Feminists, Freudians, and Fanboys, Unite!: A Review of Prometheus

Your first question is, “Should I go see this movie?” The answer is, Yes.

Your implied question is, “Is it good?” That’s trickier.

Your third question, if you’re a fan of the Alien series to which this is a prequel, is probably something along the lines of, “Is it more like Alien or Aliens?” (If you had to reread that question because you’d forgotten than the sequel to Alien was not Alien II but Aliens, deduct five points for insufficient geekiness.) The answer, I think, is that this movie owes as much to Stanley Kubrick’s vision of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as it does to the original series. It’s certainly faster-paced than that glacial epic, and there are aliens in it (different kinds this time!), but it shares Clarke’s scope, beginning with the invention of the human race by another (dubbed “The Engineers”), and sharing Clarke’s fear that IBM… I mean HAL… I mean evil corporations (“The Weyland Corporation” in this iteration of HAL) will eschew pure science for a quest for power. Only this time the quest for power masquerades as a quest for philosophical answers rather than profit. But, just as profit is a proxy for power, these supposed philosophical questions turn out to be a base quest for immortality. Still, the corporate overlord wants to gain rather than learn, while the hero is on a purer quest for truth. The villain is as two dimensional as you would expect. The hero wants the truth, and love, and children, and to hold onto her faith, and isn't always sure which is which.

One of the advantages Prometheus has over 2001 is that it has a larger cast of characters, so we get to see a spectrum between these poles. Those provide the film with a richness that makes the reflection on the movie more valuable than its ending, which feels reductive. And why wouldn’t it? The body count in this movie is Shakespearean. And in a slightly-too-obvious way, every character’s flaw leads to his or her demise. Still, the way these Achilles heels are woven together (how’s that for a gross image? Something out of H.R. Giger, perhaps? Then it’s perfect) demands some respect. The acting is generally good. Charlize Theron, the only member of the cast to win an Oscar, actually delivers the worst line reading in the whole movie, so that tells you it’s not a Sci-Fi Channel Original. Noomi Rapace holds her own against Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, both as a badass and as an actress projecting a character with a complete internal world. Michael Fassbender’s android David is so pitch perfect you won’t be able to decide if you feel sorry for him or hate him, but you will absolutely be creeped-out by him.

If the characters don’t do it for you, there are the larger themes. The Alien series has been poured over by academics, and Prometheus will not disappoint them. Freudians get excited about all the orifice penetrating, and Prometheus has aliens injecting themselves into mouths and bursting from abdomens, but it also has some climbing in and out of eyes. (Calm down, Freudians. You’re going to make messes of yourselves.) While the original had a lot to say (and a lot to tease) about motherhood, Prometheus has both a father-son relationship and a father-daughter relationship. (And there the Freudians go.) Feminists love the gender power dynamics of the original series. Well, get this: At one point in Prometheus we have a female character demanding an emergency C-Section (an abortion?) from a female-voiced surgeon machine that has already informed her that it is only designed to work on men. (Is that a million Ph.D. theses I smell? Smells sweaty.)

As for the philosophers, the movie glosses over semiotics with the help of a robot who can read alien writing and speak their language (convenient), but it asks enough religious and philosophical questions to keep stoners and Philosophy 101 students saying, “Whoa! Dude!” long into the munchie period.

As is always the case with Ridley Scott films, the questions are better than the answers. When those answers are delivered at all, they are presented as catch phrases, and we have to parse out nuance by evaluating the character providing them because, on their faces, they are too simple to be satisfying. Still, these questions are good, interesting ones, worthy of conversation after the movie, so go see it with some good friends who are willing to talk about more than which of the beautiful cast members they most admired. And don’t be put off by the simplicity of the answers provided in the movie. For good or ill, that’s realistic; the world is full of people who can sum up their beliefs in bumper-stickers, so it stands to reason that some of those people would be included in the crew of any interplanetary space voyage. Luckily, the answers are not all the same, which is why second-guessing Prometheus will be as much fun as the movie itself.

6/26/12 Addendum: I thoroughly enjoyed this, too. It seems about right: