This holiday season, we at Psycho Drive-In would like to introduce you to the good, the bad, and ugly of not just any Holiday Films, but the Holiday Films you may have forgotten, overlooked, or just didn’t realize were Holiday Films. There’s no Rankin-Bass, no Miracles on any streets, no traditional happy family gathering fare. Instead there’s a lot of blood, violence, some terrorists, monsters, and even aliens. Plus more than a couple of bizarre Anti-Santas to go around. Twelve days, twelve films, twelve opportunities to amuse and disturb your families this holiday season.
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Paul Brian McCoy gives to you, Prometheus (2012).
Not organic, natural sex any longer and not the discursive sexuality so praised by all the poststructuralists, but a cynical and parodic sex — a schizoid and hyperreal sex — for panic bodies. A schizoid sex, therefore, where sado-masochism of the hyperreal kind operates in the language of a liquid power which, no longer belonging as property to the old language of gender divisions (a male masochism? A female sadism?), operates at the more general level of torturer and victim. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America
It’s Christmas in space as the crew of the scientific vessel Prometheus (the flagship of Weyland Industries and Peter Weyland’s personal ship) arrives at LV-223, following an ancient map that scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe will lead them to the alien origins of humanity — and maybe all of life on Earth. And they’re almost right.
Prometheus is a frustrating film; one that engenders violently negative reactions from many viewers, dismissive responses from many others, and lovingly detailed interpretive screeds from a select few. The most commonly voiced problems are clear-cut and are easily found and discussed elsewhere.
And you know what? None of those things really matter to me.
The character moments are bad choices, but they’re not out of character (Fifield is having a panic attack and Millburn is like a child when presented with a new species of animal — which we get another look at in a deleted scene that would have helped cement that aspect of his character). There were going to be segments of Young Peter Weyland, so Pearce was hired for that (and to do this cool TED Talk promotional piece). Yeah, Vickers should have zigged or zagged, but you could almost say her inability to do anything but plow on straight ahead is symbolic and representative of her character, as well. In fact, each character’s actions serve as physical manifestations of their personalities and psyches under the pressure of first contact.
But with that out of the way, let’s look at the good stuff.
When deciding to begin working on a new Alien movie, the filmmakers wisely realized that trying to follow up the last film was a losing proposition. It wasn’t impossible, but the series was kind of stuck in a web of predictability and a cycle of diminishing returns. So rather to keep pushing forward, they decided to look back. And Ridley Scott was back and along for the ride.
Prometheus takes place 28 years, 5 months, and 2 days before the start of Alien, Scott’s original introduction to this world and its monsters, and the visionary director — along with a crack team of designers — have fleshed out the Alien Universe, beginning with creating a future history into which our stories are situated. A lot of this info can be found on the Weyland Industries website, and while none of it is really necessary to enjoy the film, it’s gratifying to know that this wasn’t just a cash grab, but was a real attempt at world building right from the start.
I’m not going to go through to much and try to interpret and explain everything that happens, because, quite frankly, this is not a confusing or really very complex film. But if you want a few good breakdowns, check out this creative interpretation, this Biblical/Mythological interpretation, and/or this detailed point-by-point exploration.
One thing of note thematically is how Prometheus situates sexuality and power when compared to the original Alien. In that film, sex and death were combined in the rape anxieties represented by the Xenomorph — designed as aggressively phallic, from their elongated heads to the thrusting, dripping inner teeth, as well as their impaling tails — whereas this time around, sexuality is less violent, but just as dangerous.
Rather than focusing on the psychology of physical violation, in Prometheus the sexuality is focused on the psychology of unexpected pregnancy — or perhaps in a more general sense, on the unpredictable chaos of creation — ultimately manifesting itself in a bizarre remaking of the Biblical Annunciation with the robotic David (Michael Fassbender) standing in for the angel of the Lord informing Mary — in this case, Shaw — of her divine motherhood to no ordinary child.
But while the beginning points are the thematically different, the end results are similarly nightmarish symbols of unwanted violation — the tampering with and invasion of the body.
The film begins, however, with a breathtaking opening scene as the camera swoops over barren, broken landscapes before finally discovering plants and water where we are introduced right off the bat to the Engineers and given a graphic display of the central conceit of the film and serving as a planetary manifestation of the literalized barren womb. The Engineer, a manifestation of humanoid physical perfection, ritualistically disrobes at the top of a raging waterfall, drinks a mysterious black goop, and then begins to painfully disintegrate, falling into the waters as spoors (spermatozoa?) explode from his body. A massive space ship rises through the clouds and disappears, having deposited its seed. In the water, the body quickly breaks apart and we move in to a microscopic view as we see his very DNA infected with the blackness before shattering and then reforming in new patterns.
And in one amazing scene, Scott establishes that in this filmic world, life was manipulated and created — not in a careful design, but in a chaotic burst of violence and rebirth. Whether the scene takes place on Earth or another planet is irrelevant. Scott, along with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, is making it plain: we were seeded by intelligent beings from beyond the stars.
So by the time we reach the end, we’re dealing with not one miraculous birth, but two, if we include David, neither of whom really live up to their desired potential, instead taking on diabolic motivations of their own.
Shaw’s “child” is the result of biological tampering on a smaller scale than the Engineers’ terraforming, but serves a similar purpose. She is an experiment; a chaotic template upon which genetic rewriting is done to unexpected ends. David essentially takes on the role of Engineer, bypassing his own “father” and creating something living and organic; something he knows is totally new and amazing.
We’d already seen that ingestion of the black ooze will break down a body and rebuild it as a monstrous, hostile organism, but it seems ingesting just a tiny amount makes that transition slower and capable of being passed on genetically. Despite Shaw being barren, life awakens in her. But the “child” is not so much the result of hers and Holloway’s combined DNA, but the result of the Engineers’ final weapon. It’s a twisted shadow version of the symbolic virgin birth from the Bible. Rather than save us, this hideous, tentacle creature — surgically removed rather than actually born — is here to punish and destroy; the first in a line that eventually merges with the Engineer’s own DNA (in a return to the traditional-for-the-franchise rape symbolism) to form a proto-Xenomorph in the final moments of the film; affectionately known as The Deacon by the cast and crew.
There are shades of Macduff, there. Is the Engineer, then, a rebellious Macbeth in the grand scheme of things? Was there a rebellion and this is just revenge on traitors to an interstellar nation-state?
Regardless, both this creature’s birth and David’s own (you can see more about David here), are loaded with symbolic resonance. There’s also a nice mirroring of emotional arcs between Weyland’s attempt to meet and claim equality with his makers, Shaw’s attempt to meet, understand, and move beyond her makers, and the android David’s attempt to satisfy and hopefully outlive his makers. Weyland’s hubris is central to both his story and David’s (as well as underscoring some emotional issues that Vickers is carrying around). The fact that he sees himself as an equal to the Engineers because he’s designed his own artificial lifeform sets him up for a fall, but also allows David to free himself from servitude by leading his “father” to his demise.
In this sense, David moves from being the symbolic angel delivering the news of a miracle child, to the fallen angel, rebelling in the hopes of achieving freedom — at the cost of the father.
The central performances by Rapace and Fassbender are what really make this film special. Rapace’s Shaw is unapologetically religious but refuses to believe that her god(s?) is unknowable. And while some characters mock and dismiss her faith as the story goes on and she is confronted with the realization that the beings who created us were just as fallible — and mortal — as we are, she never wavers. Whether or not her focus shift to a desire to confront her makers and find out their origins is an example of the “Turtles All the Way Down” conundrum, in the end, it is her faith and her pursuit of scientific knowledge that drives the film and moves us toward the sequel.
Fassbender’s David is the most complex character in the film, living a life of quiet desperation in servitude to his creator. Nearly every scene contains subtle hints to his motivations and we watch him grow more and more independent, perhaps even undermining Weyland’s efforts upon meeting the Engineer. He states it himself, although passively, when he assumes that with Weyland gone he supposes he’ll be free. Whatever that means. For David, everyone else on board the ship is part of an experiment that will either provide his “father” with eternal life, or will provide him with “eternal” freedom.
That he ultimately ends up saddled with Shaw on another open-ended adventure into deep space with little hope of success or survival is something that he accepts with a sardonic grin. One question that will have to be answered eventually is whether or not he will continue to play the role of companion and assistant if he gets his body back. David’s entire character arc calls to mind a similar attempt by Scott to present questions of agency and independence for artificial lifeforms from Blade Runner. But will David develop the same ultimate reverence for life that Batty found, or will he be a destroyer, humanity’s shadow in much the same way the Xenomorphs could be seen as the shadows of the Engineers — the destroyers to their creators?
The original draft of the script by Spaihts, before Lindelof was brought on-board (Did you know he won an Emmy? Well if you watch his interviews, you’ll know since it’s always in the background next to him.), actually resolves a number of the character issues mentioned above and elsewhere, if only with brief bits of dialogue that explain motivations and reasoning. It can be found here, if you’re interested in reading it.
If you want to read Lindelof’s rewrite, that can be found here. One interesting thing of note is that Spaihts’ version was called Alien: Engineers, while Lindelof changed it to Paradise which signals a shift in tone and focus. Thankfully they dropped the “Paradise” references before the final draft, but honestly, although Prometheus is a great mythological basis to start from here, it’s not a great name for the ship (originally The Magellan). A discussion of some of the changes can be found here and both scripts have their fair share of weaknesses and strengths — although I’m personally partial to the original despite the fact that I don’t think blatant explanations of motivations are needed.
“Say to them, Whoever he be of all your seed among your generations, that goes to the holy things, which the children of Israel hallow to the LORD, having his uncleanness on him, that soul shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.” — Leviticus 22:3
However, one change that was made, almost after the fact, was the changing of the setting from LV-426 (where the original Alien crew finds the derelict ship and Kane (John Hurt) becomes impregnated, and where Aliens takes place) to LV-223. I think the film would have worked better keeping the original setting, however LV-223 opens up another interesting symbolic element as seen in the opening quote from Leviticus. It really sets up everything that is going to happen once our heroes arrive in the presence of their “lord.” They are unclean and they are cut off.
Rather violently, at that.
But even if you can’t wrap your brain around the story and the behavior of some of the characters, there is simply no denying that Prometheus is an amazing visual achievement. Relying on amazing natural exteriors (mostly shot in Iceland), massive sets (filling the massive 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, and even spilling out into the back lot), and as many practical effects as possible (the whole touching the snake moment was inspired by the effects team wanting to do a visceral arm-break effect, for example — and while a bad character choice, also works some Biblical symbolism in there with the snake bringing corruption), Prometheus allowed Ridley Scott to return to the world of science fiction in a grand way.
Much of the set design was inspired by H. R. Giger‘s original Alien work, despite Scott initially wanting to avoid that as much as possible — including a design for House Harkonnen’s fortress that he originally did for the ill-fated Dune adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky. However, there’s also a lot of work done by Russian artist “Gutalin” (Alex Kozhanov) that incorporates a Giger-style into some extremely impressive science fiction ship building and visionary city design. The film also features some of the most seamless and beautifully sublime 3D effects I’ve ever seen.
Hell, they even brought in a linguist to align the language that the Engineers speak to the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) that scholars estimate may have been the source language before humankind began spreading out around the globe.
Every little piece of this film is intricately designed — an opposing reflection of the chaotic creation that goes on in the story itself — with Scott’s hand on every single thing we see on the screen. It’s a masterclass on world building, set and creature design, effects work, editing, plotting, and working thematic elements into the script and the performances — a miraculous birth of its own, not without flaws, and perhaps subverting its own creators’ original intentions, but still a breathtaking example of cinema.