Astronomical expectations for Prometheus were inevitable. Because, come on, not only did the film mark Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise after thirty-three years, but he was specifically returning to make a movie set chronologically before Alien. Scott could hem and haw all he wanted about Prometheus not being a prequel, to varying degrees we all had expectations for what potential answers we’d be given to explain the xenomorphs, the Space Jockey, and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
While struggling ‐ like many of us ‐ with the taste of disappointment the movie left behind, an idea struck me: Prometheus, as it turns out, knows exactly what it’s dealing with. It’s no accident that the film’s narrative revolves around its central characters seeking answers to questions of origins.
Peel away at its corners and it reveals itself to be an inversion of the traditional fan/movie relationship: Prometheus is all about its answer-expecting audience and what it wants and expects from them.
The film anticipates that fans will be disappointed by its courting of ambiguity over clear answers to both new and old questions. Throughout its subtext, Prometheus suggests why that response is wrong, and how it wants an audience that isn’t entitled, one that doesn’t demand answers, but one that’s open-minded and otherwise unshackled by expectations. That kind of audience is willing to search. What might seem like a complicated mess full of plot holes and unanswered questions, proves to be something more complex below the surface: a one-way exchange with fans, commenting on their range of attitudes, and labeling the right and wrong ones.
As such, dear audience, Prometheus is about you.
How to Watch Prometheus (According to Ridley Scott The Engineer)
The prologue of Prometheus serves as an immediate message to audiences on how to view the film as it is, not as an Alien prequel, and to adjust their expectations accordingly. It accomplishes that through The Engineer. In the same way the prologue’s Engineer has been sent to deliver life to the planet in question, he has also been sent to the screen by Ridley Scott to deliver his message. But Scott is not doing that through the prologue’s Engineer, he’s doing it as The Engineer.
Consider the opening’s giant albino: he is a creator who produces the primordial pool that forms mankind’s DNA by literally putting himself into it. Consider Ridley Scott: he is a creator who engineered the primordial pool that forms the Alien franchise’s fundamental DNA by also (less literally, more creatively) putting himself into it. Now consider their respective actions: The Engineer abandons his existence to give life to something new that nonetheless has a shared foundation. With Prometheus, Scott abandons his close association with Alien to give life to a new film that nonetheless shares its universe. It’s in that symbolic parallel where Scott’s message about how to watch Prometheus emerges.
Scott is not just aware of the expectations an Alien predecessor carries with it, but how his attachment fuels that. In the prologue the director has positioned himself synonymously with The Engineer to announce himself to the audience (The Engineer’s dramatic disrobing has a “Here I am” gesture to it) and acknowledge his role as the franchise’s initiator. But he does only so he can then symbolically morph himself into its destructor. David says, “sometimes to create one must destroy first,” and through the narrative act of the Engineer destroying his body, Scott is announcing an instruction: Whatever expectations you have because I’m involved with this, destroy them.
For all intents and purposes, the director of Alien is not the director of Prometheus (note how Scott’s surrogate dissolves into atoms, which then quickly reform to literally turn into the movie’s main title). Most importantly, it’s a visual declaration of what Scott has been saying for months in interviews and many refused to believe: Prometheus is not an Alien prequel/movie. He is confronting expectations because he wants to make clear that those looking for a traditional Alien prequel with obvious answers to its mysteries are expecting the wrong thing.
How to Be the Wrong Audience: Charlie Holloway
Prometheus anticipates the prologue’s warning won’t be enough, so it goes on to portray its potential audiences and their reactions. Charlie Holloway is Prometheus’ representation of one of the types of enthusiastic fan it will contend with. Like many, Holloway is excited to be on board “Prometheus” and finally get the answers he’s waited years for, directly from the source; his unrestrained whooping on the approach to the ship site mirrors a fan’s excitement leading up to the film’s release and screening.
Holloway is also a representation of the type of fan Prometheus doesn’t want: not open-minded so much as open-handed. He is consumed by a self-entitled expectation of answers, actually referring to them as Christmas presents he wants to open. He wants unearned presents, not earned rewards. Whether it involves the initial discovery of the cave painting, the first reconnaissance mission, or the autopsy of the Engineer head, Charlie never actually does anything to process the mysterious questions around him and glean answers for himself. He is a passive participant, much like a passive audience Prometheus makes clear it doesn’t want: awaiting answers not only to Alien’s mysteries, but Prometheus’ additional ones without any willingness to engage.
Holloway’s entitled expectations inevitably turn to resentful disappointment the moment he walks into the Ampule Chamber. The scene presents two paths for Holloway: open his mind to investigate the mysteries revealed there, or immediately close it in the wake of no immediate answers. They are the same two paths presented to audiences in that moment, because for many that was the scene to expect Prometheus to start revealing what was up its sleeve. Holloway chooses the second path, and ‐ without any significant exploration ‐ almost immediately begins to pout at the lack of instant clarification. It’s not long after that the film rolls out its symbolic example-setting punishment of him that reflects Prometheus’ attitude towards fans who choose the same path.
It’s interesting to note how the means of Charlie’s demise is introduced to him after his first drunken confession (he tells David he just wanted to “meet our makers, get answers”). It’s also telling that we first see the effects shortly after he expresses this sentiment again (he tells Shaw he just “wanted to talk to them … just [wanted] answers”). It reinforces Prometheus’ message that the attitudes Holloway presents are not the ones it wants from its fans.
What else can his poisoning mean? That he’s infected with a substance discovered by those who actually explored and considered; that the “murder weapon” is the primordial goo that creates the xenomorphs, representing a symbolic force feeding off “the answers” to Alien fans via a Holloway surrogate; or that Holloway is killed by the probing act of a curious David experimenting to see what answers are revealed.
Most likely it’s simpler than that. Shortly before poisoning him, David asks Holloway what would he be willing to do and how far would he go to get the answers he wants. Holloway responds, saying “anything and everything.” It’s a lie that covers up how he really behaves, how he’s not the audience Prometheus wants, and he is punished for both.
How to Be the Right Audience: Elizabeth Shaw
Elizabeth Shaw is the sole survivor of Prometheus narrative because she earns it by being everything Charlie Holloway isn’t. She is the film’s ideal for a true willing fan. She is constantly exploring and working for answers ‐ not passively expectant. She actively engages in the mysteriousness around her.
She investigates the cave paintings without Holloway, she takes the carbon reader from him so she can investigate the Ampule Chamber and probe it not for direct answers, but ones to consider. She actually does extract answers for herself through The Engineer’s decapitated head after failed (head bursting) and successful exploration (DNA testing).
Unlike Holloway and disappointed fans, Shaw is happy with the information she gets. When Charlie is disgruntled by the lack of revelations in the Ampule Chamber, she instead marvels that “We found them.” When Shaw tells him about the DNA link to the Engineers, and he still complains about not getting the answers he wanted, she enthusiastically insists “we did find what we came for.” Even then she still believes there are more answers to be found, more explanations to be gleamed, something that’s symbolically represented by her unwillingness to abandon her cross. It’s a stand-in for her faith in finding more, but also a stand-in for a fan’s faith that Prometheus would allow for more mysteries to probe.
Peter Weyland (the second example of a punished “bad audience” surrogate), accuses Shaw of having lost her faith, because she insists she was wrong about The Engineers and what the planet is. Prometheus believes she hasn’t done that all. Weyland (like Holloway) continues to hold on to his rigid expectations, incapable of adapting to anything else. Shaw has let go of what she thought she would find, and continues to reconsider, re-contextualize, and believe there’s more answers to be found. Most of all, she has the kind of faith Prometheus wants from its audience which is why the film protects her. It’s why the final line of the film is hers, and why that line is the profoundly simple, “I am still searching.”
In the movie’s mind, that’s what all audiences should be doing.
The Best Way To Walk Away From Prometheus
None of this means you have to like Prometheus. This isn’t meant to be a defense of the quality of Prometheus, or a judgment on those whose expectations were disappointed (mine were too). It’s not even a judgment of whether Prometheus is right to have these expectations of its audiences.
The aim was simply to expose the film’s curious subtext that leverages its characters to anticipate its own viewers’ reactions and to present ideals for what kind of audiences Scott wants for the movie. If you don’t fit its “good audience” mold, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong if you thought the film was one giant mess of disappointing failure. Though it seems Prometheus even slyly anticipates a way to cope for those of us who thought that.
Many might find agreement with Weyland’s dying words (“There’s nothing”) but it seems like the film’s actual comfort is an offering up advice from Lawrence of Arabia: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
If that’s not good enough, there’s always Fifield’s line that could explain the film’s feeling about you: “I’m not here to be your friend. I’m here to make money.”
What do you think?
Related Topics: Prometheus