die one by one. It’s more action than horror but at its core it’s still about an expedition that goes wrong. At its core it’s still an Alien movie.
The expedition finds one of the Engineers and David the android asks him a question in their language. The Engineer attacks and kills a handful of the remaining crew. Two things about this scene lead me to my conclusion that the answers don’t matter. The first, Michael Fassbender has been asked if he knows what his character David asked the Engineer that made him attack. Fassbender has said he knows exactly what the line was but it doesn’t matter and wouldn’t change your understanding of the movie. Some say David asked the Engineer exactly what Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) wanted him to ask. “This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life.” If that is what he asked than I would side with Fassbender on this one. The second thing is when Peter Weyland is about to die he says, “There is nothing.” In a movie that asks these big questions I would take this line of dialogue to say there is no deeper meaning here.
Furthermore, Prometheus is written by Damon Lindelof who also wrote The Leftovers and if you look at these two together you’ll see some strong similarities. The Leftovers is about the aftermath of an event where 2% of the world’s population has disappeared. The characters are constantly asking big questions about the meaning of life, God, and what is my purpose? The show itself is about the characters asking those questions and their attempts to get them answered rather than the answers themselves. In fact, any time someone posits what they think is an answer to any of these questions it’s often a comedic moment meant to ridicule the need for an answer.
The flip side to this is what if the questions were answered? Would a character in the movie telling us that love and unity is the meaning of life really be a good addition? Would the Engineer, when asked why they would try and kill humanity, giving a monologue about how humanity is violent and dangerous be a satisfying answer? I’ve seen those before. I don’t think seeing it again as a major plot point would be interesting. I think Lindelof understands that and uses these major questions and the lengths we go to get them answered to tell an interesting story. In the end, Prometheus puts us no closer to the answers and maybe that’s why many find it so frustrating. I think it’s easy to read too much into the questions but if you can take a step back and enjoy Prometheus for what it is you might find a great movie.