Meredith Vickers: If you go down there, you're going to die.
The last movie that earned these sort of grades from me was Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight. Taught, beautifully rendered, intelligent, deep and disturbing. Prometheus is all these and more. Despite the vivid scenery (the crisp HD standard in the trailers is maintained throughout the film), Scott probes the sort of territory no other director has been brave enough to, bar James Cameron perhaps.
Prometheus - even via its nomenclature - boldly explores this territory. Death, and the creator I mean. Michael Fassbender plays David, a most memorable character. He makes a cryptic comment as the spaceship swoops over the moon (exactly where it is is not disclosed). "There is nothing in the desert," he says, "and no man needs nothing." Once again, if those words don't resonate with you, the film is perhaps a tad deeper than you're prepared for. In fact the metaphors fly thick and fast in Prometheus, but much of it gets lost in translation, lost in the storms, as it does in life.
On many occasions I found myself mentally projecting into the story: "Why don't these people work as a team? It is because each one has their own agenda that things fall apart."
The same is true of human endeavours on earth, in everything from economics - particularly in Europe, but well beyond those urbane confines - to the energy conundrum. Technology has gifted the Prometheus team with similarly urbane comforts. Yet the technology falls apart with spectacular ease when the simplest complication sets in - a dust storm, changes in humidity, a few globs of goo erupting.
While Charlize Theron sometimes strikes me as a ham actor (her performance in Snow White and the Huntsman wasn't great) in Prometheus she's perfectly poised as the ice cold, ruthlessly calculating Meredith Vickers. Her demeanour is so void of emotion, the ship's captain Janek (Idros Elba) asks her at one point: "Are you a robot?" South Africans, dizzy with Goodman Gallery angst, will smirk at her answer. And yet, as she is wont to do, Theron gives Vickers just enough humanity that we are compelled to feel sorry for her...but I digress.
Early in the flick, just as I have done in this review, Scott provides what seems like a bizarre montage or two. World War II reruns, scratchy digitised dreams - it's enough for hardened cynics to question whether Scott really did direct Prometheus. But all the asides, let me assure you, are valuable and meaningful. God (and the devil after all) is in the details, a point David emphasises when he says, ominously, "Big things have small beginnings." The point is made at the outset - that we choose our beliefs, and lifetimes turn and evolve around significant arcs as a result. And that is why it is triply disturbing when the Swedish actress - Noomi Rapace - whom we saw in the 2009 Girl with the Dargon Tattoo, screams:
Elizabeth Shaw: My God, we were so wrong...
It may be easy for some in a cinema, chomping on popcorn, to snub Scott's film for lacking in viscera and violence (I don't think it lacks quality, perhaps quantity). But those who concentrate will be rewarded. What, after all, is more mortifying than discovering that our cherished beliefs are horribly off track. What is more terrifying in everyday life than the discovery that we made a mistake, and a big one? And when our most profound beliefs are derailed, there's a recipe for inner catastrophe. And what makes it particularly trying is that there is no comfort from that sort of truth. Prometheus - through Rapace's sensitive, authentic portrayal of Shaw, the scientist-believer - demonstrates the difficulty of facing up to inescapable (and let's face it, very hard) realities.
It is ironic that movies provide escapism, and some, the best of them, provide a safe place for experiemental escapism, where our contemporary travails are disguised in life and death struggles on faraway worlds. We can indulge our discomforts there, even if we lack the courage to consider how perfectly they reflect back to our modern world on Earth. On Earth, the Prometheus mythos suggests, as it is in Scott's scary, star strewn heavens. The desert of the real on distant moons is the same desert that we encounter all too frequently on Earth. Places that do not nourish us. Yet places filled with meaning.
"Is there a god? Is there a heaven?" What if we set about the task to find out and the answers were revealed? Would we even be prepared to go there? Rapace - an adequate replacement for Ripley - provides a potent subject to demonstrate both the inexorable fragility of life, but simultaneously, the grit, the flame-filled dragon in our hearts that refuses to be extinguished without a fight.
Mankind, it is true, is gifted with resilience. This has evolved over a long time, and we can put it into our back pocket. The rest is more dicey. Technology hasn't had time to breathe, we haven't been able to kick the can down the road for long enough to see what some of our ideas are really like to live with. We don't know what's ultimately a Pandora's Box and what isn't (from GM crops and carbohydrates to nuclear energy).
Peter Weyland: 100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder - bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, the lightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory - and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.
It may be shocking for some well meaning folk to discover that right alongside faith, lies self destruction. That blind ambition risks awakening a dragon - perhaps inside of us, or someone else - or one that is simply dormant in the universe - that cannot be slain. Least of all by us.
At turns Prometheus seems to wander into the same territory of the ALIEN franchise, and perhaps some fanboys were hoping for Part 5 (or is it 6) of those face offs. But we already know what happens. Thankfully, Scott does and does not go down that familiar rabbit hole. While Scott does carefully PING some of the necessary ALIEN iconography (and I reckon he does so with great style and finesse) he is also really making an entirely separate flick. That, in itself, was a bold move from the old legend. I feel he succeeds, and grandly. If Weyland suffers from hubris, perhaps some of it rubbed off on me, for I feel this flick is perhaps the greatest science fiction film ever, and one of the top films ever produced. In every department. Story. Acting. Pace. Visual effects. Score. Creativity. Intelligence.
For the 8/10 crowd - consider this. Right now the world is asking the very questions Scott refers back to his audience. Atheism is on the rise. Thanks to technology, and the spread of ideas through social media, faith is rapidly seeing itself substituted with science. In South Africa, sites like News24 (the 'most commented' section) are dominated on a daily basis with rigorous debates on the subject of belief vs evolution. "Who made us? Where did we come from?" - these thoughts that occur so frequently on News24 form the high resolution fabric of Prometheus. In the rest of the world, questions of belief are also gaining momentum. Books (The God Delusion, Letters to a Christian Nation, God is not Great) are being circulated by the likes of Dawkins, Sam Harris and Hitchens all adding to a chorous challenging our beliefs. At the same time, our conventional wisdom - how we run in the world (the economic systems, the energy systems) - is also being challenged. And undermining all of this, are proft-centred companies and militarised governments who couldn't care less. Prometheus addresses this Zeitgeist in its entirety. As I say, if it doesn't disturb you, you haven't been concentrating.
A few final points to note in Prometheus - when Shaw's silver necklace (a cross) is removed to facilitate a particular procedure (and an incredibly harrowing scene follows), the symbolism couldn't be more clear. Do we have to give up our faith, our beliefs, to cut the monster out of our selves? Is our faith and the monster the same? And when Shaw asks for the crucifix back, David - justifiably, but perhaps discompassionately - replies: "Even now, when you know, you want it back?" Or words to that effect.
Yes, the choices we make in our beliefs are reinforced time and again, because they should be. That's how it is in real life. Living along the same circles and ruts ordained by our beliefs. It's an important question today, because our beliefs will, ultimately, determine whether we survive much longer in the universe or not. Weyland - like so many present day corporate billionaires - may believe we are gods, and that we do have God-like power. In a general sense, this has been true ever since our discovery of fire...
Peter Weyland: T.E. Lawrence, eponymously of Arabia but very much an Englishman, favoured pinching a burning match between his fingers to put it out. When asked by his colleague William Potter to reveal his trick, how is it he effectively extinguished the flame without hurting himself whatsoever, Lawrence just smiled and said, "The trick, Potter, is not minding it hurts." The fire that danced at the end of that match was a gift from the Titan Prometheus, a gift that he stole from the gods. And Prometheus was caught, and brought to justice for his theft. The gods, well, you might say they overreacted a little. The poor man was tied to a rock, as an eagle ripped through his belly and ate his liver over and over, day after day, ad infinitum. All because he gave us fire. Our first true gift of technology, fire...
Of course, most human beings do mind when it hurts. And many of technologies benefits hurt. Pollution, WMD's, derivatives. It turns out that our search for god may be both naive and pre-mature. If Scott's version counts for anything, our DNA is interwoven with that of the monster. Around us are monsters that look like people, and those that consume us. Often, they consumes us from within. We always knew that, didn't we? That our worst enemy was always ourselves. And at the same time, God is us (or in us). The solution lies in looking at ourselves, within, and without (though putting religious sentimentality on ice). Scott suggests that our collaborations with cold, hostile logic, and scientific (but human) endeavours, may yet take us places in the universe worth going. I hope he's right.