[Spoilers galore.] Prometheus probably can’t be judged until they finish the story in the sequel. The negatives were pretty clear: monsters suspenselessly attacking characters too stupid to live. I mean, seriously, who approaches something that looks like an albino cobra as if it was a kitten? At least that one looked real for a moment. The other monsters, being almost entirely CGI, never frightened since they never seemed real at all (compare Carpenter’s Thing with the unfortunate re-remake recently for another example). Serious failures of realism, as to the science, the mission, the secondary characters, also distracted. For a trillion dollars (perhaps still a lot of money decades hence, despite current casualness about the federal deficit) the whole operation is remarkably haphazard and slipshod. The scientific team doesn’t even know why they are there until they are there? Rather than seeming an allusion to 2001, this just seemed like exceptionally poor planning. And given that they are looking for extraterrestrial life, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention paid to biohazard protocols. I suppose it is excessively fussy to complain that seeding a prebiotic Earth with human DNA, from which all life emerges, last but not least humans, who also have human DNA (which presumably all the nonhuman species also seeded from it do not) makes no sense. The characters mostly don’t make sense either (the captain’s willingness to die for a speculative hypothesis about what is going on, even if it is partly his own hypothesis, is simply not credible enough, and that of his two underlings, not credible at all). Only Elizabeth herself (and the robot David, ironically), seem real.
Despite all that, the film works. It’s clearly a kind of Rheingold for a much longer story, and Rheingold isn’t exactly stellar in the narrative tightness and plausibility department either. What is the story, then? It is a combination of two things. First, this is a dark parody of Contact, with Noomi Rapace in for far more grief and disappointment than Jodie Foster could have ever imagined: her quest for cosmic parental substitutes leads to the unfortunate discovery that they do indeed exist, and want her and her planet to suffer something awful. Second, it is an attempt to explore this Joban nightmare without smothering it in our excess of interest in the Judeo-Christian, by making the god interrogated a pagan: Zeus. He has not appeared yet, but he will. He has to.
Why? In order to maintain the film’s surprisingly tight use of Greek mythology. Why has no one mentioned this? Well, in part naming the ship Prometheus and having it be launched by a stereotypically self-assertive tycoon induces the assumption that the only work the word is doing is to invoke the promethean qualities of humanity. But this is really obtuse! The Engineers are so carefully drawn to resemble Greek Gods and Titans, that you would think someone would crack open their Bullfinch’s Mythology for a minute here. I’ll give you some hints: Prometheus created mankind. Prometheus stole something powerful from Zeus. Zeus punishes him with an unpleasant challenge to his bodily integrity. As the beneficiaries of the crime, we in turn are punished by a slew of evils (including diseases) that had been sealed in a jar: alas, a woman named Pandora opens it and unleashes these horrors upon us. And yet through her, there is hope. In short, the answer to her Joban question is one that can’t really arise within the Judeo-Christian tradition: the higher beings who determine our destiny, Gods and Titans, are divided amongst themselves. Some are friends and some are foes. So despite the more hum-drum inadequacies of the film, it is setting us up for a potentially quite satisfying theodicy, albeit a pagan one. Or as Vickers says, “A king has his time, and then he dies. It’s inevitable.” A moment’s reflection on the lineage from Uranus to Cronos to Zeus suggests that this is true even for the divine.
Refresher course here.