Thursday, 14 June 2012

Prometheus: a review and summary

Avast, maties! Be warned that this review contains the dreaded Spoilers! Ye have been warned, yaar! Now read on, if ye dare!

For quite some time I have been looking forward to Prometheus, Ridley Scott's recently released film. I have heard that it would be a prequel to Alien, that it would be set in the same universe, that it would be set in a different universe and have nothing to do with Alien. Then I stopped paying attention to what I was hearing, and just waited for the film to come out. With a shocking level of inconsiderateness, it came out while I was away in Scotland at my friends' wedding in a tiny town without a cinema. Deplorable behaviour, Ridley Scott, what were you thinking? Thus stymied, I went to see it last Friday, a week later, with my brother and my friends, Berni and Nathan.

We watched it in 3D. It was the first time I have watched a 3D film, which tells you how infrequently I go to the cinema these days. I was a little wary, as Mum watched Avatar in this new "superior" format some time ago, and it confused her eyes. It took about half an hour, she said, before they returned to normal. Happily, I did not suffer from this reaction. Unhappily, I did develop a slight migraine. Happily, some cupboards in the background of a scene looked positively three-dimensional. Unhappily, a sand-storm in the film looked slightly bizarre. On the basis of that score sheet, I shall be dodging 3D in future. Don't let me put you off. I just don't consider a headache to be an acceptable result from an improvement. Call me a stick in the mud!

I had read, before seeing the film, that Fassbender's performance as the synthetic was worth the price of admission alone. This is inarguably true. The character of the android is a joy to watch. He is mature and naive, callous and filled with solicitude for the well-being of others, emotionless and yet filled with pathos, selfish and selfless. He reminded me in some scenes of Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. In the context of the Alien series, he is a very pleasing melding of the strength and benignity of Bishop in the second film and the single-minded villainy of Ian Holm's Ash in Scott's original. He is belittled and insulted by some of the other characters, yet his humanity seems superior to theirs. There is a pointed (yet blackly comic) scene in which he asks another character, Charlie Holloway, why man created synthetics. On receiving the flat answer "Because we could, I guess." He asks how disappointed mankind would be to hear that reply from their progenitors.

The film opens with a figure in cloak committing suicide at a waterfall. We later learn this is one of the so-called Engineers, Space Jockeys, Pilots who built humanity. He swallows a toxin and dissolves in agony into the pouring water. That could sum up the film: self-destruction and self-sacrifice are the two themes that I perceived most abundantly in it. A long time later a couple of human scientists discover cave paintings all around the world which depict a specific cluster of stars, the system we know from the first two Alien flicks. They convince a dying bloke, an unrecognisable Guy Pearce, Peter Weyland (yup, Weyland and Yutani have yet to unite), to fund their speculative trip to find out what the heck is over in that star system.

Then it's a few years later. Fassbender's character, David, potters round the ship, being a real crowd-pleaser - he demonstrates his superior coordination and his desire to emulate human behaviour, and spies on Dr Shaw's dreams because he's a sinister character and because he arguably doesn't know he's transgressing a boundary. The spaceship is a bit peculiar. I have heard lamentation that it seems more advanced than the Nostromo, the mining ship of the first film. There will always be visual problems when films are created decades apart, and evolving computer technology is one. However, this ship is the privately financed state-of-the-art plaything of the head a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and the original ship was a bog-standard tug. So you can get upset or not, as you please. I didn't find it ruined my enjoyment of the film.

They reach planet LV223, and you sit in the dark cinema, wondering whether that's the same number as in the original flick. No, I had a look and in the original it was LV426. They are in the same system, and have designations apparently 203 instances apart, don't orbit the same gas giant, and this new planet is far more hospitable than the original Stygian (boom-boom!) Acheron. I had a gander at some Aliens wiki earlier, and LV426 (the planet in the original) is one of three planets orbiting a gas giant, according to a screenshot, whereas a screenshot of the new flick shows two moons (including LV223) orbiting this gas giant. So either it's a system with 2+ gas giants with big ol' moons or someone adds a third planet by the time of Alien, and renders LV223 less appetising a prospect for colonisation than LV426. The anal-retentive digression ends here.

Peter Weyland's hologram appears to give everyone a strange pep-talk, and to make us sympathise with David, the dream-invading creep: "He's the closest thing I have to a son, but he has no soul." Meredith Vickers, Charlize Theron, has a huffy moment of growling at the two academics. Shaw makes some baffling speech about how she believes the Engineers made us. It's impossible to know what to make of this. One of the other characters says she's throwing out centuries of Darwinism, and she responds "It's what I believe." It's never made clear just what the Engineers did: a) create all life on Earth (unlikely, since it would require a timescale too vast to conceive), b) interfere by patching proto-human DNA with their own (which doesn't fit with the later idea that human and Engineer DNA is exactly the same), or c) something else. I assume it's a combination of poor writing and some strange reference to the squabbling in America over whether evolution or Creationism is the One True Path. It mildly irritated me to hear the scientist dude who opposed her "crazy theory" calling it Darwinism, when Darwinism is obsolete and has been replaced by more advanced models of evolutionary theory. That said, I can see why you'd dodge a five-minute pencil-sketch of the evolution of evolutionary theory in your film.

So they fly down to the planet, which has huge mountains that make Everest look cute and tiny, and they spot a row of structures: a semi-spherical dome topped with a crested ridge, and with a wall encircling all but a small entrance. They land at one, and everyone (except David) appears to have forgotten the others exist by the film's end. I recall a line of at least three, and probably more, stretching beyond the capacity of the eye to see. There has been a lot of complaining that the ship's captain only asks whether the atmosphere is safe for the ship when they are already in it. It has been widely declared that he should have had a spectroscopic analysis run while in orbit. Frankly, I'm prepared to tolerate something that is clearly only a cinematic convenience.

Everyone's filled with the desire to explore this place and find out what's going on, so off they zoom. They get inside and discover that the atmosphere is strangely breatheable - handily allowing the actors to take off their huge bubble helmets. David has no sense of self-preservation, and doesn't care about the others, so starts poking at controls on the wall, replaying CCTV holograms of giant creatures fleeing something and opening doors to sinister chambers with big heads and worrying-looking jars that evoke Alien eggs. Shaw collects the decapitated head of one of the giants, who have been dead for a couple of millennia. Two dudes sensibly decide they are freaked out, and elect to return to the ship. Foolishly, they didn't pack their Tom-Tom, and so when everyone else flees back to the ship from the giant sandstorm a few minutes later, they are still wandering forlornly around the innards of the complex.

The sandstorm exposes a slight problem with 3D: the fragments closest to one are inevitably blurred, no matter that one looks at them carefully. Pretty minor problem, I guess. Dr Shaw drops the head, and her boyfriend, Charlie, and David have to drag her back to the ship. They poke the ol' noggin with some electricity so it thinks it's alive, and it begins to melt like the dude at the start of the film. Everyone is amazed that it looks like a giant pale human head, except Shaw, who is very pleased, as its DNA precisely matches human DNA. I began to get confused, then wrote off this impossibility as film shorthand: the DNA for a pallid, twelve-foot tall muscled, hairless race doesn't really seem likely to be exactly the same as ours. We share something like 95% of our DNA with bananas, so I presume it's this sort of closely proximate connection that the scriptwriter ineptly wished to convey. Charlie is disappointed, and so he gets drunk. David, back to being sinister, extracts some sinister black oil (very X-Files) from one of the jars, which he picked up. He has the aforementioned chat with Charlie, then asks "What would you be prepared to do to find out?" When Charlie says he'd do anything, David contaminates his booze with black oil. It's a really charmingly pointed bit, that. David really does seem to ask Charlie's permission to experiment on him. Charlie, despite insulting David for not being human, doesn't realise that human idiom is a bad idea when dealing with something inhuman, and seals his own fate.

Charlie goes to see Shaw, and upsets her by making light of the Engineers' ability to create life, which reminds her that she's infertile. Quite why he is disappointed, angry and upset is unclear to me. The only real explanation seemed to be that he'd hoped to meet the Engineers, and yet they all were dead. Given that he is an archaeologist, spending all his time studying extinct civilisations and so on, he might have got used to this by now. Perhaps he gets drunk at the start of every dig he goes on. Meanwhile, the two dudes who had wisely decided to flee back to the ship, and foolishly got lost, find that weird alien lifeforms have oozed out of the jars. The biology dude tries to charm the sinister dianoga-like thingy, and his bearded, hairy companion freaks out. They both die. Come next day and the folks on the ship head out to look for the dudes. Charlie falls ill, so they drag him back to the ship. Vickers, terrified of infection by some alien madness, flames Charlie, who deliberately forces her hand by walking onto the ship. Shaw is understandably upset. She wakes up a bit later, and David tells her that she's three-months pregnant with an alien monstrosity. She beats up some folks and abuses a silly surgical machine to have the baby removed.

Having been cut open by a laser for an emergency Caesarean, and stapled shut again, she then spends most of the rest of the film hauling heavy weights, getting into fights and running at high speed. I had heard that the Caesarean scene was unwatchable. That's untrue, unless you're particularly squeamish. If you are particularly squeamish, why are you watching a Ridley Scott film set in the Alien universe? You aren't, are you? You're watching something gentle and unworrying. So there's a nice thematic link here with the first film. In Alien the facehuggers, resembling in part the female genitalia, attacked people, and in a sense raped them, making them gestate a monster. In this film we see David practice a form of date-rape on Charlie, by taking advantage of his drunken state. Then Charlie and Shaw have consensual sex, leading to her pregnancy. The character has always dreamed of pregnancy, being infertile, and yet on realising her dream it becomes instead a nightmare.

Now it turns out that Peter Weyland was on the ship all along, wanting to find from the Engineers a cure for being old. David has discovered that one of them survives in a stasis pod, and takes everyone to meet Mr Tall, Bald, Muscled and Pallid. Shaw doesn't seem to feel like stating that she is vexed that David murdered her boyfriend, and made her womb into a laboratory to make a monster. She has a more mature attitude to the foibles of machines than I do. I shout at my car when it mucks up a gear change. I would take it very amiss if it were to impregnate me with a toothy alien squid-thing. I'm not sure why she doesn't shout at Peter Weyland. Maybe she's tired. Having your belly cut open can take it out of you, I know. It was all I could do, having lost my appendix last year, to hobble slowly to the end of the road and back, taking about three or four times as long as normal. I respect these future scientists and their awesome staples.

Vickers turns out to be Weyland's daughter, which has been hinted at throughout the film. First, when Weyland refers to David as his son, not his child. Second, in scenes when Vickers has attempted to stamp her authority on the mission and in particular on David. Third, in scenes when she clearly seeks parental approval. Her heartless, cold-blooded and yet wrathful nature makes an interesting (albeit brief) comparison with David. Peter Weyland made himself a synthetic monster of a son, and made his real daughter into a monster through neglect and so on.

So it's off to see the wizard. They wake the sleeping giant, and he cheerily tries to murder them all, then takes off, intent on using his deadly cargo of bio-weapons to annihilate all life on Earth. The human captain and his officers agree with Shaw's estimation that preventing this is a cause worth dying for, and, after ejecting a lifeboat, do a kamikaze run into the giant vessel, sending it crashing back to LV223. Vickers flees off the ship and to the lifeboat, but the Engineers' immense vessel rolls on its rounded edge and squashes her. I came home the other day in my car, and there was a rabbit in the yard. He ran directly away from me. I was driving exactly where he was hopping. Rabbits have an excuse for being silly about the way things roll: they have yet to invent the wheel. When humans do it, it's silly. Run sideways, for pity's sake!

Shaw, having sprinted, fallen, got up, sprinted and so on for several minutes, now rushes over to the lifeboat because her air is low for no readily apparent reason. I (generously) presume a deleted scene exists in which her air canister is damaged in her flight. Reaching the lifeboat, she scrambles in just in time, and is aghast to find the baby monster has turned into a giant toothy squid. It's really not clear why nobody bothered to secure this critter before popping off to see the pale stasis-pod dude. Come on, Mr Weyland, what's the point of looking for a cure for old age when you're going to get eaten by Squiddy the Pale when you come back to your ship? David helpfully tells Shaw over the intercom that the Engineer, annoyed about being knocked out of the sky, is coming to kill her. Happily for her, Squiddy and the Space Jockey have a battle reminiscent of that King Kong versus Tyrannosaurus Rex fights from the classic '30s film, and she slinks off. Folks have complained that there is no reason for David to tell her, but that ignores the fact that David is throughout solicitous for human welfare until it gets in the way of Weyland's plans or David's interest.

The Engineers are thus exposed to have been not noble progenitors of mankind with the loveliest of intentions, but sinister bio-weapon researchers who sequestered themselves on a tiny moon in case anything went wrong. Something did go wrong, but they managed to avoid it reaching their homeworld by all dying on LV223 instead. It's a nice switch to see the Space Jockeys depicted as evil, given the aura of kindness that the film crew apparently felt about the model in the original film, and given that Shaw starts the film believing them to be kindly benefactors, extending to mankind a hand of helpful friendship. It remains unclear why the Space Jockey at the end intends to cleanse Earth of mankind. Is humanity an unsatisfactory species for preparing a planet for habitation by the Space Jockeys? Is humanity perfect, but the inevitable result of our success is our extermination? Has the surviving Space Jockey just gone crazy because of malfunctioning equipment? Was he always a nutter? Does anyone particularly care? When's the sequel coming out?

David, is pleasantly stoic about having his head separated from his body by the malign Space Jockey, in a scene which reminds us that the humans were poking at the decapitated head of another Space Jockey earlier. He then reminds us of a still earlier scene, by pointing out that there are other alien ships. Shaw then lugs his body about. I know the first thing I thought of on returning from surgery was weight-lifting. Oh, wait, no. No, even sitting up was exhausting, because I had to use unfamiliar muscles so as not to wear out the stomach ones with a hole in them. I'll shut up about that now because we're at the end. So off they fly - the helpful, psychotic, naive robot and the God-loving, somewhat-crazy, PTSD-dodging, superhuman scientist. We cut back to the Engineer, and a proto-Alien chestbursts its way out of him, leaving us even more confused about the origin of the Aliens than we were before we watched this film about the backstory of Alien.

Worth watching? Yes. Worth watching in the cinema? Yes, there's some lovely grand visuals. Does it answer any questions? Er, kinda. Does it raise more questions? Arguably, but since it didn't answer the first bunch it was supposed to, you can write off any expectations about a sequel to this prequel filling in the weird gaps with any sort of conclusive answer. Self-destruction and self-sacrifice as themes? Yup: the Engineer at the start, the crazy folk who undertake a five-year trip (one-way) to look into some utterly unconvincing vague hints that aliens made us, Peter Weyland destroying himself by looking for stuff that "man was not meant to know", David getting ripped apart by the Engineer, the Engineer's own Squiddy using him to birth a new monster, Charlie's readiness to "do anything" to find out more about the Engineers, the Engineers' own bio-weapons killing them, the humans' ship crashing into the Engineers' ship so as to save Earth, the scientist who gets too close to the dianoga-thing and gets himself killed, and probably some more that aren't coming to mind.

Weird stuff about sex and rape and birth? Yup: Shaw gestating Squiddy, Squiddy impregnating the Engineer, the scientist who gets too close to the dianoga-thing having it force its way down his throat, the Engineer at the start killing itself to see Earth with its genetic material. Worth watching in 3D? Not from where I was sitting. My friend, Nathan, said they only really use 3D to have things fly at you in ads. In proper films it's more a subtle background thing. Contrarily, when Mum saw Avatar, she commented on the realism of the depths, when one's got the perspective of the characters standing over sheer drops. So I suppose I should watch that and get another headache before issuing my final verdict. Is the film good? Yes and no. Every film I have ever seen contains ridiculous elements. This is not an exception. I would say that you should go see this film, but I would temper that with the admonition that, having watched Men in Black 3 the next day, MIB3 was better than Prometheus. Make of that what you will.


  1. good review, and I agree with your verdict, it was visually spectacular but some of it was just confusing, you forgot to mention the geologist guy turning into a space zombie, what was that all about? it made no sense at all, Aliens has never had anything to do with zombies, it felt like Ridley Scott decided what he had made wasn't scary enough so he wrote in a scene to try and ramp it up, just strange.

    1. It's what the black goo does.

      Infect, mutate, make agressive, infect, mutate, make a xenos. It is safe to say that if left to wreak havoc the space zombie guy would eventually drag away and infect someone, until eventually a xenos is created.

      There is likely another xenos happily bouncing around that planet, from the guy that got his arm broke and swallowed the snake.

    2. Cheers, Dan! I got a bit confused by Zombie Dude. I remembered that partially-shaved ginger dude was the zombie, but I read a review by a guy who remembered it was the nice biologist "who got his arm broke and swallowed the snake", so I decided I'd dodge that whole kerjigger.

      I assumed like you, Bahz, that it was another transmission vector, but I wasn't sure why, in that case, the infected dude was smacking people about a cargo bay rather than getting up close and personal so he could give them some horrible rape-like kiss, like every other monster in this universe. Man, that sentence gives me another reason why I like being in the real world and not the world of crazy alien dudes! I agree with you, Dan, that it doesn't fit into the Aliens universe. The wee nasties just gestate at speed. They don't take over anyone's nervous system. Until now. But then again, this was a film to set up their creators as naughty bio-engineers, so I'm a bit at sea!

    3. It was the ginger dude, fifield, he took a faceplant into the goo.

      Like in the other aliens films; the xenos beat a few meatsacks around, ate a few, dragged some off for cuddles n hugs. It is likely that fifield-ginger-zombie-mutant was doing the same thing, take out threats find a weak one and have babies. we just didn't get to see that part because he got squished.

      The same thing was happening to holloway, just slower, because he only had a micro drop teenie bit of goo. Based on what we've seen of organisms infected with the goo, he would have eventually became agressive as well.

      This is the first time we've been introduced to the goo, so this is the film that sets up what the goo does. Up to this point we've only seen the end result of what the goo does to lifeforms.

    4. Ooh, that's an excellent take on it, Bahz. I have a much better idea of what the heck was going on now!

  2. Run sideways, I know, right!

    This movie is about creation, science vs religion. With 'Chariots of the Gods' and the Sumerian 'Atrahasis' as a guide.

    Andriods created using science by humans, humans created using science by the engineers, the engineers created using science by ..., xenos created using science by ..., etc.

    The engineers are too generic to be anything but manufactured. a working class. a blank slate.

    The end-game of the engineered black goo, is to agressively and quickly mutate/infect/evolve into a Xenos. a warrior class. a weapon.

    the end lol.

    1. I think you're probably right there, Bahz! I have to confess never to having read the Atrahasis, and to having only a second or third-hand familiarity with von Däniken's work. Alien astronauts made us, the Nazca lines and so on, but about there my X-Files inspired knowledge peters out. ;-)

      I like your take on the Engineers. I'd just thought "crazy alien dudes" and failed to consider them in depth, but they do have angelic characteristics in some ways: perfect physical forms, and a malign lack of interest in mankind.

    2. I like that you mentioned angelic characteristics of the engineers. There are similarities; engineers being angels is a bit "on the nose".

      How about the xenos striking the jesus pose on the mural.

    3. I had a bit of a google, and came up with this - - which has made me have weird, seahorsey ideas about the Engineers. A mate of mine had already remarked that we see only "male" Engineers, so my brain was sliding along those tracks even before I saw the comment about reproduction and the gribbly proto-Alien thingies being the equivalent of females (assuming a seahorsey reversal of which gender carries the offspring to term). This doesn't really tie in with the fact that these nasty little thingies demonstrate significant physical differences from their "parent" organisms, so I admit I've only got a fragment of a larger idea here!

      I think I'm being a bit blind and not seeing the Jesus pose, but my eyes aren't what they were. Given the "two thousand years ago" thing, it seems wholly plausible that there's something weird going on here. Given that a dude from Lost wrote the script, it seems unlikely we'll ever find out what he intended, if he knows himself. ;-)

  3. I hadn't watched it ut I couldn't resist reading! Good review ahz and pretty upfront aout the flaws thanks!

    um there's a key on my key_oard that doesn't work - guess which one?

    1. I hope you enjoyed it, Minitrol! I don't promise comprehensive accuracy, but I do promise that I will forget what I'm doing halfway through! ;-)

  4. There are many factions of thought amongst mankind right? Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.

    Would alien intelligences necessarily be any different? Probably not.

    So, you have a remote weapons outpost making experimental weaponry using their biomechanic technology. Is there a chance they're making that weaponry to use on other factions of their own species? Probably a pretty good chance of that.

    If they create a bio mutagenic aerosol - how to test it without giving away their invention to the other faction and them creating an antidote?

    You'd need some sort of test subject, right? Preferably a test subject with a similar genetic (close match DNA) makeup?


    1. Interesting thinking, Trent. I had forgotten the old B5 episode in which Straczynski se;f-consciously satirises SF's usual Monolithic Aliens by contrasting his universe's inhabitants with his Earth's score or so of religious representatives (including himself as Mr Atheist! :-D). I have been thinking of the Space Jockeys from an external perspective, but there is doubtless a view of the rest of the species of what these loonies with their biogenic weaponry are up to. I am sure I'd be goggle-eyed in horror if I somehow ended up in Earth's equivalent of these doom-laden laboratories. I like my internal organs unmelted!


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