‘Prometheus,’ parricide, and Ridley Scott’s returning of the ‘Alien’ franchise to the big questions

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Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' is out now (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)
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Mark Sussman

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Director Ridley Scott's Alien franchise, of which Prometheus, opening today, is the latest in the series Scott began in 1979, has always revolved around freaky parent-child relationships.

Aliens, after all, are essentially sexual predators who forcibly impregnate host bodies and then have their offspring kill their “mother” during childbirth. In fact, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood underwrite a huge chunk of the franchise’s lexicon: the Nostromo’s onboard computer named Mother (Alien); the Weyland Corporation’s attempts to impregnate Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) with an alien to bring back to Earth (Aliens); Ripley's role as protector/mother to her crew, a small child, a robot (Alien, Aliens, Alien Resurrection); the ubiquitous presence of incubator-like hyper-sleep pods; on to the seemingly matriarchal structure of the alien hives themselves. 

Near the end of Prometheus, one of the characters declares: "Every child wants their parents dead.” 

As a prequel (of sorts) to Alien, the film seems just as invested in parricide as the other films, but it's also a mirror of our own very Earth-bound obsession with the origins of life. In that sense, the Scott-directed Prometheus serves as an appropriate origin-story to a franchise that includes everything from Scott’s original sci-fi/horror masterpiece to action figures and key chains. It is almost as though the offspring spawned by Scott’s brainchild, after having passed through the hands of three other directors (James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), have overrun their creator’s intentions. With Prometheus, Scott has both reasserted control and brought the series back to something like its former glory.

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And so, while Scott explicitly invokes the myth of Prometheus, the consequences of delving too deeply, the film is also clearly possessed of some Oedipal anxieties. The prologue presents this combination of death and rebirth in miniature: an incredibly muscular, bald, luminously white man stands above a waterfall, drinks a cup of mysterious black liquid, and then falls into the water as we see his DNA disperse and reform. The film proper begins in 2089 when Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a series of representations in ancient cave drawings, Mesopotamian art, and the like, all of which similarly depict a star system and a giant man. Based on this, Shaw and Holloway surmise that the pictures are evidence that humans did not evolve in the way we understand, but were engineered by an alien race (something along the lines of Chariots of the Gods?-style theories).

Shaw and Holloway convince the aging Peter Weyland (a prosthetically-aged and incomprehensibly casted Guy Pearce) to fund a two-year, $1 trillion trip to the planet that they think the drawings point to. When they wake up aboard the spaceship Prometheus, they find themselves in the company of the laid-back captain Janek (Idris Elba), frosty company woman Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a goofy biologist (Rafe Spall), an abrasive geologist (Sean Harris), and David (the spectacular Michael Fassbender), the resident android who spends his days as most of us would, given the time: riding a bike, playing basketball, learning ancient languages, and polishing his manner by aping Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence.

Finding a huge structure on the surface of the planet and a pile of humanoid corpses inside, Shaw, Holloway, and Prometheus’s crew begin to infer what kind of disaster happened and what the corpses have to do with Earth in the first place. To give away much more of the plot than that would deprive the film of its carefully intertwined senses of discovery and dread. But much of what makes the film such a success isn’t the primary plot, but the adeptness with which Scott is able to shuffle between 2001-scale speculation, horror-movie carnage, and subtle emotional drama. Many of the hallmarks of earlier Alien films are present: the impregnations, the combination of sci-fi technology with Cronenberg-style body horror, and the sub-rosa machinations of the Weyland Corporation.

The film also retains much of the pleasures of the other films. Even at their worst, Alien movies have a baseline watchability—the spectacle of sleek, insectoid aliens shredding the hapless and deserving (or those who have, at the very least, been driven to become their worst selves by the maddening presence of the aliens) never seems to lose its appeal. Our fascination with them, just like the Weyland Corporation’s, lies in their obvious superiority, and part of the pleasure we get is the pleasure in abasement that comes with watching the play of domination by the super-human wreaking havoc on the human. It's especially fun when our inferiority is linked to our less-admirable tendencies (greed, cowardice, hubris, etc.). Here Scott reformulates things a little bit—the line between good people and bad people is more fungible. While Vickers initially comes off as a martial ice queen, her motivations come to take on the kind of human ambivalence rarely seen in other Alien films (or any kind of film, really). Theron’s performance ably transforms what could have been a one-note character into someone who fears and craves power in equal measure.

But it’s the Weyland Corporation that, in a certain sense, acquires the most surprising dimension in Prometheus. In previous films Weyland is the paradigmatic Evil Faceless Corporation whose desire for profit knows no bounds and stands not just to ruin space voyages, but to eradicate humanity. We’re led, mostly through inference, to see Weyland as a one-company Military-Industrial-Carceral complex, a determining force on an Earth that has, in the near future, completely monetized human life. In Prometheus we get Peter Weyland in the flesh, a Ray Kurzweil-type figure whose refusal to accept the certainty of death has allowed Shaw and Holloway to explore the origins of human existence.

Weyland’s presence as a character rather than a corporate moniker reorients the implicit critique of corporate capitalism that runs through every Alien film. As a man who sees his own destiny bound up with humanity’s origins, Weyland’s ambitions come to figure the twin dangers of finding where you came from and meeting your maker (both of which, it turns out, can get very messy). That those ambitions also sketch out a sad and barely hinted-at family drama running in the film’s background shows that there’s still plenty more to the Alien concept than action figures and keychains.