Prometheus is the most libertarian of the Greek gods. His name has been used to signify choice and accountability in such stories as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus”; her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”; Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” in which the protagonist renames himself Prometheus; and even the web address of Liberty magazine, libertyunbound.
In the story, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, both Titans, are given the task of creating man and endowing him with gifts. The animals are created first, and Epimetheus is a bit too generous, bestowing all the talents and skills (courage to the lion, strength to the ox, cunning to the fox, sagacity to the owl) before man comes along. What to do about this blunder? With the aid of Athena, Prometheus flies up to the sun and steals a bit of fire, bringing it back as a gift to man.
This gift would truly set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. With fire they could warm their houses, cook their food, forge tools to cultivate the earth, create art and musical instruments, and coin money to make commerce and wealth possible. They could also make weapons of defense. In short, they could become independent and self-reliant. But eventually those weapons of defense would become weapons of war, bringing such wickedness to the earth that Zeus would be compelled to destroy it with a flood and start all over again with a new founding family.
Zeus and the other gods, whose power comes from the adulation of humans, are not happy. As a punishment, the gods do two things. First, they form a woman named Pandora and give her to Epimetheus, along with a box from which Pandora releases sorrows and misfortunes into the world, misfortunes that will cause humans to turn to the gods for help. Second, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock, where an eagle comes each day to eat his liver. The liver grows back overnight, only to be eaten again.
It is helpful, though not entirely necessary, to know this background when seeing Prometheus, the long anticipated prequel to the “Alien” (1979) / “Aliens” (1986) / “Alien3″ (1992) / “Alien Resurrection” (1997) quadrilogy. Those films put Sigourney Weaver on the map as one tough mama and opened the casting door to women to become Hollywood action heroes. While the film does not adhere slavishly to the myth, there are enough allusions to make it satisfying intellectually even though it is mostly a science fiction thriller.
As “Prometheus” opens, the camera pans along what appears to be primordial Earth: uncultivated shrubbery emerges from rich, black, volcanic rock as water pours through fissures in canyon walls. The camera pans up to a gigantic waterfall that seems to be the source of life itself. (Iceland, I must say, provides the perfect location for a pre-human Eden!) At the top of the falls sits a man-like being. In his hand he holds a black and red substance. He hesitates with what appears to be a look of sorrow, and then he eats the substance. His body changes—veins appear in his skin—he seems to become mortal–then he crumbles and falls, as his DNA spills like atoms into the water. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Persephone banished to Hades for eating the forbidden pomegranate seed, Adam becoming mortal in the day he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and Prometheus suffering eternal punishment for bringing life-giving fire to mankind. “Adam fell, that men might be” (2 Nephi 2:25), I thought, as the being fell, literally, into the waterfall. Powerful.
The rest of the film is a satisfying return to the Alien franchise, with all the expected elements. Aliens burst from stomachs (note the allusion to liver-eating here…). Wise-cracking rocket drivers crack their last laugh. Space scientists hide from monsters in darkened shafts. And one strong, independent woman does her best to save the day. This time, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall) have discovered evidence of the origin of earth life—and it isn’t evolutionary amoebas. They believe they can trace the path of that original goo-eating Earth visitor back to his planet of origin, and there discover important truths about humankind.
What they find relates to the second part of the Prometheus myth—Zeus’s decision to destroy Earth’s war-mongering civilization. The space travelers discover that aliens have been stockpiling gallons of the goo as a weapon of epic destruction, and their navigation system is targeting Earth. They have simply been waiting for humans to become smart enough to reach the founder gods, Prometheus style, and bingo—lift off. Once again, Earth’s safety lies in the hands of a feisty, self-reliant, courageous, and in this case quasi-religious woman–Elizabeth is a crucifix-wearing Catholic who isn’t quite sure what that means.
Even with a slew of stomach-ripping aliens on hand, no modern blockbuster would be complete without a cold, heartless, corporate rep. “Prometheus” supplies two of them, in the guise of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and her boss, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who is funding this mission not for its potential contribution to science or humankind, but for selfish personal reasons. Of course. (Interestingly, Weyland’s company logo is a triangle, perhaps suggesting the Trinity. That would go along with Elizabeth’s crucifix.) Unfortunately, the always wonderful Guy Pearce is wasted here under pounds of age-creating prosthetics; if they wanted an old man in his role, why not simply hire an old man to play it? Unless flashbacks have been planned for the next installment of this prequel, there was absolutely no reason for this casting. As for Theron—she plays the cool queen magnificently.
The true stars of this film are Michael Fassbender as David, the lifelike robot servant of the crew, whose name suggests that either a Goliath slayer or a Messianic king (or both) is coming somewhere along the way of this new trilogy; and Rapace, who steps into Sigourney Weaver’s moonboots with a fierce determination and a welcome softness. She will do well as the new Eve, if that is where this trilogy is headed.
“Prometheus,” directed by Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2012, 124 minutes.