Movie Musings: Prometheus

The granddaddy of all science fiction films is, I think, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In its classic opening sequence, we see an alien object trigger an evolution in early hominids (the use of tools-as-weapons) and later another evolution that propels man (in this case Bowman, the astronaut) to another level of consciousness/existence. It’s pretty big-themed stuff that gets at who we are as a species – where we’ve been and where we’re going. But one major premise is clear: alien technology got us on our way.

THERE BE SOME SPOILERS HERE

Ridley Scott’s much-analyzed Prometheus also starts in the prehistoric past. Actually, it goes so far as to rewind the opening scene all the way to the pre-biotic past. In Scott’s film, a humanoid alien devolves by a waterfall and seeds the primordial soup such that its death introduces the building blocks of life to the Earth. Again, it’s aliens jumpstarting things.

Giant Head

As in 2001, we jump forward to the not-so-far-from-now future. There, archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her colleague/boyfriend discover an underlying theme in disparate early human cultures that all point to a certain star system. A trillionaire industrialist named Weyland is convinced to front a mission – in the titular spaceship Prometheus – to see who or what, if anything, is there.

A lot has been made about this film that both is and is not an Alien prequel. Scott has said that the universal setting is the same, but we’re to take Prometheus on its own. This is nearly impossible to do as a viewer, both because of the hype around the film and because some of the choices that Scott has made in it (I’m looking at you egregiously unnecessary final scene).  In Alien, Scott made one of the greatest atmospheric scary movies of all time. It is essentially a haunted-house movie set in space. In Prometheus, Scott reaches for much more in a gorgeously shot film that is chock-full of cultural and philosophical metaphors.

The Prometheus

In ancient times, Prometheus was the Greek Titan that is credited for forming man from clay and for angering the gods of Olympus by stealing fire (then only the property of the gods) and giving it to humans. As punishment, an eagle eats his liver every day (it grows back every night). Prometheus is both creator to humans and one that sacrifices himself for their evolution. The fact that the first-scene alien sacrifices himself for the creation and evolution of life is not lost on us. That the Christian faith espouses a God that willingly dies so that humans may live rings a bell. The fact that Prometheus has his guts opened up every day is not lost on those of us that have watched the seminal galley scene in Alien many many times. That Zeus punished Prometheus for his hubris is also probably worth remembering.

Shaw is portrayed as a Christian who has reconciled her scientific curiosity with the possibility that life on earth was “seeded” from somewhere else. When asked if humanity arising via alien intervention invalidates her faith, she asks rightly, “Who made them?” Of course, as we investigate what might be our beginnings, humans are also busy creating life of a sort – as seen in the android David (Michael Fassbender), who watches his creators strive to find their makers, while they treat him like a walking, disposable laptop – and if he could sense the irony in that, he would.

Explorers

Of course, Prometheus isn’t all philosophy. There’s a lot that happens when they get to the planet and most of it isn’t good. The “engineers” – the term given to the planet seeders – are gone and it looks like they didn’t meet a great end. Of course, being human, we poke and prod and find goop and get infected by things. In 2001, our curiosity led us to a higher plane of existence. Here, well, let’s just say that your extended family isn’t always happy to see you.

Prometheus works hard to balance its thoughtful-philosophical aspects, with its goal to also be an action/horror movie – and there are some legitimate scares, including what has to be the Worst. C-section. Ever. I will admit that I found myself groaning a bit when a logical incongruity would pop up, or the redshirts would do typically trope-ish redshirt things so that we could have some extra jolts of the sort that don’t kill a main character.

There will be people that pick apart this movie because it’s not Alien or Aliens and that Shaw is not Ripley. But of course, these are the same people that would have picked it apart if it had been too much like those movies, too. Haters gonna hate – and by saying that the film was set in the Alien universe, Scott gave the haters all the ammunition they were going to need.

As a film, I thought the cinematography and music were gorgeous and I also thought the acting was good – Rapace and Fassbender are the heart of the film and get quality support from Idris Elba and Charlize Theron. In the end, Prometheus is a beautiful, if imperfect, attempt to be a summer blockbuster that also addresses some of the greatest fundamental questions facing humans: who are we and why are we here? It’s a “big theme” science fiction movie that has left me thinking about it for days after I watched it – and that’s something we get way too little of these days.

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26 thoughts on “Movie Musings: Prometheus

  1. I just couldn’t get past the faulty logic. If the Engineers seeded human life on Earth, why would there be cave drawings of them millennia later? And how in the world would the cave dwellers have known about the star chart? The movie lost me at that point (but the elective surgery was very cool!).

    • Well — no one really ever seemed to call out Kubrick (or Arthur C Clarke, I suppose) for a featureless slab that could cause a complex neurological change in so short a time… though I wondered about the star chart too — you’d have to invoke some hokum like an embedded “DNA memory” — blergh.

  2. The fact that the movie lingers in your mind is the greatest selling point, in my opinion. I’ve gone back and forth on my desire to see the film. Your review makes me lean more towards seeing the film, though I will wait for it to hit video.

  3. Thank you for the review, Steve. I’m going to see the movie in a theater, as I was told the special effects and set design are incredible and should be seen on a large screen. I was disappointed with the negative reviews on science fiction fansites like io9, however: why can’t science fiction fans accept that a movie is a work of fiction? Is their unwillingness to suspend logic for two hours due to a lack of imagination or a need to believe their genre is based entirely on science? (If so, scrap all of the Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury stories based on supposing there was humanoid life on Mars.) Maybe the movie doesn’t hold up to the original “Alien,” but that starts to remind me of old Trekkie conventions where the original-series fans would attack the TNG series. No, Ripley is not coming back. The new female protagonist might not compare well to her, but this is a new storyline.

    I dunno. I don’t see this sort of snark on traditional/mainstream literary websites. Some of it has been funny—
    http://digitaldigging.net/prometheus-an-archaeological-perspective/
    —but I hate it when so many critics seem to think I’m wasting my time on a movie I haven’t even seen yet.

    • HG — I don’t think it’s a great movie, but I enjoyed it. One thing I’ve really started to grow weary of are people that really tear something apart as soon as it’s out — or in this case, before it’s even been released. There’s something unsavory about trashing things — but it’s easier I think than saying “I liked that”, because apparently liking something sets you up for ridicule.

      I mean, good lord — when your other choice might be “Battleship” or “Transformers 7”, please give me a movie that at least TRIES to do something, or say something, rather than some sort of cookie-cutter FX and explosion fest.

  4. Interesting perspectives. I really wish you were more upfront with weather you suggest others see it or not because one persons descriptions are not the same as an upright endorsement.
    I am thinking of seeing it a bit but still on the fence kinda.

  5. It was my understanding that Ridley originally intended the movie to be a prequel, but came to its current standing in pre-production. I’m guessing that was because of the public’s weariness of sequels/prequels in the movie genre. Comic book audiences seem to give more leeway; the crossovers involving Alien, Predator, and Terminator immediately come to mind.

    • jaklumen — it’s funny, I think he would have had a MUCH easier time if he’d COMPLETELY dissociated this movie from the Alien-genre. It sets way too high a bar in some peoples’ minds.

  6. The Beloved Husband and I want to see it, but are still on the fence because of all the mixed reviews. I’m leaning towards seeing it when it comes out on DVD – that way I can heckle when I feel the story is weak and muse and mumble when the plot does something interesting (your review makes it sound like a story I’d feel compelled to interact with).

    • GB — I want to have that experience when it comes out on DVD, because you could really go very MST3K on this movie if you wanted to. For a first viewing though, maybe it’s best not to be distracted by the snark in our heads… :)

      • SPOILERS APLENTY SO DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN

        Thoughts from Haters-R-Us (Not Really):
        As you know, I was a big fan of “Alien” for its scariness and vivid, believable characters, and “Aliens” for its action and vivid, believable characters. What felt lacking here in “Prometheus” was internal and external logical consistency and … well, vivid, believable characters. The internal consistency problem was things like the one character being spooked by 2,000 year old holograms enough to want to run for the hills but when he’s nose-to-nose with a completely unknown life form he starts cooing to it like it’s a baby. Seriously? What was that character’s name? Soonbeded? Gonnabiteit? That was B-movie stuff there and below caliber for Scott.
        External logic problems: the idea that this was not a prequel to “Alien” is just dodge and weave talk from Scott, really, who understandably wants to be judged and lauded for making something new; still, the ship alone makes the connection plain.
        So why does the prologue being seemingly sacrifice himself? So that later on, his fellows can wipe out what’s created therefrom? Ooookay, there could be a thread to connect those two seemingly illogical things, but we’re not given that. I don’t find that provocative so much as lazy.
        The holographic images of the Engineers fleeing — great, ominous stuff… except… from what? The one Engineer we do meet seems to have been left undisturbed and goes about his business as though nothing untoward had happened. Ooookay. I guess… But it kind of felt like a logical disconnect if the Engineers had unleashed something that then went and put itself back in a can. We’re given zippodenothingo to explain that and things are too hectic for the characters to even think about it later. But it would have been a great chance to deepen the dread to at least be given a hint.
        The “genetic memory” of the star system — which is as good an idea as you can build given the scanty story data — feels weak and hearkens back to 1970’s schlock “Chariots of the Gods” stuff; i.e., not very original.
        The iconic hyper sleep chamber shot — whoo hoo — was cool, and we finally found out what it was for, except the last scene of “Prometheus” makes what we saw there in “Alien” pretty much impossible, doesn’t it? Which is baffling given how much effort seems to have been put into setting us up for what we’d see later on in “Alien.”
        And there’s “lots of other ships here?” Really? I guess when they were later terraforming the whole planet they just never noticed them.
        Then there’s the whole matter of all these characters. In a movie that runs longer than “Alien,” why is it that these characters seem so unmemorable compared to Dallas and Parker, etc? Okay, Shaw is “spunky” and “inquisitive” and seems to have some kind of patch-work backstory, but besides being able to take a superhuman amount of trauma, what is there that really stands out?
        I liked the film well enough, but felt it was disappointing. Disappointing in the way the writers and director had 30 years (!) to think up a story without gaping plot holes and seemed to just fall back on treating the idea of human life being seeded from aliens as shockingly original. I wasn’t asking or expecting Shaw to be Ripley, though it does beg the question of how Scott could get it so right three decades go and seem to do only a passable job here. I know that ensemble action or horror movies are hard to pull off — you’ve got to exstablish profiles for your characters distinct from each other fast, so the audience can settle in with them, but not fall too far into stereotypes or cliches. That’s a tough balance. I thought Scott did it in “Alien.” I thought Cameron did it in “Aliens.” I don’t think it was done here.
        So, no, I didn’t hate it. But I was somewhat let down. All the flaws could have been fixed. They just weren’t.
        Grade: C+ or B-

        P.S. Real C-sections are scarier.

        • Mud — your criticisms are what most people have griped about with the film — and I think the script showed the signs of being done by two different writers at two different times. I guess one of the expectations-game problems with Scott is that you expect a great movie, but look down his list of films and it’s actually been a while since he’s made a great movie.

          Also, as great as Alien was, I will argue that there were three characters: Ripley, Dallas, and Ash. In this film, you have Shaw and David. Though in Alien at least the others believed in less “redshirt-ish” manners.

          The other thing is that Alien is essentially a haunted house/slasher movie set on a spaceship. Aliens is a shoot-em-up and a fantastic action movie. This movie tried to be more than that (with mixed success). And I don’t think you should swipe too hard at the “Chariots of the gods” stuff, because you take with it 2001, Star Trek (a couple of times), BSG, and a host of other favorite novels with it.

          And as for why the engineer is so hostile to the humans after bothering to create them, I’ll remind you that in every experiment I’ve ever run in rats, all the rats die in the end.

          • Y’know, Steve, I think that’s almost a good summary for how sci-fi (SF?) movies in general have been struggling as of late.

            As far as Ridley Scott’s list of movies, yes, I’d agree, but I guess I’m not fond of many on the list to begin with. I really, really liked one of his lesser known films– Legend. I hadn’t seen Blade Runner all the way through, which is usually listed as a classic and one of his best, but even watching a “director’s cut” faithfully… I really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Except for maybe Gladiator (which I’ve also yet to see), there was nothing during the past three decades that interested me.

  7. Okay I skipped most of this because of the spoilers but I meant to ask you Steve, didn’t you do a post on the movie Paul? For some reason I seem to remember you writing about it. Anyway, if not, it’s pretty funny.

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