Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Prometheus (2012)

[Movie Poster via]
This month marks the DVD release of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 film, Alien. I’ve been so wound up and excited in anticipation of this disk, since before the first time I saw Prometheus at the theater. I wanted to make a side-by-side comparison of themes and motifs in both Prometheus and Alien in order to analyze Scott’s vision of the past, present and future.

I was fortunate to see Prometheus twice in the theater, the first time in IMAX 3D. It was worth the additional hour-long travel time and expense to see in IMAX as the visual detail and the sense of immersion were incredible. The roughly fifteen minutes of film shot in Iceland are breathtaking, setting the tone for the rest of the film.

My film viewing experience both times was improved by my “date” — my 14-year-old son accompanied me, being almost as much of a sci-fi buff as I am. His reactions were priceless for their raw, untrained quality, as were his questions and comments after each viewing.

Prometheus does not rely heavily on the story arc established in Alien; the earlier sequel is now a precautionary tale of lesser heft than the more recent prequel. The xenomorph canon is preserved in both; the “monster” is a uber-killer, a space shark that eliminates human lifeforms ruthlessly and efficiently. It retains its purity, "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality," features which Alien's android science officer Ash admired so greatly. Alien did a fine job of letting the Giger-influenced creature off its leash to do its thing. In Prometheus, the xenomorph plays a lesser role. It’s the threat of the xenomorph as exterminator that is critical to this film, as well as the meaning of its existence.

But that is the entire question of Prometheus: what is the meaning of Earthlings’ existence? who are the Engineers, genetic forebears of Earth’s humans, and why do they also exist? Ultimately, Prometheus is one massively nested existential question; the entire plot is based on the discovery that Earth may have been visited by aliens called the Engineers, and that the planet was seeded with life resulting in humans that are nearly identical in genetics to the Engineers. The mega-rich corporate funder of the exploration project, Peter Weyland, is driven by a question: what is the secret to everlasting life? How does he defer his own impending death from aging? Can the Engineers as our creators answer his questions?

These questions are those that underpin many human religions; religions were based in myth that provided a framework of beliefs which we chose to believe answered the questions of our origin and continued existence. Prometheus the movie is built upon some of the oldest Earthling myths and archetypes--the Greek Titan Prometheus’ quest for fire and knowledge, the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh that explained the origin of culture and the limitations of man’s life, and Judeo-Christian faith, which instills in us a need for sacrifice to a greater cause. The "mural" in the alien vessel's stockpile chamber is reminiscent of the Hindu dark goddess of death, Kali, as are the xenomorphs. Even the pagan Triple Goddess and Christian "virgin birth" myths echo with main character Elizabeth Shaw's xenomorphic "pregnancy." Pulling these mythos together in this movie does not answer humanities’ or Peter Weyland’s questions; we are left hanging at the end of the movie, having been told only that there is an order to things.

Vickers, Weyland’s sketchy daughter figure says to him, “A king has his reign and then he dies. It’s inevitable. That’s the natural order of things.”

This line could have been lifted from the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh; the ancient poem-story tells us that the gods retained eternal life for themselves, while death was the ultimate dominion of man. Was this what we should have known from the beginning of our origin here on Earth, that life is finite and should be enjoyed and revered? Was the reference to the Greek legend of Prometheus a poke at the pursuit of knowledge Earthlings may not possess with regard to everlasting life?

Is it our corrupted attitude toward life--believing in a hereafter that will never come, which in turn cheapens corporeal life--that set the Engineers on a mission to exterminate Earthlings with xenomorphic weapons of mass destruction?

As you can see, we have nothing but questions in advance of the next movie in this story arc. Many moviegoers questioned the quality of the film because there were so many unanswered questions. Events in the film looked liked flaws in the storyline or in execution--like the stupidity of naif biologist Millburn, who takes no precautions whatsoever as he “discovers” a life form in the chamber containing vessels of black goo.

But the stupidity and naivety aren’t flaws; they’re intentional if Ridley Scott’s at the helm. Is it at all possible that Earth’s iteration of humanity is so fundamentally flawed that the Engineers were compelled to come back and eliminate this error?

Just look at what we’ve done to our fellow humans, our fellow earth creatures, this biosphere on which we were planted. We’ve shat where we ate, too stupid not to soil and desecrate this finite place, killing off finite life forms in the process.

Thank goodness there is an end to us, if this is the real problem with Earth’s humankind. Perhaps the reason the Engineers are coming for us is that we are too bloody close to discovering the secret of eternal corporeal life--the true blasphemy if resources are finite, making us too much like the xenomorphs used as weapons against us.

With more than six works in various stages of production, we’ll be waiting a while to discover the answers to existential questions posed by director Ridley Scott and Prometheus writing team Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.

Or perhaps it’s as scientist Shaw says: the answer is what we choose to believe.

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