Ten years ago, Ridley Scott defied expectations of an Alien prequel, crafting a space odyssey both magical and harrowingly human. In our undying pursuit of life’s meaning, Prometheus ponders: what if we don’t like the answer?
In 1979, audiences cowered from the ultimate in alien terror: the Xenomorph. That alien isn’t just an iconic movie monster; it’s the epitome of extra-terrestrial evil, the very essence of what we fear from our darkest skies. They violate us, burst from within, grow to become one with the shadows, hunt us, and feast on us.
That, and Alien banked its legacy on a simple tenet: a haunted house is even scarier in space, and in space, nobody can hear you scream. This spawned a franchise that soared to the highest echelon of one-two movie punches with Aliens, only to stumble with Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection, and implode with the ill-fated Alien vs. Predator spinoffs.
Meanwhile, in the early noughts, Ridley Scott was tinkering with the pre-Nostromo age of space exploration. In 2012 – paired with a script written by Jon Spaihts and redeveloped by Damon Lindelof – we got Prometheus, an under-appreciated movie that only complements Alien’s restrained scope with its epic nihilism. “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
Prometheus stuns from its opening, confounding moments
Prometheus slackens your jaw and confounds in its opening moments; as rousing woodwinds carry you through the clouds of an unknown planet – it’s not necessarily Earth, Scott earlier said – we’re met with a muscly milk bottle of a humanoid. He guzzles some black gloop, causing his body to erode into ash and fall into a crashing waterfall, seemingly birthing human DNA as we know it.
We forward-wind to 2089, with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) spelunking on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. There’s a rather beautiful irony in caving into the Earth to chart a path through the stars; if only they’d taken the hidden nature of the map as an omen, not an invitation.
Then comes the first Alien connection: the archaeologists convince the Weyland Corporation (led by Guy Pearce in ghastly elderly makeup) to fund a trillion-dollar expedition to a distant planet. This requires two years of cryosleep on a ship maintained by state-of-the-art android David, played by Michael Fassbender, delivering what may be his finest performance to date, making the film his own with every word and smile, be it guised or genuine. In the words of Magneto, “perfection.”
The crew makes up a stonking cast: Charlize Theron as the mission’s embittered Captain, Idris Elba as the chief pilot, alongside Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, and Kate Dickie. Patrick Wilson also appears with an inexplicable British accent.
Their awakening is an understated highlight of the movie; while others in the genre dance around drowsiness, Prometheus makes it seem utterly horrible. Emerging from their pods, covered in sweat and other bodily liquids, bile dripping down their chins and panting back to normal, it’s an unromantic view of deep space travel.
10 years later, Prometheus is still a technical marvel
As a piece of mainstream filmmaking, it’s a technical marvel. Note the vivid, sparingly precise use of visual effects in service of practical animatronics and atmospheric sets; one runaway scene from a solar storm is a match for a similar sequence in Mad Max: Fury Road a few years later.
Then there’s Dariusz Wolski’s clinical, flawless cinematography and terrific sound design, capturing the panelled futurism and lonesome glows of David’s night-time wanders, the baroque, drip-drip eeriness of the Engineer’s ship, and the majestic spectacle of the voyage both in and out of space.
Torchlit sections particularly evoke the feeling of its ’70s forefather, while distinctly different from that film’s rather relentless dread; here, it elevates their probing of the unknown, rather than any one-dimensional fear.
Lord above, the music: Marc Streitenfeld composed the bulk of the score, and even leans on Jerry Goldsmith’s original work for one track. However, it soars off the back of a supplemental track put together by Harry Gregson-Williams: ‘Life’, which booms over the opening vistas.
We should have no qualms in declaring it one of the great sci-fi themes; it has all the classic magic of a James Horner piece while tapping into something darker. In purely emotional terms, it sounds like discovery.
This staunch appraisal does come with the concession of Prometheus’ flaws: yes, the script often defies common sense and is altogether a bit patchy, such as Spall and Harris somehow getting lost and acting like the Two Stooges when faced with a nasty alien snake.
Prometheus isn’t without flaws, but they’re part of its lasting legacy
One simply must acknowledge the maddening Prometheus School of Running, a set-piece so absurd it made me scream at my screen after all these years. As Theron and Rapace sprint from the giant donut ship, quickly rolling towards them, they proceed in a straight line. If they ran literally anywhere to either side, they’d be alive. Hare-brained idiots; Theron’s character deserved to befall the fate of a pancake.
Yet, these moments fester in your head. Think about the raw panic of Theron’s Captain in the moments preceding her death, feeling her legs crumple, then her waist, then her chest. Consider the pain Harris’ geologist must have felt as his helmet melted onto his face. Try to imagine the feeling of a slimy serpent inside your shirt before sliding down your throat.
Other scenes are more immediate: the surviving Engineer’s demise at the tentacles of the massive alien bodyhugger has made my skin crawl for years; Rapace’s self-caesarean is one of the rawest scenes Scott has ever crafted; and Marshall-Green’s reanimation – no matter how unexplainable – unravels viciously with 28 Days Later-esque frenzy.
That’s just the thing, though: Prometheus’ greatest asset is the things it point-blank refuses to delve into. Why did the Engineers create human life? Why did they want to return to Earth and unleash a chemical weapon to destroy us? Where do they come from, if they created us?
Questions unanswered aren’t holes, they’re just unanswered questions, questions which inspire debate and curiosity. It’s almost soothing in a tell-all blockbuster age where something can’t mean nothing and everything means something. This very resistance to the absence of an answer all links back to what makes the (in)humanity at the core of Prometheus so desperately futile, and effective.
Stanley Kubrick, who made the all-time opaque sci-fi with 2001: A Space Odyssey, put it best: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
Prometheus is a bold, scary testament to that everlasting search for light anew. The question is: should mankind try to find peace in the darkness?