Prometheus Decoded: Connecting Ridley Scott’s Dots (in Three Minutes or Less)

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Twentieth Century Fox

A stunning star field fills a cavernous alien spaceship.

(Warning: Major, epic, devastating spoilers throughout)

Prometheus weekend came and went, but the speculation rages on. I first saw the film nearly two weeks ago, and was left stunned by the post-film deliberation among critics that broke out at the Times Square movie theater. The next day, I interviewed screenwriter Damon Lindelof (he sheds some light on the film’s secrets here), and he described a very similar post-premiere scene at his London theater. And I’ve heard from other friends across the country that the debate was alive and well at screenings both Friday and Saturday, among Alien fans trying to connect all of Ridley Scott’s dots.

Now I’m not presuming to have all the answers (for a more thorough, expert take, see Richard Corliss’ comprehensive review or Jeffrey Kluger’s analysis of the science behind Prometheus), but here is the analysis I pitched in, during the great New York Critics Prometheus Debate of 2012: Obviously this is an Alien prequel – regardless of what the movie studio may be claiming — and the most interesting plot points in Prometheus do indeed stem from the through-line of the franchise. In other words: How does this piece of the Alien puzzle connect to the other films in the franchise?

Warning, major spoilers ahead: The film opens with an alien standing above a waterfall. (Maybe to keep things straight later, we’ll call his/her species ETs). A spaceship is taking off in the background, clearly leaving this ET behind. He’s the chap who must have signed up to be the “engineer,” agreeing to sacrifice his life in order to fuel an entirely new civilization. He drinks his mysterious substance, self-destructs, and his DNA is injected into Earth’s ecosystem. All life as we know it derives from that sacrifice.

(MORE: See TIME’s complete Prometheus coverage)

It’s a powerful prologue — and also one that doesn’t deviate all that far from the current scientific debate about what brought life to the planet (see Jeffrey Kluger’s full breakdown of the science in Prometheus). From here, let’s jump forward to the mystery planet: When the Prometheus crew lands, everything appears to be dead or dormant — a vast series of deserted caverns and creepy cargo holds. David, the resident robot, has been programmed to assess these discoveries with only one objective in mind: How might these futuristic beings, and their futuristic technologies, be harnessed and utilized to aid his maker — the dying Mr. Weyland.

This is why David extracts, analyzes and manipulates the metallic orbs found in the cargo holds, why he drops a bit of the black goo into Charlie’s drink. David is trying to do anything — everything — to these precious alien artifacts to resurrect mankind’s ancestors. It is here where David utters the memorable line “big things have small beginnings,” and indeed the entire Alien universe as we know it can be traced back to this singling decision — the mingling of this exotic DNA with human DNA.

Now this black ooze is not the alien life-force as we’ve come to know it in other Alien movies. This black substance is essentially a biological weapon. A weapon of mass destruction. For some reason, which (beautifully enough) is left as a mystery in Prometheus, the ETs who created humans, and gave sentient life to Earth, later decided to return to our solar system to kill us off. These metal orbs, and the black ooze inside, is the weapon they designed. They were created to exterminate us. And in the many holographic flashbacks that we watch, it appears as if the weapons activated early and killed all the ETs by mistake.

David, though, lets that cat out of the bag. He helps Charlie to consume the weapon and, sure enough, the weapon destroys the human. Just as designed. David is delighted, though, to find that Charlie had sex with Elizabeth during his infection, resulting in a mutation: A fetus derived of both human and weaponized DNA. In the film’s most gruesome, but absolutely essential scene, Elizabeth extracts the mutant fetus (never thought I’d get to write that phrase). She initially thinks she’s killed the creature, but it continues to grow and thrive outside our view.

(MORE: Prometheus, Before Watchmen and the Tricky Art of the Prequel)

Meanwhile back on the alien warship, David is waking up the mummified ETs, eager to introduce them to his boss. When the pilot awakens, he picks right up where he left off — plotting to blast off from this barren planet, carrying his payload right into the heart of our solar system. For this planet is not his home; as other characters carefully describe, this is just a forward operating base. A planet where weapons can be built and tested.

As Elizabeth pieces the puzzle together, she realizes what’s at stake: Her crew has traveled across the universe only to reawaken the sleeping enemy. She tells Janek that he has to scuttle Prometheus, and destroy the alien craft, before it can take off. Which he does, killing all the humans onboard.

At this point in the tale, only five creatures still exist: Corporate lackey Meredith Vickers, scientist Elizabeth Shaw, the wounded ET pilot, the mutant fetus, and David’s severed robotic head, still functioning apart from his torso. The crashing warship kills Meredith. Then Elizabeth flees the escape pod, ensuring that the mutant fetus leaches onto the body of the ET pilot. The closing shot of the film witnesses the end result of this altercation: The birth of the alien creature, as we know it in Alien —  an ultra mutation, derived from an ET body and a human DNA-weaponized DNA fetus. An entirely new life form, that will systematically lay eggs across the planet’s surface and multiply, until Nostromo arrives years later with Sigourney Weaver onboard. (Update, 9:20 am: A trusted colleague has informed me that I have this all wrong — that Nostromo lands on a different planet, one which apparently has another of these ET ships sitting around. I think I’ll need to go back and watch Alien again tonight, and see which planet they refer to, in the opening discussions. But assuming he’s right, and I’m wrong, this is a pretty wild plot twist in and of itself. How did these alien mutants manage to spread across the universe? I feel a sequel coming on)

David, partly in a bid to save himself and partly because he finds Elizabeth a curiosity, lets her in on some of his observations: Yes, there are indeed other alien ships here, and he knows how to fly them. He suggests going back to Earth, and she says she wants to find the ET home world. So they take flight, going who knows where (cough, sequel!), leaving the planet to the ultra mutant. The era of the Alien begins.

Or anyway that’s the way I read Prometheus — until I see it a second (or possibly third) time. How did you guys solve the riddle? Agree with this assessment? Where have I been led astray?

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.