(For those of you who don’t want to read this review for fear of spoilers, I promise you that I only spoil one scene, and it’s for your own good.)
When Ridley Scott told interviewers that “Prometheus” contains the DNA of “Alien” (1979 dir. Scott), he was being literal. “Prometheus” opens with a sequence that starts large and ends in the micro, watching the DNA from a humanoid alien being break apart, mutate, and reform as thousands of human zygotes. If this sounds to you like an improbable start for an “Alien” prequel, well, this isn’t the movie you were expecting. But how well does “Prometheus” stand in the looming shadow of its predecessor?
“Alien” is one of the greatest science fiction films of the 20th century. It is a seminal classic that defined the genre and elevated horror and scifi. Even 33 years later, its influence can be felt. On its surface, “Alien” is a classic “monster in the haunted house” story, but the distinct characters, lack of a clear protagonist until the final act, meticulous production design, as well as the iconic chestburster scene all speak to a deeper complexity. This may be a movie that, as Ridley Scott grumbles, was just supposed to be scary, but in order to be truly effective, horror movies have to plumb our deepest fears and ask questions we cannot answer.
“Prometheus,” is less a horror film and more an epic. Screenwriter Damon Lindelhof was one of the writers of “Lost,” so his specialty is asking large questions, making lots of allusions to other work, and giving unsatisfactory answers. In an effort to pay homage to but expand upon “Alien,” “Prometheus” plays the Opposites Game: where Alien was claustrophobic, “Prometheus” is cavernous, where “Alien” was quiet, Prometheus booms a full score. Plot arcs are set in deliberate contrast as well: the crew of the Nostromo unwittingly stumble across the Alien cavern and the horrors it holds, but Elizabeth Shaw and the crew of “Prometheus” go searching for their destruction. Monsters are different but feel familiar, and the audience gets a very graphic answer to the chestburster.
Now, I am going to devote the rest of this review to telling you why you should not see this movie if you are squeamish and/or female, unless you’re one of the “Alien”-happy academics. The single most terrifying scene of “Prometheus” is an homage to the Alien chestburster, which would be fantastic if it didn’t make me want to get my tubes tied. Quick review: The chestburster scene in “Alien” preys on the male fear of rape and childbirth (typically female experiences) when Kane gets face-raped by a facehugger and has a baby alien shoot through his sternum. Plus, the fully grown xenomorph is phallic. It looks like a giant evil penis with spikes, and it kills people by penetrating them. Subtle it is not. It is, however, completely terrifying.
Now, whereas the chestburster was phallic and preyed on a man, the gestating alien in “Prometheus” makes every single woman in the audience decide to put off childbirth for a few more decades. Protagonist Elizabeth Shaw, previously infertile, is unwittingly impregnated by her infected husband. When the fetus of doom begins to devour her from the inside, she climbs into a medical pod and programs it to do a crude C-Section. The thing it pulls out of her is absolutely horrific – a white squid-thing which once born immediately tries to attack her in the confined space of the pod. If you’re not clear on how this is a specifically female-unfriendly moment, let me put it this way: a foreign lifeform invades your body, feeds off of you, and bursts out in gore with possibly fatal consequences. That’s normal childbirth. Add some tentacles to that situation and you have this scene. Shaw escapes, but when the grotesque attacks later, the audience gets a glimpse of its circles of sideways mouths that look a lot like vaginas. (Opposites Game: Phallic Xenomorph, yonicCthulhu-Baby of Dread). Unfortunately, as it is one monster among many, the thematic significance of the squid-baby-thing-that-will-haunt-my-nightmares is buried under the cumbersome weight of the rest of the film.
So, will “Prometheus” stand the test of time? Will it become the classic its predecessor was? Well, no. “Prometheus” reaches far and asks many questions (which I won’t spoil since some of you are still going to go see this movie even though I warned you), but in the process the film stretches itself too far and begins to collapse under its own weight. Too many subplots (androids with feelings, spurned children, the origin of man), too many monsters (I counted 5, there are probably more), too many threads that go nowhere (why did they reference “Lawrence of Arabia” so many times?). The horrific birth scene will probably start topping the List Of Horrific Movie Pregnancies above “Rosemary’s Baby” and possibly “Breaking Dawn,” but the rest of the film is too unfocused. And, unlike “Alien,” Prometheus over-explains itself and its universe, rather than letting the audience draw its own inferences and conclusions. When a movie tells you exactly what to think of it, what is there to uncover? As one character says, big things have small beginnings, but “Prometheus,” the big film that grew out of a small horror movie, may be too big for its own good.