by Ridley Scott
Their optimism isn't damped. Elizabeth Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway have been on this course for years, several of them spent frozen in space, and just because some humourless executive tells them to play it safe doesn't mean they're going to. And besides, her pet android David seems to be programmed specifically to poke around ever deeper into the mysteries that present themselves, so why shouldn't they? They land and begin investigating one of three oddly shaped mounds. David's been programmed to not waste a second's time wondering at the vast expanses of tunneling they find beneath the giant structure and has soon activated a primitive video playback which illustrates what happened to the architects of the thing. Something went terribly awry and they tried to make a quick getaway. So quick was their retreat that one of them had his head cut off by a door before he made it to their own version of cryogenic sleep. Shaw takes his decapitated head back to the ship to investigate. David takes his own souvenir in the form of a capsule of strange black liquid. See the door that closed on the poor alien's head also hermetically sealed him in, and now that it's exposed to the air again and all its toxic properties and heat, the liquid has started to bubble and melt, releasing...things...
Shaw attempts to shock the nerve endings of the head, but only succeeds in blowing it up after too much stimulation. David has a little more luck, if you could call it that. He isolates a drop of the strange liquid and then gives some of it to a despondent Holloway in a glass of rum. Holloway was very much hoping to carry on a conversation with his creator, but there's no evidence that any of them are still alive. Or so he thinks. The following day when they return to the pyramid, as they've taken to calling it, to retrieve two lost members of their party who were stranded by a toxic storm the day before, David discovers that one of them's still frozen and could be revived. So why doesn't he tell Holloway right away? That's just one of many secrets these people have all been keeping from each other. More pressing is that David's experiment in Holloway's body has worked; so much so that the man becomes terminally ill in a hurry with some horrid infection. Worse still, he and Shaw had sex just after it finished incubating. Things get ugly fast. In the process of trying to learn what created her and why, Shaw becomes an unknowing creator of life, or at any rate, she unleashes lifeforms that were otherwise arrested or unborn.
Let's start with the obvious. The filmmaking is top notch, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are fucking amazing, the cinematography and editing are fantastic, the effects are largely great and I appreciate the nods to other films though I could lived without them. This isn't Alien. Nothing is. Alien is a perfect film and Scott knows this as well as I do. He isn't trying to outdo himself, he's here to answer some questions, put others to bed for good, and ask quite a few more. In the middle category, he and his two hired screenwriters have pulled the ground from beneath Alien: Resurrection, Alien Vs. Predator and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem. There are plot elements from all three films, weirdly enough, which I view as the resignation of a father bailing his blacksheep son out of jail. I gave you life, goddamnit and I can't abandon you now. And so in is the billionaire bankrolling one last trip into the unknown and the sense that capitalists with death phobias are the cause of our interstellar problems. Also in are some pretty icky biological equations a la Resurrection. What I like about the ostensible lip service he pays here is that he's also saying "Yes, that all happened, but here it is in a much neater package so you needn't have your faith in my film raped by pretenders to the throne." So in essence, anything you would have gotten out of films 4-6 is here, so skip them and tell your friends and children to go straight here. Of course the script suffers for their inclusion but I respect the urge to clean up the mess made in his wake. Also causing the film to suffer, too many disposable characters (a tradition of the Alien sequels, I'm afraid, though you used to know and care about them), breakneck pacing (Alien was as splendid as it was languid), too much dialogue, a Phantom Menace-style slickening of production design even if it makes sense in context, and a fairly boring morality governing the action, even if the heart of the film escapes this. And though the film is a prequel to Alien, that too seems almost beside the point. Scott started the wheels turning with that concept, and then realized he hadn't asked questions of his audience in a very long time. Kingdom of Heaven gets at a lot of these issues, though they're hidden rather better under a very impressive, handsome and engaging historical epic. Scott's relationship to theology is one of the more adult in contemporary art; he gets that we made it up, but also understands why we did it. What he seeks to do is go deeper than it's possible for humans to go right now from our limited vantage point. This is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, an epic that seeks to sniff out the genesis of evolution and our relationship to technology.
Ridley Scott's done something uncommonly brilliant and meta-textual here. He can't have been the only one who had questions left at the end of Alien. So in delving into the questions that would have led to the creation of his earlier film, he also answers those same questions about life. Both are as important to him. Like William Friedkin or Francis Ford Coppola, Scott was an artist who managed to produce great, shocking and sometimes even perfect work within the confines of the studio system. What are widely considered their best films (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Alien) were made for massive consumption with overbearing producers and yet there they are. They had a stunning amount of control, but were still under the watchful eyes of the cautious and the greedy, and still made art that will hold up until the end of time so far as I can tell. So perhaps in trying to figure out what made him produce the best work of his life, Ridley returned to it as a vessel to ask a series of questions about how he's even here in the first place. And that's the meat of Prometheus. The aliens who may or may not have created us (they share our DNA, just as Gods are always drawn/painted/portrayed to resemble us) did so for a reason? Then why did they make us mortal? Why did they abandon us to a life absent of their voice and guidance? He also expands on the existentialist crisis that awaits all children when they discover that the universe is infinite, but that our sun will one day burn out. We're told as kids not to think about it as we'll be long dead by then. Well...what if we didn't have to be? If we could walk up to our "gods," our creators, and ask them to simply explain why we die, and perhaps get them to turn off the clock of fate that we each have wound up inside us, then we could simply hop galaxies until we found one with a better sun, right? I imagine in the sequel to Prometheus, he'll get around to asking whether eternal life's all it's cracked up to be. Let me say that I love that this is a movie about curiousity. How often do you see a fucking epic on this scale and realize that it's about using all the resources in the world to just keep looking for answers.
Worth noting is that Scott asks these questions because he doesn't know. So obviously the film has no answers. Which makes up for it being boilerplate at points and conventionally structured. A fascinating idea is stepped over in almost every scene, sometimes literally as when we open the decades-closed chamber containing the dark liquid and our headless demi-god and discover in the soil, maggots! How'd they get there? A product of this moon brought to Earth by accident? Something the aliens invented and bring with them wherever they go? Or simply a species that would evolve on any body in any solar system. The question the movie is concerned with that gets the plot in gear is what happened before Shaw and her team got there? Because the holograms and all evidence suggests that they came to some realization and then immediately tried to high-tail back to earth to kill all of us and, perhaps, start over. Did they figure out that they made us mortal? Or prone to violence and hate? Did they mistakenly make women child-bearers instead of men, which upset our hormones and made men more violent and less caring by nature? The beautiful thing? We may never learn it of our alien creators. We'll certainly never learn how much of our DNA was a mistake. It's a small comfort to know that despite the many songs and poems that state the contrary, we couldn't be anyone other than who we are. Existence isn't so random that you may well have been born a tree or whatever the goddamn. You are you, reading these words, simply because you were generated inside your parents. You have them hardwired into you. Which, to me, is a sublime idea. We are the only sure things about existence. You couldn't have been any other way, so for fuck's sakes own it! Of course some of us will always wonder/wander. Hence that splendid android. He has no biological father, just a programmer who states openly that he doesn't believe David has a soul. The robot in turns confesses he wouldn't mind killing his parents, as he goes searching for role models in the form of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (a film I also have a huge affection and attachment to). A much more fitting comparison than it initially seems; he too was sent to do a rather difficult and thanklessly complicated job for a benevolent father figure. Stripped of most of our existential crises by virtue of not having an expiration date, David is free to wonder with us once his father has stopped giving him orders and proven that there's no escaping death, so we might as well understand it and everything else, while we're at it. Like a broken jack-in-the-box, he may seem as though he's outlived his usefulness, but not so long as he can help open doors to more answers. I think he too understands that without a sense of purpose, there'd be no reason to exist, so he adopts one because it makes his existence as vital as if he'd been programmed to do a specific job. In other words, he's more human than he seems.