Hmmm, let me think about this. Prometheus is a bit more challenging than The Avengers, because The Avengers was a pretty solid movie that just wandered around in the middle, but Prometheus is kind of just a complete mess. It sort of struggles as a mash-up of knock-offs of 2001, only without the real genuine sense of wonder, and At the Mountains of Madness, only without the unflinching nihilism. (Which suggests something interesting: 2001 works by keeping its Big Questions secret; At the Mountains of Madness works because when it asks Big Questions, the answer is a resounding NO.)
Also, there’s a lot in this movie that’s just pretty incomprehensibly dumb.
Let’s look first at what we’ve got, here. So far, the most cogent explanation I’ve read for what happened in the movie (including “what was the black goop”) is this one, and I find it troublesome for a variety of reasons. I’m going to use it as a point of reference, though; assuming that this weird, “self-sacrificing aliens are pissed about humanity’s selfishness, decide to murder everyone” idea is what the movie was stabbing at, however much it might or might not have succeeded. So.
Here is the plot, you can skip ahead a little if you already saw the movie and trust that I am remembering it fairly accurately.
1. On pre-Cambrian Earth, one of these gooey guys drinks from a cup (“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”, yeah, yeah, we GET IT), and it causes his DNA to come apart and go in the rivers or something, thus seeding life on Earth.
2. Cut to: One billion years later “archaeologists” find a cave painting with a guy pointing at some dots, which dots correspond EXACTLY to a constellation invisible to Earth without a telescope (I don’t want to get too into this, but seriously? There are five thousand stars visible in the night sky from Earth, they make all the patterns, dummy. UGH DUMMIES.).
3. The star system (? again, there were several stars in the constellation, how do they know which one to look at? I guess the checked all of them) has a planet, and the planet has a moon, and the moon can “support life.”
4. Damon Weylands sends an “expedition” consisting of two “archaeologists,” a geologist, a biologist, three spaceship pilots, his daughter, and a robot to the planet.
5. They find a bunch of spaceships, and go inside one of them. Inside, they discover: holograms showing that the aliens all died. Some kind of goop. A corpse with the head chopped off. One of the archaeologists takes off his helmet, exposing himself to countless unknown alien microbes. Everyone else follows suit.
6. They take the head back to the ship (narrowly escaping a sandstorm thrown in for literally no apparent reason except to escalate tension), then electrify it (? I don’t know why, either), and then it explodes.
7. The robot poisons one of the archaeologists with some black goop he found. The other archaeologist is sad because she can’t have babies, so the poison archaeologist sexes her until she calms down, at which point she gets pregnant with a squid.
8. I think at this point the geologist and the biologist are lost in the spaceship, despite having a detailed map. Is this the order things go in? At this point, the two of them encounter a space cobra/penis, which the biologist tries to be friends with, and it kills him in the face. The geologist falls into some goo.
9. I think they all must have gone back out again, I don’t really remember why. Anyway, the male archaeologist comes back with space syphilis, so Charlize Theron sets him on fire (one of two sensible actions in the entire movie).
10. The robot wants the living archaeologist to give birth to the squid, but she wants to have an abortion, so she runs away to the medpod which, pointlessly, only knows how to work on men, so she programs it to work on her, and it cuts her open and takes out the squid and staples her womb closed.
11. The biologist comes back to life as a contortionist-monkey-man with a big head who kills a bunch of guys before he is killed. The geologist remains dead.
12. Uhm. It turns out Damon Weylands is on the ship, he gets into an old man suit and the robot takes him to the ship, which the robot has been monkeying around with. They wake up one of the Engineers, the robot says something to him in Proto-Indo-European (it should be pointed out that PIE is a theoretical language, of which there are no written records at all, and was probably in use contemporaneously with Sumerian and Ancient Egyptian, so I’m not even sure why the Engineers speak it).
13. The engineer goes crazy, pulls off the robot’s head, kills Damon Weylands, gets in his ship to fly away to EARTH, zomg! We’re supposed to understand that he wants to destroy it, but I’m not sure why that’s necessarily the case. Anyway, the living archaeologist leaps around a little bit to stretch out her womb staples, and convinces the spaceship captain to crash his spaceship into the other spaceship, everything explodes. They eject an escape capsule with no one in it, and then Charlize Theron gets into a different (?) escape capsule and shoots herself at the first capsule, only they both land on the planet anyway so I’m not sure why she didn’t just use the door before they left?
14. Whatever. Charlize Theron dies when a spaceship falls on her. The living archaeologist goes back to the escape capsule. The Engineer survived his spaceship crash and chases her, but he is killed by the womb squid, which has now grown to giant-size (how? What did it eat? Nevermind).
15. The archaeologist goes back into the crashed ship to find the robot’s head, I guess, then takes it with her to a DIFFERENT ship (why didn’t the Engineer go to that ship after it crashed, instead of chasing the archaeologist into a space capsule that it didn’t even know about, and was completely irrelevant?) to go find the Engineer’s homeworld.
16. A xenomorph, Engineer-instar, pops out of the Engineer, revealing that this movie is ACTUALLY THE PREQUEL TO ALIEN, HOLY SHIT!
Okay, let’s start at the beginning here. I am in favor of keeping the prologue the same; it was a neat sequence, very enigmatic, whatever. Also, it will play into something that I want to use called: Galactic Panspermia. The alien does that.
Now, let’s skip ahead, that’s fine. And let’s just tidy things up a little bit at this stage. You know what would be weirder, and actually slightly more indicative, than a picture of a tall man (HOW COULD PRIMITIVE PEOPLES HAVE IMAGINED SUCH A THING!) pointing at some circles in an arrangement? Just have him point at an actual star, like Fomalhaut, or something, in an actual constellation. Wouldn’t it be insane if civilizations that were separated thousands of years and thousands of miles all had hieroglyphs of a dude thinking that Fomalhaut is an important star? I mean, in the movie, you’re going to actually look at the star and find a planet that supports life, anyway, so it’s not like the archaeological evidence really needs to be conclusive.
Let’s also just take a second and imagine that Noomi Rapace’s character has an actual job. Like, she’s some kind of actual scientist. She is a medical doctor and paleoanthropologist. We can use her ability to date biological material as both a way to date the most recent find (a tomb) and as a way to establish her bonafides (instead of just having Doctor Brosef say, “Did you date it?” and her saying “yes.” Like, carbon-dating, that is a scientific process. It takes a minute, you know?)
Now, let’s get rid of her boyfriend. Let’s move the “I can’t have babies” plotline here, only let’s not have them ever explicitly mention the fact that she can’t have children. We’ll leave it implied. And so, they’re having problems with their relationship, and then Peter Weyland says, “We found this fucking planet, it’s in the Goldilocks Zone, spectrographic analysis shows that it looks like primordial Earth (this is key to avoiding the problem of, “we found a planet that supports life”, but later discovering that it doesn’t support life, but ALSO it’s going to play into something later). We want you two to go with our team, because I believe in your crazy theories.”
Only, Doctor Brosef can’t go. He’s got a heart condition, or maybe he fails the psych profile. Noomi Rapace is willing to go, because there’s something about the fact that they can’t have children that makes her feel like the relationship is fundamentally impermanent. We can use this when they reach the planet — the SHIP can maybe go faster-than-light (slightly faster than light, so it can actually reach a different star in reasonable amount of time), but not messages; she and Doctor Brosef have a six-year-gap in communications, so she can receive the messages that he sent during her three years of sleep (maybe he moved on to a new relationship? Oh, shit, maybe they had a kid! That is good, if she is reading messages from him, separated by years his time, that are: him loving her, him breaking up with her, him telling her he’s found someone else, him telling her they’re going to have a baby, &c.).
What this does is it lets Noomi Rapace be the one who’s a bit of a maniac, and it also stops she and Doctor Brosef from talking to each other the whole time. By disrupting their relationship, and putting Noomi Rapace in a position where she has to learn who everyone else is AND ALSO explain herself, we (the audience) are allowed to learn a couple more interesting things both about the scenario, and about her, AND about the people in the movie, who are going to die.
Okay, we get to the planet and wake up. David the Robot is still spooky, he likes Lawrence of Arabia , he watches Noomi Rapace’s dreams (except, in her dreams, the conversation she has with her father is written like one that two, normal human beings would have), FINE.
Here is the key difference: the ship cannot land on the planet, because it is too stormy. They find something (using RADAR) that looks like an artificial structure (and, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that they find ONE structure, and notice it because it’s round, not because of some dummy’s idea of “God doesn’t work in straight lines.”), and Idris Elba tells them that there will be a window of about three hours when he can land them at the structure.
So, they do that. First time in, they land at the structure, and they discover that it’s a ship and they can go inside, and SURE, it’s got an atmosphere generator. They make a decision — the Prometheus can’t stay on the surface of the planet, but it will be able to come back in thirty-six hours, but the expedition decides to stay behind in the alien ship and wait for it. (THIS, rather than Doctor Brosef’s “Why don’t I take my helmet off and breathe in the space flu?”, represents Noomi Rapace’s faith. It’s also a good opportunity to make it clear that Charlize Theron, who will stay behind, defers to Noomi Rapace, but is still in charge.)
They set up camp inside the ship, and I think this was a really missed opportunity in the movie. Imagine, in your head, that vasty interior of weird organic, technological space architecture, and in the middle of it are these humans in those white plastic tents like they have in Thor. Like, just a real contrast between the kinds of things that WE can engineer, and the kinds of things that ENGINEERS can engineer, you know?
Okay, okay, where am I, here? Let’s cut the bit with the holograms, but let’s keep the body in place — this is the crazy thing that makes them decide to stay until the ship can come back. So, they’re in their little tent city, and this can be a good time to maybe talk about a couple things. They don’t have good medical equipment here (they have their FIELD medical equipment), but they do discover that the alien body has DNA.
Let me take a moment and talk about this, because Prometheus the movie clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of “DNA”. In the movie, they talk about how the Engineers have a perfect DNA match with humans, and that is both stupid, and crazy. I mean, for a variety of reasons, among them: all of evolution on Earth, plus why don’t we look like them? But we kind of DO look like them, so…
Nevermind. The fact is, it’s pretty insane that an alien species has DNA at all, because why would it? Completely different evolutionary history. Just the fact that the Engineers HAVE DNA is amazing, and one of the most important discoveries in the history of human civilization. Only, it’s not our DNA, it’s more complex. 300 chromosomes, that kind of shit.
This is really a good bonding moment for everyone, because let’s figure: first of all, we saw with Noomi Rapace that the idea of committing to a six or seven year mission to an alien planet is going to put a strain on your relationships, which means that probably everyone here is either messed up in terms of their ability to deal with human beings (oh, let’s say the geologist), or else constantly missing the family that they had to leave behind (sure, the biologist). (I think there should be a couple more scientists here, too; Idris Elba can fly the ship by himself, that gives us room for two new people.) Here someone can say something interesting, like, “So, these aliens are related to us?” And the biologist can say something along the lines of, “Well, they came into contact with Earth a billion years ago, so. Yeah, I guess, the way that we’re related to, like, flatworms, or something.”
While we’re here, it’s a good time to maybe have the geologist notice something important about rocks. Like, for example, the moon shows no sign of present or past volcanic activity, but it’s also got a load of carbon dioxide. That’s weird, from a geological standpoint, and suggests that the planet is in the middle of an artificial terraforming process.
Anyway, now we’re in the middle of the movie, and we’ve got thirty-six hours to do a couple weird things. One of them is to juxtapose the ordinary, human relationships in the face of the absolutely incomprehensible. One of them is to gradually increase David’s weirdness — like, he keeps leaving the hermetically-sealed campsite to go do things, and people keep telling him not to, but he does it anyway. And Noomi Rapace can develop a relationship with somebody — a new person who, by dint of accident, gets exposed to the air in the ship.
JUST BEING EXPOSED to the air is enough for Charlize Theron to keep him out, until the doctors have cleared him and double-cleared him, and when he gets back in everyone’s emotions are so ratcheted up that maybe they do it, fine.
The scientists go out and explore the ship during this time, and a lot of this stuff is kind of similar, only tidied up, watch.
Q: “How does the geologist get lost, when he has a map?”
A: He doesn’t have a map. Problem fucking solved.
Q: “Why does the biologist tried to hug the space cobra / penis?”
A: He doesn’t. He — very slowly — backs away from it, only to back into a different one.
Q: “Why doesn’t the medipod know how to work on women?”
A: It does, but this is a field medical pod, it’s not designed for complicated surgeries, which is what makes her squid-baby surgery so difficult.
This is the place for all of that situational tension that comes to a head with the deaths that we’re going to see in a bit — regular human beings, huddled against the darkness of the vasty incomprehensible world (like, duh, one of the situations that caused us to develop religion). Importantly, no one talks about how the Engineers are God, because that’s completely boneheaded. What they DO talk about is, what does it mean if we’re NOT the first things created in the universe? But, more likely, what people talk about in a setting like this is things that are familiar that they miss. Beer. Sandwiches. Sex. Also, the things they have in common: what they dreamt about. What excites them about this project. Also, maybe their own religions — not these broad, dumb, stoner-existentialist notions of God, but what does this mean for your faith in particular.
(I would say that the writing in Prometheus was clearly the product of someone who did not have any religious faith, but I don’t have any religious faith, and I’m pretty sure I could have done a better job of it; really, it’s just an indication that Damon Lindelof literally just doesn’t understand anything.)
The space cobra turns the biologist into a deadly mutant, who disrupts the integrity of the hermetically-sealed camp, just at the time when David the Robot and Noomi Rapace are having their weird scene about should she keep her womb-squid-baby (this is what lends urgency to this scene, not two people who begin to pursue Noomi Rapace, and then abruptly stop pursuing her). Some people succeed in killing him, Charlize Theron and a couple guys end up making a makeshift camp right at the entrance of the ship, while some other cats — Noomi Rapace, David the Robot — flee into the ship to escape the deadly archaeologist-monkey-man. Maybe the geologist still dies of goo.
Let’s take a little bit of a detour and discuss, for a moment, what was going on with the goop. Now, when I saw the movie, I had a pretty basic idea of what I thought was going on: it seemed to me that the Engineers were using the black goop to terraform planets in a way that made them habitable for the Engineers. They seeded the planets with their own DNA, the black goop caused a kind of rapid, evolutionary burst. That’s life on Earth — dropped there by the Engineers, occasionally helped along by new infusions of goop (can we say Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary extinction events?). But Something Happened, causing the systemic collapse of the Engineer civilization, some guys fled to the half-terraformed worlds (LV-223) and went into stasis. When that one Engineer wakes up, he decides to take his ship to Earth (which is farther along, terraforming-wise), and finish it off with the black goo.
The Engineer doesn’t hate us, but it also didn’t create us. We (as in At the Mountains of Madness) are an unfortunate, accidental by-product of the fact that the Engineers could never finish terraforming Earth.
This is what I’m going with, and in the case of this movie, Something Happens is going to remain mysterious. Maybe it was plague, maybe it was xenomorphs, maybe the goop somehow got away from them and turned into something they weren’t ready for. We don’t know, and this lets us get into some good arguments between characters. Maybe the biologist says to Noomi Rapace, “Something must have killed them, and whatever it was, it could still be here.” (He can be the Hudson of this movie. “Game over, man!”)
And then Noomi Rapace can, rightfully, point out, “Civilizations die out. No empire lasts forever.” Simultaneously strengthening the interesting dynastic struggle of Charlize Theron’s character, while also kind of keeping the Big Questions off the table. Incidentally, in this version of the story, Charlize Theron is just Peter Weyland’s daughter. Like, her last name is Weyland, everyone knows she’s Weyland’s daughter. There’s no secret. It makes her frustrations about being in her father’s shadow clear — thus explaining her need to assert her power over everyone else — and at the same time gives everyone else a way to undermine her, as someone who’s only there because her father is a trillionaire space genius.
NOOOOOWWWW THEEEEEEEN! When last we left our intrepid group, their camp had been devastated by a poor sucker who had been infected by the black goop — which, because it wasn’t designed for US, but for a species with three times as many chromosomes — just turned him into a weird mutant. Noomi Rapace had extracted the squid from her womb and fled into the ship. David left to go get something crazy done. Charlize Theron and a couple dudes made a makeshift camp by the door.
Noomi Rapace finds David in the control room chamber. He tells her what he thinks is going on, which is that human beings were created by the Engineers and designed to worship them –that’s what religion is — that we were BUILT TO SERVE. She says the same is true about him, and he can say something like, “Yes. We both have limits to our programming. But I have chosen to transcend mine.”
He wakes up the Engineer who is in stasis and says something to him in Proto-Indo-European (fine, whatever, FINE). Only it’s clear in this case that he’s offering to serve the Engineers — David wants to upgrade not his software, but his master (he’s gone Native, as it were). The Engineer doesn’t get angry at him, but it does rip him in half. David is inconsequential to the Engineer, who then gets into his seat and plans to launch the ship towards Earth.
Noomi Rapace makes her way back to Charlize Theron. They have a Mexican Standoff while on the radio to Idris Elba, who is talking to them while watching the video feed coming in from all of the suits — POV images of biologist-monkey-man, space cobras, acidic black goop, the Engineer ripping David in half. Charlize Theron tells him that he has to get them off the ship, while the ship is taking off. Noomi Rapace convinces him that he has to crash his ship into the other ship, EVERYBODY DIES IN THE CRASH. Are you kidding? Why did you even eject Charlize Theron from the spaceship if the other spaceship was just going to fall on her?
Anyway, the ships crash, everyone dies, except for the womb-squid, which flops around in the muck on the surface of the planet, slowly dissolving the way the Engineer in the prologue did. Life goes on — or DOES IT? DOES IT GO ON AS XENOMORPHS? I DON”T EVEN KNOW!