Last Updated: Feb 2014
Make sure you've grabbed a snack and used the restroom because this essay is almost 19,000 words long. That’s how bad it is.
The Film’s Place in the Alien Franchise & Overall Thoughts
Prometheus takes place in the same fictional universe as the Alien franchise. Ridley Scott himself said it’s not a prequel to Alien—who knows if he’s pulling a “Khan-is-totally-not-the-next-villain” stunt—but Prometheus takes place before the first Alien film chronologically. Ridley Scott, who directed Alien, has returned to creep us out some more with HR Giger’s assistance, and he’s decided to ask some “deep” questions.
With one exception, the film’s visuals are stunning. The characters are well-acted, though some are no thicker than cardboard. A couple of plot twists were pleasantly surprising, but most character motivations were one or a combination of one-dimensional, cliché, inconsistent, or entirely absent. The characters’ actions were confusing, the plot was chock-full of holes and fridge logic, and the film was bloated with too many themes and too much symbolism. Overall, the film seemed to have high aspirations that quickly got out of the director and writers’ control.
I’m about to get into the nitty-gritty now, so if all of this is TL;DR and you don’t want spoilers, watch this hilarious video review from Half in the Bag. If you don’t care about spoilers but hate reading, Mike and Jay still have you covered.
We fly over wild landscapes that seem a little alien, but not so alien that the audience may think it’s not Earth. A cloaked figure approaches the top of a waterfall and looks up at his departing spaceship. He’s humanoid, but definitely not human. He imbibes a black substance, which gets to work immediately. Fancy CG shows us the black substance breaking down the alien’s DNA and him. What’s left of him falls into the river, where we see DNA reforming and fresh cells splitting.
It’s lampshaded later, as I will point out, but the suggestion that alien “Engineers” seeded Earth to create human life throws a lot of real-life science under the bus. It’s like suggesting heliocentrism is wrong, and the sun and planets actually revolve around Earth.
This scene introduces the audience to the black goo, establishing the first of its many conflicting properties.
Hours after you see this film, you’ll be in front of your refrigerator to grab a snack when it suddenly hits you: if the Engineers are so technologically advanced and were capable of seeding a planet with life derived from their own DNA, why did they need to sacrifice an Engineer to do so? Couldn’t they just grow some meat in a lab and throw the black goo on it? And what about the other forms of life on Earth? Questions like these expose a script’s weaknesses, and these head-scratch moments are what’s commonly called Fridge Logic. They’ll happen a lot with Prometheus.
After the title screen, we go to an archaeological dig in Scotland. The year is 2089. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) calls Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to a cave and shows him an ancient painting of early humans surrounding a giant being who is pointing up at a constellation. The cave paintings are about 35,000 years old, “maybe older,” and it’s not the first time Shaw and Holloway have seen “this configuration,” but this find predates the others “by millenia.” Shaw has deduced that the figure pointing up at the constellation is encouraging people to “come and find them.” She is clearly moved by the discovery.
The scene clearly suggests the Engineers visited their progeny several times—over millenia—and interacted with their progeny insomuch as to tell them about their faraway origin. It’s important as you read this recap to keep this suggested relationship in mind, but early humans recorded the “configuration” for whatever reason you like best: religious, spiritual, practical, etc.
Arriving at LV-223
In the next scene, four years have passed and it’s December 21st, 2093. The “scientific exploratory vessel” Prometheus and her crew of seventeen are headed to an “undisclosed” destination. Inside the ship, the human crew is in cryostasis. A solitary android named David (Michael Fassbender) performs ship maintenance and watches over the crew. We see David enter the cryostasis room, then him wearing a helmet allowing him to interface with the beds. He accesses Shaw’s bed and witnesses the images in her head.
Shaw is dreaming of a moment with her father when she was a child. Shaw and her father are in a small village in a tropical area, and they see the funeral procession of the local people. They discuss death, Shaw’s deceased mother, and where people go when they die. Shaw asks her dad how he knows that people go to a beautiful place, and he says that’s what he chooses to believe. Various images fade over the main scene, such as Shaw’s mother and a cross.
Before I get into the dream part, it’s important to note why this scene is here. First, we’re supposed to learn something about Shaw: she is religious and chooses to believe, like her father, in an afterlife and a creator. We also learn her mother died when she was young. We don’t know how. (As it turns out, it doesn’t matter!) Second, we’re supposed to remember David's ability to interface with cryostasis beds using the helmet because it will later hint at a plot twist. Third, David learns something about Shaw that he shouldn’t know.
I won’t fault the bizarre perspective issue (as in, why is Shaw remembering this moment with her father as a third person looking at herself as a child) because plenty of dream sequences pull such shenanigans, often to trick the audience into thinking something horrible is actually happening, but my suspension of disbelief falls short at a dream of a memory, especially with that much clarity and editing. If it were more surrealistic and infused with more emotion (e.g. a PTSD survivor dreaming of a similar situation as what caused their PTSD, like Ripley’s nightmares in Aliens), this scene would have carried its weight far better.
Back to the film. We see a montage of the things David does while the crew sleeps. In particular, he studies and deconstructs dozens of ancient Earth languages “to their roots” as part of his eventual function to help translate an alien language. He also watches 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, starring a blond, neatly kept Peter O’Toole. It’s clear that David becomes somewhat obsessed with the film. We see him dye his roots blond—so he’s keeping up the color—and he arranges his hair in a similar way as O’Toole while quoting some of O’Toole’s lines.
Lawrence of Arabia is 55 years old as of 2017. Peter O’Toole passed away about four years ago. What are the chances a current moviegoer has seen Lawrence of Arabia and they remember the film well enough to gain additional insight into David as a character? Not high. What does Prometheus’s writer or director do to bridge the knowledge gap so that people who haven’t seen a 55-year-old film can grasp the reference? Pretty much nothing. How does a viewer who hasn’t seen Lawrence know they can still "get" David without having seen it? They don’t. So the whole Lawrence reference is mostly wasted and probably could've been left on the cutting room floor. It adds nothing to David’s characterization beyond telling the audience that an android can have an obsession, and even that tidbit carries no weight when other characters are not given a chance to express wonder, confusion, or horror that David would have such a human trait.
To David, Lawrence of Arabia is 123 years old. Surely the film has dimmed somewhat in his contemporary culture’s memory. Wouldn’t there be a more recent film that would click with him just as well, and perhaps be even more relevant were it to include an artificial entity like him? They could have even made up a film, or used a source that tends to stick around, like Shakespeare. The best reason I can come up with as to why this film in particular was chosen as David’s obsession is simply that it’s one of either the writers’ or director’s favorite films, which is an irresponsible writing decision when it’s supposed to be so central to David’s characterization.
The ship sounds an alert because they’ve reached their destination. David checks on Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), whose cryostasis bed is separate from the others. The bed is empty because it woke her up automatically and David finds her already doing push-ups. She asks “how long” and we learn it’s taken the ship about two years and four months to reach LV-223. Vickers confirms with David that no one died in transit, and tells him to go wake everyone.
This initial scene with Vickers wants to give the audience an impression of the character, who we later learn is the mission director. Based on her interaction with David, we know she is a higher-up, is no-nonsense, and is physically capable.
Vickers asks about any casualties, which at first makes perfect sense. It’s possible something unforeseen could have happened, like a mechanical malfunction or a hidden health problem that caused a sleeping scientist to pass away. David asks, “Casualties, mum?” David’s lack of comprehension of what she means (how is “casualties” a difficult concept?) makes me second-guess the meaning behind her question and their interaction, but nothing in the rest of their conversation gives me any hints.
Is Vickers asking about a certain sleeping someone? Certainly. But in that case, David’s “bwuh?” response doesn't make sense. I’m not asking for the writer to hold my hand, but dialogue like this is meaningless without context or clear connotations. Fixing this would've been easy, too. David simply has to give Vickers a slightly creepier answer, such as "No, mum. Disappointed?" He could even give her either a skeptical or chiding look.
For the rest of the crew, waking from cryostasis isn’t fun. David introduces himself to Shaw. Later, the crew is eating some food in a common area. Vickers spots the ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba). They briefly interact, and her cold demeanor melts slightly. She tells him of an upcoming briefing. Biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) sets his food tray across from another scientist and introduces himself. Geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) coldly tells Millburn that he’s not there to make friends, but to make money.
This scene attempts to give the audience impressions of some supporting characters. Janek is personable (he even cracks the ice around Vickers). Millburn wants to make nice with a guy giving him the stink eye. Fifield is just there for the money. None of these characters are really fleshed out any further, even though we’ll continue to see a lot of them. We get a sense of their personalities, but not what drives them or what their “normal” is.
We don’t know why Fifield is “just there for the money,” so his motivation remains flat and cliché. Millburn and Janek don’t really have a motivation at all. Perhaps all three were already employees of Weyland Corp and were simply told they were going on a four-year mission, but where they were and what they were doing prior to the mission isn’t even minimally expounded upon. I’m just guessing at this point, and providing such information is not my job. It’s the writer’s.
In Alien, the crew works a standard, blue-collar type job for The Company (Weyland-Yutani Corp). They’re earning a normal living as "space truckers" when their employer, via their ship’s computer, wakes them up and tells them to go investigate a beacon signal. In Aliens, most of the cast are veteran Marines with eventual expiration dates on their tours of service, and we find out they’ve never encountered a truly dangerous alien before. At first, to them, their mission on LV-426 is just another “bug hunt.” No basic information of this kind is provided to someone watching Prometheus.
At the briefing, it’s made clear that most of the crew did not know before coming on this mission what they were traveling more than two years to do. Vickers introduces herself to those who don’t know her (she hired some of them) and then plays a pre-recorded holographic message from Weyland Corporation CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).
Weyland mentions that by the time the crew watches his message, he’ll have died. He introduces David and says, “He’s the closest thing to a son I’ll ever have.” David smiles slightly. Weyland then says David isn’t human and doesn’t possess a soul. David’s smile is gone. Weyland talks about the Big Life Questions that he and other humans have wrestled with their entire lives. After introducing Shaw and Holloway, he tosses out a couple lines about the Greek Titan Prometheus.
We learn Weyland doesn’t have a human son. Whether or not the pleasure conveyed by David’s smile is “real” to David is unclear, but the audience is meant to see the smile as well as when it disappears when Weyland states the ways in which David cannot be human. I have no particular qualm about this aspect of the scene.
Weyland’s explanation of why he named the ship Prometheus remains unclear to me. I understand the irony of naming a ship after what, in Western classical tradition, represents the unforeseen and unintended consequences of scientific exploration, and I even understand the symbolism of the Titan’s punishment (his abdomen is torn open every day) for giving fire to humanity, but Weyland’s reasons are tenuous at best. It seems that, to him, Prometheus represents humanity’s “proxy” to the gods, a proxy who was punished and who he’d like to see return for…what, revenge? Glory? Justification? I really like that the film encourages different interpretations of the symbolism, but why go so far to rationalize naming your vessel after a concept that basically means “this ship is doomed"?
The old-man makeup for Weyland, as other have pointed out, is completely awful. His hologram also somehow knows where to gesture when he’s introducing Shaw and Holloway. Did they practice before leaving Earth? Were there assigned seats?
Shaw and Holloway take over the briefing. Holloway shows the rest of the crew some archaeological finds from various ancient civilizations all depicting humans gathered around giant beings who are pointing to “the stars,” or rather, a “galactic system so far from Earth” that “primitive” civilizations couldn’t have known about it. Fifield makes a wise crack and Shaw asserts that this discovery is an “invitation” from what she and Holloway call “Engineers.” Millburn is aghast that they’d set aside “three centuries of Darwinism” to pursue the theory that humans were engineered (there’s your lampshade), and Shaw says that’s what she chooses to believe. David looks pensive.
David is likely pensive because he has made the connection between Shaw’s words and those of her father in the dream he witnessed. If David didn’t know the mission’s goal (but he probably did) and if he hadn’t witnessed Shaw’s dream, his pensive look could have be born from the new and interesting concept that his creators were engineered, just like him. This concept is brought up again later, but not really explored in any meaningful way.
Why would Weyland Corp take a dozen people over two years away from Earth, having spent $1 trillion, and not tell them the mission objective, as potentially profound as it is? If the mission’s intentions got out, did Weyland Corp seriously think someone else would raise $1 trillion faster, build a ship sooner, and get there before them? What kind of results would Weyland Corp get from people dumb enough to go on a four-year mission without knowing the mission’s goal? The writers got away with uninformed characters in Aliens because the loss of communication from the colony on LV-426 was sudden and required as fast a response as possible. The distance traveled wasn’t nearly as great, and Marines are used to being told only what they need to know, though the Marines’ lieutenant begins their briefing by apologizing that they weren’t told their mission before leaving. In Alien, the Nostromo picks up a mysterious beacon signal and the unlucky crew is told to go check it out.
Frustratingly, the “map” is not called a constellation nor do they mention how they found the right one. The pictograms would have to have been constructed very precisely, and after 35,000 years, that “configuration” quite possibly no longer looks the same from Earth. I don’t want to hammer on this too hard because hell, they managed to reach said star system in just two years—they have magical FTL travel and artificial gravity—but the writers could have spent one line on it as some show of effort.
Perhaps Holloway isn’t an astrophysicist—in which case he shouldn’t be the one doing the explaining—but a “galactic system,” as he says, makes no immediate sense to me as an average movie-goer. At first, I wondered if they traveled to another galaxy, which is so enormously more difficult than traveling to the nearest star that I don’t know how they even care about their mission objective anymore when they can perform such a miraculous feat. If he means a star group or asterism—or y’know, a constellation—then he’s likely talking about one star in the “configuration” that they determined was their best bet for harboring a planet or moon capable of sustaining life. I acknowledge the “fiction” in science fiction, but the lazy terminology irks me.
The Crew Land On LV-223
David takes Shaw and Holloway to Vickers’ swank personal quarters for a talk. Shaw and Holloway learn she lives on a life boat equipped with everything needed to survive a hostile environment, including a surgery pod. Vickers’ conversation with Shaw and Holloway quickly becomes tense. She says they have to pursue her agenda because Weyland Corp funded the mission, not them.
This scene (re)asserts that Weyland Corp puts its interests first, as it always has throughout the Alien franchise. It also sets up later scenes where characters have need of the surgery pod and the life boat. The agenda Vickers expects them to follow is to not engage any living alien life forms they encounter. Usually, Weyland Corp tries to obtain alien specimens, so perhaps Vickers is different. I have no problems with this scene, but in the rest of the film, we never really learn what she, on behalf of the company, wants the expedition to accomplish. She just sometimes asserts her authority and otherwise gives no orders or direction.
Later on the bridge, Shaw and Holloway check in with David, who tells Holloway that, provided Holloway’s “thesis is correct,” he’s confident he can understand any alien language they come across. David’s wording irks Holloway.
This is the start of Holloway’s observably negative interactions with David.
At first, the crew find no sign of either current or former life and the planet’s atmosphere is not breathable. David tosses out a quote from Lawrence of Arabia about deserts, nothingness, and man. Ford (Kate Dickie) asks, “What was that?” David turns and says, “Just something from a film I like.” Rather quickly, they discover a structure in a valley, and Janek lands the ship. Janek expresses concern about having only six hours of daylight left, but Holloway is too excited to wait until morning.
This scene is practically the only time a character has a chance to learn of David’s fixation on Lawrence of Arabia. He says something disarming and then the whole thing is dropped.
Perhaps more time passes than it seems to the audience, but it appears they find the structure almost immediately. Movie luck? If a character had wondered out loud how lucky they were to find something worth investigating so soon—that perhaps the planet had many sites of interest—maybe their movie luck could have been lampshaded a bit. The writers could have included a simpler solution to help the scientists reach the rest of the plot faster, such as the beacon signal the Nostromo picked up in Alien or the we-already-know-where-it-is colony in Aliens, but they didn’t and that’s that. Maybe the filmmakers just didn’t want to deal with it. I suppose it’s up to the individual viewer as to whether or not this peeves them.
Janek lands the ship pretty far away from the structure. It’s hard to tell when watching the film, but ground vehicles at a normal speed take at least a few minutes getting back and forth, possibly longer. What if the science team needs a very fast evacuation (and they eventually do)? You could argue that Janek landed Prometheus that far away out of concern for the ship’s safety, but the likeliest reason is that the writers needed to make sure there was enough space between the Prometheus and the structure to reveal the roof of an underground hangar. The writers could have lampshaded this with two lines of dialogue, but they didn’t.
When Janek mentions having only six hours of daylight left, the audience inevitably worries that the science team won’t make it back by sunset. Imposing a time limit is a tried-and-true method of building suspense, but the characters don’t end up racing sunset. I’ll come back to this later.
Everyone suits up. Shaw sees that someone named Jackson, whom we never see again after this, plans to bring a flamethrower along. Shaw tells him “no weapons” because this is a “scientific expedition.” Holloway further antagonizes David by asking why David would need to wear a suit. David explains, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.” Someone human-looking and not wearing a suit would create cognitive dissonance. Fair enough.
Jackson’s only purpose in this scene is to show the audience a flamethrower that another character will use later. You could argue that Shaw, as part of her characterization, is insisting that this mission will not require either real or threatened violence, but her refusal to accept protection from say, dangerous animals that might attack her or her fellow scientists, is the first of many future instances of a character holding the Idiot Ball. (Even a deeply religious scientist should acknowledge that Earth’s life, for example, doesn’t only consist of humans and kittens.)
In Alien, the blue-collar crew are investigating a beacon they assume might be a distress signal and aren’t outfitted with military-grade weapons in the first place. In Aliens, the Marines go in packing even though half of them don’t believe Ripley’s story about the xenomorph that killed the rest of her crew. The only reason why they're disarmed halfway into locating the colonists is because the surrounding structure is a nuclear reactor, a stakes-raising moment that was given due setup and had real consequences.
As for David and Holloway’s interaction, Holloway’s question is, to be quite honest, patently stupid. You could argue Holloway asked why David needs a suit because he was being an asshole, but really, he only asks in order to start the conversation the writers want David and Holloway to have—which would've been fine if they had allowed the conversation to go somewhere interesting, but they didn’t. I don’t understand why David doesn’t point out that his artificial body is not impervious and he also needs protection from both the elements and contamination. We’ve seen androids damaged in the other Alien films, so we know it doesn’t take much.
Also, David’s word choice and even his tone (though mild) are signs that he has taken offense, the emotion of which Holloway completely misses. I don’t mind David throwing Holloway’s prejudice back in his face while pointing out the ridiculousness of Holloway’s question, and the overall topic of their back-and-forth is an interesting way to explore how Holloway and David feel about androids’ place among humans, but I’d have preferred it if David simply asked Holloway to unpack his question some more. Something like, “Why would I be designed to look like you, but then not be expected to act like you?” At least that response prompts Holloway to come up with his own answer.
Exploring the Structure
The crew takes ground vehicles to the dome-shaped structure. Holloway tells Fifield he wants a spectrograph of the dome. Sure, I’m on board with whatever that is, but the audience isn’t told why Fifield cannot determine if “someone put it there” nor how he does determine that it’s hollow because we don’t see him analyzing the structure from Prometheus or at least throwing out half a line of dialogue about doing some sort of initial scan. He just looks down at a device on his wrist as if it’s magic.
They disembark near a long, low entrance at the base of the structure. Just before following everyone else inside, Fifield gives Millburn a silent look, perhaps conveying anxiety. Inside, Fifield releases four of what he calls “pups,” which will map the structure’s interior, and he howls as his probes fly off to do their thing.
Is Fifield nervous or not? What was his look to Millburn supposed to convey? Once inside the structure, why doesn’t he update his assessment of whether or not it was constructed? Why doesn’t he offer any further comments (at least one line) as to its composition or engineering? Why don’t they use his goddamned character??
The team heads farther inside based on some of the mapping they’ve done; Fifield specifically looks at the device on his wrist and says, “according to the pups.” They find a chamber where their instruments tell them the atmosphere is breathable. A probe loops back around to them from the other side and continues down a shaft in the center of the same chamber.
Holloway, despite Shaw’s misgivings, prepares to take off his helmet. He gets David’s agreement that something (as in, some engineered process) is making the air breathable. He takes off his helmet and is able to breathe. Everyone else follows Holloway’s lead.
It’s Holloway’s turn to hold the Idiot Ball. As many have already pointed out ad nauseum, a breathable atmosphere does not equal an atmosphere free of alien microbes or spores (or whatever) that might make you ill or outright kill you. Native Americans breathe the same air as Europeans, but when European explorers showed up in America, they brought new illnesses with them and killed huge numbers of Native Americans (sometimes on purpose—God, white people, why do we suck so much??). Granted, an Engineer doesn’t enter the room right then and breathe on Holloway, but the team could (and does) come across artifacts that contain or to which cling something infectious. Any number of other infection paths are possible, and the entire science team should know this. So why is Holloway saddled with the Idiot Ball? Because the characters, especially Shaw, need a red-herring explanation for why Holloway later becomes sick.
Mission Director Vickers, who is back on the ship and monitoring everything seen and heard, says nothing about Holloway’s reckless behavior. Her silence at this point, considering her reaction in a later scene, amounts to yet more fridge logic that I’ll return to at that time.
Why does Holloway suddenly trust David to back him up on potential self-contamination? The audience has already seen two negative interactions between them. Haven’t we been given the sense that Holloway doesn’t trust David’s inhumanity, or at least doesn’t like him?
David’s motives for not warning Holloway about the Idiot Ball in his hands are unclear. I understand that, over the course of the movie, the audience is meant to question David’s agenda and loyalties, but in-story, in-character logic still doesn’t add up. Holloway, despite being a sulky jerk, is an asset. Why risk the loss of a potential asset, especially when everyone else follows his lead?
We briefly cut to Janek’s two co-pilots, who we have already seen occasionally for brief, joking interactions. This conversation is such an interaction, and it ends with sexist comments toward their mission director.
Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong) do serve a story purpose. They are mild comic relief and their thread, in which they talk about a bet they’ve made, at least remains consistent. The bet is that Weyland Corp is just there on a terraforming survey, a story detail that does line up with what we learn in Aliens (the colony on LV-426 is there to make the planet’s atmosphere breathable), so that was pleasant fluff. I just really dislike that they can’t have enough respect for (or at least fear of) their employer to avoid suggesting they’d pay for a lap dance from her. It’s a tired cliche, doesn’t garner sympathy for when they later make a heroic sacrifice, and doesn’t even contribute anything to Vickers’ characterization, as I’ll discuss later.
The team continues deeper into the structure. David finds a panel with alien language on it. Without informing the rest of the team of what he has found or what he plans to do, he pushes the symbols in an attempt to activate something. He succeeds and thus scares the hell out of the crew when a holographic recording fills the hallway. The recording shows several giant aliens running as though fleeing something. One alien falls behind, and the science team runs to keep up with the recording. They see the lagging alien stumble and a holographic door shut on his body.
The audience is not privy to David’s expertise nor the extent of his understanding of the alien symbols. We know he tried to prepare for this role, but we aren’t told how well his study has effectively helped him. We don’t know if he thinks he’s activating something like a surveillance system, or if he thinks he’s turning on a potentially hostile security system. That he experiments with the panel without informing the rest of the science team, of which he is not the leader, is reckless at the very least. He often exhibits such behavior in the film, forcing the audience to wonder if he’s juggling his own Idiot Ball (to help further the plot) or if he places no value at all on the mortal lives of the humans around him. No matter if it’s the former or the latter, I find it frustrating that he’s not called out on it every time he does it, and that it doesn’t lead to him being isolated and mistrusted.
The crew approach the real door, still shut, and find the headless body of an alien. Back on the ship, Vickers and Janek are stunned. Fifield completely flips out, saying he has nothing more to contribute to the team and wishes to return to the ship. He asks Millburn (a biologist, you’ll recall) if he’s coming back, too. Millburn, possibly overwhelmed but also possibly influenced by Fifield’s freak out, says the “ship sounds good,” and they both leave.
Wouldn’t a biologist, who has already made aware he may encounter an alien—even if he doesn’t believe he will—be excited to find an alien corpse? What is he scared of? The alien has been dead for an extremely long time. Whatever happened to its group occurred long before Prometheus arrived. We know that oh no a DOOR killed this particular alien. Millburn’s inability to do his job, or even show interest at this point in the film, yet again calls into question why Weyland Corp would bring people so far from Earth without properly vetting them with say, a psych evaluation. They might have learned this guy can’t handle himself and they should find another candidate. Same goes for Fifield.
Why does Fifield ask Millburn if he’s coming back with him? I thought Fifield didn’t like Millburn. Based on previous dialogue, Fifield should also know Millburn is a biologist and does have more to contribute now that they’ve just found a dead alien body. The reason is the writers want Fifield and Millburn split off from the main group. It’s decisions like these, which make no sense in-character, that reveal just how poorly written this film is.
Vickers, who specifically said her job was to make sure the crew did their jobs, doesn’t say anything to Millburn or Fifield upon hearing they’re unwilling to continue exploring. Here’s a good opportunity to show Vickers fulfilling her role on this mission, and it just doesn’t happen. Jesus Christ, if you're going to write in a character, use them.
I will grant that in some stories, especially horror stories, characters who are not frightened when they should be (and instead are just more curious) is a trope. However, in this scene, the alien is dead—headless, even. The structure is intimidating, the undeniable proof of aliens is overwhelming, and later events would quite understandably destroy Fifield’s composure, but it’s too early in the plot for a properly vetted scientist to have that reaction. Don't worry, though: we’ll come back to that Curiosity Killed the Cast trope.
Shaw and Holloway use a device to quickly date the alien body and learn it’s been dead two thousand years. That it has remained undisturbed for so long is more evidence that Millburn had nothing immediate to worry about. David, meanwhile, looks more closely at the alien writing on a panel next to the door. He ends up opening the door just as Shaw tells him not to.
Another example of David’s reckless behavior. Perhaps Shaw’s attention is diverted from chastising David by what she sees beyond the door, but someone like Vickers could have chastised David. Instead, he gets away with endangering the team a second time.
The sealed room contains the alien’s well-preserved head, a large stone face that looks human, and dozens of neatly spaced canisters that begin sweating now that the room is unsealed. The audience is specifically shown a couple of worms in the dirt of David’s footprints.
The team finds various other curiosities, such as an overhead mural that visibly decays in the fresher air. They also find a bas-relief on one wall depicting a long-headed creature pretty much exactly like the xenomorph from the original Alien films. (Remember that.) Holloway takes a gander at a large console with a fat, green crystal sticking out of it. David almost touches a canister, but Shaw tells him not to. Caught, he stops and says sorry. Once Shaw’s attention isn’t on him, he touches the black goo seeping out of the canister.
Definitely some interesting things happening in this part of the scene. However, fridge logic rears its head. First, why don’t the scientists find other alien corpses in the room? The holographic recording shows a couple of Engineers entering the same room. Then the final Engineer drops to his knees just as the science team catches up, possibly because he was injured. That lagging Engineer falls forward, and the room’s door slams down, apparently for the last time until now. Is this room where Engineers go to access escape pods? Why didn’t the science team find those instead? The room contains those canisters, though, and we know (based on a later scene) that the room isn’t the structure’s cargo hold, so what is the room’s function? Is it a lab, a manufacturing area, an escape pod bay, or some fourth option? Why would the Engineers run into a room full of the canisters and no discernible exits?
David still has that Idiot Ball. The audience doesn’t learn how he knows the black goo is “organic,” which he whispers while looking at it on his gloved fingertip. Are his eyes also microscopes? He is apparently not concerned that something he’s never seen before could possibly hurt even his artificial body or get back onto Prometheus and infect one or all of the people on it, including a certain someone.
My final complaint is minor and related to the visuals rather than the writing. Both in the theater and in HD at home, I cannot tell what the mural consists of. The lighting is dim and the mural is on screen only a couple of seconds, so I couldn’t parse what the hell was up there and had to find an image of (one side of) the mural to find out.
Forced to Return to the Ship
Shaw realizes they need to bag the head quickly because the fresh air in the room may affect its decomposition. Meanwhile, someone back on the ship warns Janek of an approaching “silicate” storm. Janek tells the science team to hustle back. David prepares and bags one of the cleaner canisters. Shaw says she wants more time. Vickers coldly says she’s closing the outer doors in fifteen minutes and hopes they can make it. Shaw, Holloway, David, and Ford hustle out. Holloway actually has a great line at this point, saying, “This is just another tomb.” The audience sees worms swimming in the black goo collecting on the dirt floor.
Why does Shaw think she can have more time? Does she think Prometheus can magically stop the silicate storm? Does she think they can’t just come back in a few hours? This place will obviously still be here. As for Vickers, perhaps her ultimatum is meant to get the team’s collective asses in gear, but it also sounds like she doesn’t give a crap if the people Weyland Corp paid $1 trillion to bring there all die. How did she become mission director? I’d have preferred it if she'd said something like, “You’re here on the company’s dime, so you don’t get to decide when to come back.”
Earlier in the review, I talked about how sunset was the characters’ time limit. Now we’ve got a silicate storm. It’s fine to up the stakes and shorten the time limit, but you have to do it right. Why did they only have fifteen minutes’ warning? Did the storm form that quickly? Is the ship incapable of surveying the weather more than a dozen miles from its landing zone? It’s fine if that’s true (they don’t have the luxury of weather satellites), but spending half an extra line on the answer could have lent more weight and therefore tension to the reduced time limit. Something as simple as, “The system formed so quickly!” Instead, all we can deduce is that the storm showed up because the writers needed to strand poor Fifield and Millburn inside the structure. Fifteen minutes wouldn’t be long enough to find them and bring them back. Again, things happening because the writers need them to happen, not because it makes sense.
It’s not a major issue with the scene, but you’d think alien “earthworms,” even though they’re not specifically what the mission is seeking, would excite the science team and that they’d collect a couple to study. No one seems to notice them, but a breathable atmosphere could have prompted a scientist to suppose they might find insects inside the structure.
Outside the structure, the team must race back to Prometheus. The camera pans up to a huge and had-to-be-obvious, human-looking, stone skull mounted at the top of the structure.
Somehow, Shaw isn’t holding onto the alien head for dear life. It falls off her lap when her vehicle hits the ship’s ramp, and she hops off the buggie to go after it. The silicate storm hits, throwing her aside. Charlie goes to help her, and the ship’s main door shuts. David uses a side-hatch to lifeline out to them, and they’re successfully rescued. Back inside the ship, Holloway chastises Shaw, who thanks David. David simply says, “My pleasure.”
I don’t understand the purpose of this scene—as it pertains to Shaw needing rescue, not their hasty retreat, which prevents Prometheus from quickly reacquiring their two lost members. Losing the alien head could have delayed the team’s findings, but that’s it. Shaw going after it despite the danger portrays as much stupidity as dedication, which I wouldn’t want for my main character. (Competent MCs can make mistakes or have things backfire, but because of incomplete information, not because of a stupid decision.)
The sequence could have also served as a portrayal of Holloway’s love, but having him lifeline out to her would’ve been the more heroic portrayal. Instead, David saves them. And David saving their lives never comes up again. Shaw thanks David, but subsequently and permanently forgets about it. It’s no longer a factor in her opinion of him as far as the audience can tell. If she were faced with evidence that David was not on her side, she might hesitate to condemn him because he saved her life earlier, but nothing like that happens. This scene therefore contributes nothing to the film and is entirely extraneous. It’s just a fancy stunt.
The next scene is when we learn that Fifield and Millburn haven’t yet returned to the ship. Due to the “wind speeds” and “static electricity” caused by the storm, no one on the ship can safely retrieve them. (Fair enough. Thank you for spending ten seconds on this.) Janek and his two co-pilots radio Fifield to give him the bad news. Upset, Fifield tells Janek to relay a rude message to Holloway and Shaw; he uses Holloway’s name but only refers to Shaw as Holloway’s “zealot girlfriend.” Fifield and Millburn are told to put their helmets back on and bunk down for the night.
That Fifield and Millburn got lost is one the film’s most cited plot holes.
1) We know it takes just fifteen minutes at a hustle—thanks, Vickers—to get out of the structure and all the way back to the ship. The team didn’t go spelunking hours into the structure. 2) We know Fifield and Millburn, even after the storm hits, have radio contact with the ship. 3) We know they have not only a highly accurate 3D map of the structure, but also little markers indicating where each team member is within that structure. Perhaps Fifield’s version of the map on whatever device is on his wrist isn’t as high-resolution or as detailed as the one on the bridge of the ship, but if he got lost not long after he and Millburn left the rest of the team, it would’ve been easy to ask someone on the ship to guide them out.
Based on 1, 2, and 3, how the hell did they get lost? There is no good answer to how, but we can figure out why—because the writers wanted them to get lost. Yet again, things happening because the writers need them to happen, not because it makes sense.
As for Fifield’s anger at Holloway and particularly at Shaw, a couple of things are happening here. Fifield blames Holloway and Shaw for inspiring the entire mission, for which the audience is supposed to either sympathize with or dislike him. Sympathy if you agree poor Fifield didn’t know what he was getting into. Dislike if you think no one forced Fifield to join the mission (or did they? We don’t know!), which means the person responsible for getting him lost is himself. Instead of feeling anything about Fifield, though, I’m angry at the writer who made his character so stupid.
As for Fifield’s characterization, this scene could’ve been a good moment to give the audience more than the laziest of hints at what kind of stick is up Fifield’s butt, but calling Shaw a “zealot” (a “zealot girlfriend”, to be exact) is all we get.
Shaw and Ford, with David’s assistance, are taking a look at the alien head. Vickers shows up to watch and ask questions like, “Are your Engineers all dead or aren’t they?” (C’mon, Vickers. That question is stupid and mean.) Shaw rightly points out they just got to LV-223. She asks if Vickers even cares, and Vickers replies, “Weyland cared.”
My discussion of Vickers as a character will happen later in the review, but keep in mind the things she has just said.
The scientists figure out that the head’s strange shape isn’t an exoskeleton, but a helmet. Within seconds, David figures out how to remove the front. The head underneath is just like the alien we saw in the beginning. Shaw and Ford do a brief surface examination (and I do mean brief). Then they apply electricity to the dead alien’s brain. Eventually, the alien’s facial muscles respond, and the alien’s skin appears to change color, but then they lose control of the tissue’s reaction and have to slide the specimen into a containment box, where it explodes. Let me say that again. It explodes.
Discovering a humanoid head in the helmet is supposed to be a huge reveal, both for the characters and the audience, but because the opening scene prepared the audience already, this reveal falls flat. That the Engineers and the "Space Jockey" from Alien seem to be the same alien species is a satisfying connection, though.
What was the objective of sending electricity into the dead alien’s brain? It’s dead. They’re not going to be able to talk to it or anything. And what was the audience supposed to deduce from the “new cells” growing on the skin of its forehead, or the change in color when they zapped a two-thousand-year-old alien head with electricity? Typically, a character other than the expert or someone already-in-the-know is a stand-in for the audience so that the expert can explain plot (for the audience’s sake).
Vickers isn’t a scientist and even asks about the alien’s skin, but Shaw doesn’t say what “new cells” might mean. Is the alien regenerating? Is it just some mold on his face? Did black goo get into his helmet? When the skin changes color, Shaw and Ford ooh and ahh, all while not explaining to the audience what the reaction might mean. I don’t care if their hypothesis ends up being wrong, just that they throw the audience a bone!
David says, “Mortal after all.” Holloway leaves the lab to go drink and sulk. Shaw and Ford decide to scrape some samples from the exploded bits to analyze. Later, David is wearing the yellow-visor helmet from earlier and accessing a cryostasis bed. He has a soft, one-sided conversation that sounds like he’s giving someone an update. After, Vickers confronts David and asks, “What did he say?” David tries to deny her an answer, but she forces it out of him. “Try harder,” is what “he” said.
So we learn someone hasn't been woken from cryostasis, and David has conversations with him. Some people in the audience, if not most or all of them, may figure out at this point who is in still in cryostasis. From Vickers and David’s conversation, we know it’s a "he", and that Vickers is very invested in knowing the content of David’s conversation with him. It’s also important to note that Vickers is particularly intense and aggressive in this scene, and that she threatens to “kill” David, so we know for sure that she really doesn’t like him.
On his own, David studies the contents of one of the canisters from the structure’s sealed room. He doesn’t use gloves or a mask. Inside the larger canister are four oblong cylinders that seem to be made of glass. It’s not clear if the lighter-colored goo surrounding those cylinders is supposed to be there or if it leaked from the cylinders. It’s not clear if the substance that sweated out the other canisters is different from the black goo suspended inside the clear liquid inside the cylinders, but it probably is. David separates one of the cylinders from its frame and either breaks or takes off the top—the sound doesn’t make it obvious. He tips a drop of the black goo onto the pad of his finger, stares at it, and says, “Big things have small beginnings.”
Meanwhile, Shaw and Ford discover the DNA of the Engineer they found is “exactly” human. Shaw wonders aloud, “What killed them?” (Finally, a good question!)
More of David being reckless and secretive. Is he from the future? He has zero evidence of what the black goo does, so he doesn’t know if he’s immune to its properties. What if it’s corrosive? What if it spreads spores?
Did David store the canister in a freezer everyone else on Prometheus can see? Is he in a secret, locked room? Doesn’t anyone notice he brought back what could be a biological weapon?
Modern humans have a well-established place on the evolutionary tree. Human DNA only closely resembles that of some our primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos in particular. If the Engineers created life on Earth, why doesn’t all life on Earth have extremely similar DNA, or on the other hand, how do modern humans have any relatives at all? The branches between modern humans and our cousins happened millions of years ago, so if those cousins are also Engineer progeny, does that mean Engineers as a race are at least that old? What about even earlier ancestors? Also, if the DNA is a match, why do Engineers look like giant, muscular, black-eyed ghosts? Wouldn’t there be some percentage difference just based on appearance? Humans and our cousins have major differences in appearance, and our DNA match with them is 99.6%, not 100%. If it’s an exact match, then what the hell is the black goo for?! Does it not adapt Engineer DNA to the local ecology? What’s going on?!
Minor gripe (only because I don’t really like the line): Is David’s “big things” line something from Lawrence of Arabia? Is it just there for the filmmakers to put into the trailer? Has he managed with his magical eyes to deduce exactly what the black goo does? If so, why does he experiment with it in the next scene? Why does it have to be a person, a major asset to the mission? Surely they brought along some rats or artificial organs or something?
David finds a drunk Holloway, who is still sulking. He offers to provide Holloway more alcohol as a pretense to contaminate Holloway’s drink with the black goo. Holloway wonders if he’ll join him, but David reminds him that alcohol is wasted on him. Holloway says, “Because you’re not a real boy.” David’s expression suggests he doesn’t like Holloway’s wording. He almost manages to cheer Holloway up by reminding him of all the things they can still learn even though the Engineers are dead, but Holloway is a sulky kid about it, saying they won’t find out “why they even made us in the first place.”
David asks him why “your people made me” and Holloway acerbically replies, “Because we could.” David rightly says, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same from your creator?” Holloway laughs and says, “I guess it’s a good thing you can’t be disappointed.” David agrees, but his facial expression, tone, and body language speak to his irritation. David asks how far Holloway would go to get what he came all this way for, and Holloway says he’d do “anything and everything”. (Famous last words.) Holloway unknowingly drinks the spiked champagne.
I wrote out a lot of their dialogue because some lines are going in the right direction, but this scene stumbles in several ways. When David points out that “because we could” is disappointing to hear, Holloway could take this to mean, “Now you don’t have to hear that, or something worse.” Or maybe Holloway could actually figure out that David himself finds that answer disappointing, but instead, Holloway has to hold the Idiot Ball and say something David doesn’t like hearing.
How does Holloway not clearly see David drop his finger into the glass of champagne? I mean, David is holding the glass right in front of Holloway’s face.
Let’s talk about why David has infected Holloway (and, by extension, why he does many other things in this film). David “gets permission” first, which is interesting in a lawful evil kind of way, and we'll assume David gave Holloway a small amount of black goo to find out what it does. What if it turns Holloway into a zombie, who attacks the rest of the crew and infects and/or kills them? Don’t David and the mysterious “he” need the crew in some capacity? If they don’t, why did they bring anyone else in the first place? That surely would’ve saved some small amount of the $1 trillion cost. What if someone figures out later that David infected and killed Holloway? (And guess what, someone does.) If David treated one of them as expendable, the rest of the crew would give David the same end as Ash in Alien. How can David help the man in cryostasis if he’s been bludgeoned until broken?
In Alien, the crew learns that The Company considers them expendable, and Ash is their “inside man." In Aliens, Burke is the person responsible for endangering the colony and is pretty much acting on his own out of greed, but he is also a Company employee. I don’t think Peter Weyland considered the crew of Prometheus expendable, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Weyland Corp spent $1 trillion to take seventeen people light years from Earth and gave zero fucks about their lives. The audience never finds out for sure, so what we’re left with is that David, like Ash in Alien, is broken somehow.
David hears “try harder” and infects a scientist he seemingly dislikes with black goo, just to see if it turns out to be something the mysterious “he” will need. (Let’s hope zombies can’t open cryostasis beds.) Anyway, David’s loyalty is not to the crew (or Vickers, as we’ll see). Some viewers may think that can be the end of the discussion, but I don’t understand why his loyalties have to be at odds with the human crew, especially when one of those humans—the one still asleep—is giving David orders. Either they’re helpful assets to protect (at least some of them), or they shouldn’t have been brought in the first place. One other possibility is that the human crew was brought as unwitting guinea pigs, which I guess could explain why so many of them suck at their jobs, but the film doesn’t do enough to home in on that conclusion. Another possibility is David doesn’t want his role as servant, but his programming and/or circumstances forces him to serve.
We catch up with Fifield and Millburn. They’ve found several dead alien corpses “piled up” against the wall of a passage as though “they were running from something.” Some of the corpses seem to have exploded from the inside.
Finally, half a scene that doesn’t fail its objective! An audience member either familiar with or who has seen previous Alien films can deduce that these Engineers were likely collected for hosting the xenomorph larvae. That familiarity isn’t required, though, as the audience can retain this knowledge for later scenes. Either way, this scene starts to answer Shaw’s earlier question of what killed the Engineers.
On the ship, Janek notices that one of Fifield’s probes has stopped at the end of a long tunnel and is pinging. Even though he can see Fifield and Millburn’s icons on the holographic 3D map, he asks them what their position is. They reply, and he tells them about the probe, which is apparently pinging because it thinks it has detected a life form. Fifield complains that such news makes him very anxious. Janek tosses out a line about how his connection to them is sporadic. Millburn and Fifield decide to go the opposite direction of where Janek told them the probe was.
Janek’s connection to Fifield and Millburn is apparently sporadic only when the writer wants it to be. We never see Prometheus unsuccessful at hailing Fifield and Millburn (when they’re still alive), nor vice versa. Maybe Janek asks for their positions in case the map on the bridge is inaccurate, but the audience isn’t told anything like that. It is okay, you know, to have Janek start his sentence with something like, “Haven’t seen your locators move in a while, so…”
Shaw is in her room. She wonders if there was “an outbreak here.” Holloway comes in, still sulking, but Shaw shows him her DNA test proving humans came from Engineers. Shaw insists she can keep her cross because even though the Engineers made humans, they don’t know who made the Engineers, which is what bugs Holloway, who says that creating life must not be all that special. This is when we find out Shaw cannot bear children. Holloway regrets his comment and tries to comfort her. They end up having sex.
Why didn’t Shaw immediately go to or send for Holloway when she found out the DNA results? I’d think that’d be huge news, but she just goes to her room. Did she tell Vickers, at least?
Why is it that female characters always end up obsessed with motherhood? I know infertility is more commonplace than people realize and that pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are major themes of the Alien franchise, but Shaw’s infertility has come out of nowhere. The only reason she can’t get pregnant is so she can insist there’s no way she's pregnant in a later scene, and so we can all be horrified of what’s growing inside her. (Why couldn’t the reason be she definitely wasn’t pregnant before going into cryostasis? Or that if she were, the cryostasis bed would’ve noted it?) We don’t otherwise see how her infertility affects her. We don’t see how it affected her faith prior to the mission. Does she resent God? Is she looking for the Engineers because it would help her understand?
Speaking of sex, Vickers goes up to the bridge where Janek is still hanging out. She remains prickly until Janek, out of the blue, hits on her. Suddenly, Vickers seems human (a smile, oh my God!) but she rebuffs Janek, who gives it one more try by saying, “I was wondering…. Are you a robot?” Vickers is stunned for a few seconds. Then she says, “My room. Ten minutes.” She walks out, and the audience can be certain that she invited Janek to her quarters for sex.
Elba lends the line a lot of charm, and his question basically dares her to prove she’s a “normal" human (ahem, asexuals?), but without any knowledge of how well they know each other, and based on the few interactions they’ve had, this whole scene is odd and out of place. What hints has Janek received that Vickers is at all interested in having sex with him? It’s fine if she is (and she does turn out to be interested), but the audience hasn’t seen such hints—not really.
The audience knows Vickers is human; otherwise we’ve been given some serious misdirection. That said, Vickers’ no-nonsense attitude and solid, assertive composure affects the crew’s perspective of her as well as their relationship with her. I’d have liked to see a more common thread of crew members wondering (either meanly, jokingly, or seriously) if she’s a robot like David. That comparison would, as it appears to in the scene with Janek, upset her enough to the point where she would be willing to prove otherwise. Chance and Ravel had a good chance to bring this perception to the audience’s attention. Instead of talking about Vickers giving them a lap dance, they could have alluded somehow to her being unapproachable, emotionless, or robotic.
Lastly, why is this scene actually here? Since Janek and Vickers’ sexual attraction isn’t set up properly, I can only deduce the writers needed an excuse for no one to be on the bridge when Millburn contacts them in the next scene. Why the writers didn't make use of the sporadic radio contact instead is just...fucking bizarre.
This next scene is one of the most confounding ones in the film. Fifield and Millburn, both wearing their helmets, are holed up in the room full of leaky canisters. Fifield has somehow rigged his suit to let him smoke marijuana. After a couple lines of dialogue, he spots something swimming in the rivulets of black goo. (Perfect chance for a “oh man, you’re so high” joke, but they don’t bother.)
A pale, cobra-like serpent emerges from the black goo. Millburn does a one-eighty from his previous encounter with alien biology and, though a little nervous, is willing to approach the creature. He tells the empty bridge on Prometheus about the serpent that has approached them and is completely incautious. The serpent attacks him. Fifield cuts the serpent’s head off and gets a face full of acid for his trouble. The creature grows a new head, enters Millburn’s suit, and shoves itself down Millburn’s throat. The face of Fifield’s helmet has melted, but he’s too panicked to take the helmet off. He falls onto the goo-soaked floor, rears back, and the melted, goo-covered helmet collapses onto his face.
Why did these two choose to bunk down in a room where the floor is covered with black goo that leaked from mysterious ancient artifacts? Why would Fifield think it’s a good idea to take marijuana with him on his first outing on an alien planet? Weyland Corp really should’ve done better with their psych evaluations. I’m not suggesting people who smoke marijuana are unhinged, but someone who is irresponsible enough to bring drugs on a need-your-mental-faculties expedition probably shouldn’t have been selected in the first place. When the serpent flares its hood, why does a biologist not take this as a potential sign of hostility or, at the very least, defensiveness? Fifield at least does the right thing by trying to kill the serpent—that just backfires—but now we know why Fifield and Millburn were stuck with the Idiot Ball for so long. The writers wanted to kill them off.
I assume the filmmakers were basing their alien worm somewhat on regular earthworms, which can grow a new tail if it is chopped off. They can’t grow new heads, though, nor that fast. I’d accept that the black goo is magic enough to allow faster growth, but not from the tail end. Does the alien serpent have a spare brain in its ass? The point of Fifield cutting the serpent’s head off is to get acid in the face, but if the filmmakers then wanted a worm to get into Millburn’s suit, they did have a second one swimming around in the black goo. Just have it pounce on Millburn. Also, maybe these worms are supercharged because they’re swimming in mana or something, but the facehuggers from the other Alien films couldn’t bounce back from, for example, getting shot to pieces. The price for killing them was acid sprays, a price that poor Fifield paid. Why take away the one good thing he did this entire movie?
The Next Morning
Holloway wakes up feeling ill. He goes to the sink to wash his face and look in the mirror. There, he sees a tiny tentacle, kind of like a tadpole tail, wiggling out of the rim of his iris. Before he can completely flip out, Janek calls Holloway and Shaw’s room with the news that they can’t hail Fifield and Millburn even though the silicate storm has passed. Janek plans to go get them.
If you were on an expedition on an alien planet, woke up feeling sick, and saw something horrific happening on your eyeball, would you be successfully distracted with news that two scientists stuck in the structure overnight were not responding to hails? That’s a serious development, yes, but a tentacle is growing out of your eyeball. It’d take something like a group of living Engineers walking up to Prometheus to divert Holloway’s attention from what is obviously Not Okay. Not only does he ignore his serious symptoms, he hides them from the rest of the crew. Doesn’t he care about the health of his fellow crew members, or at least Shaw, the woman he loves, with whom he just had sex? Doesn’t he worry that he contracted something and maybe gave it to her?
I want to point out how we’ve seen the black goo work so far: the Engineer in the beginning drinks a fair amount and all his organic matter is broken down, reforming as “new” cells in the water. We don’t see how these cells lead to complex life. Alien worms swim in black goo and turn into larger, stronger versions of their previous incarnation with similar properties as the facehuggers from other Alien films (acid for blood, instinctively go for a person’s throat). Despite swimming in it, though, they don’t “evolve” anew over and over. I guess the black goo is a one-and-done deal? Holloway ingested a small amount of the black goo and, hours later, wakes up with flu-like symptoms and a…tentacle growing out of his iris? What the hell is going on?? We’ll...come back to this.
What happened to Prometheus’ tracking system that showed where each scientist was inside the structure? It’s fine if that’s not registering them anymore, and not being able to hail them despite seeing their icons on the map is more than enough reason to hurry to their rescue, but no one says anything like, “And we’re not picking up tracking signals from their suits even though we should be able to now.” I point this out because they only find Millburn when they go to the structure, and they seem clueless regarding Fifield’s location. Saying the tracking signals are gone is an easy way to increase tension.
Also, wouldn’t communications in general be recorded? Didn’t someone hit playback on any missed transmissions? They might’ve at least heard Millburn informing the ship that they encountered a life form. Hearing their recorded screams could’ve been 1) a good way to replace Fifield and Millburn’s previous scene—it’d be shorter and creepier, and you wouldn’t have to explain as much or spend as much money on CG—and 2) a good way to show the consequences of Vickers and Janek abandoning the bridge for sexy times.
We’re a little over an hour into the film. Shaw, Holloway, Janek, Ford, and some nameless extras head out. Janek mentions the “glitched” probe that briefly registered a life form, and David offers to go check on it. We follow David first. Vickers, still on the ship, asks David if he’s alone—he confirms that he is—and she tells him to send his video feed to her room. David reaches the stalled probe and figures out how to open the door blocking it. The probe continues mapping the room beyond, which holds thousands of the same canisters as the ones in the room that contained the dead alien’s head. David also finds more of the Engineer’s “spacesuits,” and beyond those, a room containing the Engineers’ version of cryostasis beds. At this point, the feed cuts out. Vickers whispers, “Son of a bitch. He cut me off.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is on foot inside the structure and looking for their missing scientists. Holloway stumbles and Shaw learns he’s sick even though he insists he just tripped. ("Hung over" is a way better excuse, Holloway, c'mon!) The crew reach the room where Fifield and Millburn met their end. Janek asks about the black substance on the floor. Shaw says she doesn’t know what it is and that the canisters weren’t “like this” the last time she was in the room. They find Millburn. Holloway’s condition is quickly deteriorating, and Shaw vehemently insists on returning to the ship to give him medical care. The rest of the crew turn Millburn over, and Ford gets a huge scare when the serpent flies out of Millburn’s mouth. The crew prepares to return to Prometheus immediately. Vickers asks about Holloway’s health, and she leaves the bridge to suit up.
First off, we don’t need Vickers’ “he cut me off” line because it’s obvious what happened based on her “son of a bitch” line and the visuals. I find it strange which developments the writers decide to sky-write for the audience. Perhaps some of these instances are the interference of studio execs or something.
It’s important to note that, before the rest of the crew head out, David specifically looks at Holloway and says, “Be careful, doctor.” Whether Holloway becomes suspicious of David’s role in his symptoms is unclear.
If something happened to Fifield and Millburn, why would anyone besides specially trained security personnel and perhaps one medical doctor go look for them? Why are Shaw and Holloway going? Why is the ship’s captain going? Oh, it’s because we need Holloway’s condition to worsen so the crew have to hustle back to Prometheus yet again, and we need Janek to see the black goo firsthand so he can condemn it later. C’mon, writers!! Do better!
What happened with the alien serpent? Did it escape Millburn’s corpse and die on the floor? Did it wiggle away? Was it done attacking people? Did it simply kill Millburn or did it lay something in him? We never see his body again, so apparently the writers forgot what facehuggers do. What about the other alien serpent that Millburn and Fifield spotted before they met their ends? Why don’t the scientists go, “Oh my God, alien life! FUCKING CATCH IT!!!”
Meanwhile, David is exploring the Engineers’ cryostasis room, which also appears to be a control room of some sort. He learns how to operate a few things. We see him smile when he sits in an Engineer’s enormous chair. A holographic recording starts up, conveniently showing David what to do to turn on more devices. He also listens to their speech. David then sees a holographic map of the galaxy; the iconography isn’t clear without pausing and staring, but it appears to be a sort of road map or orrery of a couple hundred star systems. We see David look around in awe. David discovers that, in the recording, the Engineers zoomed into Earth’s solar system. The recording ends, and David notices that an Engineer is asleep but alive in one of the cryostasis beds.
The galactic road map is a holographic recording. How is David able to interact with it such that he can pluck the holographic rendering of Earth from the air above him and hold it in his hands? Are all the holographic recordings like this? Could he walk up to an Engineer’s holographic rendering and pick it up or move it?
David is smiling. He is turning about in awe. Perhaps these outward signs of emotion don’t translate to actual felt emotions, but the ambiguity is not as aggravating as the contradictory evidence of emotion-based motivation we see from David, such as contaminating the drink of a scientist he seems to dislike.
Holloway’s illness is rapidly progressing. The crew have returned to Prometheus, but the main door isn’t open. Janek yells at Vickers, who only opens the door after she has grabbed one of the flamethrowers. (The flamethrower!) She has decided that, despite the full quarantine Shaw recommended for Holloway, she is not going to allow Holloway onto the ship. Shaw and Janek try to reason with her. After telling Shaw he loves her, Holloway approaches Vickers, arms out, and says, “Do it.” Vickers lights him up and Holloway dies. Vickers is not unaffected by what she has just done.
In Alien, Ripley insists on following quarantine protocols when the facehugger gets Kane, and Dallas wants to ignore those protocols out of panic. Ash is the one who overrides the door because Ash is not on the crew’s side, and Ripley calls him the fuck out on it. In Prometheus, Shaw realizes full quarantine would be necessary, yet Vickers refuses to allow Holloway on board. Torching Holloway and denying him medical care is not entirely out of character for Vickers, but her decision here is soooo inconsistent with y’know, the rest of the plot.
In light of Holloway’s illness, why is she okay with letting other people who took their helmets off inside the structure back onto the ship? Shaw, Ford, and Janek could simply be asymptomatic for the time being. If she was so concerned about something bad getting onto the ship, why did she let anyone who took their helmet off back onto Prometheus the previous night? Why didn’t she speak up the first time Holloway took off his helmet? Why did she let them bring an alien head on board? How did David smuggle a canister of black goo on board if it was such a big fucking deal? Is Vickers actually just faking her competence and authority? Janek yells at her to open the door, but why does no one then call her out of all this bullshit after she murders Holloway??
The Crew Regroups
Shaw wakes up (I guess she passed out, which isn’t unexpected) to find David removing the cross from her neck. He gives a weird reason, saying it might be contaminated, and Shaw tells him rightly that it wouldn’t matter if it were. “We were all exposed,” she says. (Oh my God, then what was the fucking point of torching Holloway? Why not light all of them on fire?)
David examines her as part of quarantine protocols. He informs her she’s pregnant. The fetus’s size suggests she's three months along, but she and Holloway had sex only ten hours ago. When Shaw insists there’s no way she is three months pregnant, David says, “Well, doctor, it’s not exactly a traditional fetus.” Shaw wants to see it, but David denies her. She wants it out of her, but David says they don’t have the personnel or equipment to do “such a procedure.” He suggests putting her in cryostasis for the trip home.
I hate David’s “traditional fetus” line, both the way it’s written and how Fassbender says it. It’s spoken both insensitively and condescendingly. I understand David and his behavior is supposed to be off-putting and that the alien baby is supposed to be horrifying, but just a small revision would have stopped me from rolling my eyes, such as Fassbender saying, “Well, doctor, it doesn’t appear to be a normal fetus” in a sympathetic, disarming tone rather than a dismissive one. It’s okay if David has ulterior motives for preserving Shaw’s alien baby, which of course falls in line with other Alien films, but you’d think he’d employ a bit of false sympathy in order to get Shaw to do as he suggests.
Overall, this part of their conversation does feel right, but then it goes off the rails again. Shaw experiences pain, so David gives her a sedative, puts her back on the examination table, and says things like, “Must feel like your god abandoned you. To lose Dr. Holloway after your father died under such similar circumstances. What was it that killed him? Ebola?” Shaw asks how he knew that, and he replies, “I watched your dreams.”
We knew Shaw’s mother had died when she was young, but then it’s her father’s death David mentions. Whose death is she broken up over? When do we ever see her be concerned about deadly diseases? (She disagreed with Holloway removing his helmet, but gave up quickly.) Why would David suggest she has lost her faith after losing Holloway when she has so many other reasons, like finding their creators dead or y’know, being pregnant with an alien baby when she thought she was infertile? Also, how is the way Holloway died (lit on fire on an alien planet) in any way “similar circumstances” to contracting and dying of Ebola back on Earth? Yes, Holloway had contracted some illness, but her father wasn’t lit the fuck on fire while standing right in fucking front of her.
Why is Shaw surprised David saw into her dreams while she was in cryostasis? It’s unclear as to how widely used and well understood (to the general population) cryostasis is as of 2089, but you’d think Shaw and the others would have been thoroughly briefed on 1) what cryostasis is like (other Alien films suggest time passes without conscious recollection, but dreams are not out of the question based on Ripley’s final lines in Aliens), 2) how the beds work (maybe not the underlying science that makes them work, but at least the bed’s features—tracking life signs, brain waves, etc.), and 3) how waking up will feel. David isn’t the one magically parsing brainwaves into images—the helmet appears to do that for him—so it can’t be attributed to David having some special secret ability.
Later, Ford and another doctor come to take Shaw to cryostasis. She tricks them into thinking she’s still sedated, knocks them down, and runs to the surgical pod located in Vickers’ quarters. She asks for a “Cesarean” procedure, but gets an error and learns the pod is calibrated for male patients. Shaw manually inputs a generic procedure, climbs into the pod, and we watch the alien cut out of her. It’s horrifying, but creative. Once the pod grabs the cephalopod-like “foreign object” and staples her up, Shaw exits the pod. She forces the pod to gas the creature, but we’ll see it again.
I’m totally fine with Shaw taking matters into her own hands. Being forced to carry an alien fetus, especially when an advanced surgery pod down the hall can remove it, is pretty messed up. Shaw makes use of injected painkillers to endure the surgery (though not so much that they knock her out, so it’s still painful), and she struggles to walk afterward. Most of this is plausible enough. We’ll see about the next few scenes, though.
The surgery pod calibrated for male patients is a clue for the audience—after all, it’s Vickers’ quarters and she’s female—but while I appreciate the effort at making an insinuation about the life boat and surgery pod belonging to not Vickers, such a rare, advanced, and expensive piece of technology having such a strange limitation in an age where the human race can travel to other stars is a contrivance. That said, Prometheus could have gotten away with this odd detail if the rest of the script weren’t so messy and impenetrable.
Meanwhile, Janek radios the crew to warn them the video feed from Fifield’s camera has kicked in again, and Fifield is apparently right outside the ship. The audience knows this is bad. Janek opens the main door and tries to hail Fifield. They get a look at Fifield’s body at the base of the ramp, and it’s Not Right. Janek realizes something’s wrong, and zombie Fifield starts going sickhouse on the crew in the vehicle bay. We see Shaw, her stomach still smeared with disinfectant, stumbling through the ship. Janek rushes down to the vehicle bay. He and a couple of others manage to kill zombie Fifield.
I’m fairly certain that, since Millburn was found dead, his body was left where it was found in the crew’s haste to return to Prometheus; we never hear of or see Millburn again. We don’t find out if anything was laid in Millburn’s chest. Fifield wasn’t found, so I won’t lay full blame on Janek or the other crew for thinking that Fifield returning on his own was possibly a good thing. However, they might have wanted to exercise more caution.
What I do take exception to is how the black goo appears to have yet another property. The acid burns on Fifield’s face gives the black goo—a lot more than what Holloway ingested—direct access to his blood stream. This time, however, it made its host stronger and violent rather than break him down to remake him. He’s not a larger version of himself (like the worms), doesn’t have acid for blood, and doesn’t go for his victim’s throats. We don’t find out what the black goo would’ve done to Holloway, though you could definitely make the case that his impregnation of Shaw was quite similar to how facehuggers plant embryos in their victims’ throats. Perhaps the thing in Shaw was all “Holloway” and none of her own DNA. (However, we’ve seen xenomorphs that look different based on their host, such as the dog in Alien 3.) When all’s said and done, though, the black goo is simply plot device goo because it always does what the writer wants regardless of logic or consistency.
Where are Vickers and David during all of this? Well, I don’t know about Vickers, but David is present for the big reveal. Turns out Peter Weyland was the one in the isolated cryostasis bed. He’s not dead and buried back on Earth. He wanted to “meet his maker.” Shaw says they’re all gone, but David reveals he found a sleeping Engineer. Shaw is shocked, as would be expected. More than just wanting to know the answers to those Big Questions, Weyland came to LV-223 because he doesn’t want to die and thinks the Engineers can “save us” (meaning make him immortal, or at least extend his life significantly). Shaw tries to warn Weyland of the horrible things they’ve found on LV-223, but her warnings fall on deaf ears. Weyland asks if she has lost her faith and she’s unable to answer.
Maybe it happened off-camera, which is stupid, but why isn’t anyone but Shaw shocked that Peter Weyland was secretly on their ship this whole time? David, the absent Vickers, and maybe one of the other unnamed characters in this scene knew, but what about Ford? Or Janek and his two co-pilots? Wouldn’t those other characters consider Weyland’s presence highly suspicious, if not clearly deceitful? His holographic message saying he was dead when they saw it was clearly a lie!
Why does it have to be a secret that Weyland came along? I mean, he paid for the whole trip. Who the fuck cares?
Shaw just had a Cesearean. She comes back in, blood all over her, and besides covering her shoulders with a jacket and sitting her down, no one has any comments about what she just did. No one yells at her for smacking them in the head with a random object earlier. No one asks about the alien baby. Shaw doesn’t even fucking mention it. She doesn’t accuse David of being a fucking asshole. She doesn’t accuse the two doctors who would’ve stopped her from removing it of being assholes. What the hell?? (The clearest sign yet that this script was written by men.)
Later in her room, Shaw is cleaning herself up. She takes what I’m assuming are painkillers and also possibly antibiotics. She puts on Holloway’s ring that he took off in an earlier scene, and comes to a silent decision about something. She then suits up to leave the ship. Janek comes in to talk to her and says he thinks what they’ve found is actually some kind of military installation, isolated from the Engineers’ real home due to the incredible danger of the substance in the canisters.
He explains, for the audience’s sake, the most logical conclusion for what happened to the Engineers on LV-223, and he wants to book it back to Earth. Shaw tells him an Engineer was found alive and asks Janek, “Don’t you want to know what they have to say?” After a pause, he says, “I don’t care.” Shaw insists there must be something he cares about, otherwise why is he here? Janek concludes that no matter what, he “can’t bring none of that shit home with us.”
This scene pretty much works. Janek helps the audience out by explaining his theory, which mostly makes sense—on the surface at least. We see Shaw taking steps to endure the lingering consequences of her invasive surgery. We see the two of them come to a mutual agreement about protecting Earth from the things they’ve found on LV-223.
I like Janek’s theory, but then why would the pictographs from various ancient civilizations on Earth be of the constellation containing LV-223? Why tell humans about the military installation where the Engineers make their “weapons of mass destruction?” Is their home on a planet or moon orbiting one of the other stars in the constellation? Did Prometheus go to the wrong star? If so, the pictographs at least don’t suffer from fridge logic, but if not, then either the pictographs are a flawed Call to Action or the perceived relationship between humans and the giant beings is not of worship, even though it appears to be. (I’ll discuss one last possibility at the end.) All these issues aside, the writing shouldn’t leave contradictory clues like this when it makes no effort to offer either disagreement or even an alternative theory, via something like dialogue from a dissenting character. All that would be required is an extra line from Janek, something like, “Are you still sure those pictures you found were an invitation? Why invite us here?”
Time for a crappy scene. David has assisted Weyland into a robotic device that will help him walk. Vickers enters the room and Weyland says he’s surprised to see her after all the things she did to try to stop him from coming to LV-223. Vickers is left alone with Weyland, and she tells him she wasn’t going to sit in some boardroom arguing for years about who has command of the company while he was looking for “some kind of miracle.” She asserts he can’t escape his death (something about a king having “his reign” and then dying; it’s a weird line). Things then get really weird when she strokes and nuzzles his hand. That’s when we learn that Vickers is Weyland’s daughter.
Based on this new information and other recurrent themes in the film, we can extrapolate Vickers’ main motivation (why she followed Weyland “half a billion” miles from Earth), but this motivation isn’t clearly, consistently, and realistically applied throughout the film and thus makes it difficult for the audience to feel confident in their assessment of her motivation or assign real meaning to Vickers’ words and actions.
First, let’s define Desire and Need in relation to a character’s inner conflict. A Desire is something of which the character is aware and for which she longs, but fulfilling an as-yet-unknown-to-her Need is what will make her life better. The theory I like best is that Vickers Desires her father to be dead, but Vickers Needs her father to tell her that he considers her to be his legacy, that she is his immortality. Not David, not his company, not a magic cure, but her. Following Weyland to LV-223 meant witnessing either the former (his death) or, less likely, the latter (his acknowledgment of her importance to him). Telling Weyland he can’t escape death is the former, and creepily nuzzling his hand is the latter.
But Weyland and Vickers’ interaction in this scene is not perfectly executed. The emotions in the scene clash with the dialogue, and the intended subtext becomes muddled. Is Vickers having difficulty clearly expressing her Need? Is she trying to make Weyland uncomfortable? (She certainly made me uncomfortable.) Outside of this scene, the filmmakers ignored moments when they could have portrayed Vickers’ Desire and Need. When Vickers demands to know what “he” said after David accesses Weyland’s cryostasis bed, their dialogue conveys her hatred of David, and we can only guess why. Does she mistrust androids? Does she hate what they represent? Does she hate what David specifically represents?
Thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t ignore all of their chances to hint at Vickers’ inner conflict. During Weyland’s holographic message, the camera does cut to Vickers’ displeased expression when Weyland says that David is the closest thing he’ll ever have to a son, but what a weak signal! You can simper on about subtlety, but like everything else, it’s good only in moderation.
What if Vickers’ Desire is to protect Weyland’s company from the fallout of what happens on this mission? What if her Need is to be a better child/successor than David? What if her Need is for her father to apologize for making her feel less important because she’s a daughter instead of a son? These are also halfway decent theories. Why does her motivation have to be so nebulous? Lastly, why does being Weyland’s daughter have to be a secret from the rest of the crew?! WHO FUCKING CARES?
David comes across Shaw, who is awaiting the party that will go meet the still-living Engineer. They have another strange conversation. He “accidentally” uses a poor choice of words when he says, “I didn’t think you had it in you.” Then he remarks on her incredible “survival instincts.” (The only comment on her surgery that we’ll ever get.) Shaw asks him what he’ll do when Weyland isn’t around anymore to program him. (Well, I guess they’ll make Ash and then Bishop.) David supposes he’ll be free when that happens. Shaw asks if he wants that. David says “want” is not a familiar concept to him, but then supposes, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”
Wait, Weyland personally writes the programming for his androids? No one else knows how to do it? I think the writer was thinking of Star Trek’s Data rather than how an android might actually get programmed. You’d really need a huge team of people.
Want, Disappointment, Casualties…. David can’t wrap his amazing brain around these concepts, and yet we see so many displays of emotion. Is he lying when he says he has no emotion? Is he unaware that he’s feeling real emotion? Is the audience supposed to wonder if human emotions are also as “fake” as David’s, just programmed reactions to external stimuli? No one in the film explores these questions. The concepts behind them just sit there largely unexplored. The characters carry on as though David is really emotionless, so this whole theme ends up going nowhere.
I’ll come back to David’s “dead parents” line later in the review.
Meeting their Maker
Weyland arrives. They go to the structure. Shaw warns against Weyland taking off his helmet because they still aren’t sure how Holloway got sick, but David assures her it’s fine. Shaw silently realizes David knows exactly how Holloway was infected, and had something to do with it.
David takes them to the cargo hold full of thousands of canisters. She shows the canisters to Janek and Vickers back on the ship, who realize based on the mapping done by the probes that the structure is actually a spaceship. David says he believes that, before everything went south for the Engineers, they were preparing to depart for Earth. Shaw asks why and David says, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” Weyland somehow isn’t very alarmed by this and instead asks, “Where is he, David?”
Honestly, how does David know the Engineers’ intentions? He can certainly make some guesses the same way the audience can make a couple of guesses, but he saw no clear objective on the recording, just a destination. If he knows because he correctly interpreted the language on the recording, why doesn’t he just fucking say so??
They wake up the Engineer. Weyland tells David to tell the Engineer why he came, and Shaw wants David to ask why the Engineers were bringing the black goo to Earth. “What did we do wrong?” she asks. David translates some of Weyland’s message, and it’s not entirely clear whether or not the Engineer understands. It doesn’t matter, though, because rather than reply, the Engineer grabs David, rips off his head, and uses it to knock Weyland down. (Wow, okay.)
The Engineer sees Shaw run away and kills the rest of the team that accompanied Weyland, who says his last words, “There’s nothing.” David’s head says, “I know. Have a good journey, Mr. Weyland.” When Weyland flatlines, Vickers announces it’s time to go home.
Weyland’s final words could have many meanings, and this kind of open-ended line works beautifully here. Is he saying, “There’s nothing that can or will save me?” Is he saying, “There’s no life left in me?” Is he saying, “I don’t see a white light?” Is he saying, “There’s no point to life?” The reason why this kind of open-ended line works (and others in this script don’t) is because most or all of the audience’s interpretations could be correct and all would line up with Weyland’s characterization. I also like David’s response, which shows David’s interpretation of what Weyland meant and which adds to his own characterization.
Guess David spent two years studying ancient languages for nothing.
Really, is that the only reaction we’re going to get from Vickers? Her father just died, the Engineer is hostile as fuck, and all we get is “time to go home?”
The Engineer activates a chair and console that would look familiar to those who have seen the original Alien film. He climbs into the chair, likely to prepare for takeoff. David is unable to move but can watch. Shaw is thrown by the venting of air and escapes the ship’s hangar. She leaps, skids, and runs across the sections of hangar roof that are opening up. We see the Engineer plotting a course for Earth. Shaw radios Janek and tells him the alien ship is going to take off. I’m sure Janek figured that out, but hey, confirmation doesn’t hurt.
She reminds him of what he said in her room about stopping anything from LV-223 from making it back to Earth. Vickers refuses to believe Shaw’s warning or its implications. Janek decides to do what he can to stop the alien ship, telling Vickers to get herself to the life boat because he's going to eject it. Janek’s two co-pilots decide to stay and help him.
The site of Shaw’s surgery has to have opened up after all this physical activity. She’s not done with all the gymnastics, though.
Vickers makes it off Prometheus, which crashes into the alien ship and successfully prevents it from flying away. The alien ship falls to the ground and starts rolling along one of its two arms toward Shaw and Vickers, who both happened to end up in its way. As many have pointed out, Vickers and Shaw both fail to run perpendicular to the roll path. Vickers gets crushed. Shaw only survives because she trips, falls right on her stomach (ouch), and rolls a few times to one side.
The alien ship is huge. All it takes is a few rolls to avoid it?
I’m not sure if Shaw passes out for a period of time, but when the dust has settled, her suit warns her that she has two minutes of oxygen left. She goes to the life boat and climbs into its open entrance. Once the airlock is sealed, she grabs some supplies. A noise inside the life boat gets her attention, so she grabs an axe. The audience learns the alien baby cut out of her by the surgery pod has grown to an enormous size. Fortunately, the thing is contained to the surgery pod room, but unfortunately, David radios her at that point to warn, “He’s coming for you.” It turns out that the Engineer is only seconds away from the life boat.
More of Shaw’s gymnastics. I assume the suit is holding her organs in.
We see her get supplies, but we don’t see her refresh her suit’s supply of oxygen. Let’s hope some of the supplies she grabbed are for that purpose.
Maybe the room containing the surgery pod also contained some compartments with the life boat’s food supply, but I seriously wonder how that thing got so big. Conservation of Mass, people!
Perhaps David has been trying to radio Shaw for a while (his voice didn’t wake her, but her suit’s warning did?), so maybe that’s why Shaw has so little warning before the Engineer is on her, but I wonder how the Engineer even knew Shaw was running around on the ground somewhere. If she passed out for a while and the Engineer still had some kind of scanning ability aboard his ship, he’d see that nothing appears to be moving outside. Not only that, why does he care? Yes, he’s pissed, but as we find out later, he can go to other ships! I’d assume he’d want to find out what happened to his race after being asleep for a couple thousand years rather than go kill the one surviving human who is now stranded.
It’s not clear how the Engineer made it from his ship to the life boat without his suit’s helmet—earlier scenes heavily suggest he and his kind breathe oxygen just like humans—but he’s suddenly forcing his way into the life boat. He charges Shaw, and she smacks the control panel of the surgery room door. It opens (only slightly? how convenient!), and several tentacles grab the Engineer. We get a better look at the creature in the surgery room, and it kind of looks like a starfish with seemingly endless extra tentacles. The starfish has got the Engineer good despite the Engineer’s significant strength. It facehugs him, and Shaw escapes the life boat with some supplies. As the starfish lies down on top of the Engineer, it sort of looks like the facehuggers we all know and loathe.
Huh, so Shaw was impregnated…with a giant facehugger? Does that make Shaw an alien queen? More than how that thing got so big, why did it get so big? Regular facehuggers are just…y’know, the size of your face. Ohhhhh, it’s because it needed to overpower the Engineer, not because it was at all consistent with anything else we’ve seen.
David calls for Shaw again, asking for her help. She asks why she would help him (good question!), and he reveals that there are other alien ships, which he is certain he can help her fly. She finds him in the derelict ship and gets her cross from a pouch on his body’s utility belt. David says, “Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?” She asks him how well he can use their maps, and he assures her they could get back to Earth, but Shaw wants to go where the Engineers came from. David pauses before saying that he can do as she wants.
David probably pauses because he realizes he has to agree or he won’t be leaving and also because he realizes the magnitude of what she’s asking. That’s fine, and even his question about her faith is fair.
How does David know there are other ships?
Before going back to get David, we see Shaw uh, not wearing gloves?? The filmmakers probably want to show Holloway’s ring, but all I can see is a continuity error. I can’t imagine her skin is safe or that her suit’s oxygen seal isn’t compromised.
As Shaw is lowering David’s body to the ground from the ship, David asks why she wants to know why the Engineers decided to destroy what they created. She supposes that’s the difference between her and a robot like David. Shaw drives them on a surviving buggie to another nearby ship, which the audience sees take off. Shaw makes a final transmission, telling anyone hearing it of what happened to Prometheus and not to go to the transmission’s point of origin.
Again, no one notices David’s potentially real emotions. Shaw just insists he’s a robot who wouldn’t understand human traits like curiosity or obsession, both of which he has displayed. Also, why do they have David say the reason is “irrelevant?” His brain should be able to work out some perfectly relevant reasons. Anyway, why couldn’t Shaw just say, “If humans wanted to destroy all robots, wouldn’t you want to know why?” David made a similar comparison (humans and their creators versus robots and their creators) when speaking to Holloway. I’m sure such a question would not only make sense to David, but would also make for a good call-back. Good fucking Lord, writers, what were you doing??
Is the other ship in a similar state as the one they found? Is it completely empty of Engineers? Of black goo canisters? Apparently!
How is Shaw making and leaving a final transmission? Did she climb into the wreckage of Prometheus to do it? Did she make one from the downed alien ship? Did she make one from the life boat? God, I hope not. Something awful is happening there.
Speaking of, the starfish facehugger has done its job and is dead. The Engineer is convulsing and a familiar-looking, long-headed alien emerges from his body, though its features aren’t exactly the same as the long-headed xenomorphs we’ve seen.
And that’s the end of the film. We made it!
Summary of Script Issues
Many illogical plot developments or straight-up plot holes.
I’ve already covered fridge logic as it happened (as much as I could think of, at least), but I want to go back to the black goo now that we’ve reached the end of the film. What does it do, really? Does it adapt donated DNA to a planet’s ecology and create life where “nature” didn’t? If so, why do we see it create facehuggers? Does it only make one kind of life? Are we supposed to intuit that humans are facehuggers??? Is this black goo different from what the first Engineer drinks??
If Holloway was being very slowly turned into a facehugger (I assume so because the worms were turned into psuedo-facehuggers), why does he impregnate Shaw with another facehugger? Why was a weird little tentacle coming out of his eye? Why didn’t Fifield turn into a facehugger??
The room with the leaky canisters contained a bas-relief depicting a xenomorph, so the facehuggers and xenomorphs that killed the Engineers weren’t an accidental result of something becoming contaminated with the black goo. Creating xenomorphs seemed to be the Engineers’ intention, which makes me wonder how they got that black goo to make human life on Earth.
Character motivations, if present, were either unclear or improperly explored.
Many characterizations are thrust upon Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Her being religious is set up in a poorly conceived dream sequence, and her Desire is to find out why the creator of humanity made them. Her mother died when she was young, but her father’s death (of Ebola) is the Wound that, when prodded, tests her Belief (how she views the world, which is through the filter of religious faith). Her Need is less clear—and her Desire is just my best guess. We also learn that Shaw is infertile, but we don’t see how that relates to her Wound…or maybe that is her Wound? I can accept a very complex character who has several “sore spots” and complicated worldview, but this film fails to make those complexities work well together.
Dr. Charlie Holloway is less complicated, but his characterizations are about as half-assed. Him being religious is not stated outright, but he is also very invested in learning why humans were made. Does his interest have something to do with David since he doesn’t like the android? Did Holloway have a past problem with androids? It’s clear he was bummed that creating life didn’t seem all that special, and perhaps knowing his existence isn’t special is what tests his Belief. Holloway’s characterization mostly works once you ponder his potential hang-ups, but the film doesn’t go far enough in exploring the android aspect. Noticing and concluding something about David’s existence and David’s possibly real emotions could have been an interesting moment for Holloway.
I’ve already discussed David and his many contradictions quite a bit. Him being an android uniquely affects his characterization, but in ways that are not easily grasped, if at all. What is David’s Desire? Most likely, it’s to achieve whatever result Weyland wants from the mission. Does David have a Need? Is it to be free of Weyland? To understand the meaning of his own existence? To understand what it means to be human? To achieve humanity? To be content as he is? Some dialogue hints at Needs like these, but the human cast and even David himself denies his ability to feel emotion or have any human traits. Eventually, we get the strong sense that his loyalties lie solely with Weyland, but then why does he risk the lives of the human crew that could still be of value to Weyland? Why doesn’t he agree with Shaw’s warning about the horrors of this planet, or take steps to guard against the significant risk of Weyland being killed if they wake an Engineer? Why does he do things that could endanger the ship, especially before Weyland is woken from cryostasis?
The filmmakers come pretty close with Meredith Vickers, but they were too coy with the portrayal of her character’s inner conflict.
We don’t get to see a whole lot of him, but Peter Weyland has his own Desire and Need. He Desires to be immortal. Vickers tells him he Needs to acknowledge that he can’t cheat death (that’s her Desire talking), but his real Need matches hers—he Needs to realize that his immortality is his child and, to a lesser extent, his company and creations (like David). He has a real and amazing legacy. Overall, Weyland’s characterization works just fine. Hooray! If only they had done a better job at his makeup.
The remaining characters, Janek, Fifield, and Millburn—as well as Ravel and Chance—are hardly fleshed out. What may have helped would have been to tell the audience what their Normal had been prior to the mission.
The film tried to weave too many themes together—and did it poorly. As a result, most of them remained largely superficial.
The main theme encompasses a lot: the concept and meaning of life, the creation of life (both natural and artificial), what it means to be human, the relationship of parent and child, immortality, the afterlife, and faith. Sure, a lot of these concepts intersect or overlap. They’re present to varying degrees in a character’s particular and personal answer to the meaning of life.
However, contrasting and comparing all of the characters’ shifting and evolving answers just doesn’t happen with very much finesse. Some character reactions to plot developments sit there unexplored (e.g. Vickers shrugs off her father’s death.) Some interactions between characters only superficially touch upon the aforementioned concepts (e.g. Shaw didn’t want her parents to die, but she doesn’t dissent when David asks, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”) Some themes are clumsily thrust right into the audience’s faces (e.g. David says, “Must feel like your god has abandoned you.”) Some motivations and inner arcs are so subtle that I hesitate to give the writers credit.
I’m not demanding that Prometheus come up with some mind-blowing answer to the meaning of life, but not including individual characters’ answers is lazy, and not clearly portraying the Engineers’ motives for creating and then destroying humanity is a major cop-out.
Creation of life does include a theme the Alien films have explored a lot: the horror of pregnancy and birth. This theme and sub-theme manifest in several ways. 1) Engineer → human → android. 2) alien queen/black goo → facehugger → xenomorph soldier. 3) I’ve already discussed Shaw’s infertility, her pregnancy, and her surgery, the result of which continues the cycle of reproduction. Her thread also evokes discussions of abortion and bodily autonomy.
The film also plays around with a lot—a lot—of symbolism, which it takes from mythological and religious sources. You’ll find a discussion of the film’s symbolism here, which touches upon a few theories for the Prometheus back story, only half-formed shadows of which the audience ever sees.
Suspension of Disbelief was Broken…More than Once
Evolution is a lie. The law of conservation of mass is also a lie. People in cryostasis dream of clear, well-edited memories. Cryostasis beds can translate brainwaves into the images a sleeping person is dreaming. Magical black goo that can do whatever the plot needs. Advanced technology that can perform surgery on its own, but can’t tell a male and female patient apart. (What happens if someone is intersex? Does the pod explode?) Someone who just had an invasive surgery can run, jump, roll, and climb.
LV-223 is the same planet as LV-426
Certain plot developments in Prometheus appear to tie its events pretty directly to the events of Alien, in which Ripley’s crew finds a derelict alien spaceship of the same size and shape as the one that crashes at the end of Prometheus. Both crash sites are on planets with dark, rocky terrain and a hostile environment. The xenomorph birthed at the end of Prometheus could be an alien queen that lays all the eggs found in Alien. The number change could simply be either a mistake or a deliberate cover-up by the Weyland Corporation. Shaw’s transmission could have decayed or become corrupted in the interim years, thus losing its original message and instead only attracting the Nostromo.
This theory isn’t airtight, though. First, though visuals suggest the Engineers are the same species as the Space Jockey found by the Nostromo crew, the latter was far larger in size and its corpse appeared to have decayed down to its endoskeleton, which at some point grafted itself onto the pilot seat. The Space Jockey’s disturbing physiology wasn’t a spacesuit…probably. I’ll allow retconning when it comes to looks, but the Engineer that was flying the ship in Prometheus doesn’t die in the pilot’s chair, so that doesn’t match up with what the Nostromo crew find years later.
The Engineers made humans just to use them as hosts for more xenomorphs
If David was right and the Engineers were headed to Earth to destroy their progeny, then they were bringing all of that black goo with them. As inconsistent as the black goo is, we know it has something to do with xenomorphs, and the bas-relief indicates the Engineers didn’t make and succumb to xenomorphs on accident.
This theory isn’t airtight, either. It throws into question why Engineers would visit their progeny and tell them about the weapons facility where they were making something to kill all of them. If this theory were right, then why would the pictographs found by Shaw and Holloway show humanity worshiping the giant beings? Were the Engineers masquerading as “priests” and telling humans that their only salvation would be to someday sacrifice themselves to birth their gods?
The Engineers were themselves engineered; in addition, they worshiped/served the xenomorphs
This theory is one of a few in an io9 article. I can’t help but lift this aggravating quote:
And our creators decided to destroy their own creation. Why? It’s the biggest question of the movie, and it’s never directly answered.
— David J. Williams, One Theory That Finally Explains What’s Going on in Prometheus
The decapitated Engineer they find has been dead for…two thousand years. In the beginning, we see Janek decorating a Christmas tree, etc etc.
A lot of this theory involves a betrayal from mankind against an alien/Engineer “emissary” whom humanity crucified.
The black goo “models its behavior on the user’s mental state”
One of the theories in the link discussing religious and mythological symbolism in the film. Even if that theory were true, though, it’s just another way of saying Plot Device Goo.
This post is already enormous, but I haven’t even gotten to some other interesting topics surrounding Prometheus. Behind some of the links in this review are other discussions of the film, such as possible inspirations (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft), different versions of the script, and tidbits offered by Ridley Scott and others who worked on the film.
I encourage you to check out those videos and articles because I’m only going to talk about one last thing.
How much interpretation should be left to the audience before declaring that a piece of media has failed to say something coherent?
In all these outside discussions (articles, video, and comments), I’ve seen a lot of people declare that (American) audiences are too stupid or lazy to appreciate or understand subtlety, that audiences shouldn’t expect to have their hands held throughout the story, etc. However, audiences understand exactly what themes and concepts the Prometheus filmmakers wanted us to see. They just didn’t do anything with those themes. Add to that all the problems I exhaustively listed above and all you end up with is an irreparably bad movie.
I’d go on, but fuck me, I’m tired. If you want to read more, I suggest Film Crit Hulk Smash. Have fun.