Prometheus (2012): The Logic of Faith and Other Weightless Mysteries
The allure of the mystery is fueled by desire, by the impulse to fill a void: a desire for knowledge, for an answer, for completion. The mystery provokes by exploiting a causal itch that lingers in the mind; the question of why is uttered and a mystery is born. And, like any object of desire, once this vacuum is filled and an answer is provided the mystery is rendered inert and perishes. As such, the persistence of mystery is inextricably married to unfulfillment. The religious mystery, for example, is able to sustain its appeal by delaying the fulfillment of its promise until after death, shunting its obsolescence into the realm of the unknowable. As a narrative device, in film or elsewhere, mystery can provide an engaging lure to draw the reader in and involve them in the plot. There must, nonetheless, be some element of a payoff to the mystery for the reader/viewer to feel fulfilled by a narrative. This payoff must also be convincing and well-earned, otherwise the narrative risks ringing of inauthenticity. The willingness to prolong engagement in any mystery with the belief that an answer is forthcoming manifests as faith, whether in the most direct religious sense or not.
Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he established in Alien thirty-three years ago, Prometheus, is a film deeply indebted to both mystery and faith. Pulling at an untouched strand from the Alien, Prometheus looks to unravel the mystery of the infamous “Space Jockey”. Subsequent films set in the universe skirted the Jockey in their efforts to focus more on the xenomorph alien creature than on what had caused it to be in the ship in the first place. The mystery of the “engineers”, as they are dubbed in this new film, has long hung in the horizon of the Alien universe, a mystery even to the film’s creator, their existence a single thread dangling from the hem of that first film’s immaculately wrought garment. There is rich soil to be tilled in an exploration of this being, or, rather, these beings, and how they pertain to both the, now iconic, xenomorph, and humanity as well.
The film wastes little time in establishing both its scale and stake in teleological questions concerning humanity. Prometheus opens with a view of the planet earth foregrounded against the sun that simultaneously evokes the dawn of humanity and recalls both Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey, before moving into a series of aerial views of a seemingly primordial landscape and a waterfall that directly echo Tree of Life‘s middle creationist section (I am not entirely convinced it is not the exact same waterfall in both films). Here the basic elements for life are visually presented, the stage is set, and the seemingly sturdy precepts of Darwinism are upended as the huge shadow of a spacecraft creeps over the land. A robed figure walks into frame, disrobes to reveal a translucently albinoid and muscle-bound frame. The creature ingests a strange liquid that seems to be reverse engineering itself and Scott’s camera takes us inside its body to show its DNA strands deconstructing. The being quickly disintegrates, its particles become airborne and it collapses into the waterfall where we see its DNA recombine into something recognizably human. And in one sweeping gesture, the film does away with not only evolutionary Darwinism, but the skeptic’s greatest weapon in the face of faith, logic.
Fast-forward several millennia and the film shows several archeologists working in Scotland who unearth a pictogram in a cave that shows a large humanoid being pointing toward a configuration of stars in the sky. The archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace, and Charlie Holloway, Logan Marshall-Green, later explain, aboard the ship Prometheus, that this painting both echoes and predates any of the similar paintings they have discovered from other, unconnected, ancient civilizations. They believe the pictogram to be a sort of interstellar invitation from whatever cosmic entity created mankind. This speech takes place after the crew have been roused from their cryogenic suspension on approach to the denoted planet, millions of miles from earth.
Prior to their waking, however, the crew were watched over for their two-year journey by the robot David, Michael Fassbender, who passed the time studying ancient languages, incessantly watching David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and shooting hoops while riding a bicycle, and watching the dreams of the sleeping crew via some form of telegraphic headset. In David the film finds a foil for the character’s quest to uncover the mystery of being. Shaw and Holloway, and to an extent the man who funds their expedition, Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce, of the ubiquitous Weyland-Yutani corporation, are all looking to have their questions answered: why was humanity created, what is our purpose in the greater scheme of things? David, however, acts as a reframing prism through which these questions shine. Why does man create synthetic life? Because it can. David expresses an understated bemusement that Holloway, in particular, believes that the answer given by the engineers, if any is given at all, will be different from mankind’s own.
Shaw is similarly motivated by the desire to know why mankind was created. Her quest of faith is more tempered by her belief in the Christian doctrine, however. During her stasis the viewer is shown a memory of her father who worked as a missionary via David’s dream intrusion and she wears a crucifix on her neck. The film rather obviously, and problematically, slants towards its protagonist’s Christian views; during the dream flashback, Shaw’s father informs her that the tribe he is aiding does not want his help in the burying of its dead due to a differing religion and his list of potential afterlives includes “Heaven, Paradise, or something else”, immediately sublimating the otherness of non-Christian religions and their visions of the afterlife. Through this Christian lens, even the initial sacrifice of the lone engineer for the generation of life on earth at the cost of its own life takes on a messianic overtone.
That the film’s existential mysteries are so thoroughly, if ambiguously, Christian is unsurprising given that the film was penned by Damon Lindelof. If ever there were a narrative suffused with indirect, and at time infuriatingly ambiguous, Christian overtones, it was the television show LOST, a project that Lindelof was heavily involved in from its beginning. Like LOST, Prometheus hangs its concerns on mystery and the pursuit of answers to existential questions of causality. What was once an island scattered with strange religious relics and haunted by the spectre of technology that verges on the supernatural, is now a planet – an island in the infinite vastness of space – populated by similarly conceived devices. The same fidelity to mystery over narrative closure that plagued LOST‘s final years raises its head in Prometheus‘ similar reluctance to fully disclose an answer to its central existential query, which is largely fine by me. It is a similar issue where mystery, expressed as faith, becomes the major narrative currency insofar as the film exploits the suspension of logic inherent in faith to propel its plot along.
Once the crew arrives at the planet, they disembark to explore a structure obviously created by the engineers. Its tunnels are of an architecture that must be familiar to anyone versed in the Alien universe, its internal aesthetic immediately familiar and distinctly the work of designer H.R. Giger. The organic curves of the place, its metallic sheen and construction, the proliferation of phallic and yonic imagery, all harkens back to the design of the original xenomorph and its habitat. His work moves toward a defamiliarization of organic elements in service of an industrial aesthetic. The expedition party uncovers the remains of many engineers who had passed centuries ago and discover a large room containing metallic vials that recall Alien‘s facehugger pods, however in a more mechanized form. Their entry causes the room to begin to reconfigure itself and black goo sweats from the containers. David, obviously, is fascinated by this organic material and secrets a container away as the crew are forced to prematurely leave the place with the onset of a wind storm.
From here, Prometheus begins its process of making the allegorical horrors of Alien manifestly explicit. While the horror of pregnancy remained implicit in the first film, allegorically gestured toward but ambiguously abstract, here it is made actual after David infects Holloway with some of the material taken from the tomb. Holloway and Shaw engage in intimacy before the symptoms of Holloway’s infection appear and it is later revealed, after Holloway’s infection becomes unpleasantly apparent, that Shaw is pregnant and the creature is developing at an alarming rate. Her impromptu Caesarian procedure proves viscerally bracing while simultaneously, and contrary to the film’s central ethos, demystifying and neutering the horror of the event.
David discovers that one engineer remains alive and the crew seek to revive it from stasis and engage it, despite the evidence that has been mounting evidence against its benevolent disposition: the biological infections, the inexplicable zombification of one presumed dead party member, the grotesque pregnancy, the six-foot monster that is at once phallic and yonic, etc. The desire for knowledge outweighs the necessary destruction of the mystery and the presumptive destruction of the individual upon receiving its revelation. Despite David’s ability to communicate with the engineer, their dialogue is withheld from the audience in their exchange, it remains a mystery what he said to the being. This mystery seems to be maintained to allow the film’s creators the opportunity to continue cultivating the ambiguity of David’s actions. After being struck down, one party member’s death rattle states “There’s nothing” to which David replies, “I know.” Whether David’s actions are undertaken as a sort of painful instructive activity to enlighten its human companions on the meaninglessness of being or as a form of malicious retribution for his own atelic existence is unknown.
Despite the events of the climax, Shaw’s faith endures and she ends the film searching still for an answer to her central question of why man was created. This decision seems to be at once of a piece with the film’s engagement with the idea of mystery and also a canny marketing move to leave open the sequel door. An answer to this central inquiry would almost certain be presumptive and fallacious in some regard. As such, the non-ending of the film hangs of its own accord faithfully. Any film, especially one concerning alien intelligent design and phallus-monsters, could not hope to accomplish any gesture to provide closure to the mystery of why. It is, however, the smaller gaps of logic, the requests for faith on the part of the viewer that undermine the film’s successful functioning. There are many instances where information is given in exposition regarding the state of affairs on the planet, i.e., its actually being a biological weapons plant and not the engineers home world – without proper logic being applied. Even something as mundane as professional scientists contaminating the world by taking off their helmets and opening themselves up to potential airborne bacteria, simply because the air is breathable beggars belief. It is these frequent gaps in logical storytelling that work against the film, pulling the viewer from its admittedly gorgeously filmed and constructed world the moment some thought is exercised on what has happened and why. If the existence of the Space Jockey was the single loose thread in Alien, Prometheus exists as a terminally frayed Technicolor Dream Coat, its loose ends unspooling its potential grandeur on the floor at the viewer’s feet.
The film’s strangely creationist logic even subverts itself in the end. Shaw’s climactic battle with the remaining engineer is intervened upon by her once-aborted child, now fully grown into a huge, strange, and tentacled monster. With its victory, the monster does what all things do in victory in the Alien universe in implanting the engineer with its own egg. This egg hatches into a tenuous link to the first film, if anything, but its development from tiny black space goo, to squid baby, to its final form denotes a kind of perverted evolution. Does this development signal an assertion that perhaps evolution was engineered into the DNA as well? Another question left hanging from the hem of the film.
For what it is worth, Scott’s direction is deft, trading much of the dark claustrophobia of Alien for an opulent evocation of the world. Perhaps his most impressive ability as a director in this genre has always been his ability to create unified and distinct aesthetics and Prometheus is another solid entry in this regard. The film is paced quickly enough to prevent too much speculative thought during its course and the action scenes are involving in both their more intimate and larger moments. The cast is populated by talented and charismatic actors who often believably flesh out their characters beyond what is given to them in the script. Fassbender, in particular, is able to construct a deeper sense of an internal life to David than the script overtly lets on beyond the heavy-handed citing of Lawrence of Arabia. His mannerisms and disposition are cheerfully mechanic, his actions carry a childlike curiosity in their ambivalence to consequences even as they become potentially menacing.
Constructed as a field of conflicting mysteries, Prometheus becomes a litmus test of faith for the viewer. Its conception was an act of faith in the vision of Ridley Scott and the lingering mystery of the Space Jockey. Its execution functions as a series of leaps of faith with crucial and practical narrative elements being withheld from the viewer. Its effect, intentional or not, seems to be undermined by this procession of logical gaps; one large mystery cannot be supported by a series of smaller instances. As such, its success is contingent on exactly the amount of faith the viewer is willing to bestow on the project, on how much logic they will suspend. In this instance, however, fulfillment is delayed into the infinite horizon of sequels rather than the afterlife. Entrance into Heaven, or Paradise, or something else requires a lifetime of faith; Prometheus 2, however, will merely require $17.50 for the 3D showing.