Long Take: Storytelling Fails to Evolve in Prometheus

Viewed June 12, 2012

It’s almost July. That means Marvel’s The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) more than adequately kicked off the summer blockbuster season, as everyone expected it to, and spectators have the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), to look forward to when it hits theaters in just a few weeks. But this also means that Prometheus (2012), director Ridley Scott’s first foray into sci-fi territory since 1982’s Blade Runner and one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer, has already come and gone. In IMAX 3D, no less. If you haven’t seen it at a theater by now, you’re probably not going to.

As a new convert to Blade Runner fanaticism, I couldn’t wait to see Prometheus, because it has been characterized as sophisticated hardcore sci-fi for months leading up to its release. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-watch any of the four films from the Alien franchise, including Scott’s inaugural one of the same name (1979). Whether or not Prometheus is intended as a prequel to Alien has been hotly debated. As far as I know right now, Scott has reasserted that it is a prequel, after having denied this for some time while the film was in post-production, I believe. Apparently, it now barely shares its “DNA” with the series. Having seen the picture, that’s a hard argument to make. I suppose this is as good a place as any to warn: yes, there be spoilers ahead!

Prometheus is set in 2093 on the eponymous spaceship that is jetting a crew of 17 to the moon of a distant planet. They’re journeying to another solar system, all because Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, in her first lead role in the English-language) and her boyfriend, Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the busy actor Tom Hardy), believe that humans’ “makers” come from this corner of the universe.

The scene that establishes these characters, particularly their motivations and methodology, is severely problematic. After all, it is the whole movie that is premised on the following discovery: after having found a thousands-of-years-old cave drawing somewhere on the Isle of Skye that features a celestial leitmotif, which occurs across other ancient civilizations, Dr. Shaw, a devout Christian, is convinced that humans’ ancient alien ancestors painted them. Her reasoning is crazier than and distinct from that of any wacko on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series who might suggest that aliens came from outer space and built, say, the Great Pyramids of Egypt. The human-like figures in the drawings represent those who made contact with these ancient alien beings that Shaw and her fellow crew members insist on calling their “makers.” Big mistake. The “makers” are not even depicted; a cluster of heavenly bodies in the upper-left-hand corner of each image that Shaw documents stands in for the aliens. I’m sure that no archaeological society would accept such proof of their existence, so screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof would have done well to try for at least some professional plausibility. Of course, no one would interpret what Shaw has found as an “invitation” to those stars (her oft-repeated words) in order to find some ancient aliens. Instead, if Shaw and Holloway had found physical instruments made of a foreign material in the cave, then that would have been something. Some crew members don’t even buy the archaeological discovery that the film story is predicated on; they come to resent that they have risked their reputations–not to mention, their lives–to go on this mission based on a hunch. Oops!

After all, the crew has spent two years in cryogenic deep sleep to get to this faraway post. Along the way, a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) has steered the spacecraft on-course, filling the hours by performing regular maintenance, deconstructing ancient alien languages, and watching and re-watching Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962).

In fact, for an intellectual yet insentient being, David sure does know how to model himself after someone–and not even a “real” someone he knows from personal experience. He isn’t so much captivated by the true historical figure T.E. Lawrence as he is by Peter O’Toole, in his portrayal of the man. David regularly quotes the movie hero’s lines, but he also bleaches or dyes his roots so as to more closely resemble O’Toole’s impression. (It’s unclear what his cosmetic intentions are: it looks as if he is bleaching his roots, but throughout the rest of the film, they are dark. I have interpreted this to mean that, in an effort to be more human than human, David wants to keep up the appearance of having lightened his hair color like so many people do.) But inserting Lawrence of Arabia into the story is an obvious reference. For the irony must not be lost on David that he, like T.E. Lawrence, is playing the part of mediator between rivaling civilizations. It is significant that he chooses to model his behavior (especially his physicality) based on an actor’s portrayal of a real person, thereby blurring the line between fact and fiction when it comes to historical interpretation.

You might even say that casting Fassbender as David deliberately draws attention to the parallels between his celebrity and that of O’Toole. They have more in common than simply being from Ireland. Although Lawrence of Arabia was not the young O’Toole’s first big screen performance, it is what unequivocally made him a big star. And while Fassbender’s part as David is nowhere near as grandly important (despite Scott’s best efforts, such as shooting with 3D cameras, Prometheus doesn’t measure up to the flat yet deep scale of Lean’s earlier 70mm work), many are wondering whether this role will finally catapult him to superstardom.

I have another gripe about this vision of the not-too-distant future: the gender disparity aboard the Prometheus. Of the 17 stated team members, only three are women: Shaw, the commander Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and Dr. Ford (Kate Dickie), whose scientific occupation is so ill-defined that she mainly just appears to be a lackey first for Shaw and later for David and his schemes. (More on that in a bit.) That’s just about 18% of the crew’s population. In almost one hundred years, you mean to tell me that we still won’t have balanced this out? Sure, Shaw is arguably the main character in this ensemble, and Vickers is ostensibly in control while on this mission funded by the Weyland Corporation. In this way, they have inherited the DNA of Ellen Ripley (memorably portrayed by Sigourney Weaver), but it’s not enough. Especially since the two of them pale in comparison to Ripley, vis-a-vis feminist icons in cinema history.

Vickers is presented as a cold, ruthless bitch. She wears her golden hair in a severe ponytail tied down at the nape of her neck. She is on a constant power kick, either wrestling control away from Shaw, whose scientific theories after all are guiding the mission to investigate life on this moon, or going tete-a-tete with David, who is secretive and seems to have his own agenda. (He does.) The charismatic southern captain, Janek (Idris Elba), manages to flirt his way into her pants skin-tight jumpsuit by just suggesting that she needs a lay. Further down the road, once Shaw’s Charlie becomes ill from being infected by an alien specimen (thank you, David!), she is hellbent on torching him so as to stop the spread of infection. This may–and should–be considered good managerial skills, but Shaw’s loss is nonetheless devastating. To add insult to injury, when Vickers scrambles to eject herself from the mission toward the end of the film, after they’ve encountered hostile alien lifeforms that threaten to destroy Earth (more on that later), the commander suffers the iniquity of meeting death by being flattened by a runaway spacecraft part, if my memory serves me right. Ouch.

As for Shaw, I’m not sure what to make of her. She’s a mixture of various contradictions. It doesn’t make sense that an empiricist looking for the beings from which humans are descended (in other words, an evolutionist, albeit of an inter-universal kind) would be a devout believer in god. I know, I know, she’s just meant to be a substitute for the conflicted rationalist in the audience. What’s worse, though, is that Spaihts and Lindelof dumb down Shaw’s crisis of faith, hinging it all on her spiritual talisman: her late, beloved father’s necklace which bears a cross. When team members confront her naivete (the geologist Fifield, embodied with a little punk attitude by Sean Harris, calls her a “fuckin’ zealot”), she never has much of a reply. She’s just so wishy-washy. Which is why I think her attachment to the cross is more sentimental than religious.

Prometheus, while it has so much potential, really is a flawed thing. Crucially, its heroine is so poorly conceived that even through the so-called development of her character, the film falls apart. It gets a lot wrong.

The confusion of science and religion that the film projects through Shaw is its ultimate undoing, and this is further borne out in her choice of words. Once they have surveyed a cavernous depot on the moon where they see signs of life and have extracted what turns out to be the decapitated head of a human-like alien, to take back to the ship and to run tests, Shaw, with Ford and David’s assistance, discovers that the alien’s genetic makeup matches that of humans. (Right…) In any case, within the diegesis of the film, the appropriate response should be that the subject who partially lays on her examination table is an “ancient genetic ancestor” to humans. Instead, Shaw goes around pronouncing him (the being looks male, but of course, who really knows?) her “maker.” Since god historically has been called the maker of life, her diction is misleading. “He” didn’t make her. She is evolved from him. Big difference.

After this, events transpire in which David, on his own secret mission into the heart of the cave, unearths compelling evidence that suggests these beings are “engineers,” astronauts/soldiers whose own mission thousands and thousands of years ago was to explore various reaches of the universe. He hides the fact from his human colleagues that he has found a deep-sleeping engineer in the cockpit of the spaceship (for it’s not a cavern, after all) and reports back to the Prometheus’s hideaway passenger: capitalist and too-good-to-be-true benefactor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in horrific old, old-age makeup), whom everyone else thinks died while they were traveling.

When it comes to light that Weyland has been stowed away this whole time, he makes it very clear that this endeavor was always meant to find a “fountain of youth” (my words). His reason for wanting to meet his “maker,” as Shaw puts it, is undoubtedly to extract genetic material or the like in order to perform experiments that would empower him to elongate life on Earth. He wants to play god, which he already does as David’s creator and master.

Here’s another tangent: you might think Weyland would name his “son” Adam, but I think “David” connotes Michelangelo’s ode to perfection, that gargantuan statue preserved in Florence with the same name. According to the Trivia page for Prometheus at the Internet Movie Database, David’s name simply follows a pattern coursing through the Alien films. He marches in the footsteps of the alphabetically ordered androids Ash (Ian Holm in Alien), Bishop (Lance Henriksen in Aliens and as Bishop II in Alien3), and Call (Winona Ryder in Alien: Resurrection). I like my explanation better.

But we mustn’t forget that Weyland has also created life in a more traditional, biological sense. Vickers, we learn toward the end, is his skeptical daughter who literally commandeered the ship in order to challenge his authority, which, of course he undermined anyway. Her rebellion is almost as tense as the replicant Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) uprising against and eventual murdering of his maker/father/god Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) in Blade Runner, which is a far superior film. But the filmmakers on Prometheus never go far with this, though it is easy to read the tension between Vickers and David as a kind of sibling rivalry.

David, the good servant that he is, leads Weyland, Ford, and even a sick Shaw (more on that below) down to wake up the lone engineer. Unsurprisingly, Shaw continues to misinterpret the signs. Still believing that this engineer represents her “maker” by virtue of sharing his genes (rather than just an ancient genetic ancestor), she is convinced that he is dead-set on decamping his military installation on this moon because he aims to destroy his creation, the humans (presumably alongside other lifeforms) on Earth. At this point while watching the film, I just wanted to shake Shaw’s shoulders and scream at her, “Do you understand evolution at all?!” How can she not see that the engineer is essentially pre-programmed to fulfill this long-delayed mission? It’s impersonal, because he did not create humans.

Besides, who’s to say that he is even supposed to blow up Earth? Because he rips David’s head and shoulders off his frame, knocks Weyland and Ford dead, and later chases after Shaw, all the way to the commander’s self-contained module? (It fell to the ground when Vickers failed to take off.) Couldn’t it be that he was scared, and that David’s translation services did absolutely nothing to explain who these strange creatures were, standing in his spaceship, and what they wanted of him? They are, after all, on his territory, so it follows that he would act defensively.

Prometheus is largely focalized through Shaw’s experience, and nowhere does that become more immersive for the audience than when she climbs into a surgery pod to initiate a mechanical Cesarean just a smidge earlier in the film than the climax I have deconstructed above. But how did she get there? The short answer is because Scott felt the need to top the iconic scene in Alien wherein an alien bursts through John Hurt’s chest. And boy did he ever! The longer answer goes as follows: as I mentioned before in an aside, David, in doing his bidding for Weyland, infects Shaw’s lover, Dr. Holloway, with some alien organism. The parasite nuzzles into its host, who’s unaware of his changing status and has sex with Shaw in celebration of her genetic “maker” find. He also fucks her because she’s depressed that she cannot “make” life herself. Just wait!

Later, after Vickers scorches Holloway, someone sedates the hysterical Shaw, and when she comes to, she learns that she is pregnant. While not exactly an immaculate conception, her pregnancy nevertheless presents its own challenges. Which leads to her racing into the pod–and to attendant  squirming in auditorium seats at the film screening. How Shaw managed to survive uninfected, what with the alien baby bursting through the amniotic sac, leaking fluids onto her sliced open abdomen, is a mystery to me. This scene gives new meaning to the words deus ex machina: her infertility and improbable pregnancy is so conveniently tacked on that its conclusion must be an act of god. Perversely, when she emerges from the pod and encounters David and Weyland in the hallway on their way to wake Sleeping Beauty, no one seems to bat an eyelash once he realizes what she’s been through. I bet Weyland had David infect Holloway in anticipation that the lovers would have sex and solve her infertility problem. This way, he could at least run tests on her (surviving) alien baby.

Speaking of alien babies, perhaps now is a good time to discuss the design of Prometheus‘s marquee monsters. Her newborn (or is it “eewborn”?) hardly resembles John Hurt’s “offspring” in Alien. It’s more like a squid. But when we glimpse it again, after it’s rapidly matured, it recalls a flesh-toned octopus. Only it has more tentacles. And on its underside, to complement these overtly phallic appendages, it has slits that at once look inspired by the venus fly traps and the vagina (dentata). In fact, its vagina-like hole ingests its prey, not too dissimilar from the fully evolved creature at the end of The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr., 2011). Eventually, the awakened engineer, in pursuit of Shaw, meets his end within her grown baby’s clutches. Death by sex. And their union produces a curious hybrid, which emerges during the last moments of the film looking a helluva like the aliens we recognize from the franchise. I don’t remember any of the Alien films aside from the aforementioned chest-explosion scene and Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch!” Weren’t there also clones, in at least some of the pictures? Are aliens partially descended from humans in the other films? ‘Cuz this alien stranded on the moon is only twice removed from humans!

Despite all of these obstacles, Shaw defies expectations and manages to survive the mission and its catastrophic undoing. Once the engineer locked himself in his chair, at the helm of his archaic yet more technologically advanced spaceship, I assumed no one would leave the moon alive, including–or emphatically so–Shaw. Captain Janek, in his righteousness, sense of duty, and rationality, sacrifices himself and his navigation team, crashing into the engineer’s ship upon take-off. Unfortunately, Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof don’t give Shaw as heroic an out. Instead, she teams up with the dismembered David, who has convinced her that he can help her get off the moon. Since he’s unable to feel disappointment–or even boredom–I have to wonder: where does he get his survivalist instinct from? In any case, this odd couple–to say the least–continues to search for her “maker,” meaning the genetic ancestor of the engineer and so on. She still hasn’t learned that simple biology lesson. Given how uncommitted the filmmakers are to thoughtfully engaging Shaw’s paradoxical beliefs in science and religion, I would argue that she is driven more by an empirical urge to answer a question that illuminates the purpose of life rather than by a spiritual quest to do the same. She is dead-set on figuring out why humans’ creators would make “us” only to destroy us.

The open-endedness of Prometheus obviously hints at the possibility of a sequel, but the haphazard writing that I have nitpicked here actually makes me think that the film would have been better as a television series or miniseries on a channel such as HBO. It would have allowed a steadier pace and the opportunity to delve deeper into the faux science as well as the various characters’ lives. Perhaps then they would not have been such lazy archetypes, and the robot could then have some competition for the title of the most complex and beguiling crew member. As an added bonus, maybe more time to explore this truly intriguing premise would also permit a clearer explanation of the prologue, in which an engineer purposefully ingests some organism that mutates his genes as he flings himself off a waterfall, contaminating the landscape below. Where is this place? Is it Earth? Is it meant to be Iceland, where indeed the filmmakers shot the scene’s aerial views, or the Isle of Skye, where we meet Shaw in the next shot? Or is it another planet? What is the prologue’s purpose other than to show the self-sacrifice and mutation of the engineer? If it is meant to explain the origin of (human) life, then that is unclear.

I’m apparently not the only one with questions. Critic David Edelstein of New York and his cohorts Kyle Buchanan and Amanda Dobbins over at Vulture have some questions, too, and they offer up theories different from those that I have posited in this piece, including the significance of what I have called the prologue.

Regarding the technical achievements of the film: the special effects are what you would expect of a film on this scale, with as much financial backing as Scott was able to obtain for his return to Alien specifically and sci-fi more generally. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much out of the 3D projection; its most spectacular use was during the prologue. But, man, do I want to go to Iceland.

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