Movie Commentary: Prometheus

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! To those who have not yet seen Prometheus, the following commentary reveals much about the plot, themes, and characters of the story, so you may not want to read on until you have seen it. And to those who have seen it, I would hope that this commentary would inspire you to go watch it again in order to think even more throughly through it.

The film Prometheus is a poor film for Alien fans who simply wanted a straight prequel with the same atmosphere, the same unexplainable and un-philosophical horror, and the same 70’s-80’s heavy metal like vibes where the female heroine defeats the evil with her inner Amazon warrior. For these fans, this film is a poor attempt at banking off the name of a famous franchise, when all the director really wanted to do is create a new and unique movie that really didn’t have anything to do with Alien save a few points of homage, the same homage that was paid to the movie Laurence of Arabia throughout the film.

However, to view the film in this light is simply unfortunate and short sighted. It is sweeping under the carpet a masterpiece of human creation and insightfulness. This film is much more in the league of an old classic such as Oedipus, or the ancient myth origins which go beyond some local phenomenon to speak to the grandness of the human narrative.

Far beyond a film attempting to provoke prolonged suspense or temporary fear, this film, while still accomplishing some of this, attempts to tackle eternal questions that every tribe of humanity has wrestled with since the dawn of time, along with displaying the deeper consciousness of the human experience that speaks to the essence and heart of the nature of humanity.

This film deals with faith and hope; the desire to overcome death along with the inevitability of it; the question of creation, and the desire to know the creator and his motives. It tackles questions of morality and value systems; it transposes pragmatic nihilism with Chrsitianity and sacrifice for others; it compares and contrasts the animal, the machine, the human, and the god, and does so in such a way that delves into the very essence, purpose, and meaning of each.  It gives hope when there should be despair, and life where there should be death.

And all of this is not to even mention the intriguing narrative in the movie itself that draws you into a world you want to understand, a world whose questions you want answered as much as the main character, the only person in the film who is capable of finding the answers because of her innocence and her willingness to embrace humanity in its all its strengths and weaknesses. 

Most people praise the character of David and the performance of Michael Fassbender. Though this performance was certainly well done, it is the purity and the humanity of Dr. Shaw that truly makes the film a human achievement. And I do not say human in the often negative way it is used to speak to frailty and weakness in comparison to machine perfection. I use it to speak to that quality in humans that lifts them up above the animals to make them the loving, hoping, and caring creatures of creation. Traits machines will never share.

And despite some saying the character of Dr. Shaw was too big for Noomi Rapace, I actually think she does quite well, because through her, the character is  what gives life and carries the picture into the realm of masterpiece. Characters like Elizabeth Shaw are hard to come by in this cynical age. Characters who respect their parents enough to embrace their beliefs and to cherish their teachings, even if they add to them and advance from them into the new age the parents did not know. Characters who are not enslaved by science, even though they are well familiar with it and cherish it, but who realize that there is much that science cannot tell us, in fact it can only help us to a point; but we must go the rest of the way if we seek to discover the essence of what we are and the deeper meaning of life.

Dr. Ross reminds us of the innoceny of childhood, the beauty of true feminity, and the heroism of the human spirit. During the end portions of the film she is too weak to go on, but she still does. She is alone and fearful but still encounters her fear. She says at one point: “I can’t do it anymore” or something of the like, and then soon after she takes a deep breath, braces herself and says “Okay” and presses on.

If Dr. Ross dies, then humanity dies, and all that is left is the raw bestiality of the Aliens, the cold mechanisms of the machines, and the mysterious evil of the gods. We are back to a time before the humans, but even worse, because the pragmatism of the machines are left to give traces of a fallen humanity that had lost themselves and left in their place the cold rationalism and depraved immorality that had been their biggest enemy and finally their conqueror.

But Dr. Ross doesn’t die and neither does her humanity. In the end she still cares, still hopes, still believes, and is still driven by her child-like and only too human curiosity. Her innocency is gone, but it had carried her through her toughest trials, inspiring and even converting the pragmatic captain to become a hero who sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity and in the process regains his humanity.

At the end of the movie, Dr. Ross continues her quest, but now with maturity and knowledge that comes once a noble human has conquered and now stands as a guardian and shepherd. She will confront injustice, and death, and evil, and those who abandoned their creation, and she will make them answer. But not because her evil and depravity matches theirs, or because she is so strong to confront them and overthrow them, but because she is better than them like a soldier is better than a deserter, or a mother is better than a woman who abandons her children.

She has earned honor and respect and thus has become holy and pure. And now it is they who must stand before her and be judged. This is the tone in which the movie ends. There is no doubt that by the next movie, if there is one, more trials will come. There is no doubt she will be pushed again to the brink. It is not that she is simply going to march in and bring all her enemies to their knees. It is more that her victory is inevitable even though the final and great battle is still to come. This may not be the direction Scott takes the sequel in, but this is the hope he ends this first film with.

What is remarkable is Scott’s choice, in this pragmatic age, to exalt the more traditional and ancient values over the concerns of the age. Peter Weyland is a role model and statue for our age. A man who through innovation and ambition took over the world and bought it. A man who could have anything he wanted and who exceeded the American dream to not only own the house with a white picket fence, but to own the known universe with  a rod iron gate that has his memorial inscribed on it.

But Scott shows this man’s success to stem from his philosophy, a philosophy which appears to be a mixture of nihilim, Darwinism, and pragmatism. It appears that he had programmed and set up David to be an amoral and conscience-lacking extension of himself. In his pride, he believed he could truly have everything he wanted and could overcome everything, even death.

This was his nihilism, a belief that he was greater than the lowly humans who all must answer to death, that somehow he was something better, something newer that could overcome what all before him could not. This evoluion to eternal life that would take him beyond humanity was his Darwinism. And his willingness to do whatever it cost was his pragmatism. He truly is Nietzsche’s child. He wasn’t a murderer who murdered because he liked murder. He was the “superman” who would gladly have paid for eternal life if he could, but since he had to kill to get it, then he’s just fine with doing that as well.

But, unbelievably, Scott actually shows the foolishness in this line of reasoning and actually uses Weyland as a way of reflecting the danger of this mindset within our culture. He shows how this mindset merely uses everything as a means to achieving one’s own personal goals. How it disregards the spiritual yearning of humanity for the pure animal drive of survival. How it is so unconcerned with  meeting its god because it is so busy caring about its meager temporal existence which will inevitably perish and all its achievements with it.

The captain of the ship seems to picture the middle road, likely the place most people find themselves in. Just doing his job, with no motives neither good nor bad. A person who does not have much invested in anything beyond his job and momentary concerns. Someone who  is innocent of any malice or deceit, but still a person who can be persuaded either way. What we see by the captain is that this person cannot remain neutral in this battle for humanity but must choose to either become an animal who strives primarily for his survival, or to become a human who takes his place with the protectors and guardians of creation.

Scott shows his faith in the masses of humanity by the captain being moved by the innocency of the hero to himself become a hero who goes against his animal and genetic instincts to sacrifice himself willfully. And it is this very act of willful self-sacrifice in the face of sure death that neither the animal or the machine can do.

Scott therefore makes the statement that eternal life comes not through animals striving for their own survival, nor machines amorally and rationally doing what must be done to meet an objective, but by the purity and faith of humanity. At the end of the film, he has Dr. Ross put her cross back on, even after all that had happened.

And this action shows that the human spirit will not relinquish. In the very place where the nihilist Weyland met his inevitable death, and the machine David failed his objective (at least it appears so in this first film), and the false god showed his evil–in this very place the human, Dr. Ross, puts her cross back. As the machine begs her for help, she determines a new course where she will persevere in her mission to get the answers she came to find.

Faith, Curiosity, Hope, Care, Determination, humility, innocency, and pure motives overcome disbelief, apathy, despair, money, ambition, pride, guile, and deceitfulness. Nietzhes “truthfulness”, what the modern person calls “being true to oneself”, is shown to be nothing more but the adolescent hubris that believes it knows more than the ancients and elders which came before. But the wise mother, the caring nurturer who has looked life in the eye and learned the real truth, stands up, caresses the rebellious teenager and says, “there is meaning to life. There is hope when it seems there is none. The stars do not predetermine all things, your genes do not hold you as prisoner. You are human. You have a will, and a spirit, and you can strive to overcome nature and to take your place as a protector of nature.”

The unbelievers and pragmatists will tell you that all that is real is the cold, harsh reality you experience every day. They would have you believe that all those stories of the past that speak of meaning, and of God, and of the human spirit rising up victorious against all odds–all these ancient stories are merely myths and fantasies. And thus you should merely strive to comply with your impulses, and to be enslaved to your desires and genes. Of course you want money, so pursue it. Of course you don’t care about god or the origins of humanity, that doesn’t bring you a paycheck, so ignore these things.

But Scott has Dr. Ross survive and keep her humanity, because she is not burdened by these mundane drives, but is fueled by the curiosity and spiritual desires and impulses of all the great humans that came before her. She is victorious because she is not an individual standing for herself and her instincts, but a human standing for humanity and all the things that make humanity great.

For those who wanted another Alien-like movie, it is understandable that you would be disappointed. Perhaps, Scott’s crime was in making you believe it would be such a movie. Perhaps he should have just made the same movie but disconnected from the Alien franchise. Perhaps he was slightly dishonest in connecting it with the prior films.

But to those who do not see the rare achievement of art that this movie represents, I fear that an inability to appreciate a film such as this one is only revealing of an inability to appreciate true humanity. Have we become so out of shape that we cannot even lift up true classics? Have we become so lazy that we can only digest baser foods? Have we become so machine like that we cannot appreciate the human spirit? Have we taken too many steps away from ourselves that when we look at the human spirit shining, we are bored and apathetic?

If so, then a movie just like this may be what we need. A movie to remind us, if only for a moment, of the beauty of  humanity above the animals and machines. God only knows we see the ugliness of it enough in our day to day routine.  But at least for this brief moment in time it still lives, at least it still comes through, it still calls out to those who are the only ones who can embrace it and wield it, human beings. But the human is also the only one that can choose to ignore it and deny it, and in doing so extinguish it and defeat it, or rather be defeated despite it.

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