Ridley Scott’s Cosmos: Prometheus (2012)

Reaching to the stars

I (wanted to) adore this movie. It addresses some of the coolest ideas in cinema. The ones I’ll be focusing on are 1) the search for our creator in order to 2) ascertain his purpose to ultimately 3) understand our own nature.

This movie also made me realize how much I don’t like the non-Ridley Scott Alien movies. I’ll be starting off my take on Prometheus by shitting on Aliens (1986). Maybe the fact that I pretty much started with the Alien prequels is the reason I dislike Aliens so much? I mean look at the vision that Ridley fleshes out here, then watch Covenant and feel what David feels, then be there for the horror of Alien. *sigh*. Then watch Aliens. Where they take Art by both her skull and throat and hold her under water until she stops thrashing. I mean James Cameron machine guns, what, like a million xenomorphs off-screen–what use was having a hive at all? I’ll tell you. It’s because he isn’t burdened by inconveniences like subtlety and meaning. What’s the creation metaphor in Aliens? Ripley refusing to abandon that little girl because she feels guilty about her daughter? Aww humanity is kind and good and your new mommy wuvs you and she’ll never let the bad guys hurt you 🥺 Someone please elbow me in the throat. And I understand that Aliens is regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Maybe I’d also feel this way if I saw them in order of release. Not closed off to liking it, I just don’t like it currently. Otherwise I think all of pop culture needs to come to terms with the fact that Alien is to Aliens as Sicario is to Day of the Soldado, and that that’s a bad thing. In my opinion, if you’re going to make a sequel to a beautiful movie, it should also be beautiful. It doesn’t even have to match tone; but when you substitute substance for scale you commit a very frustrating artistic sin. You can go big fun Hollywood for the rest of the franchise after that.

I mean just compare the paternal relationship in Aliens to the relationships between the rich and purposeful lineage of creators and creations that Prometheus illustrates.

Take also, this movie’s opening sequence.

Of Myth and Star Stuff

One of the most gorgeous opening sequences I’ve seen. Dariusz Wolski scapes this scene somber and cold. It represents one of the biggest appeals of this movie for me; Prometheus revels in the beauty of damp, dark things. The camera gets these expansive, scaled shots of Earth’s natural formations because Ridley wants us to know what our surroundings look like here. It feels like something Villeneuve would do. Incidentally Wolski was also the director of photography for Day of the Soldado (visually fine despite its heavy handed character writing), which really emphasizes how much the director pairing matters. {Villeneuve + Deakins} feels similar to {Scott + Wolski}. It’s an aesthetic I hunt for. Anyway, In Prometheus the opening sequence says something, unlike the opening shot of Aliens which just introduces the plot. It feels like Ridley is either setting up the environment as something that will interact with characters or as something symbolic. Maybe both.

I mean, this is a very different Earth than the one we live on–almost barren made up of just rock (save for a little grass), water and humidity. An Earth without life. The homage to 2001’s opening shot evoking Kubrick’s story about humanity using tools for purposes of tribal violence before using tools to find their place among the stars, destined to be reborn as “star children” (yuck, 60’s sci-fi amirite). But Ridley holds that sentiment and takes us to a time that predates Kubrick’s humanity. This barren Earth is visited by what looks like a physiologically perfect human, who we learn later is part of a species that Shaw calls Engineers. Immediate association with the perfection of the xenomorph from Alien. He then drinks this ferrofluid black goo thing that disintegrates his body right down to his DNA. Although, only after we hear him croaking and gagging, witness his face contort while he brings his hands up in agony, his limbs falling as different parts of his body collapse onto themselves like accelerated leprosy, before he crashes down a waterfall, with his aerosolizing carcass floating limp at the bottom of a pond. His biochemistry dissolving in the water, we then see his DNA reconstitute with color and specks of black. A savage act of creation. In Ridley’s universe, life on earth was seeded by an alien creator, who concocted our primordial soup from a mixture of his own genetic material and this mysterious black fluid.

Which is all to say, Ridley’s opening sequence is meant to communicate a barren universe, fertilized with intentionality, where understanding human nature requires understanding the nature of the engineers and the nature of the black fluid.

The best character in this movie

But Only After Forgiving Ridley

After this cold open, Shaw and Holloway find 35,000 year old cave paintings created by Stone Age humans of giant beings pointing to a constellation. Then, Ridley’s first consistent storytelling weakness becomes apparent–sloppy scientific and methodological context. Relying only on the relative position of 6 dots painted on a 2-dimensional surface being sieg heiled by a giant, Shaw’s team searches for a system in the same configuration on the premise that it is impossible to find any homonumeric combination in the 2,000 visible stars in the 3-dimensional night sky. When that doesn’t work Shaw expands her search presumably to the entire >100 billion-star Milky Way, before finding there’s somehow only one 6-star configuration that matches the cave painting dots. Not only does this work, she then concludes that these giants pointing at stars weren’t primitive renditions of mythological figures but are definitely our tangibly real creators while wearing a cross on her chest. Which implies that beings smart enough to traverse the galaxy relied on primitive people to accurately document their message, rather than leaving an advanced calling card like in 2001. Shaw doesn’t give a shit though. She pursues this theory adamantly on “faith” (presumably the same thing that helps maintain her Christianity). She then convinces someone with more money than god to put up $1 trillion (!!) to go to this star system in-person without doing any reconnaissance because he is also a man of faith and all the world’s governments step aside to allow a special interest mission to use a very large share of the global economy to take like 12 people across the galaxy without any public interests being represented. God bless you Ridley.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to accept the world that an artist wants to build and be along for the ride (big Pacific Rim fan over here). That’s why I adore this movie about humanity venturing out into the stars to literally meet their makers. What a stunning and ambitious concept. It’s also why no singular mistake is what bothers me; it’s the overwhelming multitude of these lazy mistakes. It’s death by 1,000 cuts. I won’t be pointing them out after this because then this entire post would turn into an accounting document. I want this sci-fi franchise to be my favorite one because it integrates aliens, AI, and theology with such beautiful visuals, but it feels like Ridley wants to test my faith. This movie came out in 2012; audiences evolved since Alien in 1979; Ridley’s plot devices (and characters) didn’t. This type of screen writing was standard for the 80’s (and in some respects ahead of its time, like having a badass female lead), but the parts I listed felt lazy even back when I first saw Prometheus in opening week. This is a recurring technical problem with Ridley despite his undeniable creative genius. If you’ve been keeping up with Raised By Wolves, then you’ll see he still relies on plot devices and premises that were old hat as far back as the 00’s.

Back to the story, in 2093 AD (29 years before Alien), the crew of the Prometheus wakes up from cryosleep because they’ve arrived at LV-223, the moon that Shaw theorized would lead us to our creators. Here we’re joined by Ridley’s second consistent weakness, a team of garishly flat and outdated character tropes:

  • Guy with a mohawk who’s a dick for no reason (but also smokes weed in space and Sean Harris just plays his characters well, definitely a likable trope, “awoooo!”)
  • Awkward nerdy zoologist who’s so giddy to be here he reaches straight for the mouth of an alien cobra visibly in hood-open attack mode
  • Navigator-pilot duo that force exposition and make bets, “So you’re telling me…”
  • Boss/sponsor whose evil is illustrated by being both overly assertive and dismissive (although she drinks a “vodka [martini] up” with no other instructions, which admittedly commands my respect)
  • Cool captain whose nonchalance is enhanced by smoking cigarillos (can’t really hate him either though, Idris is the man)
  • Impatient cocky adventurer that shit talks an android about not being human (who will be killed by him and he will deserve it)
  • Idealistic lead whose common sense (perfectly unfounded guesswork) is being unfairly challenged by prejudiced technocrats who also orders that weapons be left behind before going into an alien structure after conducting neither reconnaissance nor threat assessment

No really, David was the only solid character in this movie, and I have a feeling it’s both despite Ridley’s best efforts and because Michael Fassbender doesn’t know how to do a bad job. That man is a swan amongst ducks. I’ve never seen him turn in a mediocre performance. That role, an android boiling in sapient animosity just below the surface of a thin veil of forced neutrality, is a nuanced one that most actors would play poorly, especially under the direction of someone who loves heavy-handed unoriginal characters as much as Ridley. To be fair Ridley’s style works really well with simplistic revenge stories like Gladiator where the main character is a 1-dimensional guy-with-a-sword named Maximus, literally “the most.”

Ridley’s insistence on flat characters is related to his final consistent weakness–characters that are driven by the plot. In other words his characters feel like automatons that are acting on instinct to ensure that the plot happens. Switching this formula up would give us a character-driven plot instead, where character dilemmas and journeys would be visualized in order to emphasize the decisions they must then make. These decisions would have a material impact on the story, driving the action of the movie in a specific direction. Flat characters follow the plot. Interesting characters drive the plot. Ridley almost exclusively depicts flat characters.


Now that all that’s off my chest, we can spend the rest of the time focusing on how much I actually like this movie.

Adoration of a god

Our Place Among The Stars

Peter Weyland says the ship Prometheus is a reference to the Titan (a demigod if you will) whose eternal suffering served as the wage of his gift to humanity–the ability for humanity to challenge the gods. This underscores the central role of power in the relationship between god and man. What would that relationship look like if we became god-like? Would worship become a two-way street? Something I didn’t appreciate enough about Ridley’s universe on my initial viewings of any of his stories is the way he designs certain characters to explore the question, “what must a god be like?” In Prometheus he gives us his take. I’m thinking about the Weyland-Yutani Corp, which is in the business of manufacturing starships and androids. You know how Elon Musk’s various ventures make sense only when you put all of them in the context of his singular goal of colonizing Mars? Well why starships and androids? Weyland-Yutani are the robber barons of humanity’s quest to understand itself and its place in the cosmos. And its patriarch is Peter Weyland.

Weyland apparently sees himself as a god-like figure. He creates life and reaches into the stars. His two creations, David (synthetic) and Vickers (biological), vie for this favor, with Weyland ultimately favoring the one created perfect–David. His children simultaneously fear, loathe and love him, which leads to their competition for his approval (a dynamic also explored in Blade Runner Black Lotus). It’s an interesting relationship with him. They seek his approval while also wanting to kill him. David’s programming prevents him from doing so but the fact that Vickers hasn’t killed him creates an interesting question about the nature of free will, self and social constructs. Not to mention daddy issues. (David also calls Vickers “mom” after she wakes up which is a whole nother can of worms. Mommy issues). But it’s about more than just competing for approval. In this movie we can see that Vickers and David revere Weyland. Their father is a titan of humanity and industry, a man with a vision who dared to do what only gods could: to create life, explore the universe and challenge death. Weyland even puts death on hold while he traverses astronomical expanses to meet his creator. It’s initially tempting to think he sees himself possibly as Prometheus, a demigod selflessly sacrificing himself for the existential clarity and salvation of humanity. (Sidebar: Prometheus as a Christ-like figure)? But a deleted scene linked in the next paragraph will reveal that this is not the case. He’s more of a foil to Prometheus. It’s also tempting to look at Weyland’s attitude and think “wow this guy’s got some fucking nerve.” But then again, how different actually is his characterization from that of the Abrahamic god? A capriciously feared and nervously loved colossus who expects reverence in exchange for his favor. Here characterizing god reveals man. Returning to that Promethean question, “what would it be like if we came onto equal footing as god?” Would he seem like a man but for his god-like power? Would he welcome us as equals?

And it’s our creator that Weyland finds. A species symbolized in an individual, and one that’s physically perfect. A giant. A titan? In a biomech suit that appears to have integrated with his body. And the children of this god, came to him, pure in intent, merely wanting to know “why?” No that’s definitely not what happened. Stumbled across a deleted scene while revisiting the interaction with the engineer that shows the entire conversation, this time with translations not included in the original, where Weyland removes our guesswork and reveals both his god-complex and selfish desire to seek eternal life with himself carved out in distinction from the remainder of his (doomed) species. And in the process demonstrates his cruelty to Shaw, another of his kind. Far from wanting to understand his place in the cosmos, he already knows it. It’s to preside over humanity as a superior being. What he seeks is release from death. When he explains that he is deserving of more life because he created David, in his image but perfect, the engineer appears to understand without needing translation. There’s a surreal moment of tenderness where the engineer caresses David’s hair as David basks in the adoration of his creator’s creator–the one who has drunk from the fountain of youth. An actual demigod.

And in this moment what would a demigod think? An estranged child of his wakes him, having sought him across impossible distances from its humble origins. And instead of asking what his purpose was or why he had earned the malevolence of his father or why he was created as such, he asks instead for admission to godhood for himself only, forsaking the rest of his kind, embodied in Shaw asking the very questions he finds himself above. He offers the justification that he too is capable of creation, and indeed creation of something perfect. In the process emphasizing that he himself is not. He is flawed. Self-serving. Unworthy. This sub-Promethean child doesn’t seek selfless purpose; he seeks power and has placed himself in a position of entitlement relative to the rest of his kind. This demigod, though, would offer a moment of fondness not to his selfish creation but to the child born of his hubris, the one created innocent. More perfect than his father. Worthy. And then he would remember his mission. To send the flood.

This is the part where his caressing hand becomes a weapon as he rips David’s head off and uses it to bludgeon Weyland. No time to dwell on the death of innocence. Weyland falls and utters his last words, “there’s nothing.” Heart of Darkness, “the horror.” This is it. Thin veil of human purpose burned in a flash, revealing our desolation and laying bare our existential deformity. Here we get a clearer flavor of the filial tragedy I projected onto Ash from Alien. Why were we created? Because they could. Were we so unworthy?…

To everyone who survives the engineers attack, it now becomes clear that this planet is a military outpost intended to bring forth a human apocalypse. The nature of the engineer’s plans has come as revelation in violence. A reckoning. We’ve only explored the nature of the engineers’ mission though. To understand how we were judged to be undeserving we have to look to the nature of the black fluid.

Xenomorph relief feels reverential and its pose is Christ-like

Terrible Purpose

Calling back to the opening sequence, our nature is tied to this black fluid. Understanding its impact on our programming requires understanding what it does to other genetic codes. The first organisms we see encounter the black fluid are the worms in the dirt in the vase chamber. Tell me if I’m wrong but I think those transform into those alien cobra things. And while they look very face hugger-y they don’t plant embryos in your stomach.

That alien cobra has two different effects on humans. It kills the biologist in a manner reminiscent of the face hugger’s sexual violence, although he’s found later, dried up and necrotic like something out of The Ring. He’s had his insides dug out, like a combination of a face hugger and… a worm. I mean isn’t that what worms do in soil? No actual face huggers yet though. Meanwhile its acid-blood sprays on the geologist whose helmet prevents it from killing him, leaving him just alive enough to mutate into a pseudo-human whose limbs and spine bend the wrong way and has both heightened strength and aggression. I guess him bending the wrong way is the influence of the worm DNA? Not sure what Ridley’s going for there, but so far looks like the black goo hijacks your genetic make up and makes you a screeching angry roided-up zombie version of yourself.

Death metal intensifies

We have less of an idea of what the black goo does when it encounters human biology directly without alien worm DNA as an intermediary, since it turns Holloway sick right before he’s medically treated with a FLAMETHROWER. Also, his face as he’s transforming while his eyes go black–one of the hardest visuals in this film (see above). The black goo already having integrated into Holloway’s genome when he and Shaw have sex, Shaw ends up pregnant despite being sterile. So we know this black goo represents a tenacious form of life that needs very little to survive once it has a host. Having first integrated with Holloway’s gametes before integrating with Shaw’s, this iteration of the black goo represents something new being birthed (rather than mutating an existing organism). And it ends up being a squealing face hugger octopus once she excises it. This thing grows very quickly presumably without consuming any food, and ends up capturing the engineer, who shares most of our genome. The resultant xenomorph at the end looks the most different from any we’ve seen. It’s exoskeleton looks more fleshy, lacks the tubular protrusions from its back, it has square teeth and its pharyngeal jaw seems mostly vestigial. So even a tiny drop of the black goo will create a xenomorph regardless of how little of it was used and how many iterations of human genome it was diluted through (Holloway, Shaw, Engineer).

That black goo seems to be some kind of virus, as the ship’s captain theorizes, that causes the birth of xenomorphs or the mutation of existing organisms. Everything it touches becomes violent and malicious, seemingly losing sense of self in the process. Keep in mind this is what seeded life on Earth. And that squealing octopus facehugger thing also grew large quickly with nothing to eat, which might say something about how that original engineer in the opening sequence seeded life on earth with minimal preexisting biomass on the planet. So much for star stuff huh? (I don’t like this violation of conservation of mass, but I think Ridley might be setting up a divine origin for the black goo later given his affinity for miracles and theological metaphors. Wait a minute. Is Raised By Wolves, already rife with theological metaphors, supposed to tie in with this? Starting to see how deep this fandom rabbit hole goes).

The image we’re left with is one colored by the chaos and cruelty of human nature. In a word, evil. And our creator regrets creating us because of it. A Youtube video I saw too long ago to remember theorized that the engineers were still understanding what the black goo was and in their ambition to create, rushed into using this unknown substance to create us. After seeing how evil our nature is (because of the black goo) they decided it would be best for the survival of their species and general life in the galaxy if they exterminated us. I mean, imagine capturing a xenomorph on your ship. You lock it in a room and now what–let it live while it claws at the door and tries to find a way out, out of the sheer kindness of your heart? No you wanna get rid of that thing. Now imagine a xenomorph that’s intelligent enough to build ships and find you after you leave. Yeah kill that thing. And if we represent a hybrid state between the Engineers and xenomorphs then this view becomes more understandable. So since this black goo when purified excites everything it touches into a murderous frenzy, the engineers poetically chose to use this same substance as a bioweapon to kill humanity.

The black goo might symbolize original sin or just human nature, which in Ridley’s Biblically-informed view is inherently evil. The same thing that caused Cain to murder Abel is what caused humanity to be unworthy of God’s love, leading to the flood that marked the end of the antediluvian period in the Bible. And since xenomorphs are born from the black goo being incorporated into a living thing’s reproductive cycle, they symbolize the evil inherent in life manifested as corrosive malevolence. Kinda like that episode of Rick and Morty where they detoxify. I mean it’s not like xenos are completely void of intention. They take their time to bask in your hopelessness before they maim and take you (not even kill you, they want you alive to nourish their embryos), so I see them as slow deliberate malice distilled into corporeal form. What heightens this malice is their sexual nature. Sex having a role in both pleasure and procreation while xeno design represents a confluence of dimorphic sexual symbolism, they might also then be seen as sadistic, taking sexual pleasure from your hopelessness.

In this story humanity reached to the stars both in ambition and curiosity in search of our holy father. And upon finding him we learned only of our unworthiness. We don’t know who created the engineers but we know we were not made in the image of divinity. We were born of evil and our creator only realized it too late, so they sent for a flood made from that which gave us life. The same evil that defines our nature is what would have become our reckoning. But we found our gods first.

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