Prometheus was the mythical Greek Titan who, contrary to the orders of Zeus, taught the human race to use fire. In western culture Prometheus and fire have come to symbolize the search for knowledge, especially dangerous knowledge. For his crime, Prometheus is chained to a rock for eternity, doomed to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle. The film Prometheus (2012; dir. Ridley Scott) uses this notion to frame a science fiction melodrama that is visually stunning and, in its operatic story of a search for our creators, flat and banal. Interesting characters there are in this film, primarily an android played by Michael Fassbinder (he idolizes T. E. Lawrence as played by Peter O'Toole in the David Lean film) and a woman scientist, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), half of a husband-wife team of scientists who discover strange skymaps at ancient archaeological sites all over the earth. Shaw and her husband interpret the maps as invitations from the alien creators to venture out into the galaxy to discover them. The logic of that assumption is unpersuasive to me, but the movie rests on it.
What the venturing scientists discover is an ancient scientific experiment gone wrong. The sequence of events is never quite clear, but at some point the alien creators decided to send the misbegotten results of their experiment to earth, apparently to get rid of them, but the creatures killed them before they could do so. The reason for wanting to destroy the planet where these same creators apparently spawned life that eventually led to humanity is never made clear either. Although explaining the backstory in too much detail would burden the film with unnecessary baggage, we could still benefit from some additional information as to how this big alien mess came about.
This search for dangerous knowledge in Prometheus is twofold: the earth scientists discover something far different from what they expected, just as the aliens created beings who turned and destroyed them. The earth scientists never get the answer to their questions about human origins—a good strategy on the director’s part. The answer to such questions in films such as this one are always going to be too speculative, too fanciful, to satisfy, or to live up to the need such questions contain. It’s better to be frustrated than hoodwinked.
Far more grand and epical in its ambitions than Scott's other science fiction film, Bladerunner, Prometheus never fully rises to embrace the grandeur of its creator's vision. Bladerunner was a far superior film, full of vision and human understanding, exploring basic questions about human identity and what the overreliance on technology might do to us. It was visually arresting too, but the strength of the narrative, and of its characters, made Bladerunner what it was. It soars while Prometheus falls flat.