Prometheus ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I'm not sure I can think of another film off the top of my head that shows such expert execution in the art of film-making but such stupidheaded stupidity in so many aspects of its story. A film that's a curious mix of clichéd horror movie tropes, a patchwork of go-nowhere themes, a mysterious just for the sake of being fucking mysterious back-story all set to an old-school, yet still fresh — if done right — story.

My lament: it could have been great. It could have been great.

Instead, this film pisses me off like no other in recent memory, for five main reasons. And I think my rather excessive rant here shows my pissed-off-ed-ness.

Also, to be frank, I couldn't care less about the Alien tie in. After seeing Prometheus I can see how it's a prequel, and I can see how that doesn't really matter. This is a new film, a massively expanded universe, and if this movie had been as great as I think it could have been, even Alien and Aliens — it goes without saying the other two sequels, and I'm not deigning to include the AVP franchise at all in this — could have been relegated to adjuncts, small skirmishes in humanity's greater battle against their creators. I think that was what Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were aiming for: to tell a greater story that just happened to tie into the earlier canon (and of course there are many references here and there) but unfortunately, they missed.

Reason One: science and the back-story. For the record, I do not doubt that Scott and Lindelof have created an elaborate back-story for this movie; they've intimated as such in their interviews. And it does look pretty good on the surface: we were created by a race of superbeings (where did they come from? who are they?), something happened (oooh, what?) and our creators now want to destroy us, something else happened (oooh, what?) and they haven't done the deed yet, in the meantime we've advanced enough to find them and almost bring about our own destruction. I'm pretty sure Scott and Lindelof have answers to my in-line questions, but the overarching meta-question is are those answers any good?

In the back-story (and it's not just the back-story; it's right there front and centre in the story we see too) a lot of science is employed, and implied, to get the movie rolling and then keep it rolling. The science of creation, the science of our impending destruction, the science of medicine, to patch us up and probe the aliens, the science of space travel and deducing where the "invitation" that kicked this whole movie off points to, the science of who we are and where we came from.

Even though this movie's lineage is arguably more horror than science fiction, there is no getting away from the fact that no matter what you classify Prometheus as, science plays a huge part. Unfortunately, what we seem to be getting here is Arthur C Clarke's famous dictum that "future or alien technology will seem as magic" writ large; we aren't bothering with science, we're just going all out on the magic. It might have a spaceship and an android, but it's all fantasy, baby. It's not science fiction.

For some people this isn't a biggie. Movies regularly screw up science, and good science is more often than not unnecessary for a good story. For instance, I don't really care about the many, many transgressions in The Fifth Element, or even Transformers, both "sci-fi" movies. But then they are just fun movies. They don't purport to be serious, like I'm pretty sure Prometheus aims to be. And when you are a serious science fiction movie, where the science is quite integral to the plot, I think a little more care in world-building was in order.

First up: the back-story involving our supposed creation, specifically the science of our supposed creation, is utter barfjuice. A giant, ripped, albino man deconstructs himself, CGI WTFs his DNA, seeds a planet and then relies on what? millions? billions? just thousands? (then explain fossilised dinosaurs, you rebel, er, creationist scum) of years of (designed?) evolution, going through amoebas, trilobites, velociraptors, toadstools, flatfish, bacteria, tapeworms, cows, oak trees, those butt-ugly deep sea fish things and billions of other lifeforms to just happen to get back to the form it started with. And not just close to the form, but a 100% match.

Film-makers, I do not think DNA works the way you think it works. Ugh, things just don't add up. And not only do things not add up, but a lot of those things that we are supposed to add up are obfuscated so we don't even know what we're supposed to be adding up.

Instead of dealing with this creation premise intelligently, we are simply given it as a mystery and are told to accept it as rote. Just because. As the movie's "biologist" Millburn puts it, the creation story Shaw tells — one which she seems to have made up based on finding a pattern of dots in a few different places on Earth, no less — overturns 300 years of Darwinism. (Which puts Darwinism as beginning 70 years before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, BTW.) To which the answer is shrug, just have faith. Yeah, because that's how science rolls, bitches. Er, not.

Dr Shaw should know better. The film-makers should know better. They aren't pandering to a dumb audience, much as Hollywood would like us to believe. Especially those of us who dig science fiction. By not dealing with it intelligently, they risk audience alienation.

Or how about sticking electrified needles into a long-dead, yet somehow still perfectly preserved disembodied head to elicit memories using some pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo waffle blather blah blah blah. And the head then explodes for no apparent reason. Where's even a handwavium explanation for what just happened? Again: nothing.

Or what about the alien excised from Shaw, confined to a small room with I'm guessing negligible nutrients that yet somehow still manages to increase in size one hundred fold? Even if it was a breathairian, that change in size is rather improbable.

Or one of the worst, because this is where it all supposedly starts: pictures of dots in various cave paintings around the world mean the human race was created by some race of superbeings from out amongst the stars and those dots are an invitation and they are also a map and they are also stars or maybe something else because there is apparently only one sun in that system (huh?) and it doesn't matter that stars or suns or other bodies in such systems change position and over the 35,000 years those cave paintings span those stars/whatever they are would have moved probably by lots and how do they know which star system those dots represent and there are millions and billions of combinations of dots just in our galaxy alone that would match exactly those dots and ugh.

I've seen some defending Prometheus as a Golden Age throwback, in the same style as Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, and to accept it as such on those terms. Personally, I think that's turd gas. Golden Age audiences were not as sophisticated as today's. They were just as intelligent, but even the most intelligent person on the planet in 1936 had no idea about DNA, let alone how the mechanisms of evolution might relate to it. Like it or not, we who watch this film will couch it in our modern ideas and knowledge. And our modern ideas and knowledge say bollocks to that.

How much would it have taken the film-makers to add a little rigour to their ideas? Personally, I don't think much. As I said above, even a little bit of handwavium is better than nothing: it establishes rules, fills in gaps that we otherwise have to fill in ourselves. And when all we have to use is a square peg to go in your round gap, it destroys the illusion.

Reason Two: the themes, they do nothing. So, we've established that there's an interesting premise to this movie, but that in trying to squeeze that into a story, the science has been dumbified. But not only that, somewhere along the line of going from that interesting premise to the finished movie, we've also been landed with a bunch of pretentious themes that aren't necessary for the story and, fatally, do not connect with the characters.

The whole faith versus reason thing? Why? Why is it there? What is it about this theme that drives any character development here? It has a place as a (dubious) crutch for beginning the mission in the first place, sure. Back to the dots: Shaw and Holloway believe they are an invitation, and with scant other evidence to back it up convince Weyland to stump up a trillion dollars. But why use faith as the reason for starting the mission? To champion faith over reason? Why is it important that faith drove the mission? Why not add more evidence? Make the dots more convincing (a sophisticated three-dimensional guide based on pulsars for working out where to go; you don't have to explain it in great detail; a 20 second portion of handwavium is enough) and just go. What about Shaw's faith is really, and I mean really, necessary for the story? What is the film trying to say? That faith is good, because faith was proved correct: there are our creators out there amongst the stars? Or that faith screwed up, as Dr Elizabeth Shaw realises when she says "we were so wrong"?

I can't see a moral, either in faith triumphing over reason or reason triumphing over faith. And even if there was a moral that I missed, I couldn't see any characters changing either because of it, or for any other reason either. So why have this metaphysical fight between faith and reason if it doesn't lead anywhere? Is it just so you can have a metaphysical fight between faith and reason? The only reason it's there is because it's there. Ugh.

And the Weyland and son and daughter and everyone wants to kill their parents thing? Again, why? I can't see any reason for it. Vickers is Weyland's daughter. Whoop-de-woo. And David is the son he never had. So? Right, everyone wants to kill their parents and David was created by Weyland and this parallels our creation by the Engineers and...? What's the meaning? What's the thing we can take from this to aid our understanding of the universe? What's the thing about this that changes the way anyone acts in this movie? Maybe David's actions, which are all rather mysterious, can be explained through this? But how? By what? I'm just not seeing it. Maybe I'm stupid, but everything is so murky I have trouble seeing the hand in front of my face.

I read about an interview with Lindelof that basically asked the audience to come up with their own interactions between characters in order to fill in the gaps. Uh, really? That's really the way to involve the audience? Give them a stake by asking them to write the damn story for you? Um, I would say, no, that is not the way to do it. A little bit of mystery is a good thing. But so many things are left unsaid in this movie that we're trying to fill a Grand Canyon's worth of chasms with a handful of silly putty.

Reason Three: the characters, their choices and the choices made for them. I thought more of you, Ridley Scott, I really did. Damon Lindelof, not so much. I got sick of Lost after two and a bit seasons.

A "scientist" in Dr Elizabeth Shaw who puts faith ahead of scientific rigour? (And what the hell is she a doctor in, anyway? She knows an awful lot of mumbo-jumbo about cave paintings, alien head autopsies and self-surgery: there wouldn't be many jobs where all of those are part of the job description.)

Millburn, our biologist who is scared of dead, headless alien bodies, but later coos with affection when confronted with an unknown, fugly and in all probability dangerous animal?

Holloway, our expert in divining whether atmospheres contain dangerous biologicals, who takes his helmet off when the gasses in the atmosphere reach the right levels? Sod any little alien bugsie-wugsies that could infect you with an unpleasant death.

A bunch of people on the greatest mission in Earth's history and they have no idea why they are there until they are there? Who put this band together? Snuffleupagus and Big Bird on crack?

Millburn and Fifield, the punk geologist, run away and somehow get lost, despite the path they came in on having already been mapped and directions being readily available from the Prometheus if they bothered to ask.

And, for the love of all that is good and holy, RUN TO THE SIDE.

You know what would be really scary: people in the situations these people were in doing the right thing and still getting fucked over. That would be scary. People doing dumb things isn't scary.

And as for character growth: fugeddabouddit. Did anyone change? Did anyone grow? Did anyone learn anything? Not that I could see. I won't harp on, but given all these subtexts of faith versus reason and we all want to kill our parents, no-one did anything that I could definitively say, oh, interesting, that has forced me to re-evaluate how I see faith or reason or parricide.

Reason four: this is not a self-contained movie. Fuck it, I'm getting sick of writing, and you're probably sick of reading. But basically, all the questions this movie raised without giving anything approaching a satisfactory answer annoyed me. And what's annoying me even more is that Scott and Lindelof damn well know I'm going to be buying the Blu-Ray director's cut and lining up for the inevitable sequel just so I can glean what I can from their little mysteries-for-the-sake-of-mysteries movie.

And finally...

Reason five: I enjoyed it. Damn you Ridley Scott. Damn you Damon Lindelof. For all the crap I had to put up with to watch this damn thing, I liked it. It was beautifully shot, the mythos has some merit, Michael Fassbender is an acting god, Idris Elba isn't far behind, I did my damnedest to sit back and imagine this happening in a universe where science plays out a little differently, I ignored the weak themes, I rationalised the characters' behaviours as being stress-related, I answered the questions you raised in my own, probably wrong, way. In spite of all of my frustrations it was good. And that is the reason it could have been great.

Mike liked this review