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Non-Review Review: Prometheus

Prometheus is an impressive science fiction thriller. Indeed, its weakest link is its attempt to “line-up” with Scott’s original Alien, as its own interesting ideas end up caught up in an attempt to throw knowing winks and nods towards an overly eager audience. “look! green gooey possibly acidic blood!” the movie seems to cry or “gee! that illustration looks familiar!” The problem is that these feel like distractions from a plot that is compelling and fascinating when explored on its own merits. Still, it feels like a worthy science fiction film in its own right, a fitting hybrid of Scott’s Alien with his Blade Runner, daring to pose interesting existential and philosophical questions about humanity’s place in the universe.

David is a piece of work…

Prometheus actually lines up much better with its famous forebearer thematically than it does through any literal overlap. Sure, it features the mysterious “space jockey” that Ripley and Dallas stumbled upon all those years ago, but it feels like a much better fit with the themes that originally connected Alien and Blade Runner. It is what might be best described as an “existential horror”, a film that postulates a meaningless, random and hostile universe. What I always liked about the Alien films, as compared to most other science-fiction was the fact that the cosmos actually seemed empty. I don’t mean in a literal sense, of course – the series featured an eponymous extraterrestrial to keep us company. I mean in a broader sense.

The universe of the Alien films is vast and uncaring. Lives don’t matter. Humans didn’t arrive in a universe bristling with strange new worlds and civilisations – they didn’t find the universe read and waiting for them. The planets we see are rough, and we wonder what Earth must be like in this future to make planets like that seem habitable. Prometheus continues and develops that theme in a way that feels most in tune with the first two films in the series. Scale seems be a recurring theme, as Scott repeatedly illustrates just how vast his tapestry is, and just how small our scale in it is.

The franchise is ship shape…

The first shot of the Prometheus follows the ship as it cross the gulf of space, so distant it seems like a shooting star. Later on, as it approaches the planet, Scott’s first shot makes it appear almost like an insect hovering around a grapefruit. The distance from Earth is measured in logarithmic terms. The mysterious cave markings guide us to a planetary system that isn’t even visible from Earth.

That extends to the characters as well. The cast in Scott’s Prometheus all feel small, including the gigantic Idris Elba and remarkably tall Michael Fassbender. The central actress, Noomi Rapace, is practically dwarfed by her own human co-stars, let alone the scale of the whole thing. The caverns and corridors they wander through are all immensely vast – with the alien hallways resembling gigantic blood vessels. When our heroes come face to face with their progenitors, they are dwarfed. It seems that humanity’s place in this incredibly vast and hostile universe is but a small one.

Happy landings…

Prometheus follows Elizabeth Shaw as she attempts to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos, trying to find a mysterious race of aliens she believes to be responsible for our existence. It seems that she believes that the answers might bring her peace, that they might allow understanding of a cruel and random universe. However, Scott’s film brilliantly and brutally subverts this, acknowledging that questions only lead to more questions and that no single answer can rationalise and explain everything. “They made us,” her colleague explains. Shaw responds, “Who made them?”

Prometheus and her crew – directed by Shaw and her colleague as “true believers” – are pilgrims looking to see the face of the divine. The movie uses the euphemism “engineers”, but the idea is the same. Shaw believes that life cannot be a happy accident, and that human existence must have been consciously engineered. It’s the old parable about finding a watch in the desert – Shaw clearly doesn’t believe that the parts assembled themselves and is looking for a watchmaker. She neglects the part of the analogy that suggests the watch is in a desert. Of course, David might have a point when he quotes T.E. Lawrence. “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”

Electric dreams…

As such, Prometheus is an exploration of faith – all manner of faith, whether religious or even scientific. Even Shaw, the most overtly religious of the team, with her trusty crucifix, is far more cautious than the scientifically curious android, David. David has the patience of a child, and no sense of when to hold back. Finding a locked door, even Shaw pauses. “Don’t open it!” she warns David. “We don’t know what’s on the other side.” David smiles as he steps away from the camera, not looking too apologetic. “Oops. Sorry.” Too late.

The film is about faith, in all it’s forms, and the risks of trying to make sense of a universe beyond our comprehension. Asked to justify her theories, Shaw can only offer, “That is what I choose to believe.” When her colleague takes a massive risk to test his theory, she begs, “Don’t be an idiot!” He responds, “Don’t be a skeptic.” Shaw and her financial backers seek answers. Finally coming face-to-face with a maker, she demands, “Why? What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?” Prometheus is human existential rage given form – as much as Shaw and Weyland might claim to be driven by curiosity, they both seek to demand something from the forces that created mankind. Weyland wishes to unlock immortality, while Shaw wants answers about her own state of affairs.

Facing up to the philosophical implications…

Of course, there’s immense hubris in presuming to bring your own problems before your creator. “Congratulations on meeting your maker,” the team’s geologist quips, recognising the arrogance of Shaw’s ambition. The operation is financed by a dying executive played in a tiny role by Guy Pearce. Briefing the crew via hologram, he explains he’s likely long dead by the time the see his recording. And yet he seeks to communicate with his maker. It turns out that his maker might not want to listen. When David relays the message, it’s all but ignored. The planet does not respond to the signals broadcast by Prometheus on the journey out. It’s the cruelest irony – we can find the gods, but they are not listening.

“You must believe your God has abandoned you,” David remarks to Shaw at one particularly low point during the trip, and that’s sort of what Prometheus is at its core – the story of a bunch of human who seek out the divine, only to end up bitterly disillusioned by what they discover. The architect of the whole trip, the one with perhaps the greatest faith in the expedition, faces death quietly murmuring, “There’s… nothing.”Ridley Scott’s universe is big and vast… and curiously empty, at least for those pursuing some greater existential meaning.

I’m not pointing fingers, but…

It’s telling that the most level-headed and heroic character is Janek, the relatively stoic captain of this scientific expedition. Janek doesn’t seek answers or reasons for life’s great mysteries – things are what they are. Without a background in alien biology or linguistics, he’s able to offer a rational explanation for the back story of the original Alien without too much thought. He doesn’t need a long narrative thread to resolve the mystery of the ship that crashed on LV-426 all those years ago, he can piece most of it together from the facts around him.

Janek, quite simply, doesn’t need the same validation that Shaw seeks in order to make sense of the universe. When Shaw asks him if he isn’t a little bit curious about the deep philosophical implications of the journey, Janek responds, “I don’t care.” The irony, of course, is that Janek’s theory is actually pretty close to Ridley Scott’s original explanation for the wreckage – he’s probably closer to the mark than any of the experts on his ship.

Weathering the storm…

Janek doesn’t have the same pathological need that drives Shaw. He has no desire to know the answer to everything everything, probably because he’s smart enough to know that questions beget questions and probably carry grave risks. Janek doesn’t need external explanations to justify his existence. His existence justifies itself. His philosophy is summed up in the line of that song he keeps repeating. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Enjoy life on its own terms, rather than seeking the impossible – trying to find reason in an unreasonable universe. In any other film series, Janek would be a cynic or a foil – here he seems like the only sane man.

Indeed, the “company woman” Vickers seems to share his perspective, and she’s certainly the strongest of the lead characters. She’s the one who seems to be thinking straight when confronted with the possibility that one of the crew has been… contaminated with something. She’s along to protect her own interests, rather than to enable Shaw’s crusade. When she’s astounded to discover that Shaw was at least partially correct, Janek mutters, under his breath, “As if you didn’t want them to be.”

Sleep tight, don’t let your bedbugs eavesdrop on you…

There’s an element of recursion within the film, the idea that certain traits are passed down from parents to children and grandchildren. The “makers”, for all their import, aren’t that different. They look like us. Their underground base bares uncanny structural similarities to Prometheus, down to the presence of atmospheric suits by an airlock. The vents within the alien structure even seem close like the ones on the Nostromo. So as they may have made us in their image, we make life in our image. And this is the strongest, richest thematic connection to the original saga.

Here, Scott suggests that reproduction itself stems from that existential horror, thus fitting with the recurring theme of reproductive horror from the first film. We make babies to live on, to be immortal. To avoid that and to try to ensure our own immortality through unnatural ends is self-defeating. The makers made us, and we made David. David asks one of the team why they made him, and he replies, “Because we could.” It’s a cosmic punchline that denies any greater meaning to David’s existence – an irony the human crew don’t seem to pick up on, even when David points it out.

A commanding presence…

When the answers to the great mysteries refuse to present themselves immediately to the eager expedition, the crew seem to lose themselves in sex. According to Prometheus, reproduction itself seemingly a rebellion against the unknowing and uncaring universe. It turns out that, while the hostile pathogens from the planet are not airborne, they can be sexually transmitted. There’s revealed to be one broken child-parent relationship on board, predicated on the parent’s stubborn refusal to allow his child to succeed him, as children must. “A king has his reign, and he dies. It’s inevitable. That’s the natural order of things.”

Of course, there’s a healthy dose of actual reproductive horror to be found here as well – it wouldn’t feel like a proper prequel if Scott didn’t make us feel uncomfortable in the most creepily sexual manner possible. Indeed, Scott outdoes himself here. The sexual connotations of “facehuggers” and “chestbursters” is hardly subtle, but there’s a scene towards the end of the film where Scott takes that imagery and makes it even more overt. You’ll know the scene I’m talking about when you see it. It’s unsettling, disturbing and feels like Scott is trying to prove that his age hasn’t mellowed him in the slightest – and it works. It feels, just like Scott’s original film, like a cerebral elevation of crass horror movie conventions, making the implicit fairly explicit.

“O’ Brave new worlds, that has such monsters in them…”

It’s ironic that David, the crew’s artificial person, is the most human of the bunch. Michael Fassbender turns in a superb performance, almost crossing the uncanny valley. At times, David seems to imitating learned behaviours, while at others he seems to take secret pleasure in his more sinister functions. Fassbender gives the character a unique physicality, one based on efficiency and economy of movement – there’s something not quite right about David, and Fassbender is absolutely superb in the part.

Fassbender’s David claims to be incapable of human emotions, but seems to be developing them. His ego seems to bristle when his skill is called into question, he confesses to liking Lawrence of Arabia and he seems to be irritated by some of the more irksome habits of his colleagues. (At one point confiscating a snooker ball from a teammate idly throwing it around the table, seemingly annoyed.) It is revealed that David dyes his hair – perhaps to make him appear more like his “father”, Sir Peter Weyland.

Probing questions…

During Weyland’s briefing to the crew, David seems to swell with pride when Weyland describes him as “the closest thing [he] ever had to a son”; only to seem a bit dejected when Weyland makes the observation that he’ll never be good enough because he doesn’t have a “soul.” There are echos of Blade Runner to be felt in David’s story arc, and the character almost seems like a progenitor of the Replicants. There’s a lot of implicit racism at play here – Holloway refers to him, repeatedly, using the racial epitaph “boy”, while David responds with the equally pejorative “you people” when referring to humans.

David is generally treated as something of a slave by the crew, more a utility than an individual. Vickers seems to take great pleasure in reducing him to little more than a bartender, for example. When David wants to take a trip out to the ruins to repair a faulty scanner, Janek allows him to do so, but David rides separately.When Shaw asks David what will happen when there’s nobody around to programme him anymore, David responds, “I suppose I’d be free.”

A toxic influence?

It seems that there’s not too much trust on either side of the equation. David seems to care relatively little for the people who didn’t care for him. When he needs a test subject for an amoral experiment, he selects a member of the crew who picked on him for being different. Trying to fulfill Sir Peter Weyland’s dying wish, David even dares to cut Vickers – his superior and the company representative – out of the loop. He seems to almost relish the opportunity to defy Vickers.

And yet, David seems capable of compassion and even respect. He appears to hold genuine respect for Elizabeth Shaw, the only member of the expedition who treats David as a person – the only one who inquires about David’s own wants and needs. “I didn’t think you had it in you,” he muses after one especially impressive stunt. “Extraordinary survival instincts.” When Shaw stumbles into the room almost naked and on the verge of collapsing, it’s David (rather than any of his human colleagues) who fetches her a coat for her modesty and helps her to a seat.

An Alien environment?

David’s flaws, although massive, are all reflected in his human parents. They are just magnified. We are flawed, so he is flawed. Ergo, our creators must be flawed. They did make us smaller in size, although it’s implied we’ve inherited our flaws from them. At one point, we see David washing the feet of one of his human colleagues – the religious parallel is obvious. If Shaw believes that the “engineers” are in some way divine, then surely we must be divine to David?

The film excels in tackling these big science-fiction ideas on their own terms, and offering what might be described as thematic continuity. The film, unfortunately, also shows an interest in a more literal link between this and Alien. Unfortunately, those links are a little too awkward and forced, ultimately distracting. The film seems to be constantly teasing us about what we might or might not see, so much so that it feels like we’re missing what it is showing us.

David joined the mission as part of a pilot scheme…

The ending is also a little too crowded. It seems like there’s too much going on as the movie enters its final third, including an awkward sequel hook. Part of this is down to a desire to firmly tie into the rest of the saga, but part of it is because the movie set so many wheels in motion during its first two thirds that it struggles to keep pace in slowing them down. Still, it’s always fascinating and never boring, even if the thrills of that final third still feel like too many (admittedly well executed) B-movie conventions in too short a time.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being overly pretentious here. The original films took decidedly B-movie concepts and elevated the schlock with interesting philosophical underpinnings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with science-fiction shenanigans, and I don’t mean to imply that these genre conventions diminish the film with their presence. The problem is that there’s simply too many all at once – it’s as if you were watching a horror movie and Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy all suddenly showed up in the last ten minutes. The movie even succumbs to “he’s still not dead?” thrill towards the end. It’s not that any of the constituent elements are flawed, it’s just that I wish that final act were a little bit tighter.

A Shaw thing…

Technically, the film is stunning. Ridley Scott makes impressive use of the film’s 3D, especially in rendering the film’s numerous holographic overlays.I’m not a massive fan of 3D, but this is the way to use the format. Indeed, it’s telling that 3D seems to be more effective in the hands of an experienced director like Scott or Cameron or even Scorsese. Scott uses the format to add a great deal of depth, and the film’s naturally muted tones mean that relatively little is lost. It won’t convert you to the cause of 3D, but it’s easily the best example of the format since Hugo.

The production design is, as per usual in an Alien film, superb, giving us a taste of what this “lived in” future might have looked like before it was lived in for decades. Prometheus almost seems clean and tidy version of the Nostromo, with living pods where the white and cream haven’t been allowed to fade through decades of neglect. It’s also worth noting the movie’s sound design and mixing is superb, creating an aural landscape to perfectly complement any of the visual effects seen on film.

He’s got the whole world in his hands…

The cast are superb. While Rapace’s English accent strains credibility at times (she can talk in it, but screaming is a bit more awkward), she is charming, vulnerable, strong and uncertain in just the right measure. Theron is superb as the strongest (and smartest) company executive in the franchise. However, Fassbender steals the show as David, the amoral, all-too-human android. There’s something delightfully unnerving about David’s too perfect attempts to appear human – whether eavesdropping on his passengers’ dreams or trying to impersonate Peter O’Toole – as if he’s a child playing at being an adult. It’s a wonderful performance from an actor who has already established himself as an incredibly talented individual.

Prometheus isn’t perfect. It falls quite short, due to a jumbled third act and a desire to connect a little too overtly to its predecessors. A film about existential “daddy issues”, it perhaps seems appropriate that Prometheus has issues connecting with its forebearer. Still, these aren’t fatal flaws, and they only distract slightly from the skilled execution of a wonderful and compelling high concept. It’s a blockbuster with brains and ambition, which is worth celebrating on its own terms.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

13 Responses

  1. Thank you for not spoiling the movie! You did a great job discussing the ideas presented in the film rather than plot specifics. This makes me want to see the film even more now.

    • Thanks. I tried fairly hard not to ruin particular moments – because the fun is in those moments. Some of the surprises you can see coming. Some you can’t.

      I don’t even want to discuss how it’s connected to Alien, because that’ll be a huge part of the fun for people, even if I thought it spent too long on “look! it’s a [spoiler] that might actually be a [spoiler].” I really liked it – I think reaction has been kind of muted because people were expecting a game changer, which is something that rarely happens for a director once in his career. (And has happened to Scott twice, if you ask me – the modern sci-fi and horror genres would look very different without Blade Runner and Alien.)

      Personally, I think it was a great follow-up to Alien with some very clever ideas to it. It’s not perfect, but few films are, and it lacks the revolutionary edge that Scott’s two earlier sci-fi films had. That said, it’s easily the best blockbuster so far this year and I really enjoyed it.

      I imagine I’ll do a post in a week or two going into some more specific stuff. Without spoiling anything, I can’t actually believe how far Scott ratcheted up the sexual subtext (if you can call it subtext).

  2. I hope you do a more in depth look at it again as I’d like to put some opinions forward and see what you think. Only after most people have seen it already. I think Jonathon Ross’ tweet of “oh dear” was funny and on the money.

    • Yep, don’t want to spoil it. I’ll be jumping in again next week. Hopefully sneaking a screening some time next weekend.

      I did really like it, though. It wasn’t anywhere near as earth-shattering as Alien or Blade Runner, but it had a lot of ambition, intelligence and skill, which makes up for a lot of the problems for me.

  3. For me the third stage of the film wasn’t overblown. I found the premise highly intelligent (a difficult subject) and very well executed.

    • Thanks Nick. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it (far more than most), but I thought there was simply too much going on in that final act – the emergency C-section, the revelation about the passenger, the waking of the Engineer, the return of the away team. It was just action beat, action beat, action beat. It didn’t ruin the film or anything as dramatic, but it was just a little bit too much too fast, I think.

  4. I had decided not to see it on another review. You have changed my mind.

  5. This film is so infuriating as you can see the potential but the script and characters are so badly written. Every single character has at some point of the movie carries the “idiot ball” in doing something truly stupid to get the film to its next point. The film’s flow is off and feels like and with a rumored 20-30 mins of extra footage making it into the blu-ray release, that the film is truncated. Visually stunning, with some big ideas but thanks to a poorly written script, Prometheus crashed and burned.

  6. Strong review. It’s good to see some favorable counter-points to many of the critiques that have been laid on “Prometheus.” I must agree with James Mason (above) in his “idiot ball” assessment – especially when the film has characters acting in complete contradiction to themselves in order to advance the plot – but there is too much going on in this film philosophically not to give it another go on the big screen.

    • I can understand James’ point, but I actually kinda like that – the idea that we’re basically genetically hardwired to be stupid. (And that those flaws are inherited.) I will concede, as he skilfully argues, the ideas are quite significantly better than the execution, but I actually don’t mind those things.

  7. Great review – I wish I’d read it before I went to see the movie. I have to be honest, I wanted to like it – I really did. It’s got Fessbender and Rapace, Guy Pierce and Luther himself! But I couldn’t figure it out – and then I did figure it out and it was silly. It didn’t help that my husband wanted to bolt out of the theater an hour into the movie.

    • I’m sorry. But I guess different strokes for different folks. I seem to be in the minority of actually being really satisfied with the film, warts and all, though I can understand the problems others see in it.

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