Ten Things You Should Know about Prometheus

Because there has been more secrecy around this film than around [relevant political joke], I wanted to put something spoiler-free above the fold for my Prometheus review.

So, have you ever gotten trapped by a magician?

Accidentally caught in his gravitational field outdoors or penned in during a high school talent show, sitting quietly and hoping not to be noticed as he tells you he’s going to show you a trick, and with great flair, pulls a playing card out of his sleeve. He shows it to the audience with relish, his awkward patter filling the air. Once or twice he flourishes it, as if about to make it vanish or turn it into a bird, but he never does. At intervals, he acts as though he’s done something amazing. Finally, someone in the audience takes the bait and asks what the trick is.

And the magician grins and says, “Oh, this isn’t a trick, sir, it’s a playing card! Ha ha!”

Welcome to Prometheus. Except the magician has more character development.

(In space, no one can hear your spoilers.)

1. First things first: Yes, this is a direct prequel to Alien. It’s fine if you didn’t expect that; the entire promo campaign has been, “Prometheus: Not an Alien Prequel, We Swear,” and the production design looks only barely related. Which is about right, unfortunately, for the film in general; everything is only barely related, to the franchise, to itself, to the whole business.

2. There are three opening scenes in a row that, taken together, lay the groundwork for what you can expect. There’s a lovely sequence of android David (Michael Fassbender, in a truly amazing performance that would single-handedly carry the film if the film could be carried) marking time on the Prometheus in transit; he monitors a crewman’s dreams, rides a bike while shooting hoops, learns ancient languages, watches Lawrence of Arabia. By the time the others wake up, you’re already invested in David. So is the movie.

3. The same can’t be said of the preceding scene, where Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and insufferable boyfriend Charlie (who are anthropologists but also maybe medical doctors or professional geneticists, this movie is not sure) find a cave painting with a cosmic marker indicating off-planet origins of intelligent life. Elizabeth cries, wibbles over Charlie, and subtly clutches the cross her dad gave her because Christianity Intelligent Design Faith Character! They are that couple in the diner booth next to you who sit on the same side and coo over their joint Facebook feed on a shared iPad. By the time we see them on board the Prometheus, tweely explaining that they’re orbiting a moon they suspect to be the origin of mankind’s genetic predecessor, you are sort of hoping they get eaten. (This is a particular sadness given that Shaw is a Ripley corollary; we’ll get there.)

4. But the clincher is the scene before that; the camera helicopters through breathtaking scenery until we reach a river, and a topless dude cut like the Atlas in front of Rock Center. He cracks open a tin of alien caviar and eats it. Then his DNA explodes and he falls into the water and breaks into a million pieces, but then his DNA comes back together and now it’s orange, and we all know what THAT means. (We do not know what that means, because what happened makes no sense and is impossible to explain.)

5. Speaking of things that are impossible to explain, let’s talk about the psychosexual monster-birthing worldbuilding during exploration of the Nyarlathotep Beach House. There are fossilized humanoids who were in the middle of having their heads exploded, whose deaths are recorded and replayed forever as holographic memory-static because reasons, and they lead to a room full of weird vases that sweat oily goop and are full of exploding-head caviar, and there are penisvagina snakes in the oily goop, and they shove themselves into men’s faces (of course), except they don’t impregnate men, just choke them and then bleed and explode into acid and then scurry away but that’s it, nothing else happens, and the acid blood burns through space helmets so that the black oil can get into your orifices (of course), but the black oil just turns you into a hairy strong guy who has to be burned AND shot?, and if David feeds you one caviar of alien vase bubble tea, then you immediately get your infertile girlfriend pregnant with Cthulu (of course) and then your head explodes with changing DNA because you know, and then the Cthulu grows up and impregnates someone and when the chestburster comes out it immediately evolves into a proto-Alien alien, because when you’re going for psychosexual bacchanals of terror, it’s important that you have everything creepy happen even if it none of it is related or causal or consistent! WORLDBUILDING.

Above: Idris Elba, just having read the script for the first time.

6. In a lesser offense of worldbuilding, but something that I actually trusted Ridley Scott to be a little better about, the production design in this movie is straight-up hilarious. Though it takes place before the events of Alien, we have approximately twice the schmancy-tech aesthetic, including executive quarters with a seamless projection-screen window, and a med pod (one of only twelve in the world, by the way, Charlize Theron and Rapace hasten to exposit to us!), and real-time holographic mapping technology, and the usual. It’s fine, as far as it goes (except the medpod, but we’ll get there), but even if you make allowances for the Nostromo being a backwater rig and the Prometheus being a limo with a fish tank in it, there is a design gap here that I figured Ridley would have been better about, since he is a director who wants the design to be amazing and his scripts to write themselves and his actors to direct themselves.

7. …With mixed results! Sure, Fassbender is outstanding as the backbone of the film. (The only real moral divide between characters here is their treatment of David: accepting, or othering. Charlie the Dullest and Worst, of course, treats David like shit, and gets exploding-DNA caviar for his trouble. Theron’s character treats David as an equal in her own way, but since she’s the overachieving daughter of Mr. Weyland and David is Weyland’s acknowledged chosen child, it’s not friendly. Elizabeth treats David like an equal – as friend or enemy – and their relationship is the only one in the film with any tension or depth). Idris Elba brings more to the practical-ship’s-captain role than anyone could have hoped, but even he can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and his perfunctory courting of Theron’s officer slides into place with the other proscribed machinations among character actors who, in other contexts, have all done better (the geologist and the biologist don’t get along! The meteorologist and the pilot are best friends!). And in her non-David scenes, Elizabeth mostly talks about how her beliefs trump the evidence (scientist!) and how she can’t have a kid so obviously she’s looking for the root of all life in space instead (feminism!) and crying a lot.

8. It’s one of the movie’s most profound disappointments that she is the center of the narrative. She is, the movie tells us, the proto-Ripley, and we should root for her; it’s her research that proves the aliens and their location, her enthusiasm that convinces Weyland to fund the project. We know that the alien discovery will, of course, be horrific and cast-winnowing, but the movie goes to great pains to enforce the thrill of scientific discovery at all costs, so much that there’s a Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings theme that plays whenever the movie wants to remind you that discovery is the best (even though this movie hates scientific discovery; it would be genius comedy in a penisvagina-snake movie if it was on purpose), and we’re supposed to identify with her yen to know more. Except that her yen is mostly focused on Charlie and her Jesusdad who died and also cross, so she spends most of her time talking about how she didn’t use scientific rigor so much as religious belief to find this alien connection, and cries a lot (perhaps a side effect of her wooden Charlie-scenes dialogue). One of her main crying moments is about her infertility, which is brought up handily, five minutes before we discover that she’s pregnant, and it’s an Elder God! (How suddenly-gendered of you, franchise!)

When she outwits supercreeper David and the crew who want to put her back in pregnantstasis, and performs surgery on herself in the medpod, we’re supposed to be thrilled at her survival instinct. Instead, we watch as she tries to program a medpod that, in the year 2093, is only programmed for male anatomy (it would be an interesting side note if it was on purpose and not plotcakes!), and instead convinces the machine to take out an unwanted foreign object in her abdomen, with the world’s most precise toy-grab claw ever. David seems very pleased to see her again – in space, no one can hear you having hard feelings about the attempted forced pregnancy! – and she spends the rest of the movie running and doubling over at intervals to remind you that caesarian sections are still painful, even in the future, so never have sex with your boyfriend because he might be infected with exploding-DNA caviar and then you’ll have to deal with a Cthulu-fetus and it serves you right, you weepy Jezebel.

(One of the saving graces of the psychosexual terrorization in the Alien franchise is the leveling of the gender playing field – the rape threat they represent is omnipresent and sexually indiscriminate. But not in Prometheus! Thanks, Prometheus.)

9. Yesterday, I posted about the Alien franchise, and how the through-line of Weyland-Yutani shapes both Ellen Ripley and the entire world of the movies. While I was managing expectations for Prometheus, I did hope it would perhaps continue some of that subtext and find a place in the canon. There is a distinct Weyland presence here – literally, in the form of Guy Pearce, who rocks some aging makeup as the days-from-death Weyland, cryogenically frozen and secretly on board the Prometheus for a shot at meeting his maker. However, his reasons are so personal that the company threat exists only in the foreknowledge of what the company will do when it has another chance to investigate the site. Theron (thankfully better here than in Snow White and the Huntsman) is a hard-line company rep who’s painted as sinister with a streak of cowardice, but since she’s the only one whose protocols were anything resembling intelligent, it’s baffling when her eventual death-by-being-crushed-by-the-ship-like-that-guy-in-front-of-the-steamroller-in-Zoolander is presented as poetic justice, as if we were supposed to know that being crushed to death by a spaceship was what she hated most all along? (God, this movie is just a stew of disappointment.)

10. In fact, so pervasive is the feeling of being a patsy for someone’s $200 million bait-and-switch is that some things that shouldn’t be disappointments still are. Elizabeth Shaw lives; she and a bisected-as-per-tradition David (Weyland-Yutani needs to work on the strength of its synthetic humans around the shoulder area, is the leitmotif of the Alien series) literally fly off into the sunset together in search of more adventure. This is good news for David, who, despite moments of profound creepiness, is a conflicted character capable of growth, and also has the movie’s one moment of profound joy, as the control room turns into a 3D hologram of the navigable universe, enhanced with Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings at 85 decibels. Yet we like David because of what Fassbender can do with moments of biting disappointment or unthinking empathy, and not because of what has been earned, since what has actually been earned is mostly a slap and some airlocking. So, despite how we are technically supposed to be rooting for the super-religious terrible scientist lady and her robot bestie sailing away, it does not make up for the movie that happened before it, which assured us via text and subtext, in no uncertain terms, that science was dangerous and should under no circumstances be attempted. It’s a thematic tangle that leaves the Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings coda feeling like a flick in the nose. (Shaw delivering the ship’s computer survivor sign-off is like being flicked in the nose TWICE.)

Though somehow, any of this is less awkward than the film’s last shot, of a familiar xenomorph emerging from a chest cavity and roaring at the sky. It’s clearly supposed to be a chilling big reveal that brings everything home. The problem is that “everything” is just a playing card, and the big reveal is that Ridley Scott struck gold in Alien entirely by accident, and that this is what he wants to add to the canon now; that’s the sort of creeping terror you can never really escape.

  • Matt Bright

    This is as right as it can be. The design stuff is particularly disappointing, because he's supposed to be good at that. It's not just that it doesn't match up with the previous films, though. It's also that Scott seems to have forgotten that people liked the design because it made sense in context: most of the stuff on the Nostromo felt like it had a clear reason to be where it was and look like it did – even if that wasn't immediately clear. He just knows that people liked the design, and therefore he will now give them LOTS of design. Oodles of it. Branded fingerprints. Insanely detailed HUD displays. Holograms within holograms. It's just…fussy. Like the CGI equivalent of a Victorian drawing room.

  • http://profiles.google.com/sdress Susan Dress

    I really really really wanted to like this movie. I loved Alien, it scared the bejeebus out of movie, in the best possible way.  But you summed it up just about perfectly.  I was going to say that Theron's character was the one who should have survived: she was more Ripley than Rapace. But none of the characters [or story line]followed a logical path. “I'm the captain of the ship, that's my job!' [Except when I decide to go knock boots with the Virgin Princess, leaving two of my crew alone in the dark, unwatched]. This is a scientific expedition, with hi-tech gadgets that can scan this entire dark place for us [yet the two aforesaid crew members can't use this hi-tech to find their way out of the dark caves?!] I have just shammed being drugged and then fought my way out of [medical?] and into the VP private chambers, accessed her “oh-so-special' med pod thingy, and am now wandering through the halls, covered in gore and alien ooze [and no-one followed me, no caught up with me in the hall, no one asked me what was wrong, even after I stumbled into the room with the not-dead Mr Wayland]. And now I'm going to go traveling through the sky with the android that tried to infect me with an alien baby [but he somehow learned the language and driving skills of the alien engineers, so he's useful that way] because Dammit, I deserve to know why they did what they did!

  • http://twitter.com/braak braak

    I am commenting on this now because I saw it on your “Year in Review” bit, and i just want to say that I think this movie would have been a lot better if it had been Charlize Theron's character who had survived. She could have gotten doused in black space caviar, gotten a suit of weird elephant space armor, vanquished the deadly alien parasite, and then flown off in her own ship.

    Then Prometheus could have been the prequel to Metroid, and I think we'd all be a lot happier.

  • Mark Coletti

    I also wondered, “Why did the 'Engineers' go to so much trouble to leave crude directions in several locations on Earth … to a Sooper Sekrit Military Installation containing Oily Death Goop meant to exterminate everyone?” And, really, if you wanted to reset life on Earth, nudging an asteroid or two just so is far easier … and demonstrably safer … than creating Oily Death Goop, especially when one of the lab techs goofs, scotching the entire enterprise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Todd-Gillette/622383464 Todd Gillette

    Completely agreeing with the critiques, and I'm particularly disappointed because the overall story arc with regards to the aliens actually had some promise (if you can get past the whole intelligent design bit). I like the idea of focusing a movie on certain characters and plot, and having relevant payoff, and still having certain things remain a mystery to be explored in a sequel. So ignoring the geologist who can't find his way back to the ship, the biologist that's freaked out over a dead alien body but wants to be best buds with a completely unknown alien entity that kills him, and the black goo's zombie effect being utterly without reason or precedent, I had some fun ideas that could explain some of the things about the engineers.

    My take is that the engineers seeded earth (perhaps accelerating the development of animal life or making more likely the eventual development of human-like species), but that not all of their species were so keen on that idea. A religious holy war seems about right for this conflict, with “good” engineers who value diverse life and creation, and “evil” engineers who either like destroying stuff or just think that engineers shouldn't “play god” (who would ultimately be very hypocritical by creating the xenomorphs). Perhaps the moon was originally a holy site of the good engineers, and the evil engineers took it over and to add insult to injury made it into a biological warfare plant. Some cool good engineer commando slipped in and sabotaged the place, and probably this ultimately led to some aliens being born and hitching a ride back with the commando to spread through engineer space (explaining why the planet seems to be otherwise untouched since the incident).

    So, yeah, potentially very cool, ultimately a pretty massive and incoherent disappointment.

  • arjumand

    I agree with everything you've said, and all the other critiques I've found online – perhaps it is hyperbole, but Prometheus is my personal 'Episode 1'. I feel I loved the Alien and Aliens movies as much as fanboys loved Star Wars. And now? I am sad.

    Just to add some of my thoughts about the movie:

    I didn't watch Prometheus at the theater because I have issues with 3D (headachy, eyestrainy issues), and where I live there was no other viewing option. So, despite considering myself a massive Alien and Aliens fan (what other movies?), I just waited until I could watch it at home. I am mentioning this because when I finally got around to reading all the reviews, it occurred to me that most of the positive ones referred to all the wonderful sweeping landscape scenes of wonder and blahdi blah blah.

    While, I, watching on a much smaller screen, saw those scenes as being really out of place (I only saw one 'critique' which echoed what I thought, the fake voice over guy from Honest Trailers, who pointed out that most of the first 30 minutes were made up of landscape shots). And giant bald guy. Wearing a cloak. What? I suppose this was the 'bait' part of the bait and switch. It's totally not Alien! Except at the end we find out that it totally was. And so we go back to beginning, and to those majestic landscapes which are not at all the point of Alien or Aliens. In these movies, we're told that humans are tiny and fragile creatures in a huge, cold and uncaring universe – in fact, both movies begin and end in the vast emptiness of space, and the only planet they ever land in is LV 426, where there are no sweeping landscapes and waterfalls, but an incredibly hostile terrain, whose rock formations often seem to mirror the appearance of the Alien.
    But Ridley Scott wasn't interested in the Alien. Because he saw it at Disneyland. Ok. And he wasn't interested in replicating or at least echoing the aesthetic of the first movie. Because he can work with CGI now. Whatever.

    You were right all along. Alien was a fluke.

  • robthom

    Oh wow!

    That was a cold and absolutely brilliant essay.

    Website bookmarked.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eddie.ever.7 Eddie Ever

    But wait, there’s more! Isn’t there? Won’t there be a prequel-prequel with Guy Pearce looking like Guy Pearce (else why was he cast to wear old old guy makeup)? Or maybe a prequel-sequel in which he’s cloned. Or a Replicant. More Replicants are coming I say.

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