06/09/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

Can Prometheus Help Us Understand Ourselves?

Prometheus is out. Duh. This is the fifth installment in the Alien series -- a prequel that takes place around the end of the 21st century. The date actually doesn't seem that far away and, with new medical advances being made every year, I wonder how many of today's audience members will get to see the end of the century and check off what Ridley Scott and the filmmakers got right and what they didn't.

Of course accuracy is not the point of the film, and the specific date is a somewhat arbitrary symbol for "the not too distant future," in the same way that George Orwell's 1984, written in the year 1949, was about where things were headed, not how they would actually be. Obviously, we are not all chatting in Newspeak or laboring under the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. But if Orwell didn't nail the details, did he capture the larger picture? And, come to think of it, maybe he got the details too.

Is Prometheus trying to make a statement or is it just a bit of entertainment? I'm pretty sure that the studio and filmmakers wouldn't mind making their money back, but let's assume that they are also using the sci-fi genre to say something about who we are and how we define ourselves as humans.

Nana, Iris and I spent the night working in the warehouse district of New Orleans, slept until noon, then went straight to Canal Place to catch the first showing of Prometheus. Nana had worked on the film -- she styled Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace's hair -- and had spent the previous week away from me on a press tour for the movie. So she'd already seen the film at the premiere, but she wanted to hear what we thought about it. Iris bought the tickets the night before and, strangely, didn't opt for a 3D screening. Thankfully, we were at the Canal Theater, so the ladies ordered a cheese pizza, sparkling water and popcorn, and that made the experience a little more exciting.

The film is gorgeous and has a great pace. The images flow seamlessly and naturally, as if they were meant to be. What I mean is that this film -- like the first installment in the series, Alien (the only other one directed by Ridley) -- has resonance beyond the story of the particular characters within the given piece. The film takes on the stature of mythology; no wonder it's named after a Greek Titan. Prometheus does so many things at once: it raises questions about our origins, it offers a portrait of where me might be heading, it starts to define the qualities that make us human as opposed to machine or alien, and it entertains with elements borrowed from horror and science fiction.

After the credits rolled, Nana asked what I thought. I told her the hair was very good -- in fact, the scene introducing Fassbender's robot character, showing how he styles his hair after Lawrence of Arabia, is one of the best sequences in the film. Then I remarked on how the film's structure closely follows those of the first two films in the Alien series: our protagonists wake up after years of interplanetary travel, they find themselves on a foreign planet, they explore the new terrain, they are infected by the local alien species, they bring their infected bodies back to the ship, they fight to the death. So Ridley Scott didn't do much to alter the storytelling structure, which may explain why some people have criticized the lack of surprise or development in the film. And jumping off topic for two seconds, I wonder why none of the characters know each other when they wake up; they just got on the ship and went into two years of hibernation without meeting their fellow explorers? It's only an issue because the jockeying for authority becomes a big issue later. You'd think that all of that would be sorted out before they left earth. But anyway, I guess the characters meeting each other for the first time on the ship helps the filmmakers introduce them to the audience. So, back to the familiar aspects: even the character of the robot-helper-turned-insidious-antagonist is familiar from Ian Holm's masterful performance in the original -- and of course they needed to try to top the alien-in-the-stomach scene. But I don't think the repetition is necessarily a bad thing; in fact, maybe it's exactly what we want. The early books in the Harry Potter series follow a pattern, too: the kids go to school, they encounter a strange new teacher, they save the day. And the Star Trek series is based on the pattern of explore, confront and contain. These are variations on a theme, and in this film, the themes are expanded to include questions about our origins.

Nana started talking about how the next step for science is to include a spiritual dimension to the inquiry. Although her comments were very general, and a bit confusing, I could see where she was going, because the film does try to create an origin story that is both scientific and metaphysical. The problem is that it doesn't really square with our understanding of natural selection and evolution. There is an interesting prologue that is supposed to explain how the aliens could be our creators: they came to our planet and melted one of their own so that his DNA entered the water. And from this, I guess we can assume that the process we understand as evolution took place? Seems a bit funny that the engineers, as the aliens are called, wouldn't just inhabit the planet as themselves. Why boil themselves down into bacteria in the water? And it is also a bit strange to imagine that we descended from these creepy humanoids (they look like pale, hairless body builders) and then evolved over the course of millions of years to become humans. I guess this is a scientific explanation for a god-like figure making us in his image, but it is all a bit mixed up. I don't know much about Scientology except for the abridged version I saw on South Park, but the origin story in Prometheus reminded me of that. That said, I'm the first to acknowledge that the film doesn't need to be religiously or scientifically sound; it just needs to tell a good story, and it more or less does.

The other large theme in the film concerns our definition of humanity. For centuries, we have defined ourselves as different than animals because of our superior intelligence -- and the corresponding idea that we have souls. But now, with robots and computers with artificial intelligence rising in our midst, films like Prometheus -- and books like Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- are starting to question what truly separates us from machines that may in fact be smarter than we are. Fassbender's robot character is cool, charming and sinister. And he seems to have feelings, even if they have been programmed. What keeps this handsome figure from having a soul? What keeps the humans from wanting to have sex with him?

And, as Iris asked: In the beginning, when he is alone on the ship as it makes its way to the planet, entertaining himself while the humans hibernate in their pods, why doesn't he walk the lonely halls naked?

The big show stopper is meant to top the alien-out-of-the-stomach scene in Alien. It involves a bit of self-surgery on the part of one of the characters. I know a little something about faking the pain while performing in a scene like this. The acting is superb and the gore is satisfyingly disturbing. It reminded me of a liposuction procedure I happened to catch on cable late one night, or perhaps of Stan Brakhage's autopsy film, but with the added twist of having a foreign body devouring the patient from the inside. If anything, this film makes us aware of how delicate we are as humans. Our bodies are so intricate and vulnerable; our intelligence and ultimately our humanity is the only thing that distinguishes us; and in the face of an infinite universe, what do we have but our ties to each other? This last consideration makes me question one more aspect of the film: everyone wants to examine the unanswered questions about origins -- why the robot is so evil and how this story links to the later films -- but I wonder why every character in this film is such a dick. This is not a knock on the actors -- to a man and woman they were great, but with the exception of Idris Elba's captain character, they were horrible to each other. While this may be another comment about the competition that results from human enterprise, I'll say this: If I was ever exploring other planets, the only one of them I'd want around would be Idris.