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Prometheus: faith, tentacles and impregnation.(*Spoiler Alert*)

June 11, 2012

I saw Prometheus today and I’m still recovering. Its an exhausting ride. Initially I was afraid to see it. Like all passionate fans of Ridley Scott, Alien (and all those just praying, longing, hoping for One good sci fi movie, please gods!) I was desperate to see it, desperate to love it and terrified it would be more like the past decade or so of Ridley Scott i.e. slick, competent, visually gorgeous but ultimately disappointing and empty. (And lets not mention Robin Hood.) Well, I’m afraid to say I agree with many of the critics. The writing let the film down. Its memorable, fabulous, fucking terrifying, gross, better than almost all other sci fi out there, but not a true contribution to or reinvention of the genre in the way Alien or Blade Runner were. Perhaps we placed the bar too high? I mean those two films were not free of their faults. But this one…there are just too many things that grate the faithful viewer to ignore. The confounding and odd opening scene alone has sent fan discussion forums ablaze. When creation is an integral part of your film, you know there may be … trouble. The film certainly has its share of inconsistencies and lack of logic. But this also adds to the fun – and the parody potential.

Firstly the good stuff. The film is a respectful and satisfying link to the Aliens canon in several ways. It is definitely a prequel, hell it even references Blade Runner in some respects. (The whole ‘meeting one’s maker’ theme.) The film describes, in a semi-slapdash fashion, the evolution of the zenomorph we know and love – out of the ooze from an alien biological weapons experiment to its ‘birth’ out of the stomach of its maker.  The film expects a lot of scientific logic-jumping from its audience and luckily I know little about evolution; and I’m sure when one’s writing sci fi one can make things up, pretty much, but I Do know that I must Not overthink this one. It just won’t stand up to sustained scrutiny. Anyway, this aspect works well on the whole. Like the so-called scientists on the Prometheus, Alien fans want answers to the story of alien origins. And the filmmakers almost deliver them (just don’t fall into the trap of over-thinking the links, like why in this film was the space-jockey in his control seat – having presumably died in it when the iconic spacecraft crashed to the ground to be discovered by John Hurt and Co. – but in Alien his chest was burst?). Finally, the film is amusing and self-referential. There are so many moments where parts of the four films are evoked it just must be deliberate. Wittily so.

Several critics have complained that the second half of the film is flimsier than the first, when all goes to hell and ‘those things’ are ‘runnin’ around’ (Bill Paxton, where are you?). But I felt the horror elements were the most successful and the great cosmic questions got me down. Be that as it may, the film is a damn good suspense/horror film, and a fine addition to the other 4. In fact, it Must be seen in relation to the others. Its definitely better than the final two, even the Fincher one which I’ve grown to love (after I got over Ripley killing herself.)

I loved the acting, mostly. Like Aliens 3, I felt there were too many arbitrary smart-talking so-called cool characters, who were really there to get impregnated/taken over/die horrifically. This lot were an improvement on those identical-seeming prisoners in that film (except for the wonderful Charles Dance and scenery-chewing Charles S. Dutton) who one just felt were wise-cracking alien-fodder. (Even the poor rottweiler got more sympathy from me in that film than any of those men). But Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender were all great and believable futuristic people. Fabulous casting. I feel Fassbender in particular should get a nomination, an award for this. His careful, athletic gait; his creepy delicate concern, cups of tea and obsession with Lawrence of Arabia are some of the most memorable moments in this film. And Rapace is a fine, committed actress, she nails obsession. (She sure isn’t much of an archaeologist! I know some scientists, even some archaeologists, and Ive never met one like Shaw, or her hot, smug lover Charlie.)  But all of these perfectly good actors did not leave an iota of the impression the cast of Alien did. They barely come close to Jonesy the cat in terms of sympathy or memorability. And of course, it goes without saying its just not an Alien film without Sigourney Weaver and the film sorely misses her commending, competent heroism (I feel Theron’s character came closest to supplying leadership and verve). But Rapace is ultimately suitable because its a different sort of Alien film. In some respects its closer in tone to the Cameron director’s cut of Aliens than to Alien. The one where Ripley has a daughter and she is dead, and Ripley is called ‘Ellen’. Yes, that sentimental drivel. One can take Shaw going on about belief but Ripley? No way man. Ripley was all visceral, no-nonsense. She would have ‘nuked this site from orbit’ in the first half hour.

The visuals, well, they were ground-breaking. Not too much hyper-real CGI; very textural, realistic. Immersive. I can’t add much to the superlatives already directed at this aspect of the film. The ship, well, both of them, were utterly iconic. But then Scott has always been about the visuals and the ships hasn’t he? I thought this was the great strength of the film. For sci fi to really work you need absolutely authentic worlds and technology and aliens. (Will get to that one later.) 100% for the first two.

Now, the things that bugged me: Guy Pearce as the old, dying Weyland. Was having Pearce so important? I did not feel his performance merited ageing him in such a fake manner. Why oh why can’t they just hire good Old actors to play old actors? Arrrgh. And why was he going along? I couldn’t buy his quest for longevity and meaning. Perhaps because we never got to know him and thus could never get to understand his motivations – or his funding a project based on such scientifically unrobust findings (let alone publication!). I have seen additional online footage of a young Weyland/Pearce. They could have used and explained that somehow, worked with it. That would’ve been better.

The human progenitor alien space-jockey (aka: the murderous parent). (Another deep theme. David to Meredith: at some point don’t we all want to kill our parents?) I thought it looked kinda … fake? I mean, it was better than Avatar’s cutesy blue people, don’t get me wrong. The CGI was faultless, tactile. Maybe it’s because it looked so human? It just bothered me. At least the aliens, the zenomorphs, were proper aliens. It’s harder to make convincing human-looking characters. I think I just didn’t want a human-looking alien or any link to the aliens (a match to our DNA!) or the zenomorphs. I found this theme all rather disappointing. I think it can be blamed on the overall cop-out value of the film. It’s like Scott doesn’t want to offend anyone here. (Yes, aliens may have made us, but Someone could have made the aliens…)

The premise: why did it have to be about finding meaning, finding our origins? I know these are supposedly the big questions but I was disappointed. Isn’t there more to the universe than where we come from? The Elba character voiced some scepticism about this and I would have liked the writing to be a little more ambivalent, a touch more complex and nuanced, but Rapace’s/Shaw’s faith and search for meaning is the final ‘moment’ of the film. Despite everything, she still searches. This aspect was so – Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica. I love Star Trek and BG but they are not Alien dammit. Let TV shows search for the meaning of life.

The zenomorph is a singular creation, one of the best monsters in film. It exists, it predates on whatever is in its way. There is commentary, even meaning in that: that we are meat, arbitrary, part of the cycle of life and nature. This film’s meaning-searching seems like a different director stepped in and took over from the Scott of all those years ago. Perhaps the fault lies with Lindelof’s writing? I’m not sure. But the underlying tone and assumptions did irritate me, I’m sad to say. I had similar feelings with Contact all those years ago: going to all that trouble to find alien life and then its all about your father and life and the meaning of it all. Why can’t sci fi just be…sci fi? Simple, visual, convincing, awe-inspiring in every sense of the word?

Stupid things that don’t make sense and irritate intelligent viewers. There were many misused horror movie conventions (yes, many of these tropes appeared in Alien but at least that crew was made up of ordinary people who weren’t Scientists!): like people going into a ship as soon as they land without sending a probe in and taking off their helmets as soon as the air seems breathable and standing in untested goo (I would certainly have examined it more closely for wormy eel things) and facing a threatening alien lifeform that’s just reared up at you out of said goo; and not taking weapons (its science people! we don’t have weapons!); and opening hatches; and trusting the morally ambiguous robot; and the Weyland company spending a trillion whatevers on an archaeologist who when asked how she knows there’s something waiting dismisses the biologist’s query about ‘proof’ and says its because she ‘believes’ (a scientist got mega funding with this? really?). I could go on forever here but you get the drift. It’s fine to suspend one’s disbelief but its asking too much to make supposedly super-clever people behave like idiots, endanger everybody, challenge the logic of every viewer and make you waste watching time distracted by why…why…why?

My viewer companion thought that the grotesque pregnancy scene was too rushed. Other critics have challenged the lack of character development. I thought the film adequately explained and fleshed out and was extremely well-paced. It is damn exciting and frequently horrific. If you thought Scott opened up awful birthing symbolism with Alien, wait till you see this one! I dare women to want to get pregnant after seeing it. In these respects Scott gets it so right, playing to his skills as a master entertainer. Horror and well, duh, aliens are what Alien is all about. This is an implacable alien being: without meaning, without feelings, utterly strange. The ultimate organism, a thing of pure nature. You don’t  Need the metaphysical in a story like this. The zenomorph doesn’t need to be linked to us genetically. It doesn’t need humanity. After all, space Is the great unknown. Little smug, self-important humans sending in shake’nbake colonies and marines and science officers are no match for Nature and the universe. Now Thats meaning! If they follow this film up with Shaw finding a race of silver people at One with the universe then I just don’t know. I’m too afraid to even contemplate where Scott can go after this. Nowhere good by the look of things.

In a movie like this, that hinges so on the little believable things, you just cannot afford to not pay attention to them – the niggly things that intelligent fans demand. (The people who make your film a cult film and last decades and prompt several director’s cuts – those people Must be satisfied. And they are, to a large extent in this film.) Any old viewer can pay $20 at an Imax and make back the budget with enough hype. You want and need longevity, resonance, sense. And a less is more score. Much has already been said about the intrusive, unsubtle, unmemorable score. It contributes to the overall lack of subtlety in the film’s execution. Alien was bare bones scary. Memorably Real. In this film a good deal of that – and it is there! – is lost in the hocus pocus/meaning of life/anti science bits.

Yes, this film features many shots of people staring incredulously out of the ship’s front window.

Will this film stand the test of time like Alien has? I don’t imagine so. One gets the impression Scott and co. rushed over some things that needed attention and care. A bit of laurel-resting perhaps? But Ridley Scott at his most casual in sci fi still beats everyone else hands-down. This film is truly sci fi for grown-ups and even its failures are incredibly impressive. That and the fact that he is the only director out there who lets cool, competent women survive and lead. These facts make Prometheus a classic in my book.

  1. Whilst coming to a completely different conclusion about this film (personally disappointed after the promise of great, top-notch sci-fi), this is a really enjoyable review/analysis and I really appreciate the sentiment of what you’re saying. I suppose to this viewer, Prometheus promised rather too much, especially after all that gorgeous hype and viral marketing. Singularly, *that* trailer is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, and what could live up to that?!

  2. Konrad Scheffler permalink

    “They barely come close to Jonesy the cat in terms of sympathy or memorability” – brilliant! It’s sad, but this film really cannot be compared to Alien. If you ignore the plot, it compares well with the scify and horror of the last decade, but if you expect it to compete with Alien, Blade Runner, or 2001, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

    I have two main gripes, both of which seem pretty ingrained in Hollywood in general:

    1) What’s with the religious agenda? Human-like DNA floating in a prehistoric river (and by implication having some relevance to human origins) – the only universe this could possibly make sense in is a loony creationist one (if “sense” could be said to exist in such a universe). “Darwinism”? (Does Scott even know that this word is used almost exclusively by creationists, in a derogatory fashion?) “It’s what I choose to believe”? Said by a scientist?? In response to a request to justify a claim??? Scientists _do_ ask the Big Questions. All the time. But making up silly answers as you go along because you can’t stomach the idea of not knowing is a proclivity associated with religion, not science.

    2) About half of the main characters are scientists, yet it is quite apparent that none of the filmmakers (or at least those who are able to influence what the characters say and do) have ever had even a fifteen minute conversation with an actual scientist. Earth to Scott: scientists don’t act that way, they don’t speak that way, they don’t think that way, and they sure as hell don’t jump to conclusions that way. If you’re going to make movies in which the main characters are scientists, but you can’t be bothered to get to know any actual ones, go watch Contagion. Hell, even the “scientist” caricatures in Dollhouse and CSI are less unrealistic than in this film (having vocabularies that include words like “maybe” and “I don’t know”).

  3. Johan permalink

    “That and the fact that he is the only director out there who lets cool, competent women survive and lead.”
    Yet the operating cubicle was only programmed for male patients!

    • That’s because the operating cubicle/pod thingy was set up to operate on the old Weyland, who was hidden on board and about to die at any second. Did you otherwise enjoy it?

      • Johan permalink

        Was hoping to experience some feelings of suspense and even horror; sadly not a bit. Impressed by the futuristic vehicle (apart from old Weyland’s basic wheelchair). Surprised also by the use of ancient flame-thrower weapons!

  4. I have sent your blog to twitter, thought it was an excellent analysis, despite not having seen it yet. Hope you enjoyed LA. Luv

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