By the time Ridley Scott's film Prometheus was over, I could make sense of the beginning sequence, which takes place just after the credits, in which a hypertrophied humanoid with an ashen complexion and black eyes appears on the brink of a raging cataract. He (I'm guessing it's a guy - or else it's an incredibly buff girl) opens a vial containing a black liquid substance and pours it down his throat. Within seconds, he begins to convulse in apparent agony, while black streaks appear on his body and face. By the time he falls into the water, his body has begun to break apart. Under the water, his body breaks down all the way to his DNA chain.
This short scene is the movie's suggestion of the origin of life on earth, bringing to mind the words from Genesis, "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." But the memory of those words is about as close as the movie ever gets to any human mythology (never mind Darwinism). In the year 2089, researchers, played by Noomi Rapace (The Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Logan Marshall-Green, find cave drawings on the Scottish Isle of Skye (where else?) that include human-looking figures pointing at a group of orbs above them. The number and configuration of the orbs corresponds to similar depictions from several other ancient civilizations. In 2092 an expedition, financed by an old gazillionaire (making adjustments for inflation), sets out for a constellation in space that corresponds to the cave drawing.
Alien wasn't purely science fiction, although it was closer to it than James Cameron's moronic sequel.(1) (And Prometheus makes Cameron's Avatar look childish.) In 2122, an inter-galactic commercial vessel, the Nostromo, is drawn off-course to investigate a distress beacon from a planetoid. Travelling down to its surface, they discover an alien spacecraft (an identical-looking craft appears in Prometheus), its long-dead crew and a whole deck full of pod-like objects, one of which opens and releases a creature that looks like a cross between an octopus and a crab. The creature attacks one of the crew (John Hurt), attaching itself to his face . Crucially (to the plot anyway), his fellow crew members bring the injured man aboard the mother ship, against the objections of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
Prometheus seems like a prequel to Alien, but also another exploration, or revisitation of the themes and several scenes in the original. Scott said that his new film has "certain strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak". Visually, however, the differences between the two films are incredible. If the action of Prometheus occurs prior to that of Alien, why is the technology on display in the prequel so far in advance of its successor? It isn't simply a matter of budgets. And it has much more to do, I think, with the development of movie technology than the advancement of our understanding of space travel.
The IDEA behind Scott's re-visitation of Alien is one that has been making the rounds for decades - what if humans aren't earthlings but the progeny of ancient aliens? Finding this out, or believing that they've found it out, makes some people in Scott's account ask the all too human question, "Why?" If aliens created human beings, why did they do it?
Evidently, the two erstwhile researchers (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who are caught up in the quest to meet their maker never heard or heeded the advice Stephen Hawking gave last year, to be careful in our attempts to contact intelligent aliens, since they could possibly be so far in advance of our species that they would regard us as little more than vermin or, worse, as potential slaves or fodder.(2) Undeterred, the two take risks that seem incredible even to those familiar with science fiction films. Fools rush in where brave men would kill the suspense. The presence in the expedition of a sinisterly anodyne android (Michael Fassbaender) that is having a Peter O'Toole episode, complicates matters considerably.
To its credit, Prometheus addresses the issue of the existence of God more brazenly than any other science fiction movie. A dialogue exchange between Fassbaender (the android) and Marshall-Green is crucial, if utterly glib: "Have you ever thought why humans created us?" "Because they could, I guess." "What if God gave you the same answer?" The android has a hard time gaining the respect of the humans, despite his intellectual and survival advantages (he survives decapitation toward the end of the film). He, as a machine among distrustful creators, perhaps has no illusions about deities he needs to be divested of.
But when a member of the alien race is awakened from a multi-millennial sleep, he turns out to be a miserable disappointment as God.(3) There is only one conception of God that is free from philosophical problems - that God is not a loving father at all, but a cruel or, at best, indifferent creator. His obvious lack of attention to our mostly self-inflicted sufferings makes sense if God doesn't love us or doesn't care.
But what would Boethius say of Scott's alien creator? "If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?" I may not agree with such theological speculation, but I wouldn't just sweep it away with an ultimately silly science fiction movie.
Prometheus isn't the first science fiction movie that monkeys with evolution. 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested that human evolution was given a boost by alien visitors. By suggesting that the human race mightn't be as terrestrial as it thinks, is this an attempt to prepare us for our eventual migration away from earth? The chilling future that Prometheus shows us convinces me all the more of the truth in Robert Frost's lines,
Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.(4)
(1) The alien in Alien is what Hitchcock called a "McGuffin" - an unimportant element in (2) "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the native Americans.
(3) Scott's title suggests that the figure we see in the opening scene is an alien Prometheus, creating life on earth in an act of defiance.