We went to see Prometheus at the cinema ages ago, but I’m reminded of it again because the blu-ray J bought has just arrived & J spent a large chunk of the weekend watching the extras & commentaries (as well as re-watching the film). I’ve seen quite a few people in various places online saying how crap the film was, but to be honest I completely disagree with that. I suppose I should point out that I see very few films, so perhaps I’m just not as jaded as the general cinema-going population. Also I haven’t actually seen the Aliens films (although I’m aware of the plots of them and have seen clips/bits over J’s shoulder, and have read some of the spin-off & tie-in novels). Even above & beyond my general dislike of narrative entertainment in visual form I’m particularly not keen on seeing gruesome things so sci-fi horror isn’t really my thing. But that does mean I didn’t go into watching Prometheus expecting it to be another instalment in a franchise that was dear to me (like I think a lot of people did) – so I didn’t have to reset my expectations to the reality of the film. Although that did also mean I spent more of it watching from behind my hands than I’d expected, coz J had said in advance he didn’t think it’d be that gory 😉 But equally I think the real reason I liked it better than other people I’ve seen comment on it is likely to boil down to it being my sort of story & not theirs, and that’s perfectly reasonable.
This isn’t a review, it’s more a collection of thoughts & impressions. And the main thing that’s stuck with me about the film is the ideas & the characters, rather than the action plot. I mean, you need the action plot, it’s what you’re watching and it wouldn’t work without it. But it’s the underpinnings that I found interesting & that J & I talked about afterwards (and again now that he’s got the blu-ray). I also like that you don’t actually get answers, you get hints & questions & possibilities and I think that makes it stronger. To take some recent examples (of things I haven’t seen but have read about) – the modern Battlestar Galactica & Lost both had a series long mystery plot of sorts, and then when people found out what was actually in the creator’s head it was disappointing. The questions had been more interesting than actually being given the answers. So I think the fact that the film doesn’t tell us much about the origins of human and Alien life in this universe is actually a good thing.
I didn’t think the whole thing was the most perfectest film ever, though – I do have criticisms and one part of the premise that I have to handwave my way right past. One major criticism is that I don’t think the film did a particularly good job of establishing Elizabeth Shaw as the character they intended and that weakened the first half of the film for me when I saw it in the cinema. Afterwards I read some stuff & watched a viral trailer snippet that made it clear that she had several doctorates and was trained in more than one field. That meant that the fact that she’s equally at home in an archaeological dig & a biology lab is actually because she is supposed to be a genius and polymath. And not sloppy writing on the part of writers who are making her do “all that science stuff” in the services of plot with no regards to how plausible it would be. I think it would’ve strengthened the film if there’d been some reference to her genius, something like a throwaway line about her multiple doctorates in the bit where she’s introduced to the crew of the ship.
The opening sequence is the bit that I need to resolutely put my own interpretation on and ignore textual hints that something else is intended 😉 In my personal version the Engineer is seeding the whole of life on Earth – I refuse to see the lichen or other greenery visible on those rocks. This is because as a biologist I’m far too aware that we’re very closely related to the other life on the planet to be a creation that’s seperate to the rest of the biology of earth. So that Engineer is seeding the original DNA molecules that become the whole of the planetary ecosystem, not just intelligent life. I also file under “movie science, no relation to real science” the bit where they compare the DNA of the Engineer head to human DNA and it comes up as a complete match, if you actually stop and think about it that’s ludicrous. My DNA is different from your DNA is different from any other given human’s DNA so a total match only happens with identical twins. So why would a big blue guy who isn’t and doesn’t even look human 100% match whatever their human DNA sample was? So I just accept the point they’re trying to make here (the Engineers are related to us in some fashion) and skip past the inconsistencies both with any sensible reality & with the way I’ve had to handwave the opening premise. It’s got an emotionally right point, even if it’s not actually right (truthy rather than true) and sometimes that’s just the way you need to tell the story.
Something I’ve been paying attention to recently when I’m reading or watching fiction is mirroring. The most obvious example here is David and his relation to his creators which is juxtaposed the whole way through with the humans and their relationship with & desire to know their creators. He has what the humans are looking for – he knows his creators, he knows why he was created and how banal those reasons really are (because we could, because we wanted a better servant, because Weyland didn’t have a son). And all those humans (except Shaw) treat him as something beneath them, to be ordered around, practically as furniture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on a couple of occasions he’s addressed as “Boy” by the crew when they’re giving him orders, I think that’s supposed to set up mental resonances with slavery in the US. Only in this case it’s “OK” because he’s only a robot after all. And yet Weyland has put together this trip to try and meet his creators, expecting welcome and to be treated as an equal. Shaw & Holloway’s motivations are a lot less mercenary, and Shaw’s attitude towards David is a lot less callous, but they are still expecting more from their own creators than their species gives to its own creations.
David and Vickers provide another set of contrasting mirrors. Weyland in his pre-recorded welcome speech manages in a single sentence to twist the knife in both of them – neither will ever be good enough in ways they cannot change. “David is the closest thing I have to a son”. Except David is not a real boy, he’s always a robot first and foremost. And Vickers is his daughter, and that’s even worse than a robot when it comes to Weyland’s dynastic ambitions. And you can see how that’s eaten away at both of them – Vickers in the scene where she ends up telling Weyland that all Kings die, that’s the natural order of things. It’s even more obvious in the longer version of that scene in the deleted scenes & extras part of the blu-ray, she still loves him and wants his approval whilst knowing it will never happen and wanting him dead. And David with his line near the end about “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”. When I saw the film at the cinema I spent a lot of it wondering if Vickers would turn out to be a robot, but it’s actually that her facade and David’s facade come partly from the same place. The line that David repeats from Lawrence of Arabia is telling: “Certainly it hurts. […] The trick […] is not minding that it hurts.” I think if she’d turned out to be a robot that would actually have undermined that whole strand of the film, and detracted from the question of is he a person or not. Shaw clearly thinks so, she treats him as another person – I think she’s the only one we see thanking David for the things he does, and he clearly appreciates that from the way he interacts with her.
As an aside – writing this it’s interesting that I fall into the same way of singling out David as the people in the story. I’m using surnames for the human characters, but referring to David by his first name. By necessity, as he doesn’t seem to have a surname. But I suspect that’s deliberate, and it means that even writing about the film you end up singling out David as lower status than the rest of the named characters.
Shaw and Weyland are interestingly juxtaposed too. These are both very intelligent driven individuals in a class of their own, but you only have to look at that scene where they’re waking the Engineer and trying to ask him questions to see the differences between them. Weyland’s are all about himself – what can they do for him, can they make him young, can they stop him dying. Shaw’s are really on behalf of all humanity – why did you create us, why did you change your minds, what is the purpose of all this.
Shaw & Vickers too make a pair – until Weyland is woken up the two people in charge on that ship are those two women. The scene where Vickers exerts her authority early on is amusing because Holloway is there blustering away about “do you have some hidden agenda?”, but the real face-off is between Vickers and Shaw and they look pretty evenly matched. They’re also both determined and tough women who do what needs to be done – Vickers kills Holloway to prevent him getting back on the ship because of his infection and the risks to herself & the rest of the people, Shaw cuts an alien baby out of her stomach and then goes down to the planet to see the awakened Engineer because it’s what needs to be done. But Shaw again is more sympathetic & Vickers is driven by more selfish motivations. Oh, and they both run away the wrong way from the falling spaceship in their panic – Shaw is saved effectively by a miracle, she trips and manages to roll her way to a rock that breaks the fall of the ship just enough that she isn’t crushed. If she hadn’t fallen she’d probably still’ve been running along the long axis of its fall when it hit the ground.
And those questions of Shaw’s are referenced again at the end – David asks if it really matters why, and Shaw says that of course it does, and that’s part the fundamental difference between humans and robots like David. Ridley Scott says in his commentary that that’s an essential truth about David – he’s intensely curious but about how things work, what things are. And that drives a lot of what he does through the plot – the obvious example is that he infects Holloway to find out what will happen, and asks his permission first (and manipulates him into giving it unknowing). But he doesn’t much care about why. It is what it is, that’s all that’s interesting. And that’s actually a fairly alien mindset to us – I mean a fair amount of thought from humanity goes into big questions like “why are we here?”, “what’s the purpose of life?”. Shaw is admirable because she cares more about that than Weyland’s selfish questions. So David is pretty different from a human, despite being “made in our image” … and yet the characters in the film don’t really seem to expect that their own creators might be just as alien.
They also expect the aliens, the Engineers, to be a monolithic culture. But why? The group of them that goes off in this ship does so for all sorts of reasons – Weyland to get immortal life, Shaw & Holloway to find out where humanity came from, Vickers to make sure she knows what happens to dear old Dad (and make sure he’s dead), the geologist for a pay-cheque, the xenobiologist coz he’s a real geek about alien lifeforms and he’d love to see some in the flesh. They’re not a monolith, they’re people. And so are the Engineers – the one we see at the beginning sacrifices himself to bring life to the world, the one we see at the end destroys David & the humans he can reach without a second thought. This doesn’t necessarily show that the culture changed their minds (tho given the timescale it also could be that), it could just be that some factions go and seed life through the galaxy for a variety of personal reasons but some factions regard this as an abomination for an equal variety of personal reasons.
I feel like I’ve been writing for ages but still only scratched at the surface of the things I want to say. But I think if I carry on it’ll turn into a rambling mess (or more so), so I shall stop here 🙂 It’s a film that I thought had all sorts of interesting ideas just below the surface of the action-oriented plot.