Prometheus-ship

Prometheus: Things I Liked, Things I Didn’t

It’s been a few weeks now since Prometheus hit screens, but the vociferous dialogue about the film has barely died down – it has its fair share of lovers and haters, and it seems the only thing no one thinks is that it was just all right. I don’t fall into that category either, as I really enjoyed it and can’t quite believe the amount of vitriol I’ve seen hurled at it. In any case, here are the things I liked and disliked about it. I am NOT holding back spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, hold off on reading this until you have. There are plenty of other spoiler-free takes on the film around, both positive and negative.

Things I Liked

The visuals

Nobody denies that Ridley Scott’s strength is visual; even the people who hate Prometheus acknowledge that it looks ridiculously gorgeous. That goes an awfully long way with me, and giving me something pretty to look at is perhaps all-too-effective at getting me to overlook flaws in other areas. I think the flaws people have pointed out in Prometheus are largely overblown, but even if I didn’t, I’m not sure I wouldn’t still have enjoyed the hell out of watching it. From the opening fly-over to the intricate interior of the mounds, not to mention the dazzling effects in the map room and even the static-filled holograms, my eyes were happy every second of this film.

The story it chose to tell

There are lots of stories that could be told within the Alien universe, but when I rewatched Alien a few days before going to see Prometheus, I realized that the story I wanted to see was about the giant pilot in the crashed spaceship. At one point in Alien, that seems to be a big mystery, but then they get attacked, horror takes over, and it becomes about survival rather than discovery, and I wanted to get back to the discovery. Prometheus is all about the discovery, and tells the story that had piqued my curiosity in the first place. Even though the mystery isn’t fully solved, I felt more at home, inspired and fulfilled by seeing this story addressed.

The scope

This is an ambitious film, there’s no doubt. Whether it totally reaches the heights it aims for is debatable (even I won’t hold that the film is quite as much 2001 as it seems, at times, to want to be), but I really appreciated that it went for the kind of scale and immensity that it did. It goes claustrophobic when it needs to, but there’s always a sense of the immense, of the beyond, of the sheer magnitude of the universe and of the mission these characters are on. I mean, what we’re dealing with is creation itself, the origin of the human race – and by extension, probably other races on other worlds as well. And it goes even beyond that. It opens with a mysterious figure sacrificing himself to merge his DNA with an as-yet-lifeless world. It doesn’t get more epic than that, and while it narrows down to focus on a single crew and its survival, that epic scope is always in the background.

Asking the big questions

There very few questions as big as “why are we here”, and that’s what Prometheus asks. It’s a staple of cerebral sci-fi cinema, and though Prometheus dabbles in the horror sandbox as well, it never totally loses sight of the ontological questions that drive hard sci-fi. The conversation between Holloway and David is probably the clearest example of this, as Holloway despairs of being able to ask the Engineers why they created us but easily answers David’s similar query that humans made robots “because they could.” David’s response, that perhaps the Engineers had no more reason to create us than that, leaves Holloway speechless. He wanted more. We want more. Holloway’s kind of an arrogant asshole and he treats David like crap, but the film doesn’t totally denounce or endorse the desire to know more about who we are, where we came from, and what our purpose in the universe is. It allows the question to exist, to simmer…

Not answering them

…and remain unanswered. There is no answer (at least not one that can be gotten through purely scientific means). The scientists in Prometheus cannot find out the answer on their voyage, but at least one of them continues to ask it, and the asking of it is what sci-fi is about. When it’s pointed out to Elizabeth that they’ve found their creators, she immediately follows up with “but who created them?” The question is everything, the journey. And though Prometheus gets sidetracked by horror, like Alien did, it returns to the journey (as Alien did not), futile or no.

David and Elizabeth as rationality vs. belief

Going along with that, I actually appreciated the interplay of science and religion in the film, as half-cocked as some of it is. I’m glad Scott didn’t end up going explicitly with the “Space Jesus” idea, as that might’ve been a bit much for me to handle (suspending disbelief to allow for alien race creators is about as far as I can probably go; tying it directly to Christian history wouldn’t have worked for me), but the suggestion of some relationship between these aliens and the search for God intrigued me greatly. Elizabeth continues to wear the cross of her father, not seeing a disconnect between becoming a scientist searching for the origin of her species, and her religious beliefs in a creator – and note that she doesn’t even think the Engineers are the end of that search, as Holloway does (and despairs), but when it’s pretty much proven that the Engineers are behind our DNA, she wants to know the next step. Meanwhile, David is the emotionless rational side of science, who, quite understandably, thinks there is no greater secret to human existence but that the Engineers made them just because they could – yet he is also inquisitive about them, and pushes as many boundaries as Elizabeth. I liked the push and pull the two had with each other, and that the film let them have it and didn’t paint either one as right or wrong.

Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender

Relatedly, Elizabeth and David are really the main characters of the story – Elizabeth more so, but David is more a lead than anybody else besides Elizabeth. And I thought both Rapace and Fassbender did outstanding jobs with them. I haven’t seen any of Rapace’s other American films yet, but she definitely makes good on her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo role and proves she’s got as bright a future in international filmmaking as she wants. Elizabeth certainly has some of Ripley in her, with just as strong a determination to survive, yet she’s also got a bit more softness to her, a bit more idealism. I liked that even though the character calls back to Ripley in a lot of ways (even in the plotting and staging of a lot of scenes), Elizabeth is very much her own character. Similarly, David could’ve been just like any of the other androids that Weyland has used in the other films, but he’s not. It’s up in the air for most of the film whether he’s going to be like Ash or like Bishop, and in the end, he’s both and neither. And Fassbender plays him with just the right amount of robotic indifference mixed with a bit of almost-human curiosity.

The caesarean section

Certainly the highlight virtuoso scene of the movie, as almost everyone agrees, is Elizabeth’s self-induced caesarean section to get rid of the alien she’s been impregnated with. It’s the scene that most proves Elizabeth’s legacy from Ripley, and doesn’t hold back at all in terms of gore, visceral effect, or intensity. This is where Prometheus comes closest to Alien in tone and feel, and I appreciated that even though out and out horror is less my thing than the cerebral sci-fi Prometheus more often goes after. As a single scene, I thought it was fantastic. I’m glad the whole film wasn’t full of this sort of thing, though.

The call-backs to Alien

I’m not the hugest fan of Alien (which may be one reason that I tend to see Prometheus as a more-intelligent-than-average summer blockbuster instead of a disappointing entry in a beloved franchise), but I am a sucker for continuity, and though not everything totally fits together as nicely as one might like between Alien and Prometheus, I still really enjoyed seeing those connections, even down the very structure, which seemed more like homage than self-plagiarism to me. I liked that the goo containers presaged the egg field. I liked seeing the flight deck pre-crash, and I liked expanding the mythology of the alien life-cycle. I liked the tag, seeing the fully-formed alien finally born, and I liked the echos of earlier characters in Elizabeth and David. You could consider it derivative, and many do. But while watching, I loved catching those references and echos (and I know I missed a bunch too, not having seen Alien3 or Alien: Resurrection). On the other hand, this continuity thing also led to one of my dislikes…read on for that.

Things I Was Indifferent About

The scientist comedy duo and stupidity in general

A lot of reviews I’ve read end up hating the film largely because they can’t get past how stupid some of the people are in it, especially the two scientists who take off on their own to head back to the ship and end up getting lost and encountering the larval alien. I can see why it’s bothersome to people, but it didn’t really bother me at all. It’s not their story, and I didn’t find them any more distracting or offputting than the alien-fodder engineers in Alien. Maybe my rationalizing is particularly strong here, but I figured the geologist could be good at geology and making machines that read rocks without necessarily having good navigation skills. I figured the biologist could be put off by dead bodies killed in unknown and violent ways and still be intrigued by the appearance of a new life form. I figured that Holloway’s excitement about finding the Engineers would be enough to overcome any good sense he may or may not have had in taking off his helmet – he wanted to experience it NOW rather than waiting for the next day, why wouldn’t he have wanted to experience it DIRECTLY, especially after David said it was safe? And as far as them being scientists (and supposedly smart) as opposed to tugboat crew members (and supposedly dumb – thanks, stereotypes) like in Alien, I figured that Vickers had a hand in choosing them, and she has no desire for the mission to succeed. Why wouldn’t she pick people she thought might fail? Like I said, rationalizing to some degree, but I’m fine with that. None of these things even bothered me while watching the film; I was too caught up in it.

Things I Didn’t Like

One leap of logic in particular

Generally, I was fine going along with the team as they expanded their knowledge and refined their hypotheses, but the one major one that bugged me was how quickly Elizabeth jumped to the conclusion that a) the engineers now wanted to kill humanity and b) humanity had done something wrong to deserve this. I don’t think it’s necessarily the most obvious explanation, though I do think it’s an acceptable one. I just wish someone had been like “hold up,” what if the engineer they woke up was just disoriented after cryosleep and lashed out in self-defense against what it probably assumed were attackers? What if they were coming to make more cave paintings with earthlings, rather than destroy them? Given that we only ever see the black goo destroy, they’re probably right that the engineers mean us harm, but even in that case, why assume that we’re to blame for that? Couldn’t it just be like David suggested, that engineers made humans because they could, and now they’re tired of the experiment and want to use Earth for a new one? Or consider our shutdown simply a matter of course, as we would shut down a robot we no longer had need or or wanted? I’m not saying I think that Elizabeth et al were wrong in their conclusions, just that I wished there had been a little more development of that thought process and exploration of other possibilities and/or proof that this hypothesis was correct before acting on the assumption that it was.

The sex scene lead up between Theron and Elba

This was one of the few things that felt like an utter manipulative set-up to me. “We need the bridge to be empty for the next scene, so we’ve got to get the captain out of there….I know, we’ll have him off having sex with Vickers!” Uh, what? This just didn’t make much sense to me at all. I can see on some level that the captain would be attracted to Vickers – Charlize Theron is hot even when she’s acting like a stone-cold bitch, plus there was probably some element of conquest, getting under the skin of someone so icy cold. From her point of view, the only explanation I can think of is that his suggestion that she might be a robot rankled her THAT MUCH because she felt her father’s favoritism of David so strongly – but yeah, however I rationalize this one, it still played weird for me at the time. As opposed to the other things I rationalized above, which played fine for me at the time.

The fact that it isn’t the same planet as in Alien

I assumed the entire movie that the place they landed on was the same as the place in Alien. It only makes sense. At the end of Prometheus, an Engineer ship crash lands, an alien queen is born, who could then go lay all the eggs that the crew in Alien find in the crashed ship, and Elizabeth leaves a transmission, which the Nostromo hears and follows. In fact, Weyland Corp’s secret agenda was to seek out that transmission and that planet to find out what had happened to Prometheus and its mission. But it’s not the same planet. It has a different name (I’m not familiar enough with Alien to have realized that while watching), and anyway, there are other reasons it can’t be the same – the space jockey isn’t in his seat at the end of Prometheus, for one thing, and for another, Weyland Corp presumably knew where Prometheus was heading and could’ve just gone back there instead of waiting to hear an emergency transmission. BUT. But but but. It would’ve been so much cleaner if it had been the same planet. It being a different one is soooo messy. Now some other Engineer ship has got to crash land on the other (very similar) planet, another (very similar) alien queen somehow has to be born (how, without a couple of human hosts in between, given the reproductive process we see in Prometheus?), and a very similar transmission has to be left for Nostromo to hear. Prometheus asks for a lot of leaps of logic, but for me, this was the only one that I couldn’t easily justify.

  • Dan Heaton

    Jandy, I’m right with you on your reaction, especially to the different planet thing. I also didn’t realize that until after I saw Prometheus, and it was disappointing. I guess they could pursue that in a sequel, but it seems like it would be repetitive. There’s so much to like in the movie, especially with the gorgeous shots and the big themes, but some elements are disappointing. The pace moves so quickly near the end that it feels like scenes are missing. I also think Rapace deserves a ton of credit for her performance, which was my favorite in the movie. Nice post!

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      Exactly, I spent the whole movie thinking how nicely it dovetailed right into Alien, only to find out later (when someone told me about the different planet numbers) that it…didn’t. I won’t say it was enough to ruin Prometheus for me, but it did knock it down a couple of pegs, just because writing it as two different planets seems so circuitous and pointless, when it could’ve been very streamlined and perfectly integrated.

      Rapace is great. I’m looking forward to watching pretty much everything else she does. :)

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