(The following segment of my Prometheus review is like a Tokyo drift party – it contains MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you do not wish to read them, DO NOT CONTINUE PAST THIS POINT. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you wish to hear what I think without having it spoiled for you, please head on over to the non-spoiler part of my review. Also, I’ll be using that post as a launching point for topics in this one, so perhaps read it before this even if you have seen the film already.)
OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS. OH MY GOD. I need to stress again how much I loved this film. Like, the spectacle, the visceral horror, the existential terror. As a recent graduate of the school of Alien/Aliens, I was worried I’d come out of Prometheus disappointed and let down. And usually, that is the case when films are this hyped up for me. But what the film turned out to be was so far from what I expected, and took such intriguing twists and turns, that I can’t help but love it for its insanity, its ambition, its scope. The overlap with Alien is unmistakable, but I just can’t fathom the people who are writing it off because it wasn’t like that film visually or in terms of character or writing. But more on that later: firstly, I need to expound on my theory of WHAT THE FUCK ACTUALLY HAPPENED?!
My thinking is this: I’m so glad that the film explored the existence of the space jockey. There was huge potential there for back story, and for ardent fans of the franchise, I can understand why they might be disappointed with how it turned out. Because when you build up a mythology of your own, for example, it can be a let down to find out you were wrong. Fortunately, I had no real extant theory as to how the xenomorph came to be, so I was prepared to lap up the explanation.
I think the most discussion-worthy part of it is near the opening, when one of the “engineers” approaches the massive waterfall, drinks what appears to be some kind of living metal, and disintegrates, fracturing his DNA and sending it barrelling through the heart of the unknown planet we see a ship departing. When it’s later revealed that the engineers truly are creators of life, at least on Earth, it becomes apparent that the engineers have discovered a method of infusing a planet’s life with their own, thus the overlap in the DNA of a human and the severed head of one the team recovers. It’s not fully clear whether life needs to already exist on a planet, but I’d assume that if they find a planet whose atmosphere has relatively similar chemical composition to that of Earth (like that on LV-223, the planet Prometheus lands on, which is similar but contains significantly higher levels of carbon dioxide) they are able to use water to begin an evolution of sorts. What results is apparently us, though we’re distinctly different from these weird blue guys.
My thinking is that the xenomorph is another failed creation of the engineers that turned on them – except they were created as a sort of weapon, a bit like the Uruk’hai. The bizarre, skeletal aspects of the engineers’ appearance seems to lend itself to the spidery, Lovecraftian horror that is the Alien. Clearly the desire for the engineers to destroy us indicates that it’s not a process they’ve perfected. And because of the highly dangerous, terrifying nature of the xenomorph, they can just sic them on us to deal with the problem.
Now, I’ve seen lots of people claim that there are too many plot holes, but I think people are confusing open-endedness with plot holes, and a desire to remain ambiguous as poor writing. Films like this that are shrouded in mystery and delving into a deep and expansive mythology needn’t spoon-feed the viewer every tiny bit of the plot. The unanswered questions are part of the fun, and why I eagerly anticipate the next instalment in what I daresay is a brand new franchise. I think that the creatures we’re seeing in Prometheus are a primitive breed or strain of the xenomorph, thus why you didn’t get the traditional chest-burster until the final shot, and why the chest-burster came from a creature that wasn’t a face-hugger. Whatever Shaw was impregnated with, it was something different, something that it will be interesting to explore down the line. Because ultimately, the Alien we saw in the original was stumbled upon in 2122 – Prometheus is 2093. If it’s the same universe, then clearly there’s a lot that happens in between, including the crash of one of the engineers’ xenomorph-carrying cargo ships on what would later become LV-426.
The film doesn’t explain – and I wish it had been a little clearer on this – the fate of the engineers on LV-223. They seem like incredibly powerful beings so whatever took them down had to be huge. Perhaps they, too, have a creator? Perhaps they weren’t running from a life form but from a disaster, natural or unnatural. But given that its mission becomes apparent to us, surely whomever sought to stop them knows about us and that we were spared as a result? Is there someone protecting us from our own creators?
Which leads to the film’s thematic strengths. I was so drawn in by the idea of, “Hey, what would happen if we DID meet our maker?” and have it be anything but what was expected. It explores the necessity of religion and the possibly futility of belief because when we discover, it only ever leads to more questions. In an infinite universe there will never be an absolute – where does the quest for knowledge end?
One of the things that has most impressed me about Alien, Aliens and Prometheus is the way it explores the idea of artifical intelligence subtly and without focus. David’s nature is not the central thrust of the film but it’s such a great performance that it becomes a really integral part of the film. The contrast between David’s obvious desire to be properly human and his darker desire to use them to seek knowledge is positively HAL-esque, and the dry humour that starts to infuse the character make for great interplay between the characters. This mirrors really well with Ian Holm’s Ash in the original film, who represents a totally different side of artificial intelligence. David’s actions are not out of malice, but a simple curiosity which clearly fills the void more human qualities would typically occupy.
Some of the criticism I’ve seen are of the script, saying that it’s nonsensical and meaningless. But like, I didn’t find it difficult to follow at all. I had no trouble at all seeing the through-line between scenes, signposts and plot points. The dialogue was hammy in parts, yeah, but this isn’t exactly an environment that is borne of normal, verité conversation. Basically, what people seem to want is a mumblecore version of Alien, I guess?
Some critics seem to think that the characters are a bit nothing and poorly characterised, to which I counter: think back to Alien/Aliens: how many of those characters were that interesting or memorable? Ripley isn’t really fleshed out that much – the draw at the time was that the lead role in a sci-fi/action film was a woman. And Sigourney Weaver was badass and awesome in that role, but as far as writing a character goes, there’s not a whole lot to her until Aliens, where her character is defined almost solely by her experiences in the preceding film and the loss of her job which seems to have defined her.
Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is actually more fleshed out than Ripley. The religious belief clashing with the scientific evidence of a non-Judeo-Christian creator, as well as the incredible horror of being humanly infertile but impregnated with a xenomorphic foetus, as well as Ripley’s potentially self-sacrificial desire to prevent the destruction of Earth. They also share a similarly unconventional attractiveness. Both actresses are beautiful but not in a centrefold way, and both have an androgyny about their physicality. Why this means that Ripley was brilliantly characterised in Alien but Shaw was not in Prometheus is beyond me, and seems like a critique spouted simply for the sake of it.
Another of my favourite criticisms are along the lines of, “I just couldn’t believe that intelligent people would do such stupid things.” I don’t know what’s happened to suspension of disbelief. Is it dead? Because it seems like people are so nit-pickingly selective about what is and is not believable. They don’t believe that but apparently were willing to buy into the insanity of Alien in the first place. Like, if you can watch a film about killer xenomorphs with mouths inside mouths then I’m pretty sure you can buy that intelligent scientists freak out a bit when confronted with aliens, horror and death. Like, one comment on RottenTomatoes goes:
“The behaviour of the charcters [sic] was particularly annoying for me. At this level, I fail to see how such things can be overlooked.”
Which, like, what? How do you properly behave in these situations? How do you not be annoying when your boyf gets infected with Alien juice? How do you not be annoying when you stumble upon a room full of xenomorph eggs and decide you want to bail? If this were set on Earth in a universe that is noticeably our own about an everyday tale, that would make sense. But in the end, saying that their motivation or behaviour was annoying or like, incorrect, is so far from a valid argument it’s not funny. This is science fiction, set in the future, on a different planet, involving bizarre Alien creatures. Maybe think about why they did what they did rather than what they did or did not do. Such criticisms display a rather stunning inability to critically assess a text, let alone human behaviour.
Prometheus seems to be about exploring the how of this story. The next, I imagine, will be more about the what and the why. What exactly ARE the engineers? Why did they create us and why do they now want us dead? Sure, it’s a bit irksome not to know that now but can you imagine if the film tried to answer that as well? It’s clear that Scott & co. are playing the long game here. I think they have a plan as to how this might play out and this is just a handful of assorted pieces of the puzzle to go with those already given by the rest of the Alien franchise.
The fact that this is set within the Alien universe was bound to lead to unfair comparisons, but I really think that Prometheus has something totally other going on. I had one person say to me that they were annoyed that what was here didn’t seem to follow the “rules” of the Alien universe. But I kinda hate the concept of a universe having rules, because rules imply that a universe cannot expand or change. There would have been nowhere to go if this film had just been content to keep the status quo.
The one big downfall, I think, is the score. It’s too rote and Inception-y, and frankly the audio in the trailer was so promising – especially the return of the siren-like Alien leitmotif – that I was extremely disappointed that it made no appearance in the film.
What’s bizarre is that so many reviews of the film seem to paint it as some kind of rote blockbuster, when it’s actually the opposite. A typical blockbuster answers all the questions, hands you all the information, and makes you comfortable rather than squirm. Prometheus, however, is all about the unfamiliar, which is why I suspect that over time, the critical reputation of the film will evolve akin to that of Alien itself. The film clearly needs time for the bitter aftertaste of the omnipresent marketing campaign to leave the mouths of critics and audiences. Sometimes hype can kill a film as much as a lack of hype can do the same (see: John Carter).
If there are other problems you had with the movie, I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments because discourse is great and I love that, even if people didn’t like the film, they’re willing to discuss it, hopefully on a thoughtful and intellectual level.