More questions than answers. The old cliche has never been so widely felt than in the minds of “Prometheus” moviegoers emerging from the darkness of their local theater. In many ways, this was exactly the intent of director Ridley Scott and scriptwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. It’s not simply a postmodern urge to provide randomness; the ambiguity that engages the audience at the deepest level has been a goal of thought-provoking filmmakers throughout movie history (as well as, intentionally or not, some notably bad filmmakers as well).
Still, it can be pretty frustrating when the credits start to roll and you’re thinking “what?” There’s a definite tendency to feel cheated, manipulated, and unsatisfied. Let’s examine some of the bigger questions, both about the narrative itself and about the status of the film. I don’t promise any answers, but hopefully I’ll at least avoid creating more questions.
1. Why “Prometheus?”
Quick mythology lesson: Prometheus was a Titan who stole the fire of the gods to give to humans. The character became a symbol for human potential, especially scientific endeavors, but there was always the sense that such things could go terribly wrong… like when Zeus got mad at Prometheus and chained him to a rock with a bird picking out his guts for all eternity (Zeus really didn’t want us to have fire, I guess). The idea of Prometheus symbolizing science gone too far was cemented by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.”
2. What’s up with Lawrence of Arabia?
That’s an easy one. David empathizes with Peter O’Toole being the “lone white man among the natives,” apart and yet essential, superior in cultivation but lacking a necessary element that is possessed naturally by everyone around him. If this brings to mind “Blade Runner’s” aesthetically contemplative Roy Batty, it’s no mistake; Fassbender studied Rutger Hauer’s performance to prepare for Prometheus.
3. What’s up with the “black goo”?
Hmm, it’s a substance which possesses some unpredictable combination of poisonous, evolutionary, disintegrating and/or zombifying effects. There are parallels all over movie history, from Magneto’s mutagenic rays in the first installment of the “X-Men” trilogy to the time-traveling zombie juice of John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness.” You could even make a case for the alien Macguffins of “Repo Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The chief mystery is why the opening-sequence Engineer drank black goo to disintegrate (no monsterisms!), and who among the characters had secret info and motivations concerning the black goo.
4. What’s up with David’s conversation with the Engineer?
Something that was said got the Engineer all riled up, but nobody really knows what it is… except Ridley Scott, and he refuses to pass along the translation. I think we can rule out “I come in peace” or “yo momma so ugly”, but I’m at a loss to speculate further. Take one inscrutable android and one unknown language, and it could have been just about anything.
5. Why jump in with all guns a ‘blazing?
You just spent how long in stasis, crossing how many light-years of space, on your way to the distant moon of LV-223? Now that you’ve arrived, I’ve got a good idea! How about you land next to the biggest alien artifact you can find and barge in the front door? Who needs caution or restraint in the depths of space? One thing that movie clichés have taught me is this course of action never ends well for the landing party. Perhaps in the year 2093 there are no longer any more horror movies for our protagonists to learn from?
6. Why did the Engineers create us, and why do they now want us destroyed?
There’s reason to agree with “because they could” for both questions. The film doesn’t shy away from proposing that perhaps neither creation nor destruction requires a grand design or philosophical meaning. Like David, the Engineers may have been nothing more (or less) than devoted experimenters, trying to come to grips with the cosmos and themselves by messing around with anything they could find or make.
7. Did the Engineers really want us to find them?
Leaving traces and symbols is not necessarily an invitation. There’s a recurring theme in sci-fi about piecing together genetic puzzles and archaeological clues to lead to some sort of welcome or reunion, whether it’s “Close Encounters,” “Contact,” or “Star Trek TNG.” But conflating a loving god with an advanced alien progenitor isn’t a necessary an equation. What if the parents aren’t that keen on meeting their children? Maybe humans were a disappointment, or at least an experiment that the Engineers would prefer to forget.
8. Will there be a sequel?
Maybe, tending toward “probably” with all of the available evidence. Success at the box office is usually good enough to motivate a sequel, even for movies that are far more self-contained than “Prometheus.” From the beginning, the script was written as the first part of a two-part story, intentionally left open-ended and with two characters (Shaw and David) in a perfect position to continue to another chapter. Scott has stated for the record that there will be a sequel “If we’re lucky.” Lindelof has mentioned a few times that he and Scott made sure to leave the plot open enough to develop a sequel, but also that he isn’t committed to writing it.
9. Will the sequel tie Prometheus to “Alien?”
Probably not. On one hand, Scott has stated clearly that the two storylines are in the same narrative universe, that they “share DNA,” and that the original concept was meant to be a prequel. However, he also clearly stated that he later decided to specifically avoid making a prequel and concentrate on creating new ideas. Lindelof added that a Prometheus sequel would go even further away (“tangentialize”) from “Alien.” The only wild card is how much control Scott would end up having — after all, James Cameron took Aliens to places that Scott hadn’t necessarily intended (or desired). And the later installments of the original series prove that nobody can deny the appeal of more Aliens, even at the expense of making a good movie.
10. If they wanted David to appear human, why cast Michael Fassbender?
Mostly kidding here, as Fassbender’s performance was one of the highlights of the film. But come on… if you want audiences to be surprised when a character goes insane, don’t cast Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, or Jeffrey Combs. Lance Henriksen was effective in “Alien” because you couldn’t imagine ever making an android that looked so humanly flawed and weatherbeaten compared to the original, Henriksen was closer to Harry Dean Stanton than Ian Holm.
Does “Prometheus” lead you to ponder the mysterious and potentially unanswerable paradoxes of creation and meaning in life? Or is it simply a sly ploy to get you excited about a sequel… despite suspecting, with good reason that another installment will provide even more questions for each answer it delivers? If there is a circle of hell devoted to answering a question with a question, will Ridley Scott meet me there?
Greg Buckskin is a writer for CableTV.com. He loves writing about science fiction, movies and pop culture.