Prometheus: A Still Nascent Interpretation

| June 29, 2012

I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that some of the questions left by Prometheus have nagged at me over the weeks since I first saw the film, but they nag at me in a good way. I find myself playing out scenarios and imagining myself in a world like that one, filled with malicious aliens crafting devices and diseases that we here on earth cannot comprehend. Trying to piece it all together is a puzzle I enjoy playing with, but if that’s not you I can’t change your mind. If you’ve already seen the movie and the amassing questions—mixed with the knowledge that a real human being invented them for your entertainment and either knows or doesn’t know the answers—frustrates you instead of entertaining you, than your first viewing of Prometheus is a wash. I can’t change your mind or explain it in a way that is satisfying. As Brian K Vaughan pointed out in the final issues of Y: The Last Man, few answers ever are.

What I find remarkable about the questions that Prometheus leaves us with is that they all function within the universe set up by the original Alien mythos and follow the rules of that universe so that we aren’t left frustrated by too many obvious oversights. Having seen the movie twice now, and being the great lover of Ridley Scott’s Alien that I am, I’d like to work through my thoughts on the film.

What is the Black Ooze?

This is perhaps the element that I love most about Prometheus’ interpretation of the Xenomorph. The only line that we get in Alien to describe what the Xenomorph really is comes from Ash’s disembodied head, “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” I guarantee that this is the line that writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof took and ran with.

The black substance, which David tells us is organic, is a genetically engineered bioweapon for uses of mass destruction that attacks organisms on a genetic level, causing mutation. In more complex and evolved creatures it simply kills them, high doses causing practical disintegration—as with the Engineer—and small doses eating away at the insides of a being like a more common virus—as it does when Holloway is infected. This was likely the intended purpose of the weapon because the Engineers would have little reason to make war on less evolved forms of life. It also has some lasting influence on how we interpret the Alien franchise because it deepens our understanding of why Weyland industries would want to capture the xenomorph and bring it home, in hopes that they could reverse-engineer it back to this deadly weapon.

The unexpected side-effect is that the mutations it causes when it comes into contact with less complex forms of life, like the meal worms or an unborn fetus—or unfertilized egg in a damaged uterus—are a more stable mutation, something akin to the rapid evolution of the parasite itself. This mutant origin ties in perfectly with the rules already set up by the Alien films which make it clear that the xenomorph takes on some aspects of the host it was birthed from. That means that the xenomoprh is a highly evolved, biological weapon of mass destruction. It’s a seven foot tall embodiment of VX nerve gas. This is a really badass way of looking at the xenomorph that I think undoes most of the damage done to it by its sequels. If this is the origin of the xenomorph than they shouldn’t be cannon fodder in Aliens or lab rats in Alien: Ressurection. They aren’t just a rabid dog meant to be hunted by Predators. They’re a Frankenstein’s monster. A creature so deadly that its primordial soup would have caused you to disintegrate!

All of this is of course silly sci-fi science and wouldn’t stand up in a scientific laboratory as we know it today, but I was an English major and the movie is meant to be fun, not perfectly plausible science.

Why are these people so dumb?

This is an easy one. They aren’t. End of argument.

I’ve seen complains about how often people take off their helmets in the movie and the truth is that they do it for two reasons: firstly it is a tactic on the part of the filmmakers so that we don’t have to watch our actors act inside a helmet for half the movie; and secondly, because Holloway takes off his helmet and he’s fine. It’s not that they don’t know they shouldn’t take off their helmets, that they don’t consider the possibility that they can get sick. People are screaming at Holloway not to take his Helmet off just before he does it. Holloway takes off his helmet from a place of faith, believing that he’s found the answers to his questions and that he’s safe where he is because his creators are not dissimilar from himself. He is overconfident, not stupid.

Space truckers, like the crew of the Nostromo, have a healthy fear of space; but a group of overzealous scientists do not. They believe themselves pioneers of a new frontier and as such allow their curiosity to be their guide. Predicable as it may be, the scene when the worm-snake first appears and kills the biologist is one of my favorites. Again people have accused that character of being stupid, but he’s not. He shows some fear towards the new life form but encourages both himself and Fifield not to be afraid, that everything is okay. He pushes himself to approach the new creature the way we’ve seen so many hosts on so many nature programs approach snakes so they can grab them by the tail and hold them up for the camera. He’s afraid, but he’s making a new discovery. Scientists here on earth have become so knowledgeable that they believe in a peaceful balance of nature. How many times has someone told you that an animal you think is scary is more afraid of you than you are of it. Heck, I’m afraid of garter snakes so I hear it all the time. Millburn relies on his faith in a nature that he understands. That’s not stupidity, it’s overconfidence and misguided faith.

The reason that you choose space truckers to first run into the xenomorph in Alien is because much like the audience the space-truckers wont know how to deal with a creature like that. What’s cool about Prometheus is that it argues that even scientists would have their faults in first exploring new worlds and new forms of life. But for more complex reasons that just because they’re stupid characters.

Though those two ladies do run the wrong direction from a rolling object. That was dumb.

Why were the cave drawing of the stars left there?

I can invent a scenario for why the cave drawings are there involving a misinterpretation of the drawings, or Elizabeth’s continuing belief that the Engineers were once caring and interested in humans before they went evil, but there is really no need. This is a question that only bugs people because it’s in a movie full of questions. The cave paintings are a macguffin. Without it there simply is no story. If this were a movie where they went to the planet, had long-winded scenes of exposition, had bad things happen to them, and then it ended without any lingering questions, most viewers would forgive it. Perhaps in a sequel we’ll get to explore this question more.

What are the holograms all about?

This relies on David’s understanding of the Engineer language enough to access holographic recordings akin to security footage of what happened on the ship just as things were all going down hill. I would have liked if the scientists had spent a little more time searching the ship initially, giving David more time to really investigate and learn how the ship works rather than him just stumbling onto them, but this comes down to a question of pacing and time management.

Science vs. Faith, order vs. chaos

These are the really interesting questions in Prometheus. This isn’t a theme completely unexplored by LOST scribe Damon Lindelof, but it’s one that drives the very heart of this movie. The motivations of these characters search towards the stars is reminiscent of 2001 and Sunshine. Ostensibly Elizabeth Shaw and her crew are seeking answers about these clues left behind in ancient drawing and what that means for humans if the Engineers were involved in our creation, but the real struggle in the movie for these characters is whether or not they’ll ever get their answers. Whether or not there are any answers. When Holloway first sees the inside of the temple room he calls it ‘just another tomb’ and circles into a depression as he realizes that he’s not going to get to talk to his creator and have his questions answered. And yet through that discovery, through Holloway’s death, through the creation of monsters and the revelation that the Engineers are hostile, Shaw still has faith that there is a reason for her existence and a reason for everything that’s happening around her. Prometheus, and by extension its writers, would be remiss if they didn’t pass on this conflict to their audience. This is a movie about unanswerable questions. The writers cannot give you an answer to the question of why we are here, what our lives really mean, where we come from or where we go when we die. And if they tried, their answer would be unsatisfactory. As Shaw herself points out, if we were given an answer, that answer would simply lead to a new question. Instead we are left with David’s resigned comments that ‘There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing’ and our hope laid upon Elizabeth as she takes off from the moon in a continuing effort to find answers to unanswerable questions.

This is neither a perfect film nor an easy one. But I love thinking about it.

These are of course just my interpretations. If you’ve got something different or if there is a question I didn’t discuss that you’d like my thoughts on, leave a comment below.

– James

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat. As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little. Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.
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