Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: Building Better Biomechanical Worlds

Being the obsessed Alien franchise fan that I am, I saw Prometheus last weekend in IMAX 3D. I was very impressed with the whole experience, both the quality of the 3D and Ridley Scott's return to the franchise that he started. Yet when it came time to write this review, I had no idea where to begin. Scott's film has so many details and ideas that I could rapidly identify and understand due to my appreciation of all four of the Alien movies, yet I keep seeing reviews, articles and posts on the Web that gripe over how incomprehensible and creatively bankrupt they think Prometheus is. So, since this is a fan blog of sorts anyway, I'm going to drop the pretense of providing some kind of neutral review and discuss the Alien prequel as an Alien fan. Besides, my general rule of thumb about movie franchises is that the best of them build upon ideas and themes over the course of several movies, so it is pointless to discuss sequels--especially third, fourth and fifth sequels--without mentioning the previous movies.

Here's my short, spoiler-free review: Prometheus is a fantastic movie, both as a prequel and a stand-alone. Scott shows a genuine interest in bringing new ideas into the Alien franchise, which is the main reason why this film works. Sure, the visuals are amazing, the effects are impressive and the cast is top-notch, but it all would've fallen apart if Scott didn't want to push the franchise into bold new directions. If you have any interest in Alien and its sequels--or if you have any interest in films that successfully blend horror and sci-fi--Prometheus is an amazing cinematic experience.

That said, I can see why Scott remained noncommittal about the Prometheus's status as a prequel. By making an indirect prequel to Alien, Scott is able to explore a theme that is present in all of the Alien movies but couldn't be adequately explored in those other films due to their emphasis on a monster-driven narrative. The theme in question can be summed up in the slogan of the omnipresent mega-conglomerate in the Alien universe, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation: "Building Better Worlds". Read on for my spoiler-filled thoughts about what drives Prometheus and how it broadens the Alien franchise into frightening new areas of deep space dread.

One of the curious details about Prometheus is how its plot parallels that of Alien in the sense that they are both about space travelers whose true mission has been concealed from them by sinister interests. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo thought that they were returning an ore refinery from some distant mining operation back to Earth, only to find out that their employer, Weyland-Yutani, used this mission as a front for them to retrieve a deadly alien organism from the planet LV-426. In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) think they are leading a scientific expedition to the planet LV-223 to learn more about the human race's possibly extraterrestrial origins, only to find out later that they are merely facilitating the wish of their elderly benefactor, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), to become immortal through seeking favor with an advanced alien race, the Engineers. Whereas the android Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien was willing to jeopardize the Nostromo crew by letting an alien life form on board, the android David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus meticulously analyses the Engineers' remains on LV-223 and deliberately exposes the expeditionary crew to unknown alien pathogens in order to understand the dangers present before allowing Weyland to meet with a surviving Engineer.

(It should also be mentioned here that a previous post I wrote, which was a speculative comparison of Prometheus to Alien vs. Predator (2001), turned out to be accurate. While both films feature scientists who travel to a remote location to seek out "ancient astronauts"--and they both feature terminally ill characters named Weyland who meet similar ends--Scott's movie brings many more interesting ideas and visuals to the screen than Paul W.S. Anderson did in his crossover story.)

While this comparison may sound like Scott merely rehashed the same story he directed back in 1978, it is quite the opposite. Scott uses the plot device of a space expedition to learn more about the Alien through their creators, the Engineers. Prometheus begins with one of the Engineers roaming Earth before life evolved out of the oceans, only to have him sacrifice himself in a way that will ensure that his DNA will be encoded into the life forms that will subsequently evolve. The prequel uses this opening to later provide motive to the space expedition, that the scientists are traveling to another planet to understand humanity's true origins.

It is never explained why the Engineers wanted to incorporate their DNA into the early life of prehistoric Earth at all. The movie plays up the idea of humans meeting and understanding their true creators, along with a few fleeting conversations between characters about the nature of divinity and faith. Yet the early scene with the Engineers also suggests something else entirely--that the Engineers planted their DNA on Earth for possible future colonization. In other words, by adding their DNA to the building blocks of life that were already forming in Earth's ancient oceans, the organisms that would later evolve and the ecosystems that surround them would be compatible with Engineer biology and thus make the Engineers' colonization easier to achieve with a breathable atmosphere, non-toxic food sources and diseases that could be understood scientifically and cured. Think of it as extremely preemptive terraforming, the process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet, moon, or some other astral body to make it habitable by humans--or in this case, Engineers.

The idea that the Engineers seeded Earth with their DNA for possible colonization explains a few of the film's plot details which are otherwise vague. For example, the Engineers visited Earth multiple times since their initial DNA seeding and left behind a star map to tell ancient civilizations where they can be found--that's how the crew finds LV-223, as well as what prompted the expedition in the first place. These ancient visits could have been surveys by the Engineers to see how their DNA seeding process was evolving and if Earth could still be considered fit for colonization. As for the star map, it could have been the Engineers' way of coaxing any space-faring race of humans that would rise out of Earth to visit their labs on LV-223 so that the Engineers could assess human technological development without drawing unwanted attention to themselves.

Terraforming and space colonization has been the recurring themes in each Alien movie, which hinted at (but never fully detailed) how humanity during the time of the movies have developed all sorts of off-world operations, including colonies, ore mines and prisons. In fact, the main setting of Aliens, the Hadley's Hope colony, was a terraforming operation that was established to turn LV-426 into an Earth-like planet through an atmosphere processor. From the films' contexts, Weyland-Yutani is a major corporate player in the space colonization industry--ergo its "Building Better Worlds" slogan. In Prometheus, we see the early years of Weyland-Yutani when it was just the Weyland Corporation, but even in those early years space travel and colonization was on Weyland's agenda. When we first see corporation founder Peter Weyland in pre-recorded holographic form, his is surrounded by construction that is taking place on one of his colonies. It is in the common themes of terraforming and space colonization where the name "Prometheus" finds its significance: Much like how the mythic titan Prometheus shared fired from the ancient Greek gods with humanity, self-proclaimed world builder Weyland uses his ship, the Prometheus, to learn the secrets from aliens that have been building worlds long before humanity existed.

Where the Engineers differ from Weyland-Yutani in their approach to terraforming is in the area of microbiology. Instead of building giant machines such as an atmosphere processor to make a planet habitable, the Engineers appear to understand that habitable ecosystems are initially built on the microscopic level. That explains the melting Engineer at the beginning of the movie, as well as the dark liquid that the expedition team finds in the Engineers' labs on LV-223. The dark liquid contains some kind of micro-organism that is capable of deconstructing preexisting DNA and bonding with it to create new complex organisms. Of course, this DNA bonding weapon is deadly and unpredictable, as it clearly led to the deaths of almost all of the Engineers on LV-223, but the exact logic behind the weapon is never explicitly stated.

The Engineers planned to send the DNA bonding weapon to Earth (even after an unexpected delay that lasted over 2,000 years) to wipe out humanity, but it is unknown why they chose DNA bonding as a weapon as opposed to some other technology. It could be that it was intended to further shape Earth to the Engineers' exact specifications, much like the red weeds that the Martians planted on Earth in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds novel. It could also be that instead of creating a less complex bioweapon such as microscopic pathogen, the Engineers concluded that their DNA bonding weapon would be more effective because it could attack humans on both micro- and macroscopic levels.

The DNA bonding weapon ultimately sets the stage for the evolution of the Alien as it is seen in the original films. Prometheus shows two different kinds of proto-facehuggers, and a proto-Alien emerges from one of the Engineers at the end of the film (in a scene that reminded me so much of the Newborn birthing scene in Alien Resurrection). The logic behind the DNA bonding weapon matches that of the Alien's lifecycle, in the sense that both can adapt to almost any environment and they both reproduce rapidly through parasitic infection and bonding with the host's DNA. In fact, the prequel strongly suggests that the Alien, as it is seen in the original movies, is the perfected version of the Engineers' imperfect DNA bonding weapon.

Everything I'm rambling about here is purely speculation based on what I've seen in Prometheus and in the original Alien movies. The prequel ends with a cliffhanger, and the answer to why the Engineers would want to wipe out the human race--even over 2,000 years after their original target date--has not yet been provided. I think that the Engineers want to destroy the human race because their own civilization (which by the time of Prometheus could span multiple solar systems and even galaxies) has started to fall apart so unexpectedly and at such a rapid pace that colonizing Earth is their only option left for survival. If this is so, it would give greater significance to this line of dialogue from the prequel: "Every king has his reign and then he dies. That is the natural order of things."

The sequel to Prometheus could prove everything that I've written here to be wrong. Nevertheless, any prequel or sequel that can provide this much food for thought is a success in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing what else Ridley Scott has in mind next for his fascinating franchise.


  1. Thank u Tim. Ur brilliant!

    1. Thanks! I hope that some of my ramblings shed some light on what Prometheus is all about. I guess only Ridley Scott knows for sure .... :)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful crystallisation of some of the ideas and themes present in 'Prometheus'.
    I would like to point out, though, that as R. Scott has now stated that no Alien-like creature existed before the Prometheus' mission, that unless time travel is subsequently brought into the storyline, the 'Alien VS Predator' films (set as they are in the present day) can no longer be considered as canon.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Theodore! Oh, I knew that Ridley Scott had no intention of making AvP films canon when he was making Prometheus; I just think it's interesting that both the first AvP movie and Prometheus used the concept of "ancient astronauts" (i.e., that aliens visited ancient human civilizations) as the central concept behind their stories.