Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" recently hit theaters to great expectations. Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton discusses the film and its attempted examination of the origins of humanity.
This summer’s movie releases include some hugely anticipated blockbuster hits. We have already seen audiences flock to watch the film adaption of the massively popular “The Hunger Games.” “The Avengers” smashed every box office record as passionate fans (this guy included) flocked in droves to experience the all-star superheroes fight evil on opening night. In July “The Dark Knight Rises” will conclude the loved Batman series and will probably be one of the most successful films of all time as its fans (this guy included) have been eagerly awaiting its arrival for months.
But the movie that I was most excited about came out a week ago. “Prometheus,” Ridley Scott’s prequel to the horror classic “Alien,” sets the stage for the original film and attempts to tackle perhaps the most existential of existential questions: why are we here and how did we get here?
The potential combination of stunning visuals, intense scares and philosophy was a huge draw for me. So off to the theater I went full of excitement and high expectations only to see a subpar sci-fi movie with shoddy writing and no real confrontation with big ideas.
What a let down. It could have been so good.
Here’s the basic premise (don’t worry, I won’t give anything away that you can’t glean from the trailer).
80 years in the future a couple scientists discover a series of cave paintings and carvings from different ancient cultures all depicting the same image of a god-like being pointing to what seems to be a cluster of stars. These scientists find the star cluster, realize that there is a planet with a moon capable of supporting life there and decide that there must be a super-intelligent race of aliens who live there who may have been the creators of humanity. They fly out there with a team of scientists, a corporate creep (Charlize Theron) and an android in an attempt to find these creator beings and make contact. What they find is not what they expect and mayhem ensues.
Visually, the movie is magnificent. The landscapes and sets are fantastic and the cinematography is top notch. And, as might be expected from a Ridley Scott sci-fi flick, there are plenty of scares and gruesome images. I squirmed in my seat for about two thirds of the film as violent, slimy creatures did violent, slimy things.
The android David, played magnificently by Michael Fassbender, is by far the film’s most redeeming quality. It is clear
that he is not what his human creators think. He is supposed to be a machine programmed to perform certain functions without emotion, desire or complex thought but it is clear that he does have feelings, needs and thoughts. He models his look after Peter O’Toole from “Lawrence of Arabia,” his favorite film, and expresses certain ideas that are incredibly human. The filmmakers, with this character, try to raise interesting questions about intelligence, technology and humanity with try being the operative word.
Other than David, though, the film is a bust. The writing is jumpy, incomplete and illogical. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that the movie is full of characters who do things that no human being would ever, ever, ever do. At no point is it believable or plausible. There are massive leaps of understanding, plot and character development that don’t add up no matter how hard you try to help the writers out. It almost seems that the writers wrote the first draft of the script, took a smoke break and then never went back to it.
It’s not just the character development and plot that suffer. The deep theological and philosophical questions that the film supposedly explores are only just barely touched on. There are whispers and glimmers of creative exploration of these topics every now and then but even those are incomplete and profoundly unsatisfying. It's really too bad. There is a goldmine of potential exploration concerning questions about the origins of humanity, our relationship to our potential creators and the relationship of faith and reason here but they are mostly ignored in favor of gruesome death after gruesome death. How disappointing.
The fact that these topics are brought up at all, however, is telling. There is an innate desire to know the origins of humanity even in this age of technological advancement and incredible scientific discovery and this desire often takes the human mind to places where technology is intrinsically unable to satisfy. No matter how great our iPods are or how fast our computers operate or how well certain medications heal we still contemplate ideas and questions that transcend them all.
These ideas come through in a few places in “Prometheus.” The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (played by the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace), is a scientist but also holds onto the religious faith of her father and wears a cross around her neck at all times. How she reconciles a belief in Christ with a belief that humanity was created by a superior race of aliens is unexplained and represents one of many plot and character development flaws the film reveals. Nonetheless, in this character we see a glimpse of the idea that even while we can trust science to take us to far away places it can only take us so far and eventually one must stray into the arena of uncertain reason and rely on faith to find answers.
This idea has been prevalent throughout human history and will continue to be despite the claims from some that science will completely replace religion, faith and philosophy. From the very beginning there has been a desire to understand what is other, but there has also been an understanding that what is other should remain other.
This lesson apparent in “Prometheus” is also evident in most ancient Greek stories, including the myth the movie gets its name from. Many Greek myths involve interactions between humanity and the gods. In most of the myths the moral of the story involves a warning against hubris. Setting oneself up as a rival of the gods very often results in a devastating end. In “Prometheus” the protagonists put themselves on the same level as their creators as they search them out in an attempt to question them. This attempted manipulation in search of knowledge results in some pretty gross stuff.
So, when asking big questions and searching for truth, respect those questions and don’t set yourself up as more than human. Don't try to put God in a box of your own making.
Bad things will happen. Perhaps not on the physical level of "Prometheus" or some Greek myths, but certainly on a spiritual level.
In closing, these eternal questions are often studied quite well in science fiction. The genre can often mirror the problems and questions of reality very clearly. Unfortunately, “Prometheus” doesn't quite fulfill its potential the way Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, C. S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft or some of the other greats of the genre have been able to do. There is, however, a rumor that "Prometheus" is the first in a trilogy of "Alien" sequels so perhaps the second and third installations will succeed where this one falls short.