Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
In one of Prometheus‘s (Dir. Ridley Scott) early scenes, a flashback reveals some helpful insight into who Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is and what motivates her expeditionary belief. The film’s crucifix-wearing central protagonist has been troubled by death and suffering since an early age. In the flashback, she earnestly asks her father, “Where do people go when they die?” And the scene works as a fine complement to Elizabeth’s present circumstance: traveling aboard a spaceship vessel named Prometheus, hoping — striving — to make contact with humanity’s creators — the “Engineers” — on a distant moon. In order to answer a big question like humanity’s destined afterlife, Elizabeth, who is, significantly, both a believer and an archaeologist, goes in pursuit of origin questions. Elizabeth and her fellow shipmates are looking for a revelation in space. But not just any revelation: they’re looking for an unmediated one in hopes of salvation of some sort.
While this summer blockbuster’s ambition to explore humanity’s most pivotal questions is admirable, Prometheus is ultimately less insightful than it is convoluted. Though the film is about the human desire to search for the meaning of its own existence, it does so in a way that doesn’t speak intelligibly about the human situation. On one level (of a few too many), Scott’s film uses a sci-fi framework to cast fairly disparaging musings on God’s nature. At the film’s most horrific core is the possibility that the Creator hates his creatures, and to discover Him would mean our utter doom. In a telling interview with Esquire, Scott offers some interesting comments in response to a question about the film’s theological horrors:
ERIC SPITZNAGEL: I got kind of an Old Testament vibe from Prometheus.
RIDLEY SCOTT: Great. Then I’ve done my job.
ES: So that was intentional?
RS: Oh, yes. I’m really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.
ES: In the Old Testament, God is kind of an asshole.
RS: Yeah, he was pretty hard on us, wasn’t he?
ES: Humanity’s creators in Prometheus aren’t much better. The “Engineers,” as they’re called, are really prickish and hostile. Are they a metaphor for your feelings about God?
RS: Me, personally?
ES: Yeah. Do you believe in a supreme deity who’s sadistic and cruel and maybe hates us?
RS: Well, that’s not me. That’s Paradise Lost.
While Scott doesn’t claim to believe in a sadistic God, he does seem to infer that if the God of Abraham existed, He would be a moral monster. In Scott’s film, there’s certainly monstrous violence, but it doesn’t seem motivated by wrathful justice. Instead, our “makers” are brutish, Olympian-looking humanoids who are wickedly violent and seem curiously emotionless and unintelligent. In this sci-fi’s theological economy, being made “in the image” of one’s maker has merely physical connotations. While the film’s direct reference to the classic Greek figure that is its namesake is questionable in its accuracy, the human expedition seems to represent the pursuit of and striving after knowledge, while the Engineers represent little more than Zeusian force and might. Thus, the problem is that Scott’s story is too simplistic and undeveloped to say anything interesting in an analogous manner about God or creaturely existence.
And what makes this line of thought all the more confusing is that the film also resists the temptation to make a direct accusation against Christianity. Two particular scenes come to mind. In one scene, after the Engineers have been discovered, Elizabeth’s belief is questioned, and she, referring to the Engineers, responds, “Who made them?” (After all, the Engineers didn’t create ex nihilo). And later, after much devastating violence, Elizabeth reaches for her momentarily lost crucifix to once again wear it, and the natural response is levied, “Even after all this, you still believe.” So, on the one hand, the film’s horrors thrive on the premise that it may be tragic to identify our creator when there’s reason to believe that it’s a god who hates us. Yet, the film’s protagonist seems to be a Christian of some sort, or, at least persistently hopeful that the First Creator is one who wishes to embrace humanity in love. In the film, though, these two lines of inquiry never quite cohere — at least, not in any nuanced or satisfying way. In short, the film’s premise can’t support its ambitions.
Yet, the film is certainly worth seeing if you’re a fan of the genres involved. And, frankly, I’d recommend seeing it in 3D while you can. Visually, the film is a triumph, right up there with Hugo on my list of two or three 3D films which I count enjoyable, at least in part, by virtue of being 3D. The first hour of the film, in particular, offers some engrossing 3D photography. And, as a thriller, Prometheus works. It’s mostly well-paced in the sense that it has effective build-up and delivery. (Not, however, in the sense that it often achieves its plot points rather cheaply.) And there’s undoubtedly much to discuss for devotees of Scott’s Alien. Toward these ends, Prometheus is quite good and even worth the price of admission, particularly considering the excellent performances from Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, among others. Technically speaking, it’s excellent summer fare, and filled with moments that are memorably good.
However, the film’s convoluted themes are too perplexing to call Prometheus great (and I’ve only touched upon the more theological confusions). The question of being “bound” to one’s maker and all of the existential limitations that come with it is considered in an almost wholly negative sense. Fassbender’s human-created android character, David, is asked what would happen if there was no one to program him. He supposes that he would be free. And it’s freedom, unqualified by love, that is, at root, the problem with Prometheus. It has gods who create merely “because they can,” and a protagonist who doesn’t believe virtuously, but who is lauded by virtue of her “choice to believe” (emphasis on “choice”). As such, the film has little room for love as a binding purpose (a freedom that is given and necessary to inhabit) which makes sense of creation, human existence, and even horrifying, apocalyptic violence. And, thus, its big questions are not ultimately generative mysteries, but confounding dead-ends.