2012's not-quite-Alien prequel Prometheus is one of the internet's favorite punching bags, one of those films that people seemingly love to deride. While it's true that no amount of passionate defense of a work of art will stop someone from disliking it, in my experience it is very possible to hear a dissenting opinion and reconsider one's own (with Rob Zombie's Halloween II and The Matrix Revolutions being two major examples of doing a 180 for me). In the spirit of that, and in light of the premiere of Alien: Covenant today, the time was right to revisit the film, and celebrate all that it does well. In general, the film's production design, photography and effects are well praised, with its script and characters being the main points of criticism. Yet after a rewatch the other night, I found that it thematically works even better years later then it did upon release, fitting into the Alien saga perfectly without disrupting it, all while being an original science fiction film of its own.
Each installment of the Alien franchise represents a different kind of terror: Ridley Scott's original is an "old dark house" survival slasher, James Cameron's adrenaline laced sequel is a roller coaster ride, David Fincher's (unfairly maligned) third entry is nihilistic and melancholy, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fourth installment is a carnival freakshow. (For posterity, the two Alien Vs Predator films represent the "monster mash" aspect of horror that their titles suggest, albeit poorly). Prometheus, on first watch, is an odd sort of fit with this pattern. There seems to be an incongruity within it, as it doesn't have as single minded a structure as Scott's original movie, instead bouncing from scene to scene. The med-pod Caesarian sequence (uncontestedly the best scene in the film) is followed immediately by the reveal of an elderly Peter Weyland (played by a young Guy Pearce, another odd incongruity) and a discussion about meeting a real live "Engineer", an alien species who created humanity. It's a huge tonal shift, and one that can be pointed at as a flaw, if the focus of the film was on what many expected it to be, the creatures (and by extension, the Xenomorph). But despite the impressive creature design and work in the film, Prometheus isn't a monster movie; it's an existentialist horror.
The creatures in Prometheus aren't the main attraction, but a byproduct of the true horror, the horror of creation, parenthood, and abandonment in a hostile universe. Each major character in the film is both an abandoned child and a reluctantparent, responsible for another who is disappointing or undesirable in some fashion. To wit, Vickers is both the unloved daughter of Weyland and responsible for Janek (along with the ship and its crew); David is the "son" of Weyland (and, implicitly, humankind), as well as the "father" of the resultant creature born to parents Holloway and Shaw, and is treated as less than human. Even Captain Janek can be seen as the father figure of the crew, with some of its members the disappointing children. After all, how else to describe the behavior of for-hire scientists Milburn and Fifield in the Engineer store room? They smoke pot, goof around, and play with dangerous animals like spoiled, ignorant children. "Spoiled children" is exactly how the film's ultimate father figure, the Engineer, sees its progeny, humanity. During the initial confrontation with the Engineer, Shaw howls in despair at it, "why do you hate us?", but no concrete answer is given. All Shaw knows is that the Engineers, before a breakout of their mercurial black goo bio weapon wiped them out, were planning on bringing loads of the stuff back to Earth in order to eradicate humanity. Perhaps "hate" is too strong a word. As Holloway says to the android David seconds before David spikes his drink with the goo, humanity built artificial life "because we could". The tentacled creature that attacks the Engineer (in order to create its offspring, the Deacon) does not attack out of hate. Creation, then, according to Prometheus, is a power wielded blithely and dispassionately, and the destruction of the resultant life is handled similarly. All of which leaves spurned, angry children in its wake. As David responds to Holloway's remark, "can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"
That's unquestionably bleak subject matter for a big budget sci fi blockbuster, and while it makes the film so admirably ballsy, it doesn't have completely unsympathetic characters. Much has been made of Michael Fassbender's performance as David, and that's no mistake. Fassbender is a revelation in the role, his sociopathic ticks constantly reminding us he's not human. Crucially, the film never goes out of its way to blame David for his actions. He never explicitly lets another human come to harm, and even receives implicit permission to poison Holloway's drink. Many see him as the protagonist of the film, but he shares those duties with the unsung other protagonist, Shaw. Not enough has been said about Noomi Rapace's performance, which is fierce, determined, and empathetic where David is subdued. Watching her arc, going from a wide eyed idealist searching for meaning to a broken woman, is harrowing. It's as if Close Encounters' Roy Neary walked into the mothership at the end of that film and promptly got zapped with a laser through the chest. Fassbender's David is the cold, logical intelligence of the film, and Rapace's Shaw is its heart, howling in vain at the universe's indifference.
It's that coldness that makes the film the perfect Alien prequel, while simultaneously not being one at all. Prometheus doesn't do any of the expected "prequel-y" things: there's no character who is meant to be a franchise character's ancestor, the ending doesn't slide right into the beginning of Alien, and in fact, the Xenomorph doesn't make an appearance (the Deacon, though clearly a genetic ancestor, is also not quite our Xeno). It's this last point that must have made the film a disappointing experience for many, despite their protests to the contrary. Yet while the Alien is certainly missed, the world of the film so neatly fits into the franchise. In a way, Prometheus is the most successful prequel ever made, for it expertly establishes a world in which Alien can take place, rather than go through the "what happened first" motions. Moreover, it allows the movie to stand on its own, in keeping with the franchise's tradition of allowing auteur directors to give each installment its own mood and flavor. The Ridley Scott who made Prometheus is not the same Ridley Scott who made Alien, literally and figuratively; indeed, given the film's existentialist themes, it's a closer sibling to his Blade Runner. Perhaps Scott & company gave the film a self-fulfilling prophecy by titling it Prometheus, for as explained by Peter Weyland, that mythological Titan also became an outcast despite the gifts he brought humanity. Ultimately, though, Prometheus is to the Alien franchise what its major characters are: both the “beginning” of the series and its bastard child, not to be underestimated and worth a second look.