There will be spoilers in this post. Consider yourself forewarned. This is written for either people who have seen the film or people who plan never to see it. If you’re planning to watch this film at the Cinema, steer clear until you actually have.
I’m trying to marshal my thoughts on this because there is so much to deconstruct. In some ways that is a very good thing – the last thing I want to do is exit the cinema after a film and not care about it. However my criticisms and thoughts are on several levels – implementation, intention, and there is a hint of the intersectional.
Pinnoccio and the real woman
The opening sequence that sees bored Android David wandering the ship, sampling Shaw’s dreams is wonderful. I must say it certainly got my hopes up. Fassbender embodies the heritage of cinematic androids, and the set piece involving his exploration of human like behaviours is fascinating.
Whatever the film’s other shortcomings, it does not lack for actors that strive to make the most of the material they are given, particularly Fassbender and Rapace. I’m not a fan of Fassbender as a person, but he was perfectly cast in his role as the human-looking android with an ambiguous agenda. Triple A, no less. David supplies most of the best lines, and it is Fassbenders performance of him that lends depth to the big questions that the film continually asks but never actually engages with.
Scott is very much at home with such an ambiguous characters, and matters of reality and personhood, and it shows in the direction and the sheer amount of weight that David gets in the film. He moves quietly forward with his goals, secretive and seemingly autonomous, and chaos grows in the wake of his passing.
Rapace, some awful lines aside, is an every-woman in this role. Elizabeth Shaw is a caricature of religion and science. Apparently multi-disciplinary, for she is present both at archaeological digs and leads the way with the pointless alien autopsy – yet her faith in the ‘mission’ is not grounded in anything real. David dips into her dreams early on in the film and we see her dreaming of her father saying the pithy line ‘chose to believe’. While she wears a cross around her neck, it symbolises a faith in her own hypothesis rather than a true religious faith.
So yes, awkward characters but I think Noomi Rapace handles Elizabeth’s emotional shocks and toughness well. She is no action hero in the mould of Ripley – her instinct is not to pick up a gun. In fact Scott tends to make her stand and gawp a lot at various big nasties and things that will inevitably crush her. She has some amazing moments, and Rapace does a good job, but it’s overshadowed by the amount of cartoon violence she is put through.
Elizabeth Shaw also cries. She goes into emotional shock. Like Black Widow in Avengers Assemble, she has legitimate human reactions to the unbelievable situations she is placed in. Her interactions with David are ambiguous and interesting, and one of the highlights of the film.
And then there is THAT scene. An awake caesarean, a self-caesarean, after being told that she has an alien baby in her stomach. I’ll come back to this later, but it was one of the most personally womb-wrenching scenes I have ever witnessed in cinema. I found it personally very hard to deal with and I’ll probably have to do a personal post on the matter.
A lot of people are a little bug-eyed about how she manages to do all of that with a line of staples and an open wound in her abdomen, how she manages to survive the targeted violence sent her way. If she was a man with a gun wound, I suspect myself and most of the audience wouldn’t bat an eyelid because that is what we are used to seeing in our bald male action heroes.
Suspense, horror, and visuals
Visually this film is amazing. The Space Jockey/Engineer Caves, and their ‘memory goo holograms’ are truly celebrations of space and scale. Yet the suspenseful and horrific moments occur in the claustrophobia of the medical pod, and within the character’s suits and bodies. It creates these opposing moments of wonder – we watch David ‘watching’ the original crew of the doughnut ship and I found that scene breathtaking.
Horror in the Alien films has always had an element of the sexual about it, and Scott continues that motif here with full on phallic worms and mouthparts, and vagina dentata. Horror does not come from the monster before us though, but from the monster that lies within. Particularly creepy moments involve the alien entering our bodies while we’re still alive , literally colonising our cells. Scott picked up on eye-squick and womb-squick and hammered both home.
I feel like there is probably a discussion of reproductive rights and pregnancy somewhere in this film, but I’m way too low on the spoons to start it.
So, this is a trillion dollar mission. Funded by the owner of the Weyland Corporation. Who turns out to be on board. It’s 2093.
And there are no mission protocols? Nothing? We’re going to meet some aliens, LETS ACT LIKE TEENAGERS ON A G.C.S.E GEOGRAPHY FIELD TRIP. There are no soldiers, no real commanders. Everyone is giving orders and no one follows them. The characters themselves literally have no idea why they’ve been sent on this mission.
Let’s gawp. It’s separate. Let’s not take small scrapings and samples. Or wait until daylight. And the reveal that Weyland is funding it because he wants to ‘meet his maker’, and he is afraid of death. What? How is any of that set up coherent? Let me put it like this – this film makes the characters in Jurassic Park look sensible and well-informed.
The lack of any real protocols, or even scientific rigour about the whole thing regularly shook me out of the film. It’s the sort of B-movie writing I would have expected 20-30 years ago in the sci-fi genre. In an age of commercial space-flight it seems completely old-fashioned, and completely at odds with the wish for the genre to be taken seriously by the mainstream. I don’t really want to get into the argument of ‘crap science in sci-fi’, but even Avatar shows the scientists caring about their scientific project (yay Sigourney Weaver!)
The rough and ready characters that Scott tries to build would work perfectly on the mining ships and prisons of the original films, but not on an elite starship. Charlize Theron tries to be the icey administrator. Yet her character never gets the opportunity to do ANYTHING and nobody listens to her. Her job is to be icy and unbending, do unnecessary evils and then be crushed by a giant doughnut after she tries to survive what is frankly not a situation of her making. It is saying something of Theron’s performance that I got more sense of character from her so-called villaness than I did from more sympathetically written characters.
Idris Elba likewise does a good job of building the presence of the working Captain of the ship who seems to have no idea why he is there or who any of his team is. We know nothing of him, but the script shoe-horns him into the role of the heroic sacrifice via a short conversation with Rapace.
The secondary scientists only exist as monster fodder, and their characters and motivations exist only to to turn them into super-zombies and worm food. They have no connection with each other, no crew, no impulse towards scientific enquiry.
I think much of the isolated nature of these characters, and the lack of cohesiveness in terms of team dynamics, comes down to the decision to have the humans in cryo while the Prometheus travels towards it’s final destination. The android runs the ship perfectly well solo – why are all these extra humans needed? They are not a team, and they have nothing to do. There is no sense of a professional working environment – no possible way for us to see the small touches that made the crew of the Nostromo so real.
Again, let’s compare to Avatar – which has many more background characters than Prometheus. At least the presence of those characters makes sense and they interact with each other and get on with actual jobs and lives while they chatter. Avatar admittedly suffers from a similarly threadbare plot, and it’s character’s aren’t spectacularly well drawn either. The difference here is that Cameron at the very least has a focused script; with a real idea of what it wanted to get across to the audience.
We live in an age of smartphones. Of near constant communication. I realise this is not quite the same as running internal communications on a trillion dollar starship. By bringing the Alien universe and cannon that much closer to our own, the inability for those flashy mapping probes to give visuals (when the suits can) is unbelievable. The idea that two scientists would not communicate to the ship that they were on their way, or that the expedition would not have guides to allow themselves a route out of the alien hive/temple, is unbelievable.
That science can create medical-pods, and androids like David, but can’t give a crew of a starship function communications or proper quarantine facilities?
But Pewter, they’re on a spaceship and the entire premise is unbelievable!
I know, but good sci-fi, even good sci-fi B-movies, tend to rely on a little internal consistency, and a grounding in the way that things actually do work for viewers not to get thrown out of the story too often. Sci-fi over the past 30 years has evolved to a point where ‘space travel’ and messy things like biology and epidemics creates expectation of a certain level of technology that will have been created in order to deal with hostile environments and contamination.
So that’s two ways in which Prometheus completely falls down as an example of cerebral, grown up sci-fi. I’m not even that huge a fan of the Alien films, but as a lover of Sci-fi in general I’m so disappointed that this is the kind of big-budget offering we are getting now.
Avengers Assemble is supposed to be the big dumb summer blockbuster – but it blows Prometheus out of the water in terms of team dynamics and having actual characters. And that’s with characters sourced from another medium that the mainstream has difficulty taking seriously.
Keeping the audience guessing
I have seen a lot of awesome discussion about this film. Fans are picking over the details and connecting the dots, and in terms of the alien mythos – that is interesting in and of itself. However film is not trying to supply us with answers about the xenomorphs (it does, but in the designs of the new alien nasties that clearly share a heritage with the original xenomorphs.)
Famously, Scott has been focusing on the nature of belief, the origins of humanity. It’s this pre-occupation with being deep and meaningful, combined with the stunning cinematography, that is completely at odds with the b-movie thrills. This isn’t keeping the audience guessing, or respecting our intelligence – it’s sacrificing the clever thrills and claustrophobia of the original films on the alter of Lost-style meaningless-mystery and the need to do it ‘bigger’. This film asks huge questions and then asks them again. And that’s it. There is no sense that the script or director is engaging and exploring the implications of those questions.
And that, my friends, is not being cerebral or trusting your audience. That is
It occurs to me – is the situation of the Prometheus more than a little similar to the beginning of Lost? A bunch of strangers thrust together in a highly charged situation, a long way from home, and with supposedly unknown threats and ambiguous characters. The setup seems kind of perfect for long format, actually.
This should have been an HBO pilot
Seriously, the more I think about it, the more the set up (the first act) would have suited a long format, large-budget TV show. More time to explore those paperthin characters, and let the strangers become real to us. I have a hell of a lot of ‘BUT WHY’ moments, but get the feeling that the film-makers would never be interested in answering my particular questions.
Of course, there are ‘mythos’ questions – why and how does the goo go from goop to xenomorph so quickly, and why does it do different things to everything it touches. Those are the sort of questions that I am happy to give the film, and I’ll enjoy the speculation, but questions about character motivations and overall stupidity are unlikely to be answered when all the characters are already dead.
(Please note that I have a hell of a lot more specific ‘WTF’ points on the script, this is just a small sample.)