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Prometheus (2012): Some Spoilerific Thoughts

 

Prometheus Screencap of Dr Shaw in Hypersleep

 

I don’t usually ‘do’ movie reviews, so I’m blundering through this. But, I want to declare that I rather loved Prometheus after seeing it a few days ago; though it did also trouble me, in many ways. However, given the mixed reactions I’ve seen towards the movie, I wanted to record my initial thoughts and, quite practically, I wanted to write something that I could point friends to, to indicate exactly why I loved it, at least. So, perhaps this is less a ‘review’ than it is a wondering-out-loud about the movie. (In fact, I’ve just changed the title of the post!)

Basically, I’d love to raise some of these as points for discussion. If you’ve seen the movie (which, right now, is not you, American/Canadian friends – sorry!), then please do let me know your thoughts. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, etc.

So, the primary reason I loved the movie is clear, and I can sum it up in one sentence: Prometheus is a brilliant movie about the unfettered conceit of humankind. And well, that’s why I like it. If you’ve read some of my previous writing, you might realise that criticising this sort of thing is important to me (read: strong hints of this in my previous posting on videogames and cosmic thinking here, or on games and our cognitive biases here, for example!) – and, as such, it was the kind of movie I was looking for. However, there are a number of confounding factors which obscure this a little bit, and it’s this conflict that I want to write about.

I should probably get out of the way two things, though: firstly, that Prometheus does visual beauty, and that-particular-Aliens-esque-body-horror so well that these aspects seem to draw the most attention – and, these in themselves are perfectly valid set of reasons to enjoy the movie, of course. Indeed, I felt like it does both of these things so well that it’s entirely possible to overlook entirely this subtext of deeply criticising human conceit. Also, Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance as David - the most interesting of characters - seems reason enough to love the movie, if little else.

In short, the whole ‘point’ of the movie seems amazingly summed up in the interactions between David and the rest of the crew; particularly within a seminal conversation in which Charlie Holloway opines about the Engineers’ reasons for creating human life, and David asks “why did you create me?” Holloway’s brutal answer is, of course, “because we could.” To this, David notes how disappointing that might be to hear as an answer from one’s creator, though this is only met by some more cold dismissal of David’s ‘worthiness’ as a being (“It’s a good thing you can’t be disappointed”, he says to David.)

Holloway doesn’t learn from this exchange at all, displaying a stunning lack of human empathy (ironic, given the amount of harping on he and Shaw do about the alleged sanctity of being human). At this point, I felt actually satisfied at David’s ‘infecting’ his drink (which, interestingly, meant his own sacred ‘humanness’ was thus perverted horribly. Punishment.)

Edit: As I said in the comments: I read this, actually, as David’s own attempt at ‘playing God’. Once again, life begets life, begets life, ad infinitum, just “because [they] could.”

Indeed, I think Prometheus is a movie which invites you to disagree with the philosophy of all of its main characters, and I wonder if its here that the brunt of the movie’s bad reception may lie. David is excluded from this, as are some of the minor crew members (who were, sadly reduced merely to functional tropes). But, of the rest of the crew of Prometheus, there are absolutely no real likeable characters – and here is where I’ll draw the only real comparison to Alien, which is vastly unlike this. Ripley is, of course, one of the most unequivocally badass characters of all time.

So, though there are a number of interesting relationships in the movie (the Miss Vickers – Peter Weyland – David triangle as an example that I loved), none of the component characters in these relationships stand alone as particularly interesting or likeable. But, that’s okay, as it works for the philosophy of the movie – which is to make only the non-human, David, seem likeable. Although these characters and their flaws (and their endless discussion of their ridiculous human-centric philosophies) somewhat confound and dilute the core message – they work as part of criticising humans.

After all, in Prometheus, no-one ever really brings to task Elizabeth Shaw’s creationist leanings for example,  or her continuing insistence that there should be an answer to humankind’s reason for existing, dismissing David once again, because he ‘is not human.’, and so surely would not understand. Again, the movie (I hope!) invites the viewer to disagree with her, as we have hopefully learnt from the experience, even if she has not. I hope the characters (and the viewer) get thoroughly beaten over the head with this criticism of human conceit in the seemingly-shamelessly-inevitable upcoming sequel, because quite frankly, we need it.

Surely, Peter Weyland’s final, brutal words, as he lays dying at the hands of the Engineer (after being literally beaten over the head by this!), are tragically haunting. A man, who has spent a hubristic lifetime searching for meaning is suddenly struck:  “There’s… nothing.” David’s response is simple: “I know.”

Amazing.

Speaking of Weyland, a side note: after watching the movie, I also felt much more amenable towards the viral marketing “TED 2023″ talk released earlier this year. At the time, I was mostly dismayed by the fact that a ‘fake TED talk’, serving as sheer advertisement, would even masquerade as such on the TED website. I felt it went against the things that TED should, idealistically, be about. However, in the context of having seen Prometheus and noting the themes of criticising human conceit and hubris, I realise that the talk did a far better job of criticising TED than I ever gave it credit for, by highlighting the sort of conceit that it sees TED teetering at the edges of. It just seems, bafflingly, to have gone largely unnoticed. (And, particularly jarring given the positive, earnest reception to the video’s message in the TED comments!)

Anyway.

I will wrap up on my own main criticisms of the movie: obviously, the reliance upon ‘disproving of centuries of Darwinism’ requires some strong suspension (clamping, even?!) of disbelief, which is fine, but the movie does obviously invoke the classic ‘Chariot of the Gods’-esque thinking that humans were placed here by another, more superior race of Aliens – a proposition which is rooted in the fairly racist notion by CofG creator Erich von Daniken that only modern, white cultures are capable of feats of innovation and engineering. I will credit Prometheus though, for not suggesting that any ancient achievements were directly the result of the Engineers, whose involvement on Earth apparently predates CofG-type-thinking. Thankfully.

So, I liked Prometheus for being a movie about the failings of human empathy, the absurdity of human conceit, and our mistaken investment in the sanctity of humanness; failings which never even get resolved, which are left open, unexplored – and, at times, perverted. All of this works massively to its credit. I’m not saying Prometheus is a “smart movie” (whatever that may be), nor should it necessarily try to be. And, it is certainly not a perfect movie. But, I do think that it is a movie which thinks at least one level more than it seems to be given credit for. I am saying that thematically, this movie worked for me, and I hope I’m not still caught up in the highs of having watched it in 3D IMAX in holding it up to almost (though not quite) Blade Runner levels of esteem (thematically, at least) – this seems a far better comparison (in terms of Ridley Scott’s work) than the Aliens series.

8 Responses to “Prometheus (2012): Some Spoilerific Thoughts”

  1. Ed Key says:

    Interesting! Ok, as promised, here are my vaguely collected thoughts on the film.

    Perhaps needless to say, but SPOILERS.

    I loved the opening shots of the film, and everything up to the point
    where they woke from hypersleep. I was a bit thrown by the alien dude
    crumbling into the waterfall, but pretty quickly came round to this as a
    kind of outrageously prog-rock-ish vibe.(*)

    I think I agree with you on paper about the themes of the film.
    Everything David did was fantastic. Sometimes I’m happy to sift through a
    morass for gems, other times not.

    It seemed like an unnecessary attachment to the Alien “universe” and
    symptomatic of a certain corrosive, obsessive commoditisation of
    fiction, like the constant revisiting of Star Wars and maybe even the
    endless rebooting of Batman, Spiderman, Prince of Persia, etc.

    We pretty much rushed home and re-watched Alien to try and blot it out. It felt like a treat.

    —-

    SUPPLEMENTAL RANT:

    (Was going to edit this out but whatever – retaining for maximum brain dump:)

    Scott claims it’s an attempt to “explain” the “Space Jockey” scene in
    Alien, but it’s just a muddle. They even try to make an excuse of it
    being on offshoot of the universe rather than a prequel, but they seem
    to want to have it both ways.

    Sort of linked to that, it felt like the design of the creatures had
    been crowd-sourced. In Alien, there’s an elegant, horrific creature with
    3-4 well-defined stages. In Prometheus, there are about 8 different
    things interacting in many different ways. It sort of implies that the
    “xenomorph” alien evolves at the end, but the divergent craziness seems
    to jar with this more-or-less converged form shown in Alien/Aliens.

    A crew selected for the most important mission in human history acts like the cast of a teen-slasher or reality TV show:

    - Why do they decide not to take weapons with them? One guy says “it’s a science mission” and that’s enough?

    - Randomly do or don’t check the scanners for the location of the
    missing crew (whose suits still work, right?) Why aren’t they taking
    shifts to keep an eye on Punk Guy and Other Guy and this mysterious
    signal?

    - After a horrific series of events, when Punk Guy turns up outside the
    ship after being exposed to the now well-known black goo, they
    immediately let him in. Why don’t they get more cautious and terrified
    instead of less?

    What’s going on with the squid-baby? Is this a corporate plot to conduct
    a horrible experiment? David clearly knows that she’s unnaturally
    pregnant and wants to stop her aborting it, but after she does so,
    no-one acknowledges this. (And the machine only understands male
    anatomy, but manages to operate on her womb? I dunno. It was a great
    scene in isolation. We love Squid-Baby.)

    Contrast with the cast of characters in Alien and how they respond to
    the cosmic horror which they’re confronting. In Prometheus, no-one
    really seems to notice.

    * However, reading the Wikipedia plot summary sent me reeling again:
    apparently this is seeding the Earth with life? Sooo a
    humanoid crumbles into bacteria which then evolves into many other
    things, including humans? And the black goo sometimes dissolves bodies,
    sometimes turns them into werewolves? And what does “DNA Match” mean in
    the film? Would an amoeba’s DNA match?)

    ** I have a feeling there some messy ret-conning going on and was trying to remind myself if any of the Space Jockeys in
    Prometheus has chest-burst wounds before the final scenes, and found
    this
    http://avp.wikia.com/wiki/Engineer#Relation_to_the_Xenomorphs.2C_Yautja_and_other_races
    There’s something depressing in this constant churn.

    Trying to find a quote from Alan Moore about fiction and magic and
    inoculation, I stumbled on this blog post about the Watchmen prequels:

    http://www.juliansanchez.com/2012/02/14/nothing-ever-ends/

    It’s remarkable how every subsequent “Alien” film (shudder) has had to draw on the original concept art.

    Maybe this is the new top-down, coporate-controlled equivalent of the oral storytelling in pre-literate societies?

    • Mitu says:

      Ed, thanks so much for your in-depth and considered comment! You do present a bunch of very compelling points here, and I absolutely do agree with and note all the same holes and problems you mentioned. As I said on Twitter, your line about  being willing to sift through a morass for gems seems particularly apt; I do feel like I’m being far more patient with the movie than I could’ve been.

      Also, anyone reading this: Ed posted an excellent addendum to this on Twitter: “Hubristic folly of filmmaker swamps critique of hubris of humanity” – an excellent line!

      Some more notes:

      - I think I felt more willing to set aside the fact that this is part of the Alien universe, perhaps (again, something about which I chose to be forgiving!)

      - “A crew selected for the most important mission in human history acts like the cast of a teen-slasher or reality TV show.” – Ha, I agree with you there. I sort of wanted to forgive this by contrasting their weird human behaviour with that of David, but, really, in light of Alien, or other similar sci-fi franchises (like my FAVOURITE Sunshine) – in which the crew behave VERY differently, perhaps this is indefensible. :/

      - I thought, perhaps, that squid-baby, and infecting Charlie’s drink etc, were all David’s own attempts at ‘playing God’ himself?

      - With you on the DNA thing: it was unclear, given the way he seemed to ‘seed’ life on Earth, whether it was explicitly humans that were created from him, or everything? I mean, the rest of the film seems to imply the former.

      ANYWAY – I also loved your line: “Maybe this is the new top-down, coporate-controlled equivalent of the oral storytelling in pre-literate societies?” Hmm, yes, troubling for sure.

      Though, still, I’m happy to wade through all the crap for those gems. :)

    • Mitu says:

      Oh, here’s a post with direct quotes from Alan Moore, related to what you said above too: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1679856/alan-moore-on-watchmen-s-toxic-cloud-and-creativity-v-big-business I went looking quickly again today, as the Watchmen prequel actually hit my local comic book store today, and I was toying with whether to buy it or not.

      … I think not.

      Been thinking a lot about your final line, actually. I think you might be right about this whole thing. I mean, I’m still into the philosophy of Prometheus as I’ve discussed, but there’s a lot here that’s troubling, for sure.

      I think the real victim here is set to be the Bladerunner sequel…

  2. > Why do they decide not to take weapons with them? One guy says “it’s a science mission” and> that’s enough?

    I loved that! Yes, that is a perfectly valid reason. There were never any guns on board the Apollo 11 or the Space Shuttle

    > And the black goo sometimes dissolves bodies, 
    > sometimes turns them into werewolves?

    Yeah, and sometimes makes them pregnant with squids, other times it makes their heads explode. That’s the thing that confused me as well. The crew seems to think they were developing weapons of mass destruction. But all the facts just don’t add up to arrive at this conclusion. It’s generally very nebulous what the Engineers wanted. I’m guessing that’s something for the sequels to deal with. Not really happy with this kind of writing.

    Also, the “we were so wrong” moment. That made me do a double-take. Shaw is a scientist who dedicated her life to figure out what the Engineers are. She should be the last person to suggest to leave now. Especially as right afterwards, she decides to go back into the ship with the rest.

    The final exchange with David is similar. David should be perfectly able to understand why Shaw wants to learn more about the Engineers. There is nothing specifically human about that question.

    Also, I never really understood why David infected Holloway in the first place. How did David know that it would do something when ingested? He didn’t even put it under a microscope or anything. It could have been engine oil for all he knew? If this was Weyland programming – that wouldn’t make any sense either. Why would Weyland be interested in killing the crew? David could have been driven by a desire to “deliver results”. In this case, there is a scene missing where David figures out what the black goo does.

    Finally, why was the medical machine only programmed for male anatomy when it was installed in 
    Miss Vickers private quarters as her personal safety precaution. Is she trans-gender?In general, I loved the character interaction. There were some really interesting motifs and philosophies clashing with each other. They just needed a coherent plot to match.

    • Mitu says:

      Thanks for the comment! I answered the thing about David’s motivation for infecting Holloway in my response to Ed above too; I simply read this as David’s own attempt at ‘playing God’. Life begets life, begets life, ad infinitum, just “because [they] could.”

      Oh, I thought the thing about the medical machine being programmed for male anatomy, and the earlier reference that it can perform a heart bypass, were both simply meant as references to the fact that Peter Weyland was definitely on board (before we explicitly saw him), as we can assume it’s there for him.

  3. Paul Sheran says:

    Wow.
    So many deep observations.

    Well I guess I’ll add my tuppence worth.

    I really liked Prometheus. Simply because I thought of it as a very good basis to the (partial) origins of the whole Alien universe.

    I thought that it was an excellent seed for a plethora of new directions to take the whole Alien franchise, in that it created and answered many questions regarding where the aliens came from, how complex life on Earth began (note I use the term ‘complex life’ and not solely ‘life’), why did the ‘Engineers’ make a base of operations on that planet, where was their home planet, etc. So many possibilities for stories to explore.

    Wonderful.

    Point of view number 1 – Hubris
    ——————————————–
    I think the view that only a private enterprise could execute a mission like this, really said a lot about how man has felt he had reached such a height (a type 1 or possibly type 2 – see link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdILmgJGuvw) where he feels powerful enough to reach into outer space and hold his own (either physically or intellectually) with whatever’s out there.

    This corporation obviously no longer answers to governments or laws, since they’ve reached a level where the pursuit of intelligent life doesn’t require the co-operation of them.

    Is this hubris? Is this confidence? Is this an exercise in self sufficiency?

    My belief is that, someone powerful enough to perform such an act is both frightening and inspiring.

    Point of view number 2 – Life on Earth
    ——————————————————
    When I watched the film (26 June 12 – I know it was late in the day. I’m incredibly lazy), I was taken in by the complete beauty of the script. Yes, it has some weak spots, but beyond the detail the overall tapestry brings new (and sorely needed) inspiration.

    The opening to the film really made me think. What was that gunk the Earthbound Engineer consumed? What did it do to his dna?

    The answer in my mind was that it in addition to completely destroying him and his dna, it also completely reprogrammed it to adapt to the environment it was introduced to. Just like in the sequel alien films (from 3 onwards), the aliens created from the lifeforms they burst from, take on some of the dna and form of their host and integrate it into theirs. Now if that is a type of diversity of species created in an uncontrolled wild/natural environment, imagine what could be done if you managed to control the process and introduce it on another planet as an experiment of sorts.

    Awesome. A backstory there if ever there was one.

    Point of view number 3 – CofG
    ——————————————-
    I do take a similar view that the CofG take, really does scream racism (and as a black man I could probably to take that view) but I guess I’m happier taking comfort in seeing that the film clearly displays the Engineers a being extremely violent and untrustworthy and so feel comfortable that Hollywood chose not to couple that negative part of the story with dark pigmentation. He chose to be more historically accurate.

    In a more subtle way, Ridley seems to be walking in the footsteps of Jim Cameron (Avatar anyone?).

    Point of view number 4 – David
    ——————————————-
    A performance that was inspired. I found David to be so intriguing, that he should have a film devoted to him. The character was so quintessentially well mannered and polite that you felt naturally drawn to him, but you could sense that there was a touch of Hannibal Lector hiding behind that ever so polite facade. His menacing traits were so well hidden behind his razor-like intellect that the only way you could detect how dangerous he is was only through the ever-so-human sense of intuition (“There’s something just off about that guy. I can’t put my finger on it. But I just know it.”).

    The fact that he infected or chose to keep infected the crew members, I believe, was simply him carrying out his orders. Whatever lifeforms on this mission that were found, ensure you get them back to Earth for study. By any means necessary.  Crew expendable. 

    The company is nothing if not consistent.

    Point of view number 5 – What The F### happened on the Engineer’s ship?
    ———————————————————————————————————–
    The amount of clues in the film to show that something went terribly wrong on the ship of the Engineers makes me wonder what had gone so wrong that they couldn’t regain control of the situation? It seemed that only two Engineers survived (out of Lord know how many) and made it to stasis pods. 

    I mean, these guys created complex life on Earth for crying out loud.

    Whatever they were running from scared the living Hell out of them. Another plotline to follow. Graphic novel anyone?

    Closing
    ———-
    Like I said, there were some weak elements to the plot (i.e., if a male human engineer’s dna created complex life on Earth, how did we get all the hot female chicks that populate our planet? Or even two genders for different species in the first place? I guess it’s a Darwinist-thing), but I strongly believe that there’s a whole host of excellent stories yet to unfold from this film and I for one give it top marks.

    Shabazzy

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