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Because We Couldn’t: why Prometheus isn’t what it might have been

June 9, 2012

I finally watched Prometheus, having avoided contact with all advertising, trailers and even conversation about the film for the last few months (this has not been easy, and on more than one occasion I’ve suddenly clamped my hands on my ears and emitted a loud bleating noise, which must have been alarming for those nearby). Ironically, this post is now littered with spoilers, because I am a bastard.

The thoughts of my excellent and interesting wife Sarah Ditum are posted here. Feel free to divisively tell us whose you enjoyed the most. For me, the film basically breaks down into a large collection of things I really enjoyed on one hand, and on the other a thread of grievances which is short but, when pulled, nevertheless cause the final third to unravel into an unsatisfying heap.

A lot of the anguished debate about the film has focused on how much it is or isn’t a prequel to Alien, with the raging ire of myopic fans like a gravitational pull tugging Prometheus into orbit around longstanding, long-boring debates about legitimacy, canon, and which of the two Alien Versus Predator movies Satan likes to watch best while barbecuing unbaptised children.

I don’t care about this stuff, in and of itself. In fact, the connection with Alien made me apprehensive – far more exciting than going backwards in a series that already has a perfect beginning is the thought of an original, ambitious science fiction film from Ridley Scott. The more explicit Prometheus made these connections, I worried, the more likely it would slide into obviousness and closed meaning.

With this in mind, there were a few things in the first half of the film which I really enjoyed, because they made Prometheus feel of a piece with Alien without sliding into droll plastic badge-wearing. The shorthand chatter of the scientific team felt regular and for the most part un-expositiony, like the blue collar crew from The Nostromo with a few extra PhDs. I particularly liked the odd couple of Sean Harris’ spite-lipped geologist (with beard, mohawk and tattoos, looking suitably like an outcast from the Alien-inspiring Heavy Metal magazine) and Rafe Spall’s tunnel-hooded biologist. They feel remarkably unremarkable – compellingly performed normal people, confronted with an extraordinary situation.

And because I was interested in Prometheus as a tantalising extension of Alien, I was even more intrigued to see it throw out links to Ridley Scott’s other work from around that time. The Engineer pyramid that the crew of the Prometheus investigate is clearly based on H.R. Giger’s concept art for Palace Harkonnen, created for a never-filmed version of Dune which Scott began before moving on to Alien.

And Michael Fassbender’s artificial person – one of the best things about the film anyway – is particularly interesting when viewed in the context not just of Alien, Ian Holm and Ash, but Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer, and Roy. And it should be viewed like this because Prometheus invites us to – its story of man searching for his maker is basically the same as Roy’s journey to meet Dr Eldon Tyrell (and to force his unglowing eyes bloodily into the back of his skull). Prometheus is scattered with some good writing and some poor (Charlize Theron lives in a self-sufficient life pod, you say? I BET THAT WILL STAY ATTACHED ALL FILM) but its strongest exchange, between David and scientist Charlie, sums up how poor Roy probably felt just before he went all thumb fury: “Why do you think your people made me?” “We made you because we could” “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you, to hear the same thing from your creator?”

I’ve written before about these creative crossovers and might-have-beens of 1970s Hollywood sci-fi, and it’s hard to mark as coincidental the fact that Scott acknowledges these links in his new film which is also about progeny, creation, and DNA. In maybe my favourite weirdness about the film, while he’s getting all self-reflective Scott also seems to rope Twentieth Century Fox into this fiction. I thought the fact that days-from-death Weyland looked like Rupert Murdoch was a coincidence until I read this interview, in which Scott describes the viral video featuring Noomi Rapace’s Dr Shaw.

That was part of her screen test. Then Johnny Hardstaff did the David one, and also played around and took the Noomi application for the job to an eye in the wall. She’s not talking to Mr Weyland – she’d never meet Weyland, she’d never be allowed to, wouldn’t even meet the secretary – it’s like a HAL eye, she’s applying to a job to the eye, which in turn is being watched by a minion, who gets a secretary, and finally gets to Rupert Murdoch, then actually to Weyland.

Which is brilliant and exquisitely odd, though the “powerful company of dubious ethics led by a fading patriarch” cap certainly fits (and makes sense of Theron’s daughter character looking terrifyingly like Elizabeth Murdoch).

It should have been the basis of a masterful, allusive look over Scott’s career in science fiction, a self-aware sign-off from a master. But Prometheus blows it. At some point the nods and suggestions turn into self-satisfied winking, somewhere around the discovery of the ominous canisters inside the Engineer structure. On first look it’s stylish echo of the horrific Alien egg clusters – shot low angle, edges ominously illuminated by glowing light. Except for the purposes of the film’s plot progression – biological nasty emerges from a thing and fucks everybody up – this isn’t an echo, it’s a straight-up replay. It’s the same. Being the same isn’t clever or enjoyable. It’s the same.

This also applies to David’s slide from sexless butler – a sort of space version of Niles Crane with a cooler hat – into nihilistic Dr Moreau. I’ve seen the fastidious English guy turn into the morally uncumbered robo-loon before. Far more interesting to see David keep a withering distance from his creators, as a perpetual reminder of the ship’s folly in seeking out humanity’s own.

I’ve also seen shocked but capable women gasp while looking through condensation-smeared glass as a mortal sex monster lurks on the other side (while Rapace was great, she didn’t top Sigourney Weaver, and it’s a shame the film had her try). And I’ve seen the bit where Fifield and Milburn get attacked by a proto face-hugger (it took place on an identical ship, and John Hurt was a better victim), and I’ve seen the bit where Fifield comes back as a mutant version of himself and starts throwing people about, but I’m pretty sure that was in fucking Power Rangers.

Because this is about the point where the film moves on from self-satisfied winking to all-out clowntrousers. Shaw escapes David’s brilliantly sinister attempt to force her into carrying a mutant squidmonster to term with a horrific self-administered laser abortion. Hooray! It should’ve been the film’s giddy guts-heavy showpiece, but is retrospectively hammered to shit by the dramatic juggling act of the next scene, in which Shaw, naked but for a few bloody bandages and row of staples HOLDING HER WOMB TOGETHER stumbles into the bedroom of the oh fuck he’s actually on the ship Weyland, who doesn’t say “Bollocks alive, Dr Shaw, there’s a bit of your uterus poking out” or “Where the shit are your clothes?” but something about her making him believe in aliens (even though it seems like making this crazy strip of dry skin believe in absolutely anything would be a piece of piss).

Recovering from this, slightly, the film moves on to waking up one of the Engineers, the ancient race of DNA juggling bastards who made us and were, apparently, about to kill us or turn us all into angry Fifield monsters. My problem here is that at this stage of the narrative this whole God-in-the-stars strand of sci-fi – gazing into the cosmos and wondering about the beginning and creation and that – has to have something better up its sleeve than the big pale dude waking up and twatting everybody in the face. Registering surprise that his race has been wiped out by a biological contagion and that he’s the only one left? Or that he’s been woken up by a race that his people have made, who somehow travelled across the stars to visit him? Or that they in turn have become creators themselves, building a synthetic human who’s already learnt his ancient language in an effort to communicate? No – fuck that, your fucking head is coming off, and this bastard is getting it in the temple.

The final kick in the cock is the appearance of the actual alien at the end, clearly intended to be a thundering dramatic blow but actually just a lazy coda at the end of a film which had long since lost its grip. I’m supposed to be curious about the black stuff. I know I am – I read an interview with Damon Lindelof where he said as much. But I’m not – firstly because the black stuff seems to do whatever the baser elements of the plot/Fox marketing department want it to do (“Make that worm really strong!” “Make that guy into a monster!” “Make it so we can say this film has a fucking Alien alien in it!”) and secondly because the interesting stuff is happening far, far away, with David and his relationship with mankind and Blade Runner and Ridley Scott. Far from being the lingering mystery giving the film staying power, the black stuff is the lame, obvious glue binding it unnecessarily to Alien, building awkward, unwieldy connections that damage what might have been a terrific film.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. admiralneck permalink
    June 10, 2012 8:27 am

    Holy crap, you’re right about the Harkonnen palace. That’s amazing. The Engineers invaded Geidi Prime, in the past or something? This movie grabbed bits from everywhere. I’m amazed a Wookiee didn’t rock up at some point.

    As you & Sarah both point out, Shaw’s post-abortion encounters are genuinely messy, a plot-convenience tossed in just to get us from A to B, but if you give me, a massive Lindelof apologist, enough time, I’m sure I could rustle up a barely acceptable explanation to paper over that crack.

  2. merv_swerve permalink
    June 10, 2012 10:22 am

    I too wasn’t happy about the engineer just ripping Davids head off and smashing everyone else about. Completely pointless, he could have talked to them THEN started ripping heads off. More questions than answers in this film.

  3. SolidChris permalink
    November 24, 2012 1:53 am

    Just watched the Blu-Ray. Amazingly I stayed spoiler free until now. I’m very good at ignoring. I’d agree with almost everything you’ve said there. Post abortion I just kept thinking, ‘is no one going to mention that? No? Fine. Must be a thing in the future, a Republican/conservative nightmare where abortion pods pop up in the place of phone boxes all over the country.’ The first half is fairly enjoyable but that thing at the end is top grade bullshit. Imagine finishing the script and just thinking that you could cram an Alien in there. It’s not connected, no narrative logic, just, as you said, lazy plot glue applied without much care or attention. Rapace and Fassbender were great but this is a bit of a disappointment.

  4. SolidChris permalink
    November 24, 2012 2:29 am

    Now I’m watching the deleted/alternate scenes. This includes a conversation where David translates for Weyland and the Engineer talks to them. Like what you fancied. Doesn’t really solve the issue but it is there.


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