The Missionary Position

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Most critics have regarded Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in much the same way that Arthur Miller probably thought of Marilyn Monroe—gorgeous, but intellectually way out of her depth. No one denies the film’s visual glory, which begins the moment a giant chalk-white alien strides out into the Icelandic wasteland, guzzles some gunk from a can, and splits open to release thousands of wriggling worm-like DNA strands into a waterfall. But when it comes to metaphysical coherence, the critical consensus is that Prometheus has nothing to offer. “There are no revelations,” the New York Times opines, “only what are called, in the cynical jargon of commercial storytelling, ‘reveals,’ bits of momentarily surprising information bereft of meaning or resonance.” In its refusal to offer an adequate accounting of the universe and our place in it, the film can even be accused of anti-intellectualism. “We were never really in the realm of working out logical solutions to difficult problems,” Geoffrey O’Brien complains in the New York Review of Books, just a “cauldron” of “juicily irrational ingredients.”

But Prometheus does have a clear-cut metaphysical proposition to offer, one so terrible as to be almost inadmissible. Consider the basic plot, minus the many alien invasions of human flesh, the references to corporate greed and alien WMDs, and the enigma of the devious HAL-like android: Guided by archeological clues found in prehistoric rock art, a group of humans set out on a trillion-dollar expedition to visit the planet (actually a moon) that the giant white alien came from. There, among innumerable horrors, since under its bleak surface this moon seems to be a breeding ground for lethal predators of the dark and squirmy variety, they find a cryogenically preserved clone or sibling of that original alien “creator” who seeded earth with DNA. The humans foolishly awaken him, perhaps expecting some sort of seminar on the purpose of life. Instead, the alien starts knocking heads off and strides away to resume his pre-nap project of traveling to and destroying the planet earth. This, and not the DIY abortion of a squid-like alien fetus, is the emotional climax of the film, the point when Noomi Rapace screams at the homicidal alien, “I need to know why! What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?”

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