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 astonishing conceit of humankind. And well, that’s why I like it. If you’ve read some of my previous writing, you might realise this is a theme which I’m really interested in (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.”
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!)
I will wrap up on my own main criticisms of the movie: obviously, the reliance upon ‘disproving of centuries of Darwinism’ requires some enormous forgiveness of artistic licence, 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.