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The sole idea that the conceptor of the original Alien, sir Ridley Scott himself, would one day expand on the mythology he set up for his former film, was a treat. If you ask me (and even if you don't I'll just pretend you did, so don't mind my figure of speech and carry on), it's a proposition you can't refuse, even though you anticipate that this prequel will not quite measure up to the degree of ground-breaking novelty of its famous ancestor. But it is a fact that you realistically cannot expect to see a genre (let alone several of them) get turned upside-down every morning while you are munching on your breakfast - and this is becoming even less likely when the increasingly uninspired movie industry is feeding us a rich diet of cross-references and repetitions (oops, I meant "reboots").
We can all agree that Prometheus cannot aim to be in the same league as Alien. Still, for those among us who have relished both the cruel sophistication of our favorite xenomorph's life cycle and its, shall we say, conflicted relationship with the human race (heads I kill you, tails I use you as a living incubator), it's party time. Or rather panty time, if we accept that the band-aid-looking underwear that the tiny Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander in the first adaptation of the Millenium trilogy) wears during a good part of the film is the counterpart of Sigourney's iconic garment.
I realize I might come across as snarky but I'm really not. Actually I find interesting that, right from the start, Rapace's Shaw is a more vulnerable central character than Weaver's Ripley ever was in the 1979 film (Ripley's faults, especially those regarding motherhood, will only be explored in the later installations of the Alien franchise). Casting Rapace, a relatively lesser-known actress with the face of a bird of prey to match her stage name, was a bold and clever move since it adds to the various details that are provided to make Elizabeth Shaw feel properly alien to us - and therefore, make her stick out as the disruptive element in the story. She is a Swedish actress in an English-speaking cast, her character is a scientist embedded in the crew of a commercial spaceship but also an earthling searching for answers from hypothetically benevolent extra-terrestrial creators, and most importantly an infertile woman facing the tragic consequences of a new take on the panspermia theory....
From the remains of several different civilizations, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marchall-Green) have collected evidence that humanoid extra-terrestrials, the so-called "Engineers", have created mankind (this has already been shown to us through the opening shots: an Engineer lands on Earth and drinks a thick black fluid which induces both the disintegration of his body and the remodeling of his DNA). All the gathered artifacts display the same stellar arrangement, among which is a small moon with characteristics that make it very similar to Earth. However, upon landing on this small planet the expedition crew sponsored by the wealthy Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) is faced with a double enigma: the Engineers seem to have died suddenly and their lair looks very much like a missile silo filled with spindle-shaped urns from which a black fluid is oozing.
The rules specify that nothing must be touched and that nothing organic is to be brought back on board - and of course the rules have to be broken for the sake of the scenario. The android David (Michael Fassbender), whose agenda differs from everyone else's on the mission, takes one of the urns back to the ship and has Holloway drink a few drops of fluid unwittingly.
According to Greek mythology, the cunning Titan Prometheus had been punished by the Gods for having stolen fire from Olympus but he was also the one who talked Zeus out of wiping out mankind. In the film, the crew of spaceship Prometheus is gradually annihilated by the biological alterations that are directly or indirectly triggered after contact with the black fluid. When eventually a living Engineer is discovered and awakened, the metaphysical questions about the origin of men are swept away with the horrible realization that the actual mission of the creator is to destroy the creatures and that in this aim, the black fluid is a weapon of mass destruction.
As was the case in Alien, both space and its inhabitants (who are few and far apart on the scarce specks of slightly less barren matter drifting across the void) are cold and beyond hostile, simply incompatible with humanity. The Engineers may well be our makers but they show no more affection to their feeble progeny than they would for the humiliating result of an experiment gone terribly wrong (and as a scientist I must say that I can relate). Either this was always the situation, or they used to be fond of us and we somehow let them down. The same black fluid that was once used to dissolve one of their own and fertilize the Earth can be used as a super-enzyme to digest any organized life-form and send it back to the primordial soup so that its basic organic components can be later rearranged in a new and improved being. This substance that can both create and destroy acts as a purely molecular Deus ex machina - without the Deus part, that is. Beyond this idea lies what could be seen as the core of Scott's cynical and essentially agnostic view: there is no such thing as a benevolent yet clumsy God, there are only reckless biotechnologists toying with life until life bites back at them and crushes worlds in the process. Whether you wish to see a hidden commentary on our society in this is up to you - personally, I don't find this type of interpretation appealing so I'll pass.
What relationship is there between the world that is described in Prometheus, which predates the appearance of the xenomorphs, and the Alien saga, which recounts how the humans try to fight them (and mostly fail)? Clues to the answer have been scattered throughout the film, sometimes you can merely catch a glimpse of one of them in the shadows of the set (for instance the glistening, shifting bas-reliefs representing xenormorph-like shapes that are seen on the walls of the silo,) but no explanation for their occurrence is ever provided. This could be deliberate, in a bid to leave it to the viewer's imagination to fill up the blanks. Alternatively, this could be the outcome of the editorial options that prevailed for the theatrical release - in which case we will have to be patient and trust Ridley Scott to provide us all the information that the current movie is lacking in a future director's cut version!
That said, if you are anything like me and Hans Ruedi Giger's visual style has been indelibly printed in your mind with the original Alien, you will find that the relatedness to a common aesthetics in both films partially compensates the loopholes in the narrative thread of Prometheus. Now if you were never a die-hard fan of the former movie, you're in serious trouble since it would be nearly impossible for you to connect the dots between the references to the 1979 installment and the new elements that are provided here. For instance the urns containing the vials of black fluid have roughly the same shape as the xenomorph's eggs, and like them they are arranged on the ground according to a geometrical pattern. You can also notice that the creatures that are either generated from or transformed by the black fluid follow a precise order of appearance that is suggestive of increasing evolutionary complexity. Therefore, when the black fluid, crawling like a reptile rather than just flowing passively, falls on the worms that live at the foot of the urns, it changes them into wormlike creatures which immediately attack the humans. Then Shaw, who until then could never bear a child, is impregnated by Holloway after he has absorbed the dark fluid and she "gives birth" to a squid-shaped thing (big leap: we are still among invertebrates but with mollusks we're getting to more advanced life forms in this branch). Eventually the squid, which has grown so large in a matter of hours that it actually fills a whole room, infects the last Engineer in a way that is reminiscent of the modus operandi of the face-hugger (or do they presage it? prequels can get confusing that way...) and this gives rise to a primitive xenomorph (thus a vertebrate).
By the end of Prometheus, the initial questioning regarding the origin of men has been answered but nobody really cares about it anymore. What has replaced it is a puzzle that needs to be solved urgently: what is it that our ancestors have done to Engineers that was so terrible that it has earned us both their wrath and the unleashing upon Earth of the ultimate predator? Is it possible at this point to persuade them to reverse their decision and spare us? We leave Elizabeth Shaw and David as they set to meet the Engineers on their own planet, and I can't wait to see what follows....