The most unfairly maligned sci-fi movie of the 21st century is none other than this Ridley Scott film.
For every single complaint critics and fans have about this prequel to Alien, something brilliant and daring is overlooked.
Now, to be clear, Prometheus is a deeply flawed science fiction movie. As a film that illuminates the Alien canon, it is also somewhat muddled. But, of all of his films, this is Ridley Scott’s biggest swing. And, when you can take a breath and not focus on the nitty-gritty details between this film and Alien, what you’ll find is a wonderfully dynamic sci-fi flick that plays out like a next-level horror film.
Here's why Prometheus deserves a look on HBO Max before it leaves the streaming service on August 31. Mild spoilers for Prometheus ahead.
Don’t think about Alien
Notably, when Prometheus was released in 2011, it did not carry the word “Alien” anywhere in its title, despite being promoted as a prequel to the 1979 sci-fi horror classic.
From a visual world-building point of view, the film runs into similar problems that the Star Wars prequels faced: The technology and look of the prequel feel slicker than its sequel.
In theory, this could be explained away through economics. In Alien, the Nostromo (2122) is a mining ship with limited resources. While in Prometheus (2093), the titular spacecraft looks very shinny and tricked-out, probably because it was directly funded by tech mogul Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). This would be like saying that a hypothetical SpaceX ship designed as a personal yacht for Elon Musk might be more advanced than an equally hypothetical knock-off created several decades later.
The point is, all of this is kind of a distraction, and if you think about the nitty-gritty prequel stuff too much, you’ll miss the cool thing about the movie.
Why Prometheus works
Without spoiling the movie, Prometheus is an interesting science fiction blockbuster because it asserts panspermia as its central premise from the first scene. While Alien fans would tell you this film is just a long and winding road to the birth of the Xenomorphs, it’s actually pretty clear that Ridley Scott is interested in retelling a much older science fiction story-trope. What if aliens kickstarted evolution on Earth?
From the opening moments of Prometheus, this premise becomes the real thrust of the film. Human beings have created intelligent near-perfect human robots in this future, which means some kind of similar event may have occurred in our distant past. In actual science, panspermia is mostly a wild theory. Still, as a speculative device within a huge science fiction movie, it allows for all sorts of philosophical questions to run through what, at a glance, appears to be a horror film.
Generally speaking, this kind of ruminative style of science fiction rarely pairs well with outright action horror. In other words, the original Alien works because it’s mostly just a survival story, with a small conspiracy story embedded within it. Prometheus is far more complex and bold with its structure.
The plot is only superficially about killer creatures and a conspiracy to create them. The second more meaningful story is about how creation myths can overlap with scientific discovery. Again, the real-world applications here are dubious, and it feels unlikely that a planet of “Engineers” is just out there somewhere, full of uncomfortable truths about the purpose of human evolution. But as a pure metaphor, this concept is fascinating and profound.
And best of all, the film owns the premise on every level. Front-and-center in the story is archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace.) Smartly, Scott makes Shaw a scientist who also believes in God. Again, this might seem silly in the real world, but in the highly charged metaphorical realm of Prometheus, it works perfectly.
Elizabeth Shaw is like Indiana Jones’ father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) but slightly more progressive and certainly more accepting of change. The similarity between Prometheus and The Last Crusade is telling: An archaeologist reconciles objective facts with religious history in both films. Within an Indiana Jones film, this takes place on Earth.
But what makes Prometheus so damn interesting is that Ridley Scott tried to do the same thing, only he set the story in space. If you’re looking for hard science fiction that makes sense, Prometheus won’t make you happy. But, if you can suspend your disbelief and dig into the philosophical questions, then what you’ll find is a sci-fi movie that is truly one of a kind.
Prometheus is streaming on HBO Max through August 31, 2021.