In space, no one can hear you philosophize. 2012’s Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott and serving as a strange prequel to the Alien franchise, is one of the most misunderstood sci-fi movies of all time. It’s not a better movie than 1979’s Alien. But, by most metrics of what sci-fi actually is, Prometheus is a better science fiction movie than Alien.
10 years ago, Prometheus hit theaters and people freaked out. If you’re looking for a movie scarier than Alien, Prometheus fails. It’s got some terrifying moments, but none that top the messy originality of its source material. If you’re looking for a movie with a more cohesive aesthetic, Prometheus again fails to top Alien. It merely borrows from its predecessor’s basic design, resulting in technology that looks way slicker even though the movie is a prequel.
But Alien is a horror movie that happens to be set in space. You could move the action to a drilling station or a submarine. You could even swap the chest-bursting xenomorph for a demon or a genetic experiment gone haywire. It wouldn’t be the same movie, but it would have the same spirit.
Even King Kong has ties to Alien insofar as the idea of capturing and then using a beast is a trope that exists across different genres. The basic story of Alien — while an aesthetic triumph of minimalism — is not reliant on science fiction to actually work.
Once you hold this very specific criterion in your brain, it’s easy to see why Prometheus is a more interesting science fiction story than its more famous horror progenitor. The premise of the film concerns the notion of panspermia, the theory that human beings were seeded on Earth by aliens. And, although Prometheus presents this theory to be essentially true, the unfolding implications impact all the characters in profound ways.
In Alien, there’s a binary sense to the narrative: These people will either survive or not. In Prometheus, there’s a similar ticking clock propelling the action, but the stakes are intellectual and emotional. Can Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace), a woman of both science and faith, accept that the alien Engineers are actually amoral and ruthless? Can a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) exceed the limits of his programming and actually gain a moral perspective?
In Alien, none of these questions exist. It’s only about survival. In Prometheus, the art of speculative fiction, the idea that the audience and the characters are actually contemplating big ideas through a sci-fi lens, doesn’t just drive the story, it is the story. You can’t take the science fiction out of Prometheus and make it work. That may not excuse its flaws, but for people who truly love the genre, it should encourage you to cut the movie a break.
Ridley Scott made an Alien prequel that no one wanted about huge philosophical subjects that are hard to discuss. He crammed all of that into an action-horror that used a similar plot structure to a more famous film he already directed. For most moviegoers, this audacious experiment failed. In fact, the more by-the-numbers approach in the troubled sequel, Alien: Covenant, proves how much Scott retreated from some of his bigger ideas in Prometheus.
But none of that changes this film’s thoughtfulness. In a sea of sci-fi movies trying to play the hits, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus tried to get weird. And for that, it remains one of the better sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
Prometheus is streaming for free on Freevee via Amazon.