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• Prometheus

The Alien film franchise has seen better days. The last few films, including spin-offs that combined it with the Predator franchise, are rightly despised by fans of the original. Even H.R. Giger (the artist responsible for the nightmarish alien design) railed against the ill-conceived fourth film with his own “Alien Insurrection” website. It is therefore somewhat understandable that in its marketing, Prometheus has tried to distance itself from the Alien brand.

Nevertheless, it was with great expectations that Ridley Scott announced he was returning to his seminal sci-fi horror story to further explore its universe. Surely he would set right again that which had lost its way. Well, not entirely…

As expected it’s a visually stunning film (indisputably one of the best looking 3D films made to date), and contrary to some critics it does offer concrete answers to some of the mysteries of the original film.  But it’s not a perfect script, and with so much to live up to it was bound to disappoint some viewers.  It’s difficult to go any further without entering spoiler territory, so beware.

One of the more freaky moments from Alien was when the human crew are exploring the alien spacecraft.  There they find the remains of a gigantic humanoid that came to be known as the Space Jockey. This enigma is, however, quickly forgotten when all hell breaks loose aboard the Nostromo. Prometheus is really all about those Space Jockeys, and as such manages to open a whole new can of worms.

In the film’s set-up, a naked, marble-skinned humanoid seems to sacrifice himself so that new life might be seeded on a planet we take to be Earth. Many years later, prehistoric artifacts found around the world share similar depictions of giants (referred to as Engineers), all pointing to a star cluster as if in invitation. The Weyland Corporation puts together a trillion dollar space expedition to a system with an identical configuration in search of answers.

David (Michael Fassbender), the android built to serve the human crew, is easily the most interesting character in the film.  He keeps himself occupied during the two year journey doing creepy things while the real people sleep in cryo chambers.  Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the lead scientist, is also excellent.  Her inner strength, not to mention her religious faith, is tested over the course of the film. Vickers (Charlize Theron) however, seems both superfluous and wasted (particularly near the film’s conclusion). Many of the other crew members are barely sketched into view.  And other issues crop up as the film progresses.

Take, for example, the notion that we were created by the Engineers, which happens to be the film’s premise.  The ship’s biologist snorts at the idea, mentioning the 300 years of Darwinism on his side, but that’s really the end of the argument.  It is made clear in the film that human and Engineer DNA matches.  That would include DNA we share in common with plants!  Are we to believe that hundreds of millions of years of evolution was somehow guided by the Engineers towards the inevitable appearance of human beings?  It seems incompatible with the existence of the Homo sapiens subspecies, not to mention all the other evidence for evolution.  Perhaps that’s why the subject is quickly glossed over.  No matter, there are more glaring problems.

I found it hard to ignore the scientists’ careless and downright stupid behavior given the importance of their mission and the danger of their situation. An alien vessel with a breathable atmosphere? Don’t remove your helmets on the off-chance there are no airborne pathogens! Find yourself coming down with a bad case of the ol’ alien-worm-in-your-eye? Quarantine yourself immediately, it’s probably contagious. If you’re a geologist equipped with mapping robots how do you manage to get lost?  If you’re a biologist encountering an alien cobra presenting a universal threat display, please don’t tease it with your hand…  Audiences expect (and deserve) higher caliber writing than this in so-called serious science fiction.  But you know what?  I still enjoyed the movie.

Prometheus doesn’t manage to reach the lofty peaks of something like the original Alien or 2001: A Space Odyssey (which it seemed close to achieving in the first half of the film).  It is, however, leaps and bounds ahead of the last few Alien films.  And there are all sorts of sci-fi details to geek out over.  Take the autonomous flying spherical robots that beam lasers to map the environment: totally plausible.  As is the use of an exoskeleton to help the decrepit Weyland get moving.  I doubt we’ll have androids like David by the 2090s, but tiny details like the Weyland logo on David’s fingerprint was a nice touch.

The costumes, the creatures, the Prometheus itself, and the alien vessel, all of it was just stunning in 3D.  Even before the film’s premise was revealed, I thought it would be cool to go back to the original ship and learn more about the humanoids that once occupied it.  The script has its fair share of problems, but succeeds in drawing the viewer into its world and its mysteries.  Over all I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and would add that it’s a spectacle worth seeing in 3D.

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On to even more thoughts (heavy spoilers)

Many fans of the Alien films are troubled by how the black chemical connects to the well-established life-cycle of the so-called “xenomorphs”. It’s important to remember that most of what fans think they know of the xenomorphs comes from James Cameron, who wanted to flesh things out when he did the sequel. It is my feeling that Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger don’t feel particularly compelled to play inside the box made by the other Alien films, and why should they? Therefore I don’t think we should try to connect the dots to anything other than the first Alien film.

When David asks Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), “Why do humans create androids?”, he responds “Because we can”, an answer which David throws back at him for why the Engineers created mankind.  Surely the screenwriters could have used dozens of better reasons for why mankind created androids!  This could have led to a longer, more interesting conversation regarding the relationship between the creators and the created.  Another missed opportunity in the script.

There also seems to be a lot of confusion as to why David would wantonly infect Holloway with the chemical found in the ritual chamber. I believe he was ordered to do so by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who is seeking the fountain of youth.  (It could also be that David, who’s disdain for humans is made clear, simply wanted to see what would happen.)  The chemical didn’t react to David because he is inorganic, of course.

What happened to the Engineers seen running in the hologram recording? I think they were running from crew members that had been infected by the chemical. A small group managed to quarantine themselves (the closing door decapitated one of them). The stuff is clearly some kind of biological weapon, and one of the characters even says they weren’t stupid enough to test it on their home planet. One of the murals in the ritual chamber depicts a xenomorph, suggesting the Engineers knew what they were dealing with.

Why does the geologist return as a superhuman zombie after the worm attack?  It doesn’t seem to be the same reaction as Holloway’s, so I think the geologist was being controlled by the worm-like parasite, not by the chemical. Something similar to worms that infect ants and slugs, which somehow manage to drive them to climb to the tops of leaves where they are easily spotted and consumed by birds (allowing the parasite to continue its life-cycle).

Others laughed at the musical flute used by one of the Engineers. I thought this was kind of cool. It had a mythical quality to it, and it seemed to be that Engineer’s way of authenticating his identity to the ship’s computer. Perhaps the system normally uses voice recognition or some other audio code? Besides, it is entirely possible that music and instruments were handed down to humans from the Engineers in our distant past.

In the main deck, another hologram shows that they intended to deploy their biological weapon to destroy the life they had seeded on Earth. When the only surviving Engineer awakens, and realizes that during his slumber the earthlings have managed to reach them in outer space, it desperately tries to complete its mission. That is why it lashes out at them and tries to take off immediately. Since the Engineer’s head was carbon dated to 2,000 years ago, this suggests their mission has something to do with the emergence of Christianity (for more on the religious and mythological symbolism in the film, read this analysis).  One wonders if perhaps, now that Scott is over the hill, he is beginning to think more about life after death?

Anyway, that’s my take on things.
Feel free to leave your own theories in the comments!

  • *Additional Spoilers*
    This was such an excellent review! You did a great job breaking down many of the same problems that I noticed
    in the plot/dialog and I too thoroughly enjoyed Prometheus despite those shortcomings… One thing in particular which I found hard to digest was that the entire story is contingent upon Weyland’s desperate plan to extend his own life (of which he only has days
    remaining). As mentioned in your review, he is in a decrepit state and requires a robotic exoskeleton just to walk; however, current research in biochemistry promises not just future longevity for humans, but the
    extension of youthful human life (see research from Biochemists such as Cynthia Kenyon). There is a great Ted Talk with Harvey Fineberg where he suggest it may be possible in the near future to make humans smarter, faster, live longer, even more attractive “simply” by engineering bacteria in the stomach. Coupled with recent progress made in creating synthetic organs and it becomes quite easy to imagine that we would have tackled the problem of aging well before 2090 (especially in a universe with the nanotechnology required to build an android like David). The only issues remaining would be that of ethics or costs associated with said technologies, but not a problem for the head of a multi-trillion dollar (and assuming multinational) company. I only say all of this because it seems that Ridley Scott’s
    team went out of their way to research and incorporate futuristic versions of many present-day technologies such as HAL-5 and the da Vinci Surgical System. By the way, why does it seem that after 80 years, exoskeleton technology has barely advanced past where it is now, while an android like David could be so advanced? Well, I have gone on my nerd rant long enough. With all that said, Weyland was an okay enough plot device and I would enthusiastically recommend this movie to anyone. Though, 3D movies still give me the occasionally headache afterward. Now, I just have to PATIENTLY wait for July 20th…

    • Thanks for the compliment and your in-depth comment, Tim!  I agree with pretty much everything you said, but I am skeptical about the anti-aging stuff. But hey, if they can crack that before I’m about to kick the bucket I won’t argue with them. :)