Warning: The following article goes into serious spoiler territory, so do not read until you’ve seen the film…
Every once in a while, there’ll come a film that gets people talking. Not just a “Hey, what did you think of it?” sort of surface chatter. I mean, really talking. The last time it happened, the year was 2010 and the film was “Inception”. Now, “Prometheus” has landed, so to speak. After more than half a month in cinemas, the dust still hasn’t quite settled.
Critics and audiences alike have been divided over director Ridley Scott’s science-fiction epic. On one hand, it’s undeniably a gorgeous-looking triumph of atmosphere and world-building, with a great central performance (read Electroshadow’s review here). On the other hand, its legitimacy as a complete and intelligent narrative has been called into question. Many have accused it of terrible, lazy, stupid, haphazard, ham-fisted, or intentionally opaque writing. Mostly all of the above. Bearing the brunt of the blame is screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who’s no stranger to controversy, having previously suffered the wrath of fans of hit TV show “Lost” for similar crimes. While some of the issues that plague “Prometheus” are genuinely indefensible, a lot of the accusations are actually unfounded. These people either aren’t paying enough attention or they’re too used to being spoonfed as an audience, with spelt-out answers delivered on a silver platter. Which sadly is a prevalent trend nowadays.
So, this article is to help answer some of the common questions out there. I’ll divide them into two categories: Questions that have definite answers, and those that require some speculation and theorising on my part. Hey, it wouldn’t be an Opinionator piece otherwise. Here we go: “Prometheus”, explained as best I can…
STUFF THAT THE FILM DOES ANSWER
What is the black goo and why does it affect different people differently?
This is one of the biggest criticisms leveled at “Prometheus”. The seemingly random way the black goo (discovered oozing out of jars in the Engineer’s Temple) behaves. It turns little earthworms into vicious cobra-like creatures, transforms Fifield into a zombie, makes wriggly things come out of Holloway’s eye, and through his sperm makes a barren Elizabeth Shaw pregnant with a squid-like monster. The answer to all those disparities lies in what the black goo is. It’s a genetic mutagen of some sort, which completely alters and rearranges a lifeform on a genetic level, and then accelerates its mutation into an aggressive new organism, all in a matter of hours.
But why are the mutations so different? Well, because that depends on the subject it is mutating. It’s really not inconsistent at all. The worms just became a bigger, nastier version of themselves, as did Fifield and Holloway. It’s just that we never got to see Holloway’s full transformation. His change was slower, showing itself gradually because he received a far smaller dosage of the goo than Fifield, who fell face-first into it. Holloway was already exhibiting signs of the same transformation as zombie Fifield, with symptoms like veiny, swollen flesh. Early concept designs for Fifield had him look more like an Alien, with an elongated, translucent head (see pic below). Personally, I would’ve preferred that over the relatively mundane zombie design, as it would be more in line with the other decidedly inhuman creatures.
The biggest head-scratcher is Shaw’s squid baby. Not so puzzling when you consider what it resembles: a giant sperm, albeit one with 3 tails instead of one. It’s basically a mutation of Holloway’s seed, who’d inseminated Shaw during their lovemaking. So there is a certain internal logic that the black goo’s mutagenic properties does indeed follow.
Why does David intentionally infect Holloway with the black goo?
Talking about Holloway’s mutation, it leads back to the question of David’s motivations in doing that to him. Some viewers interpreted that as David being evil. But since he is an android and thus incapable of emotion, human-defined notions of morality do not apply to him. He was merely acting out of two imperatives. One was from direct orders by his maker, Peter Weyland. In a previous scene, David is seen communicating with Weyland in his stasis pod, and being told to “try harder”. Obviously, this means Weyland wanted to find out more about how the black goo works, and whether it would help in his selfish goal of extending his life. David needed a test subject, and when he asked Holloway what he was prepared to go through to get his answers about the Engineers, Holloway replied “any and everything”. David took that as “permission”, or at least justification to use Holloway. The second imperative that drives David is a curiosity about everything around him, which is demonstrated throughout the film. So, poisoning Holloway was in his innocent way, a means to satisfy his own curiosity about the black goo.
Why did Weyland have to fake his own death? Why did he have to sneak aboard his own ship? He paid for the trip!
Why not have Weyland present and openly part of the Prometheus expedition? It’s simple. Weyland is a very very old man, and had reached the end of his natural lifespan. He could not continue without the aid of machines, so he faked his own death and went into hibernation in stasis pods, which have been shown throughout the “Alien” franchise as being able to keep a person alive indefinitely. As he explained in the film, once outside of the stasis pods he would only be able to survive a few days, so it was just easier and more practical to remain “dead” to the whole world. Weyland was still capable of communicating with the outside world and exerting his influence, as he clearly had been doing with David. He was simply biding his time until the mission to find the Engineers was a success. Only then would he emerge from stasis to personally ask them to grant him immortality. That was what the entire mission was actually about. Plus, from a dramatic standpoint, his reveal provides a twist and gives the audience a proper villain to root against.
Why does Holloway open his helmet in such an unknown and obviously dangerous environment?
This is the first of many stupid character decisions that have turned audiences off. Fortunately, the next two questions have proper answers, though they might not fully satisfy everyone. The spacesuits worn by the crewmembers have sophisticated sensors, and just before Holloway took off his helmet the readings indicated that the air in their immediate vicinity was breathable. It made no mention of being free from infectious germs and whatnot, but at that point Holloway was acting on “faith”. He believed the Engineers were benevolent life-giving beings and would not have invited them all the way to their place if they had not made their place safe for humans. Once he found out the air inside the Temple had an oxygen-filled atmosphere of its own, compared to the exterior which consisted of poisonous CO², his mind was made up. It’s still very reckless, but that in itself was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, to paint his character that way.
How come the guy in charge of mapping can get lost in the place he’s mapping?
Again, this just seems like poor characterisation. But there is an explanation. Kinda. Inside the Temple, Fifield boasts about his “Pups”, a pair of airborne laser-mapping devices that provide the ship with a precise layout of the Temple’s interior. Yet, later on, both he and Millburn (aka Tweedledum & Tweedledee) get lost inside the Temple. WTF, right? Well, even though Fifield knew their co-ordinates, it was just a bunch of numbers that meant nothing without a means to get their bearings in relation to the layout of the place. From what I understand, they were still reliant on the ship to provide them with complete, usable data from the mapping exercise. And during the period Fifield & Millburn were trying to find their way out, a storm hit the area. According to the film, the silicate particles in the storm caused considerable disruption in all communications and sensor readings. So the ship’s Captain Janek only had limited and sporadic contact with the two of them. No outside help meant they were stuck there. It’s a stretch, but I can buy that.
Why do all the ancient star maps invite humans to some unpopulated moon and not the Engineer’s home planet?
First of all, it was Shaw and Holloway’s arrogant/ignorant assumption that they’d been invited at all. She later admitted that “we were so wrong.” The constellations in the prehistoric diagrams were simply tributes of some sort to show where life began, or to be precise, where the Engineers created the source of all life (the black goo). As to why it was on LV-223, a moon and not their actual planet, it was likely out of safety concerns. Think about it. When you conduct some major scientific undertaking that could have potentially dangerous results, do you situate it in your backyard or some safe, out-of-the-way location? Besides, for a species that has access to intergalactic travel, a distant moon is probably like a quick trip around the block.
Why did David decide to help Shaw after betraying her and poisoning her boyfriend earlier on?
Again, the motivations of the android appear to be unclear. David was simply acting on his orders in the earlier part of the film when his maker Weyland was still around to issue orders. Ensuring Shaw’s black goo-induced pregnancy went to full term or was preserved for study was merely part of his directive to learn as much as he could about it. After Weyland died, David was essentially “free”. At that point, survival was his key priority, driven by his curiosity to find out more about the Engineers. It was in his best interests to help the sole human survivor. He knew it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement, and Shaw realised that too.
Is the crashed ship at the end of “Prometheus” the same one in “Alien”? But the events don’t match up.
This one is easy. It’s not meant to match up directly. This film is set on the moon LV-223, while “Alien” was set on LV-426. The confusion is probably due to the fact that the ships from both movies are almost identical, and they crash in a similar fashion, ending up with their front prongs in the air. I don’t know why Scott chose to do that other than for the sake of having a visual nod to his 1979 original. Another possible reason could be due to the physics and configuration of the ships, with their U-shape lending themselves to naturally settle on the ground in the same way most times, if not every time.
STUFF THAT I’LL ANSWER ON THE FILM’S BEHALF (BECAUSE IT DIDN’T/COULDN’T)
What was the Engineer at the beginning of the movie doing, and where was he?
The opening scene alone is responsible for a whole lot of confusion, and that’s totally understandable. There’s no explanation of the meaning or context of what’s going on, and the film never returns to the setup shown here. Based solely on what we are shown, the Engineer is performing some sort of ritual suicide. Or as I see it, self-sacrifice. I say that because of the way the scene plays out. He’s wearing a hooded robe and he purposefully discards it to stand at the edge of a waterfall as if in preparation. Others know he is there, and probably what he is there for, based on the giant alien ship hovering nearby. He watches it leave the atmosphere then he drinks from a canister. It contains the black goo. He begins to disintegrate, and in his death throes tumbles down into the water. His DNA breaks down and re-integrates into a completely new form, presumably human DNA or a precursor to it. Which means he is on Earth, and this act is the very first seeding of human life on our planet.
In my review, I pointed out that Ridley Scott had admitted to having removed scenes from the theatrical cut in order to keep the running time more profit-friendly. There’s a fair bit of stuff he omitted, which will be reinstated in the Director’s Cut. One is a scene that precedes the suicide, shown in the picture below. The original Engineer (back to camera) is surrounded by so-called “Elders”. This just-released shot more or less corroborates my sacrifice theory. It remains to be seen exactly how much clearer the behavior of the Engineers will become once this and other scenes are revealed.
Why wasn’t the Biologist guy afraid of the alien cobra thing?
Okay, this is single-handedly the thing that annoyed people the most. I thought it could’ve avoided all the scorn if they’d played Millburn’s reaction to the Hammerpede just a wee bit differently. Sure, by all means show him interested in the alien life-form he’s just discovered, but make him smart enough to keep a respectful distance. Then have the creature attack him anyway. As it stands, he abandoned all caution and showed neither recognition nor fear of the organism’s clearly threatening body language. I have two possible theories for Millburn’s idiotic behavior. One was that he was trying to show off to Fifield, and combined with his natural fascination for animals as a Biologist, it made him more reckless than usual. The other theory is less likely, but worth mentioning. The Hammerpede might’ve “hypnotised” Millburn into coming closer, lulling him into a false sense of security before it got aggressive and attacked. Some animals have been known to do that to their prey. But in all honesty, this one is hard to explain away. Just put it down to lazy scriptwriting as well as a lack of consideration for the character by the director and actor. Rafe Spall’s agent must be cursing now.
How does Captain Janek know that LV-223 is a weapons manufacturing base?
When the crew of the Prometheus start falling victim to the black goo, Captain Janek comes to the conclusion that the Temple was really a manufacturing and storage facility for weapons of mass destruction. Biological warfare, as it were. But how would he know that, since no one ever came across any data to suggest so? The short answer is he didn’t. He just made an educated guess based on seeing what the black goo could do, and seeing how much of the stuff the Engineers had made. In his mind, no one manufactures huge amounts of a dangerous substance if it’s meant solely for experimentation or anything benign.
Is Charlize Theron’s character a robot?
There’s two schools of thought here. One is that she’s a human. And the film does spell it out to a certain extent. Meredith Vickers is shown expressing emotions, like fear, anger and sadness. She has (offscreen) sex with Captain Janek, probably in response to his taunt that she’s a robot. She calls Peter Weyland “Father” and expresses disdain when he describes the android David as “the son he never had”. Clearly some Daddy issues there. Or is it?
The other school of thought is that Vickers is an android, just a very sophisticated one. Her emotions can easily be explained as being simulated responses relative to the situation. David is also programmed with the ability to simulate emotions, a fact highlighted in one of the film’s brilliant viral marketing videos. He just doesn’t demonstrate them in the film. As for having sex, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for an android to be anatomically accurate in every way. Calling Weyland father doesn’t necessarily mean he’s her biological father. It could also be a term for her maker (see next question). Another hint is the automated Medpod unit in her private quarters, which turns out to be calibrated just for men (as Shaw discovers). Why isn’t it calibrated for women, since it’s supposedly hers? Maybe because the Medpod is for human use and she isn’t. Then the question is, why have it at all? My take is that it was actually meant for old Weyland, once he was revived from stasis. Since his presence onboard was kept a secret, the Medpod had to be disguised as being for her use.
The biggest suggestion that she might not be human comes from Theron herself. In an interview with Slashfilm, she revealed that during filming, she and Michael Fassbender played around with the idea of her being an android, so they started mimicking each other. Theron said: “It was nice to have something ambiguous about the origins of both of us, maybe, like why do we look so much alike? Why am I walking so much like him? Is it that I am an android or is it that I gave him human qualities, that I gave him my DNA? We played with a lot of that shit, which was fun.”
I prefer to see Vickers as an android, as it makes the film more interesting and layered.
What did David say to the Engineer that made him go berserk?
When old Peter Weyland finally comes face to face with the awakened Engineer, he gets David to convey his request for extended life. Instead, the Engineer rips them all to shreds, leading to speculation that David said something else to him. Turns out the truth is pretty straightforward after all. I did some digging and came across an interview in The Bioscopist where the film’s Linguistics Consultant Dr. Anil Biltoo of the SOAS Language Centre in London, revealed exactly what David said: “This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life.”
Interestingly, this mirrors a scene from Scott’s 1982 classic “Blade Runner” in which Replicant Roy Batty also meets his maker, the human scientist Dr. Eldon Tyrell. Batty, trying to escape his in-built 4-year lifespan, tells his creator “I want more life, father.” That scene ends in death as well. Looks like Scott is intentionally revisiting a rather profound theme, about the search for eternal life and the folly in seeking it.
So why did the Engineer react so violently to that request? The bottom line is, the Engineer was going to kill all humans anyway (see next question). He just probably got offended at this puny creation of his having the cheek to demand anything from him. Also, he might have recognised David as an artificial creation of the humans, and realised that humans had now become ‘Gods’ themselves. And he wouldn’t have taken kindly to that.
So why did the Engineers want to destroy us, their creations?
There are some clues as to the reason the Engineers turned against humans. When Shaw and Holloway carbon-date the dead Engineer in the Temple, they get a measurement of approximately 2000 years. Which means the Engineers were on their way to destroy mankind some 2 millennia ago, before something went wrong and they were themselves wiped out (save for that one Engineer who went into stasis). In a recent interview, Scott said that this was part of a plot detail that was ultimately removed. What happened around 2000 years ago? The crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Apparently, Jesus was really an emissary of the Engineers (the Gods), sent down to Earth to check on the humans and usher in an era of peace. Instead, the humans tortured and killed him. That one event royally pissed off the Engineers and convinced them that their creations were unworthy of the love and guidance they’d been given. So they decided to send a shipload of the black goo to exterminate us. It may be kind of crazy but it’s the closest thing we have to an official explanation. Scott excised it because he felt it was “too on the nose”. If we do get a sequel, it’ll be interesting to see if they continue on this trajectory or make something else up entirely.
Personally, I’m glad they did away with this angle. It’s quite presumptuous to have one religion represent all of mankind. The fact is, when Christianity first emerged, it amounted to little more than a cult in comparison with other religions of the world that had taken root long before. So to say the Engineers wanted to wipe out all of humanity because of that one event is like womenfolk deciding to kill every last man on the planet just because one man committed a rape in some small village somewhere.
Bottom line is, this question was intentionally left unanswered to leave room for a sequel. Frustrating, but personally, I appreciate it when films take their time to develop a mythology, instead of trying to wrap everything up neatly in one story. Case in point: Magneto’s overly rushed turn to evil in “X-Men: First Class”. It’s a big gamble though, in case the film doesn’t do well enough at the Box Office to earn a follow up. As unfortunately might be the case here, since “Prometheus” has barely made enough to recover its production and marketing costs.
So there you go. “Prometheus” explained. Does the film seem clearer or at least a little less unfulfilling to you now? In any case, I hope you had as much fun reading these answers as I had coming up with them. If you have any other questions not raised here, do share it with us in the comments section below, and I’ll try to answer them.
Until then, I’d like to leave you with this quote: “There is nothing in the desert. And no man needs nothing.”