Sunday 17 June 2012

Prometheus and the Art of Narrative Rebellion

 I think a lot of complaints about Prometheus can boil down to this.
Complete with eclectic spelling.

I'd like to take a brief break from "80 Years of Conan" to talk in great detail - you have been warned - about another highly anticipated film, Prometheus. As with The Avengers, this is the fifth film in a franchise (well, seventh if you include the Alien vs Predator series), but this also has the prestige of Ridley Scott and the legendary Alien serving as its greatest strength and weakness. Strength because of both director and film's pedigree, weakness because the film has a lot to live up to. I'm rather disappointed, because what I thought was happening in Prometheus was very different.

When I left the theatre, I knew the film was about something, but I wasn't sure exactly what. I did - or rather, I thought I did - know one thing, though: the Christian stuff was too obvious to be the right idea. Here's a critical analysis of all the Christian subtext in the film, but until I read Scott's interview, I thought it was a bit too on-the-nose. It was just so blatant and unsubtle that I was sure it was a red herring. Come on, the film takes place at Christmas, constant shots of Shaw's crucifix, musings on Christianity, there's even a woman who cannot give birth giving birth.  I also notice that the aliens in this film burst not from the chests of their hosts as in all the other Alien films - an aspect Sigourney Weaver commonly pointed out in interviews - but the abdomens. Right where the liver - or womb - would be.

But no, I thought, this was too obvious. Christian subtext in western films is so common that I tend to just take it as a given simply because western society has been Christian for much of its history. Ridley Scott was surely up to something more complex than that. Yet lo and behold, it appears this is exactly what the Riddler was up to: You throw religion and spirituality into the equation for Prometheus, though, and it almost acts as a hand grenade. We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?
RS: We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him.

I don't really have much to say about Prometheus suffice that I can easily see why it's so divisive. If you're hoping for another Alien or Blade Runner, then it's unfortunately - inevitably? - going to fall short. If you're expecting a truly paradigm-shifting story that hasn't been done in science fiction before, then again, you aren't going to see anything that hasn't been done on classic SF. It certainly isn't gory or scary enough for the gore-and-fear-hounds. On the other hand, if you haven't seen a lot of provocative SF films, or read SF books, and suffering from mindless blockbuster blowout, then Prometheus offers a refreshing taster of what SF is capable of. A good comparison, I think, is District 9: it may tread the same ground as Alien Nation, but it's still a decent enough film, and if nothing else, it presents these big SF ideas for a new generation. Similarly, Prometheus has a lot in common with Quatermass & the Pit and other Kneale teleplays, but given the choice between another big-budget action flick that exists purely to take up time and a film that falls short of lofty expectations, I'll take the latter every time.

Good Scot: One thing I liked is there wasn't a single bad performance among the main roster, and it featured two of my favourite actors in Guy Pearce - whose films I'd always give a shot - and Michael Fassbender, who critics seem to be unanimous in praising for his take on Pinocchio. Noomi Rapace was great: I haven't seen her work in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but I'll be on the lookout now. Charlize Theron was also excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Kate Dickie in a somewhat larger role than guest-starring on Taggart or Rab C. Nesbitt. The others were generally adequate without being overly mediocre, though Idris Elba had his moments. I think the greatest success in the film is the sense of scale and majesty: there are scenes and shots which depict the true grandeur and size of the universe and ideas in the story, and Scott manages to dig into the part of him that made the unforgettable first shot of Blade Runner and the brilliant planetside scenes of Alien so wonderful. The weather and environment effects in particular were magnificent, some of the best I've seen in any film.

Bad Scot: well, the characters made bafflingly self-destructive decisions, the science is, shall we say, very different from our current understanding, the good scares are nonexistent apart from one particularly harrowing scene, the love interest is useless, and I feel the film is somewhat bloated. It's almost as if Scott had a great film in mind, then decided "you know, I could make two films out of this - maybe three!" and so he stretched it out. Unfortunately the script epoxy he and Lindelof used was just not that great, and so we have some absolutely wondrous moments and scenes with a whole lot of nothing in between. I still liked it, but I can see others being immensely impatient.

Also something I find interesting is how the film can be interpreted a number of ways. Some say the film's pro-choice, others that it's pro-life; one site praises the film's atheistic sensibilities, another its triumphant spiritialism; one review calls it liberal, another conservative. Given Scott's previous films, especially his more recent ones, we can probably guess what Scott's own take on the film is, but I find it fascinating and very satisfying that a film could be considered representative of many opposing worldviews depending on your own interpretation.

At the end of the day, Prometheus was like fellow space films Sunshine and Event Horizon: it started off extremely strongly, with some very potent exploration of big themes and wonderful building of atmosphere... only to degenerate into a clumsy slasher movie in the second half.

Death to the Screenwriter

So this got me to thinking about other films that I enjoy better by thinking of how they could have gone. Wouldn't I Am Legend have been so much better if they went with their original plans for the ending - or, better yet, decided to hew more closely to the novel, resulting in a truly shocking ending that hasn't lost its impact in over 50 years? I would have Wall-E continue with the little robots going into space and onto the ship, but learn that humanity is now gone (extinct or just moved away or whatever), leaving only the robots to inherit human civilization.  It says a lot that most fan takes on what Lucas should've done for the Star Wars prequels are a lot more compelling than what we ended up with. I can't count the number of films I've seen where I thought "you know, it would've been so much better if they did this instead of that" - at least, ones to do with narrative and plot, not the usual things like "why don't you just shoot him" or "don't go upstairs you numpty."

It isn't just films: I was absolutely convinced that Neville Longbottom, not Harry Potter, was the real Chosen One, and that his frog Trevor was the world's top animagus spy who was constantly working behind the scenes - neither were correct, and I maintain they are both better than what Rowling came up with. Similarly, Twilight's a lot more interesting if you watch it as a psychological horror rather than a romance. And if A Song of Ice and Fire doesn't end with the entire civilization of Westeros being wiped out by either the Others or the Dothraki, I'll be sorely disappointed.

Then again, sometimes a film can be reinterpreted this say without changing anything. Take the theory that casts R2-D2 and Chewbacca as rebel spies: that adds a whole other layer of depth to the film, though I like to think R5-D4 sacrificed himself for the rebel cause rather than R2 short-circuiting him.  Alien 3 is one of the few occasions where I really wish it was just a hypersleep dream.  I find Ferris Bueller's Day Off far more fun if I imagine that Ferris is a figment of Cameron's imagination, rather than accepting the idea that Ferris Bueller actually exists in that world. And sometimes the director will openly promote wild fan theories: Paul Verhoeven confirmed suspicions that a good chunk of Total Recall takes place in Quaid's mind, and as of the most recent iterations of the film, Ridley Scott seems pretty clear on Deckard being a Replicant in Blade Runner. And then you get stuff so crazy it makes sense, like how Drag Me To Hell is a metaphorical journey into the mindset of an eating disorder sufferer, Totoro is a Spirit of Death, and The Shining diverges from the novel because Stanley Kubrick was encoding a confession for his role in faking the lunar landings.

Oh Aye? I'd Like To See You Do Better

Right, I'll lay my cards on the table now: I don't think this is what Scott has in mind for the sequel or sequels for Prometheus, but frankly, this is the only resolution that makes sense from a thematic perspective - to me, at least.  If Scott comes up with something better, then great, but I can't help but wonder where he's going with all this. I was never a fan of the "Deckard is a Replicant" theory regardless of Scott's intentions, but at least it's still a bit ambiguous. I don't see my theory being as plausible given the resolution of the story, but still...

Anyway, a few bullet points:

  • Shaw is moved to tears by the suggestion that she cannot create life, and much of the crux of the film is about. Simultaneous to that, we see the not-at-all-subtle implication that David, an android supposedly incapable of emotion, creativity or sentience, is starting to gain those features. Evidently mankind is closer to the Engineers than they think.
  • David says something along the lines of "isn't it every man's dream to murder their father?" This puts the Engineer's apparent desire to destroy humanity in a somewhat appropriate context in my theory.
  • David also asks "How far would you be willing to go to get your answers?" One might ask if the Engineers also want answers, and wonder how far they would be willing to go, and in what direction...
  • Shaw's character is traumatised by the fact that her parents died early, suggesting that her fervent belief is strengthened by the tragedy - as well as her desire to seek out knowledge.
  • There is a bit of conflict regarding masculinity and femininity in regards to heritage and life-giving, almost as if the feminine power to create life is being undermined and attacked: Vickers is Weyland's daughter, but she is rejected - Weyland even considers David to be "the closest thing he has to a son" - which must embitter her deeply. "A king has his reign, and then he dies" - no reference to queen or any female ruler, suggesting heritage (and by extention, family) is patriarchal. Likewise, Shaw is infertile, and so cannot create life. Vickers engages in the reproductive act, but does not use it to become pregnant and create life. The black goo aliens which infect men destroy, but the one which is birthed by Shaw creates life (albeit by parasitism). It could be argued that this film is about taking birth away from the feminine and replaced by the masculine, only for the feminine to reclaim it. Why is this relevant? Well, think about this: where are the female Engineers?

So, then, my Big Idea is this: that in the dim future, humanity has created a new servitor race, the ultimate evolution of the androids. They are artificial beings genetically identical to humans, but of truly heroic proportions, so that they resemble the great Gods and Heroes of mythologies across the world, depicted in art from Mesoamerica to Thailand. Notably, they seem to be only males - no females, or at least any that resemble typical human females - are ever seen, and as such, they cannot reproduce in a sexual manner. It could be that traditional reproduction has been lost in the future, female wombs incapable of carrying to term, male cells inadequate to fertilize, organs atrophied and useless - humans gestate in incubators until birth. At some point, the original humans become extinct, most likely wiped out by their thralls in a bloody uprising - but as is often the case, the search for knowledge led them to wonder why they came to be.

With their creators dead, they sought answers in the creation of a new form of life - but instead of simply modelling their new being after themselves, they sought to create the ultimate evolutionary lifeform, which parasitises other organisms, and takes on the aspect of the host. The lifeform becomes more complex as it encounters more complex hosts, but an unforseen consequence dooms the Engineers: the lifeform not only parasitises other organisms, but actively destroys the entire ecosystem, replacing it with their own, formed from their own genetic material. Just like their own creators, the Engineers find their creations rebel against them - because they realised to late that they made their own usurpers. In creating a superior lifeform, they created a superior foe. So in the future, the Engineers are destroyed by the Xenomorphs - but remnants remained. Before the outbreak, a group of Engineers made a bold and dangerous journey not just through space, but time. There they continue their experiments on planets, seeding worlds, living and dead, with the Xenomorph genome. Soon they come to one planet, the third from the sun, where after millions of years, they observe a familiar hominid discovering the use of tools. Could it be... For millennia they watch, realising they could subtly alter human history to the point where their presence would only be realised when they discovered space travel, by providing directions to their final destination. All the while, they had no knowledge of the terror they brought back with them...

Thus, when Shaw asks "why did you create us, why do you hate us, why do you wish to destroy us," we discover that the Engineers would ask exactly the same questions of us.

When the Engineer wakes up, and finds that his questions have no true answer - indeed, answered with more questions - then he must have been furious. The Engineers seem to have a very ritualistic society, so perhaps his very religion and spirituality has been threatened.  But note that he doesn't kill Shaw - he almost instantly kills the others and decapitates David, but he holds back against the woman who breaks down in the emotion of coming face-to-face with her creator. Sure, she then sics the squidfacehugger on him before he can do anything, but I had to ask if he was planning on killing her... or was he demanding that she answer him?

But it seems that isn't what's going on. Apparently, the Engineers did "just" create humanity, there's no time-travel or Grandfather paradox, and Charlize Theron isn't a robot.  It's a shame, because to be frank, I prefer my idea. I don't expect others to, but I just think the only thematically satisfying answer to mankind's question to the gods "why did you create us" is "why did you create us?" Lots of commentary on humanity creating their creators, all very Voltaire. In fairness, I still don't have a great handle on the film, so I obviously have a few gaping plot holes in my interpretation - but at least I'm in good company, considering some of the weird unresolved issues in the film anyway.

I can't say for sure whether or not Prometheus is a success: it was beaten out to the top spot by an animated family comedy (of course it did), it hasn't set the world on fire in terms of box office, and it's been receiving very mixed reviews, though most have been positive. Putting myself in the Armchair Director position, I would've made Prometheus a lot more like 2001 or - dare I say it? - Tarkovsky's science fiction: more contemplative, more focus on exploration and character development. This is a film which is strongest when it's engaging in the majesty and wonder of the universe, the mystery of creation, and the atmosphere of being in space or on an alien world. The film should've used those to its advantage.

As for the finale, well, I'd go all Contact on the audience by making the finale a conversation between Shaw and the Engineer - or, rather, the two communicating past a language barrier. It'd be tense, emotional, frightening, awe-inspiring, everything: he'd reveal to Shaw the incredible things the Engineers created, all culminating in the realisation that both of them, human and Engineer, were searching for the same thing.

Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.


  1. Someone pointed out to me just the other day that Prometheus's plot was the same as AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, with the Engineers being the old ones and the Black Goo being the Shuggoths. I can't dispute that at all. Perhaps Scott's high-minded Christian symbology was just a red herring, a feint to cover up the fact that he can't come up with anything original.

    His original Alien, after all, was a high- tech retread of IT: THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.

    Prometheus did look beautiful, though, despite being empty headed, but that seems to be the way we prefer things in our post-modern society.

    1. Argh, it is rather reminiscent of AtMoM, isn't it? Scientific expedition to far-off place, mysterious ancient ruins, etc.

      Prometheus did look beautiful, though, despite being empty headed, but that seems to be the way we prefer things in our post-modern society.

      That's one of the things that frustrates me most, that these beautiful visual moments don't have the intellect to complement them - or if they do, then it's obfuscated and tangled in mixed idealogies and whatnot.

  2. Is there any chance that we can get the Engineers to create a world, where you produce the sequel? :-)

    But seriously, I'm not saying it should've been an Alien-remake (although it was heavily marketed as such). Just ... please keep simple basic virtues of captivating storytelling: Give us some characters we can care for, and a threat that is understandable and scary from the start and then you can throw in all the cosmic existential stuff you want on top of that and film it gorgeously.

    1. Hah, thanks Ulrik, though I don't doubt you'd still get people complaining about it ("Yes, Shaw, you are the demons"), but that's just my take.

      The problem is that it seemed like I was going to care about the characters until about the point where they started getting killed off. Then I realised that was all the characterisation they were going to get, and I was severely disappointed. I was particularly bothered that there wasn't a lot of exploration of Shaw, Vickers and Weyland's backstories given the groundwork they had.

      Also, that biologist was an idiot: I'm half convinced he was brought on board because he knew someone. "Hey, that looks and acts just like a cobra - let's make friends with it!"

    2. The death of the biologist (I happily forgot his name) and his colleague (well, sort of) is a case in point. It was very close to *comical* to me - the way they screamed and rolled eyes and cursed - like I could almost hear them thinking: "WOW we're in an Alien-movie!! Yeah, baby - now we're gonna show them these pre-facehuggers - yeah!"

      Ouch ... even Bill Paxton went down more convincingly than this. It threw me completely out of the movie, out of the suspension of disbelief. It is a testament to Noomi's acting ability that she actually made me believe in the movie again, although not care for it, during the surgery-scene. She is frighteningly good (you should see Dragon and some of the low-budget Nordic movies she has appeared in) but again, she wasn't given anything to work with - including an emotionally convincing backstory.

      Even in the cheapest Sly Stallone flick you always see the child loose his/her father/mother in some dramatic way, if we're meant to care for them later on ... for their journey towards salvation/revenge. But I guess Ridley got so carried away by his big ideas that he kinda forgot ...

      Anyway, it's just a movie ... but too bad. And I'm ranting. So I'll spare you more and go get a cup of much-needed coffee. Thanks for such an excellent, passionate blog, and for allowing lurkers like me to stick around so long before commenting.


    3. Not at all, I rant often enough, wouldn't be very gentlemanly of me to request otherwise.

      The more I think about it, the more I think the Sunshine & Event Horizon comparisons are apt: they all have a humanoid former crew member going nuts like Michael Meyers. If this is how Elysium ends, we'll know we're in trouble!

  3. Great Review. Some comments:

    1.Stupid decisions: Well, that's putting it mildly.How about the scene where the biologist decides to lovey-dovey with an alien lifeform that looks like a cross between a cobra and a giant worm? Bear in mind, this same biologist was already established as frightened out of his wits a few moments ago.Or what about the geologist (the guy who launched the mapping drones) being the guy who gets lost.

    2. Perhaps the biggest bit of idiocy involves what happens after Noomi Rapace's character undergoes her impromptu surgery. Nobody either goes looking for her or attempts to ask her what happened.The two people that she assaulted apparently do nothing. Rapace never mentions to anyone that there is an alien organism (apparently dead, but who knows) in the super-expensive medical pod.David, who knows that she had something inside her, never bothers to find out what happened.While we're on it, does Vickers (Theron's uber sexy, uber controlled executive)strike anyone as the type who would not keep her quarters locked (her quarters being where the pod is stored)?

    All of this transpires for the sole reason of setting up the film's nonsensical final struggle.


    1. But don't you know, Syon? Biologists are taught every day at Biology School, that the first thing you do when you see a creature that looks and acts like a cobra, is try to make friends with it!

      (Devil's Advocate Powers, Activate) Ah, well, you see, the reason everyone was acting so strange was because the... uh... the black goo! Yes, the black goo was making them act stupid! Some sort of psychic resonance cascade... thing... Yeah?

      Yes, it is strange that nobody follows up on Shaw after the surgery, and it could've been avoided with a line or two. Normally I like to play Devil's Advocate for things like this, but I really think the writers/director were just so caught up in the story they didn't think of stuff like that.


    Well, Del Toro seems to think so:"On April 30, del Toro posted a message on his official website stating that he believed Prometheus was going to echo the “creation aspects” of At the Mountains of Madness. The director wrote that, if he was proven correct, Scott’s film would “probably mark a long pause—if not the demise—of ATMOM.”" [via ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY)


    1. Yes, I remember reading that and being furious. Of all the reasons to scupper ATMoM, the fact that it's too similar to another film is the most depressing. That'd be like cancelling The Hobbit after three Snow White films came out.

      Ah well, we can only hope for the future.

  5. Hey, Al - Will here. My two pence:

    Sci Fi fifth film installments always seem to channel Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or more aptly named Star Trek: V: The Shatner Disaster. Ironically, pursuit of diety/higher power/creator was paramount in this brain boggling nightmare as well. Prometheus had terrific potential, but it trended a bit sour to me though not as badly as that particular Star Trek did. I agree with the complimentary visual commentary above. However what NEEDED to be a cornerstone for this franchise fell short in the end. I mean, it almost seems very 2001: Space Odysseyish to me minus Hal 9000. Elizabeth Shaw and "David" are going to go into that giant monolithic quest to the Engineer homeworld? Really?

    This is where the series loses me and for it to recapture any sort of credibility is that this "quest" must fail, Shaw and David die, and future human scientists make some kind of hay out of their exploration but I get the impression that this won't be the case. It seems to have transended from Sci Fi Horror to Sci Fi in a pinch that is far from a bold new vision to justify such a leap especially with such galactically poor writing and character arcs at this junction. They borrow from G.R.R. Martin's method of killing a character just when they get interesting and yet the thread of the tale rumbles on.

    All that being said, I'm game for the sequel especially if Noomi miraculously reprises her role.

    1. Ahoy Will! I have an appreciation for what STV was trying to do, but that's a perfect example of everything that could go wrong for a film going wrong: budget, filming, script, executive meddling, ego, you name it. It's a shame, because it had all the ingredients of being a really good Trek.

      Regarding Prometheus, I don't necessarily think their quest has to fail to regain credibility, it just has to be done in a way that's thematically satisfying. But given this is Lindeloff writing, we'll probably get something like She Goes To Fluffy Cloud Heaven or Purgatory or something.

      Also, I have to wonder if she'll be carrying David's head around in that bag for the whole trip. I have visions of her propping his head on her back like Yoda.

  6. C'mon Al, you write too many words. This movie is a complete disaster with no characters and an over-complicated plot that makes no sense.

    Of course your idea is better. But you must admite that this movie is NOT difficult to improve...