I often do things that do not make sense in light of my present circumstances. And going to see Prometheus for a second time, from a financial perspective, is one of them. But see it again I did, and I thought that I would share my reflections with you. Because the film has been out for several weeks now, and everyone I know whom I wanted to preserve surprises for has seen it, I will be divulging things that can be considered critical to the plot. Consider yourself warned.
In my earlier look at the film, I made much of the fact that such far-out concepts as hyperdrive, or similar physics-bending plot devices, were conspicuously absent from the film. Certain opening titles that would be easier to read place the distance from Earth that the planet Prometheus mostly takes place on at 3.27 multiplied by (from memory) 1027 kilometres. This measurement , coupled with the time suggested as taking place between take-off and arrival, suggests a speed that is just fractionally on our side of the speed of light. For those who do not understand the implications, the nearest known star to Sol, Proxima Centaurii, takes around 4.2 years to reach when travelling exactly at the speed of light. So although the distance to the moon indicated in Prometheus is plausible if you know your basic astronomy, only barely so.
I have written words to this effect many, many times in my life in reference to films. If you do not have a good story to tell, with well-designed characters that the audience can relate to in some fashion, it all goes to shit. The main characters that we relate to the audience through are beautifully-designed. And better still, they are exceptionally well-acted. Noomi Rapace is no Anna Paquin, but Prometheus shows that with her startling manner, she does not need to be. She is something else, equally compelling in its own way. But the main reason I went back is Michael Fassbender. Having seen him in X-Men: First Class, he was much of the reason I went and saw Prometheus the first time. Michael Fassbender as an earlier iteration of Ash and Bishop. The mind reels with possibilities, and he fulfills them (and then some!).
In fact, pretty much every scene where Prometheus hits a high note involves Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, or the two interacting in some manner. I will give an example of a solo moment for the latter so you can understand how awesome Prometheus is when it sticks to the Heinleinian mould of science fiction. After discovering the head and corpse of one of the fabled Engineers within the storage facility, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) drunkenly has a chat with David (Michael Fassbender). Charlie is sore because so far, all of the evidence he has seen suggests that he really is on an archaeological dig rather than a The Day The Earth Stood Still type of greet the green man mission. So David asks Charlie why he wanted to meet “his maker”, then asks Charlie, just as a sort of example, why Charlie thinks Human engineers made David. “Because we could” is pretty much Charlie’s drunken answer, to which David responds by asking Charlie how disappointed he would be if the same answer came out of the mouths of the Engineers.
This reminds me of a quote from Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, the lengthy documentary about Ed Wood‘s life and his magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space. In it, one interviewee states that his favourite moment in the film is when Eros (Dudley Manlove) loses his patience and tells the Humans confronting him how stupid they and their minds are. “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”, Manlove says. What this interviewee loves about this scene is how, in a market saturated with films where Mr. Alien calmly explains that he is superior and why he is superior and how superior he is, Ed Wood had the courage to make a film in which the alien spokesman loses his rack and displays uncontrolled emotions about the situation. That is basically how the aliens behave in Prometheus, too. Oh, I do not mean that the Engineer in one scene starts to tell the Prometheus crew members that they are “stupid, stupid” (although it would be well-deserved). But the essence of the reaction is quite similar. As Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) screams at David to ask why the Engineers have decided to delete Humanity and start over, and David attempts to speak to the Engineer in what he believes is its language, the Engineer simply turns and starts smacking the Prometheus crew members around. Which, because he is eight feet tall (at minimum) and has a Greek god-like body, he is able to do very effectively.
As I have written earlier, Prometheus basically consists of two halves. The first half is a fairly intelligent and well thought-out science fiction. It is also the half that still resonates with me the best. Allowing yourself to get carried away with your hopes and then getting upset when you are let down is a very, very Human failing. It is one that I suspect science fiction authors turn their attention to multiple times during the course of writing a novel. George Orwell even stops for a moment to address the probability of a disparity between the goals of the revolutionaries who have created the Oceania government and said government as it existed in the novel’s present time. Referred-to quotes have the resistance proclaiming that the revolution has been “betrayed”. But the point here is that the second half just does not mesh with the first very well.
I think the transition is less jarring than I remember it being the first time. But it is still not a very smooth one. The basic problem is that whereas all of the characters are portrayed in a very realistic and three-dimensional manner during the first half, Elizabeth Shaw turns into Lara Croft, space archaeologist in the second. Yes, I am all for women in films being portrayed as doing things that defy absolute plausibility. Yes, I am all for women as the central hero in an action film, or even a science fiction and action hybrid. But having endured two bouts of priapism and two options requiring general anesthesia to remove an invasive growth from my face, I just cannot abide the physical manner in which Shaw is shown behaving in much of the second half of the film. Having surgery to remove a living thing from your abdomen takes days to recover from. At a point late in the film, Shaw is shown jumping out of the wreckage of a spaceship, descending about three or four feet. The majority of Noomi Rapace‘s height (slightly less than five and a half feet), anyway. When one has had abdominal surgery to this extent and still has metallic staples keeping the surgical wound closed, such a jump could, and likely would, prove fatal.
A director’s cut in which the whole surgery scene is excised or restructured in order to explain Shaw’s apparent miracle recovery cannot be far off, in my mind. I know that Ridley Scott has made films that have not been re-released as a so-called director’s cut (in one case, more than once), but they seem to be fewer than the ones that have. (I have just read parts of the Wikipedia article… apparently the home video release will in fact feature an extended version with twenty minutes of additional footage. Not surprised.)
Now, this has been on my mind since the final shot began, but the “rupturing” of the Engineer corpse that precedes the end credits brings a lot of questions to mind. Ridley Scott has gone on record as saying that when he was making Alien, he had a far different idea concerning the titular creature’s reproductive cycle than what ended up in subsequent films. This idea is reflected somewhat in one of the deleted scenes for Alien, but the Prometheus implementation is, at least in my mind, the better one. Of course, when Alien was released, the idea that our bodies and the characteristics therein were partly determined by an element called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, was unknown to all but a small number of scientists. That was thirty-three years ago as of this day. Now, everyone has a school-level idea of what DNA is and what it does, even if their more expanded ideas have little or no correspondence with reality.
In Prometheus, we get two basic ideas of how the aliens use DNA as a weapon against us. The first involves a black honey-like goo that, when ingested, breaks the ingesting organism down in an entropy-like manner. The other involves some sort of living organism that, in a similar manner to the facehugger in Alien, literally jumps down the throat of a victim, gestates for a while, then causes said victim to explode. Also interesting to note is that, although the film never explicitly spells this out, individuals who have ingested the goo spoken of in my description of the first bioweapon and have sex thereafter, pass the DNA in the goo to whomever they have sex with. People who know how babies are “made” know what I am getting at here. Although the implications of male to female transfer are the only ones explored in the film, a sequel in which the reverse occurs might be an idea.
Which brings me to the final sequence of the film. In the film’s climax, the sole living Engineer that the Prometheus crew find comes running after Shaw, apparently anxious to stop her from foiling whatever plan he has to bring the biological weapons back to Earth. Although her methods of eluding him bring back that problem I was talking about with post-surgical physical activity, it ends with one bioweapon, which has by now grown to 1950s monster movie size, jumping down the throat of the Engineer. A handful of sequences are betwixt that moment and the ending sequence, but suffice to say that in this ending sequence, we see the Engineer shiver in a manner much like a body briefly twitches after a violent death, grow a bulbuous midsection, and explode. Emerging from this explosion is a wedge-headed creature that, whilst having some characteristics in common with the creature from Alien, is otherwise more or less entirely different. One thing I liked about this “proto-Alien”, as some call it, is that the designers did a bit of a flip and made it really double-mouthed. You see, the titular creature in Alien is not double-mouthed, boys and girls. That white thing that leaps out of its mouth, and has teeth of its own? That is its tongue. That is an expression of how dangerous the creature really is: even its tongue can fukk you up.
But the salient point here is that Ridley Scott, Jon Spaihts, and Damon Lindelof have succeeded at doing what every other team of directors and writers have tried and failed at. James Cameron and his mob are excluded from that because they did not even try, but that is an aside. You see, in Alien 3, and much more disastrously in Alien: Resurrection, the screenwriters attempt to imply or even explicitly state that the Alien can adapt its DNA from whatever host creature it reproduces from. Somewhat like the creature in John Carpenter‘s The Thing has to physically “sample” people in order to imitate them. Alien 3 does this in a half-arsed manner, birthing the Alien from a dog or a bull-like creature then having Ripley yammer about how it “moves differently”. I will not even go into how Alien: Resurrection fukks this up (it makes you wonder which fourteen year old Fox had working in their screenwriting department on the script on that day). Prometheus simply gives us a very different host (very Human in most respects, but more akin to a Greek or Norse god cosmetically), a very different breeding process (biological warfare as opposed to natural), and thus a different-looking creature. I think a sequel exploring how we get from the Alien at the end of Prometheus to the one seen in Alien would be very interesting if the writer of the better parts of Prometheus works on it.
One thing that disappoints me a bit about Prometheus is how the aspect of how Humanity being created by Engineers and the implications are phrased in such a “god versus science/skepticism” manner. It is infuriating, in fact. I do not know about other countries, but even in the kinds of places within Australia that my asshole male parent wants to wave a flag and chant “rah rah rah” for, the entirety of creationism is laughed at. As is the manner in which certain Americans keep trying to shove creationism into the classrooms of the children of others. But the actual storytelling part of Prometheus also carries an implication that is relevant to the creationism and why it is not science thing. You see, although the Engineer race is heavily implicated in creating Humans, just because one faction that the entire film represents wishes it could get the eraser out does not mean the entire Engineer species does. Nor does it mean that even if all Engineers believe we are a mistake, that they are correct. In fact, the question of who the Engineers are to judge this is one worth exploring in another sequel, too. At the ending, when Elizabeth tells David that she wants to find the Engineers’ homeworld and ask them why, it implies that she wants to challenge them to prove that they are right. That is not the act of someone who bases their decisions on “faith”, as much of the publicity material implies. It is the act of a person who looks a mercenary right in the face and says “look, I want some answers” (like Michael Preston to Mel Gibson in Mad Max 2).
Leaving aside the fact that I think the Engineers will not need to make much effort to prove their case in a universal court of law, I think the film mostly works wonderfully as a look into what Aliens from an “advanced” civilisation would think if they saw us up close and personal. What would you think if, after travelling so far that it takes you years to get there, you found a world on which the sentient creatures you created have dominated the planet, but are such denialists and selfish idiots that they threaten to render their world uninhabitable (by the time of the period depicted in the film, overpopulation will likely result in worldwide food wars)? As horrible as I am sure that this impromptu verdict and its delivery must feel to the crew of the titular ship, the Engineers in Prometheus are hardly the kind of mindless unmotivated boogeymen so endemic to the horror genre. As silent and mysterious as they are, they clearly have thought their doings through.
The rapidly-growing worm creatures that are seen in several sequences of the film also bring a question to mind. As I was writing this text, I began to wonder. Are these creatures a deliberately-made weapon from the moon on which the Engineers have been found? Are they native to that moon? Or are they an example of an experiment gone horribly wrong? Honestly, that is something that can keep a storyteller up at night. Clearly, the moon is a storage facility for biological weapons, and thus the military among the Engineers would be performing a number of different experiments thereon. Would the Engineers have made a creature like the proboscis thingies? Who knows? Quite clearly, the manner in which they jump into the digestive systems of “hosts” is meant to be some sort of prototype for the facehugger we see in Alien, but that raises questions concerning how long an interval there would be between Alien and Prometheus. Not to mention how these creatures get from one moon (LV-226) to the other (LV-426). A lot of exploration of the links between the two stories would be appreciated, honestly.
There are also scenes where the logistics of the operation come under great curiosity. Contrary to what the Republic___, “everything I make is by my own effort” (bzzzt!) crowd will tell you, a private corporation cannot finance this kind of expedition. Not no way, not no how. In 2011, Microsoft, a corporation that is for all intents and purposes a monopoly, had a total revenue (as opposed to net income) in 2011 of 69.94 billion US dollars. That would not even buy them one of the several engines seen on the Prometheus. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) lays down the law to the two scientists we are supposed to regard as heroes early in the film, telling them that the Weyland corporation has invested a trillion dollars in the expedition. Unless the Weyland corporation has somehow imposed a Microsoft tax on every single product the entire world consumes, and a sizeable one at that, I doubt that they would even see a trillion dollars in a decade. And even if they did manage to impose such a tax… I still doubt it. And do not give me any shit about inflation. Although inflation is becoming a big problem in and of itself in 2012, it would take a mass death-causing rate of inflation to account for a corporation being able to pour a trillion dollars into any one thing, and even then, what they would get back for it is a lot less than shown in the film.
Are there any bad performances, acting-wise, in Prometheus? Well, sure, some of the actors come across less brilliantly than others. With performances like Michael Fassbender‘s, they pretty much have to at some point. But the standard in terms of acting is very, very high across the board. Sean Harris plays a geologist who only has the name Fifield. He is never that friendly a character, and clearly only cares about the (probably very large amount of) money that he has been promised. But when he really starts to become brash and angry, you totally understand where he is coming from. You do not have a whole lot of sympathy for him, but you totally understand his non-social behaviour and outright panic when he discovers that the site offers more than rock and fossil. Other characters, such as the Captain called Janek (Idris Elba), only get a line or two in order to establish what kind of person they are. For instance, when Meredith proclaims that “they” (Shaw and Holloway) were right, Janek asks the same question every member of the audience with intelligence comparable to mine would ask: “You wanted them to be wrong?”.
Charlize Theron, as Meredith Vickers, has the unfortunate distinction of coming off the worst of the cast. Whether it is from the direction, the script, or Theron herself, the character seems so flat compared to the others. A problem, given that the character is meant to play a decisive role in driving the story. She does not change at all through the story, even as everything goes South. I do not know how to describe it properly, really, but her performance and character, with a few exceptions, starts to really feel like a bolt being forced into an awkwardly-shaped hole. Maybe that is why Theron‘s best scenes are the ones where she is interacting solely with Fassbender, whose character was explicitly designed to come across in such a manner. Apparently, Theron was originally going to be cast as Elizabeth Shaw, but scheduling conflicts necessitated her declining the role. When a subsquent change in the schedule made her available, she was then put into the role of Meredith Vickers. I think that was for the best, because I really do not believe her awkward performance would have worked in the role of Shaw.
I would have ended the film very differently. You see, in spite of the fact that Ridley Scott has disavowed all but the loosest connection (same universe, otherwise no relation, to approximate his words) between this film and Alien, the manner in which the expedition all goes to hell could have bridged into Alien nicely. The surgical scene is the first place I would change things. Removing this whole subtext with Shaw suddenly “pregnant” and thus the surgery, would probably work best with the existing final third of the film. But in storytelling terms, not having Shaw run and leap about trying to get from place to place would also work a lot better. Having her stagger and limp helplessly to anywhere where she can leave a message that approaching this site could have grave consequences would have been much more satisfying. It is as if someone with money leaned on the writers, and Ridley Scott (which would mean mucho leaning), and told them they wanted a happy ending. Problem with that is, with this kind of material leading up to it, a happy ending is also a far less satisfying one unless your IQ is somewhere around room temperature.
Again, I saw the film in 2D. In fact, that was a big motivator in going to see the film for a second time. You see, home entertainment consumers keep trying to inform the studio system that we want freedom of choice, whereas the studio system wants us to believe that freedom from choice is what we really want. So I thought I would do my bit once again and explicitly say to the theatre I am paying for 2D, and that 3D can be shoved up the nearest studio executive’s fat arse. And by explicitly say, I mean in the only terms that these corporate entities that like to kid themselves they could ever fund an expedition across several light years of space understand: with money.
In further point of fact, that is what truly angers me about the whole bundle-pack thing that the distributors are getting carried away with. When you offer a product for sale in as many options as is feasible, say a DVD, a BD, and perhaps a bundle of the two, you get an accurate picture of how well-received or desired each product is. And I can promise you something, Fox: after hearing a man nearly twice my age angrily protest that he did not buy a HD plasma set and lossless receiver so he could watch SD crap on it at the local JB Hi-Fi, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who would cross the street to avoid buying DVDs ever again.
Oh yeah, and I saw the most horrifying, godawful thing during the previews. It seems that the long-dreaded and unwated remake of Total Recall, the second film Paul Verhoeven made in the American studio system, has not only been completed but will be in theatres soon. The imagery and content I saw in the trailer is… not good. Number one, when a hero is being hunted by a man as vicious and angry as Richter, they do not engage in conversation. They shoot at each other and do nothing but for as long as they happen to be in range or have a semi-clear shot. Michael Ironside did not need to tell Arnold Schwarzenegger how “cool” or hardcore he thinks he is. He is Michael Ironside. Heroes who can put foot to butt to the degree that Quaid is shown doing in the real Total Recall just laugh when an enemy tells them “I have not begun hunting you yet” or the like. Oh, and whilst we are on the subject, Len Wiseman, putting the woman you are married to in every film you are in, regardless of whether she fits the part? Not cool. And whilst we are on the subject, Wiseman, do you know why people feel your direction sucks so much? It is for a reason that stems from why intelligent people feel Paul Verhoeven‘s practically shits gold and pisses champagne. You see, Verhoeven knows how to frame and track a shot so that at all times, the viewer can understand exactly what is going on. Which is kind of important in an action film of any stripe. Whipping and weaving a camera through an area that consists of TOO. MUCH. SHIT. is just not on, Wiseman.
So in the end, allow me to summarise. Prometheus is a good film. It could have been great, but the clash of one half of the story with the other makes the victory over other challenges the production posed a little pyrrhic in nature. Noomi Rapace proves that there is a reason a fuss was made about her. Michael Fassbender proves once again that he is everything that “it’s all about me” celebrities of my boyhood were not. And I will be writing again about the film when I do obtain a DVD-free version of the home video release (and take note, Fox: this does mean I will consider piracy if you make it too difficult), specifically about whether the extended version is an improvement. Until then, grit your teeth and bear whatever else I write in the meantime.