Ridley Scott says his new film, Prometheus, is not a prequel to his 1979 Alien. It just has ‘certain strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak’. Fans of the first movie and its recurring avatars have been worried about this, and anxious to prove him wrong. This is easy to do in a narrow sense. The dates are right, the human story of Prometheus beginning in 2089 and ending in 2094 (Alien is set in 2122); the same sinister corporation is funding an expedition to a far planet, interested more in plunder than in the meaning of life; and our last glimpse of action in this distant place involves the birth of a slippery wriggling monster, half-snake and three-quarters octopus, from the stomach of a doomed humanoid. The creature even has the fine dental display of its descendant in Alien, and the scene drips liquid all over the place. On the soundtrack we hear Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, a serene but pretty funny joke.
But if a prequel offers an explanation of a later state of affairs, or a story of origins, Prometheus is not one. It’s a late – very late – riff on a series of science-fiction tropes, and Scott’s image of the film having or sharing its DNA makes the point. We even see this film’s DNA coiling all over the screen, since DNA is what a lot of the film is about. The monsters – and indeed the apparently defunct humanoids on the far planet – cause a lot of trouble and all of the action, but they are not the drivers of the plot, and almost any other form of interruption would do, as long as it taught a lesson to the naive or surly or over-inquisitive humans.
The subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was ‘The Modern Prometheus’, and the subtitle of Prometheus could well have been ‘Frankenstein Revisited’. It’s hard to get Mel Brooks out of one’s mind here, but Victor Frankenstein’s real achievement was to create life – out of bits and pieces of dead bodies to be sure. In Scott’s movie a creature who looks not like Victor but an athletic version of his creature drinks a small carton of what appears to be chilli sauce, and bursts apart, spreading his DNA all over the landscape, while his broken remains topple into a waterfall. This dissemination gives birth to … Well, the movie’s first implication is that it gives birth to us: we are the creature’s distant children. A cave painting discovered on the Isle of Skye points researchers to the sky, and now that space travel is so easy, we can reach the stars we used to have just to imagine or peer at through a telescope. An expedition sets off in 2093, in quest, the leading scientists think, of the meaning of the ancient gesture: why did this creature create us? Other members of the expedition just want to look at rocks; the director of the enterprise is after the galactic equivalent of gold or oil; and the funder of the whole excursion, it turns out, actually wants to meet his maker.
A later implication is that the creature may not have been interested in spreading his genes, only in testing some noxious experimental liquid that his species had developed on a planet safely distant from its own home. Still, the firm is clear about the evidence. The DNA of the dead people in this distant place – there are many dead people, and they get to run around a bit as holograms apart from being dissected in a lab – is the same as ours. If they are not our creators, they are our older cousins.
The film looks great. The landscapes, mostly grey and white, are full of sombre beauty, and you have no idea how well-endowed the executive suite on an up-to-date spaceship can be – I mean will be. There is an android who makes cups of tea, learns ancient languages and models his diction and appearance on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. A clip from that film, with the android devotedly watching it, is included for our information, and a little later the android, out of the spaceship and on the alien planet, rather smugly quotes his favourite lines: ‘There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.’ The suggestion is that nothing is just what an android needs, a mark of real class. Michael Fassbender plays David, the android, with terrific, elegant style, not as if he were Peter O’Toole but as if he liked Peter O’Toole – a fine distinction. His uniform makes him look like a prisoner rather than a servant, and the effect is that of one of the more likeable SS-men taking a turn inside a camp rather than outside. One of the oddest features of the film is that our heroes, the two top scientists, played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, are so perfectly convinced of the superiority of humans to robots, and keep taunting David with his restricted status. ‘That’s because I’m a human and you’re not,’ Rapace says on the questions of having feelings, and Marshall-Green says similar things several times over. They have never thought of any of the ambiguities of identity and origin that are all over Blade Runner, for example, but we can be pretty sure that Scott remembers, and every time the humans and the android have an argument the android wins hands down. ‘Have you ever thought,’ Fassbender asks, ‘why humans created us?’ ‘Because they could, I guess,’ the scientist says. Fassbender politely wonders whether humans, especially those seeking the source of human life, might not be disappointed if their own maker offered such an answer.
The whole film floats a curiously ambiguous relation to the question of belief. At the end, just before the prequel monster gets its brief moment, Rapace, the sole survivor of the monster/humanoid break-out on the far planet, takes off with Fassbender in search of her creator’s real home, rather than the colony they have found. She dates her log ‘the year of Our Lord 2094’, but nothing in the film has suggested that any divine lord, Christian or other, has had anything to do with what the characters call the engineering of life. And when Fassbender inspects Rapace’s dreams while she is cryogenically travelling through the years into space – amazing what robots can do – he eavesdrops on a conversation with her father who tells her, as a child, that everyone goes to heaven when they die. She asks how he knows, and he says: ‘It’s what I choose to believe.’ At a desperate moment in her own story, Rapace repeats the line, and Scott’s suggestion seems to be that such a belief is sufficient for action – or rather that any motivation is sufficient if it works – but insufficient for almost everything else, and especially for theology and science.
As regards the monsters and the non-alien aliens, the film is a rather touching throwback to very early science fiction, way beyond E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Here what you don’t know about is going to do you harm, and the only answer would have been a cordon sanitaire that ensured your not making its acquaintance in the first place. The humans in Prometheus are pathetically unsuspicious of what’s foreign – until it consumes them or infests them. Two members of the expedition treat a lethal snake as if it were a lost kitten, and could be talked to and tamed. All of them are sure that when they wake the last humanoid on this planet from his two-thousand-year sleep he is going to be nice to them, give them a long history lesson and tell them about his plans for the future – rather than grab them by the throat and tear their heads off, for example. In this respect, and by comparison, Men in Black is a model of liberal understanding of the other.
Still, we have to be grateful for the torn head, since it belongs to Fassbender and provides both a wonderful, mythological sight, tilted, talking, various edges of flesh and nuts and bolts showing below the neck. It’s still very courteous, saying to Rapace, ‘I know we’ve had our differences, but …’ And of course there are things an android needs: someone to reunite head and body, for example. Rapace does this, but only after assuring herself that he can fly one of the spaceships left lying around.
The moral of Frankenstein, if it had one, would be don’t meddle with what’s beyond you. The moral of Prometheus is that the quest for knowledge beyond reasonable, practical limits is like a form of sexual recklessness. You won’t get a disease but you will, man or woman, become pregnant with your own destruction. It’s true that in the most hair-raising sequence of the film Rapace delivers herself of a monster, sews herself up, kills the monster and survives; but then the sequel is going to need her, and it’s always good for someone, in any movie, not to learn the confining lesson apparently on offer.