Post Prometheus Depression
This past summer a disturbing and depressing event happened to me, one which it has taken me months to come to terms with. That event was an opening night theater viewing of the new Ridley Scott film, and Alien prequel, Prometheus. Hailed as Scott's triumphant return to science fiction, at the helm of a franchise he helped launch no less, the film had a great deal of potential. The trailer remains on the best I've ever seen, eerie, haunting, gripping and with audio and visual callbacks to the original Alien film.
The film itself however was an agonizing train-wreck, a perplexing mix of vivid and incredibly well done visual effects that, thanks to dull lifeless characters, are entirely void of purpose. Much like the Star Wars prequels there are very few technical faults to be found, and a whole lot to love on the visual level, but where the film stumbles in it's characters and story telling. So now, in spoiler-ific detail I will join my voice with the hundreds of other similar nerds who felt betrayed and let down by this film.
It will probably help to have seen the film but also bear in mind that I only saw the film once on opening night so my memory as to each and every detail may be a bit fuzzy (I'll do my best).
When I first left the theater I felt let down, to be sure, but for the first few hours I attempted to rationalize away the questions I had by discussing the film with those I'd seen it with. When they couldn't present any good answers I turned to the internet, which was already abuzz with content about the film, much of it understandably negative. It took me until recently to truly see just how BAD of a movie this is and just why it feels that way.
One of the main flaws here is the characters. Not only are all the characters static, as in not a single one of them has any real arc, all of them are also, simultaneously, inconsistent. It really is sort of baffling just how a character can have no arc and yet feel like they change to a completely different sort of character from scene to scene.
Our two main characters, Holloway and Shaw, are scientists who've spent their careers tracking down clues which seem to point to alien visitation having taken place in Earth's past.
Part 1 - The Glyph
Their main piece of evidence for this is a recurring glyph that appears all over the world in very different cultures which shows a figure pointing to several stars. There are several issues here that others have pointed out, such as how the Prometheus team manage to find the LV planetary system based on the handful of stars in the glyph. There aren't exactly reference stars around them, no recognizable constellations to steer by.
My main complaint about the star-pointing alien is that it is said to occur in various cultures throughout human history. So then how did the aliens leave it? And why? This is similar to ACTUAL pseudoscientific claims made by ancient astronaut believers today, who believe that things like pyramids occur in so many cultures because they were all taught to build them by aliens. The problem with both of these ideas, the star-pointer and the pyramid builders is that not all cultures build pyramids at the same time. In the same way not all the cultures that supposedly drew these glyphs or paintings existed concurrently. The ancient Egyptian pyramids were built at least 2000 years before most of the pyramids in Mexico and in the same way the cultures that would have painted this glyph of an alien (or man) pointing to some stars would have reached their peak at VASTLY different times.
So how long did the Engineers spend on Earth? Did they selectively visit certain cultures at certain times to pass on certain knowledge? Did they even visit the Earth AT ALL? The only Engineer we ever even see on Earth dissolves in the opening sequence of the film, and his DNA seems to seed microbial life (not humans), on a planet which is never even ESTABLISHED as being Earth anyway.
On top of all that there is the question of why the Engineers wanted to leave maps to get to the LV system in the first place. As is explained later the moons in the LV system are used to store weaponized black-goo (by explained I mean explained badly). So why would the aliens want human beings in the future to find those facilities? Did human beings make these glyphs and NOT aliens, and if so than why did the humans of the ancient past know about the symbol at all?
They want us to come and find them
Part 2 - Shaw and Holloway
So based on no evidence whatsoever Shaw believes that the alien depicted in these glyphs had a hand in creating humans. When asked why she believes she simply replies that she chooses to believe things. This idea, that belief is a simple choice, betrays just how unscientific and stupid Shaw's character is. Reality be damned, she'll believe what she CHOOSES even if that means throwing out facts and wallowing in open self-deception.
This fact, that Shaw will believe whatever she wants regardless of what the facts are, is probably the most consistent thing about a character in the film. She stubbornly holds onto a cross she wears even after learning that the Engineers have DNA essentially identical to that of humans, thus disproving any version of Christianity that anyone could come up with beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Now on to Holloway, who is a worthless character that is pointless to the script. He's presumably spent his career studying these glyphs with Shaw and building their case (as flimsy as it is) for an expedition to the vaguely defined stellar coordinates depicted therein. So naturally he's excited, after all not everyone get's to meet their maker. However keep in mind that Holloway is USED to studying ancient cultures and learning about people who are already dead, and most of the depictions of the symbol are indeed ancient. There is NO reason for him to ASSUME that the aliens are still alive and well or that, if they are alive, they even remember visiting our backwater planet to seed life/civilization here in the first place.
When they do arrive on the planet (sorry, moon) and discover the aliens are indeed dead Holloway reacts like a petulant man-child and begins sulking. He's just made the definitive discovery in all of human history. Not only are we not alone in the Universe but we were in fact visited and created by aliens. Holy shit! That overturns centuries of science which suggested that we evolved naturally without outside intelligent influence. We're talking easy Nobel Prize, maybe even having a brand new kind of prize named after you which will go on to judge scientists of the future for centuries.
Nope. He's sad because he doesn't get to talk to his gods, they're all dead. Except that, just as before, he has no reason to ASSUME that they are all dead. Sure the ones they find are pretty much fossilized and ancient but that doesn't mean the species died out. Obviously this base they find themselves in, on this dangerous moon they've landed on, is not the main residence of this species. It's safe to say that if this civilization visited Earth in the ancient past they could be spread out across the stars on hundreds of planets and thousands of moons.
I guess I can understand some disappointment on his part but the way he acts, sulking and drinking. His character later dies (is lit on fire) in what feels like a rushed attempt to add some tension or action to the film (there are numerous times when it feels like the screen-writer said to himself “we haven't had anything action-packed or scary in a while, better throw in some of that”).
Part 3 - David
David is one of the better things about the film primarily because Fassbender is a damn good actor and gives a great performance. The issue is that while his performance is great his character's motivations are confusing. On the one hand he seems to be there to help save Weylan, his “Father” but on the other he seems to know a whole lot more about the aliens than he ever lets on (including how to set them off into a murderous rage).
Very little about him is explained, such as his fascination with Laurence of Arabia, his reasoning behind poisoning Holloway with the goo, and where he gained all the knowledge of the alien, well, the alien everything. Also his motivations are all at once contradictory. He quips at one point in the film that “all children want their parents dead” or something to that effect.
Part 4 - Fifield and the Biologist
Fifield is a geologist who loves rocks. He has two spherical orbs which create an in-depth map of the area around him and are great for mapping caves. Despite his expertise and his high-tech helpers he manages to get lost on his way back to the ship. Later on, because the script needed an action scene, the black goo, which earlier got Holloway sick and made him suicidal, turns Fifield into a contorted zombie with a giant head.
The biologist. The only reason an expedition in space needs a biologist is if aliens are going to be involved. So naturally you'd want to hire a guy who's prepared to see some crazy alien shit, especially if you were expecting, as Shaw and Holloway were, to find intelligent life. Now I understand they didn't brief them before leaving but finding someone with the right psychological profile to, you know, NOT shit themselves when they see an alien, might be helpful.
Also the biologist is afraid of a fossilized alien body but later on tries to make-out with a deadly space-penis.
In space no one can hear you fall in love with a space phallus
Part 5 - Vickers and other minor characters
Vickers is a worthless character. There is meant to be some meaningful interplay between her, as Weylan's real child and David as Weylan's android-child. There does seem to be some jealousy between the two though it is in the background, barely brought up in passing and then dropped upon Vickers hilarious gut-busting-laugh inducing death at the hand of her own stupidity.
The Captain is a pointless character, just there because, you know, these ships need a captain. He follows the scientific side of things very loosely but somehow knows the intimate details of the plot, including that this moon is a weapons facility.
The two pilots, who up until this point have been null characters, decide to sacrifice their lives beside the captain, for a mission that neither of them knew anything about when they left Earth (and neither of them REALLY know anything for sure about even as they kill themselves).
Oh and Weylan is in the movie, for some reason, and dies.
Big Ideas, Shitty Movie
I think one of the biggest issues with this film is that rather than trying to tell a good science-fiction or horror story (the way the original Alien did) it attempts to be just another vehicle for some of Ridley's favorite themes and ideas. The film shares a common theme with Blade Runner, a theme about finding your maker and getting answers from them.
The sad thing is that Prometheus neglects to tell a good story because the big glaring and obvious ideas keep being driven home with forced dialogue and constant reinforcement. At one point Shaw's character simply blurts out that “she can't create life” and then begins crying because it turns out she's unable to have children.
At that point in the film it hasn't even been established that Holloway and Shaw are even DATING. The only hint we've had that the two characters have any romantic involvement is that they held hands when they found the last cave painting. Suddenly Shaw is sad she can't have a baby and for some reason that makes her want to have sex with Holloway in a forced and pointless sex scene that does nothing to give the characters depth or emotional connection to the audience but does further the plot by (inexplicably) impregnating Shaw with a mutant squid.
The black goo has had three different effects on three different characters. It makes Shaw pregnant with a face-hugger, it makes Holloway get sick and want to be burned alive and it turns Fifield into a zombie. Almost seems like it does whatever the hell they wanted it to and has no rules or logic attached to it. It's the Alien Universe equivalent of the Infinite Improbability Drive.
The film's theme of Creation and Destruction of life, the struggle of the old generation against their offspring and vice versa, is an interesting one to be sure. The question of why the Engineers want to destroy us is on everyone's minds, even after Shaw is horribly injured during an impromptu alien abortion her first desire is to find answers to why the Engineers hate us, not to return to Earth for further medical attention or some reinforcements.
David is our creation, much like we are the Engineers creation and he seems to resent human beings, especially his own Father. Weylan, for whatever reason, is aboard the ship and believes aliens have the secret to eternal life (again for whatever reason). Weylan asserts that David doesn't have a soul but that human beings do have souls and yet Weylan seems unwilling to just die of old age the way he should. If he has a soul that will presumably live on after death than why is he so afraid to die? Or is he just saying that line of dialogue (as a hologram mind you) to be a dick to David?
As I said the themes in the film are interesting, the film wants to be about something bigger, about creation, destruction, about our fears and hatred of the younger generation that will inevitably replace us and about our contradictory desire to both commune with and kill our own parents. It's very Freudian in a sense and also reminded me heavily of the story of Cronus, who devoured his own children because one of them was meant to go on to betray him and kill him.
Rather than use its underlying themes to service the plot Prometheus throws plot out the window to shove Shaw's cross in your face and keep reminding us, without ever explaining anything, that the Engineers both created us and now have repented of making mankind and seek to destroy us.
The true beauty of the original Alien film is clear to me now. It's a simple story, one about a group of blue collar workers in space being picked off by an alien monster aboard their spaceship. It's straight-forward and it doesn't shove the plot into the background in order to shove it's own pretentious feeling of self-worth and meaning onto the viewer. Prometheus wants to be ABOUT something but in doing so it forgets to be ABOUT something that HAPPENS.
You can write down the events that happen in the film Alien and they all make sense. Sure there are some stands you could tug on that might unravel (such as how quickly the alien grows to adulthood) but everything that transpires in the film is, more or less, explained. Any questions raised are outside the story (such as “who laid all the eggs?” and “what is the space-jockey?”).
If you sat down and wrote out a journal entry on what had happened to the crew of the Nostromo you could likely explain the whole thing fairly easily. The plot is simple and any psychosexual themes regarding the lead female character and the phallic design of Giger's alien and the fact that the first one impregnated is a man are all in the background. Any deeper meaning read into Alien takes a back seat to a very well-executed and fairly simple horror film.
If you wrote down the events that happened the crew of the Prometheus it would look like an awful jumbled mess. The way the pieces fit together is so messy as to defy explanation.
Prometheus gets busted like a myth
Prometheus forgets that the best way to execute deeper themes and get them across to the audience is to TELL A GOOD STORY. The movie has so much potential. It has themes of the creation and destruction of life, it has elements of ancient alien origins similar to 2001 and an undercurrent of Lovecraftian horror, it has the promise of alien monstrosities attacking characters, and it has the framework of the entire Alien franchise to help set up a satisfying backstory.
Prometheus somehow squanders all of that. And thus from one of Hollywood's best directors, from a science-fiction visionary, we get a bad movie made all the worse by the fact that it had so much promise. I may never quite get over being fooled by Prometheus and I know that any future sequel-prequels will have a mountain of expectations to overcome.