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June 12, 2012

Prometheus: Because Aliens Need Love, Too (Part 1)

So there I was in the theater, with nothing standing between me and Prometheus but a slew of previews.  I’d avoided thinking about it in the weeks up to its release, but over the past few days I’d started gathering information and glancing at a few reviews.  While spoilers never deterred me before, for one I decided that I’d hold off.  I’d see the movie regardless of reviews, and regardless of hype; I’d see it, and watch it based on its own merits.

So I sat there, worried yet hoping for the best.  As I shifted in my seat, my brother leaned to his right and started chatting with his pal.  See, I’d skipped out on movie outings before with the pair because I don’t like horror movies.  Me being the youngest of the trio (and both of them having been around during my Little League years), I tend to take flak pretty often, on this subject most of all.  “This movie might get a little too scary for him,” my brother chided, nudging me in the arm.


“I don’t like horror movies because I think they’re scary,” I said calmly.  “I don’t like horror movies because I think they’re stupid.”  And I meant it.  Maybe I’ve just been exposed to the wrong films, but I’ve never found any merit in them.  In my eyes, they’re often just venues for A) jump scares, B) gross-out spectacle, C) killing off characters that the movie doesn’t even pretend are important, and D) a liberal application of uncovered lady parts.  But in spite of all that, I believed Prometheus would bring something awe-inspiring and thoughtful to the table -- something to make me believe that it wasn’t a franchise built on chest-bursting nasties.  I’ve been wrong before on movies; I wanted to be wrong again, and walk out thinking that Prometheus was worth it.

In retrospect, I probably should have lowered my expectations.

(Spoilers by the barge-load to follow, along with a slurry of highly opinionated opinions.  You’ve been warned.)


All right.  Just like I did with The Avengers and The Hunger Games, I’m going to go (more or less) straight down the list of things that happened in the movie, and my thoughts on them.  But before I do, I’d just like to remind you of my little chart from before.



Keep this in mind as you go, because we’re going to talk about it later.

--So the movie opens with Voldemort -- wait, what?  Why is he…?  No, never mind.  If I get caught up on things like that, I’ll be here for the next year.  So the movie opens up with Voldemort a pale, not-quite-human bodybuilder standing before a waterfall.  He opens up a small container, which happens to be full of some nasty-looking black gunk.  Naturally, he sucks it right up, and to say he reacts poorly to it would be an understatement.  He takes a tumble, and we see his DNA (through the magic of CG) begin to mutate and turn black.  The DNA scene is actually pretty interesting, setting the stage for things to come, and the whole bodybuilder thing sets the stage for mysteries to be solved.


--Only…the mysteries aren’t really solved.  What exactly was the point of that scene?  My brother asked me the same question earlier today.  At the time (and at the start of my answer), I suggested that it was the first step in a ritual; historically, cultures have used herbs and chemicals to put themselves into a trance, either as a means to connect with their god(s) or take part in some wild festivals.  But when he asked me that today, I started to realize my answer was pretty much just conjecture.  Why would he take that stuff in?  Why would he keep that stuff in a container?  Does that mean that it’s customary for his people to slurp up the gunk?  If so, why?  Or was he just trying to commit suicide?  And if that’s the case, then why?  I’m not opposed to having questions and mysteries proposed at the start of a story, but if you’re going to make a scene that makes us wonder, then answer them by the story’s end.

--Hold on, let me check the wiki…

“In the distant past, the spacecraft of an advanced humanoid alien race arrives on Earth. One of the aliens consumes a dark liquid, causing its body to disintegrate and fall into a nearby waterfall—seeding Earth with the building blocks of life, DNA.”

That's...feasible.

--We skip ahead a bit and meet two researchers, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway doing what they do best: research the shit out of some caves.  They manage to find some cave paintings that help prove their theory that a race of…somethings…left a star map for the humans to come through the galaxy and find them.  Sooooooo…I guess they gave humanity the benefit of the doubt and assumed that not only people would be able to find the cave paintings thirty-five thousand years later, but also survive any number of planetary disasters, AND eventually become advanced enough to head to the aliens’ home?  And if there are multiple clues left behind, does that mean that if any one of the cave paintings wasn’t found that they wouldn’t have as much proof?  Or no proof at all?  Or were the paintings the remnants left by humans?  Were humans even around back then?  I thought the earliest cave paintings dated back to 28,000 years ago, so does that mean that there were humans beforehand?  Where the big white guys precursors?  Did they -- dammit, forget it!  Let’s just move on before I give myself a headache.

--So there’s going to be a space expedition to the moon to find the forerunners of the human race -- the “Engineers,” as they call them.  There’s a crew of about 20 assembled for a brief conference, but (as is the standard) only about five of them matter -- Shaw and Holloway, of course, the cool beauty Vickers, Captain Janek, AKA the last black man in the future, and David the android. 


--Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to ask you a question.  Given what you know about machines in fiction and their tendency to…well, flip out and kill people, what would your course of action be if you ever met one?  Would you be nice to it, and try to treat them as humanely as possible?  Or would you treat the robot -- the clearly sentient, highly-adaptive robot that can learn new concepts quickly and efficiently -- worse than the bucket you use to mop up?  I mean really; not one character, not one, ever says anything nice to David.  People are constantly talking down to him, making jokes about him, saying that he wouldn’t understand…even his “father,”  Weyland of Weyland Industries (the one funding the expedition), says flat-out that David’s just a machine that’ll never have a soul, and heavily implies that he’s inferior because of it.  Seriously, why not just give him a T-shirt that says “I WILL DRAMATICALLY BETRAY YOU ALL FOR MY OWN BENEFIT” and be done with it?

--Okay, enough joking around.  I’ll happily admit that the first part of the movie -- the “exploring new worlds and discovering ancient mysteries” angle -- is actually my favorite part.  Maybe it’s just because I’m burnt out from E3 and the violence festival, but it’s nice to have a story that (at first) doesn’t rely on gunplay and murder to progress the plot.  And to the movie’s credit, there are a lot of sweeping shots that, even for a guy that “doesn’t care about graphics,” are still pretty impressive.  Not in terms of CG, but just what they’re trying to show off: a massive, sweeping, empty and melancholy world.  I’d have preferred for there to be a more varied color palette, but I suppose that would spoil the movie’s tone.  And make no mistake, what’s there is good.


--So the expedition takes two years to reach the moon where the Engineers supposedly lie.  Fortunately, the crew is put into cryosleep so they can wake up ready to set off (well, almost -- Shaw spends a  fair amount of time throwing up after her wake-up call).  But of course, everybody’s asleep but David, because he has to study all these ancient languages so he can be the translator when they meet the Engineers.  Okay, question.  Ignoring the fact that forcing an already-clearly-misanthropic android to spend two years completely alone and the effects on his mind, did they make him read through all those texts by normal means?  Couldn’t they have just uploaded all that info into his brain, and have him sort it out?  If he’s the product of a society a hundred years more advanced than our own, shouldn’t that be second-nature?  And what happens if they lose David?  What if there’s an accident and he gets fried or something?  Do they have a backup plan?  (Well, technically they do, but I’ll get to that.)

--One of the other things that I like about the first part of the movie is that it doesn’t start off with noise and murders.  It takes time to build the atmosphere, the suspense, and the tension.  Even if at least ¾ of the cast only exists to be murdered fantastically, at least the movie has enough sense to make us wait for it, and mold the world around these victims.  As other reviewers have said, you can’t help but get drawn into the movie’s world.


--Like I said before, only five people (again, Shaw, Holloway, David, Vickers, and to a lesser extent Janek) matter.  While the rest are unimportant, I have to give credit to the movie for trying to make the main five diverse and interesting.  Holloway’s a bit on the impetuous side and dedicated to the cause; Vickers is cold and calculating, and puts the mission (and her well-being) above all else; Janek is surprisingly laid-back, and brings both lighthearted moments and a sense of levity, however brief, into the movie; David wants to kill everyone do as he’s told, albeit with a bit of snark, but you get the sense that he’s just as curious about the Engineers' mysteries as all the rest -- maybe more so.

--Shaw is…well, a little bit harder to describe.  The crux of her character lies in her faith, born from her late father’s words.  That’s cool and all, and it’s not like it makes Shaw any worse of a character (on the contrary…although her guaranteed status as a survivor might play into it).  Likewise, I’m not knocking religion in general, and I approve of the movie for accepting other religions besides Christianity.  But…well, remember my chart from earlier?



This is what I think: if you’re not ready to talk about religion in the context of your movie’s themes, don’t bring up religion, period.  It’s a delicate subject; while it boost your story’s position in terms of design (the x-axis), you’re taking a huge risk that requires high execution (again, the y-axis).   Succeed, and you’ll have a strong product for sure.  Screw up, however, and it drags the whole thing down.

You follow me?  Well, it gets worse.  When you have a movie on the left end of the spectrum -- i.e., a movie that’s stupid by design -- you don’t expect as much from it.  The obvious example would be The Avengers; it’s an extremely simple story and the subject matter (superheroes punching baddies) isn’t exactly Shakespearian, but it manages to entertain by way of its extremely-high execution.  When you have a movie that’s on the right end of the spectrum, the expectations are a lot higher.  You assume that the movie knows what it’s talking about, and can do so with ease -- a synthesis of storytelling ability as well as meaningful ideas and themes.  Screw that up, and you’ve got a movie that’s as detestable -- if not more -- than a Michael Bay film.

Get it?  Got it?  Good.  Keep that in mind, because we’ll be coming back to it later.

--So Shaw, Holloway, David (after taking crap for being a robot, again), and the red shirt brigade head into some caves to explore.  Like I said, I like moments like these; I’m genuinely interested in seeing what secrets this alien world and its people have to offer.  It’s quiet, it’s tense, it’s suspenseful, and even though you know the countdown’s started on the monster mash, the movie at least makes you feel like the actual scientific exploit matters.  Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind if the whole movie was like this.


--Unfortunately, it’s right around this part where the movie’s logic starts to slip up.  After a quick scan of the environment when they reach a safe haven from the surface, Holloway decides to take off his helmet.  Now, I’m not an expert when it comes to science, but when he says “Come on guys, take of your helmets, the air’s fine!” I almost started screaming at him.  NO.  NO.  NO YOU IGNORANT WHELP.  YOU DON’T TAKE OFF YOUR HELMET WHILE VISITING AN ALIEN WORLD.  YOU KNOW SCIENCE.  YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS.  I mean, really.  Yes, the air might be safe to breathe, but is exposing yourself on an alien world, one with little to no prior data on its environment, and NO understanding of what sort of life forms (big and small) lie within REALLY the best idea? 

--And on that note, why would the expedition team NOT bring weapons with them?  Seriously, Shaw directly refuses to bring weapons along for the trip.  I’ll accept that they want to try diplomacy with the aliens, but…hey, here’s a thought.  If you find some horrible creature that wants to kill you, do you think that you can talk your way out trouble?  Given that bears aren’t exactly known for their diplomacy on Earth, why would you think that this new planet would be without dangerous creatures?  To some extent, I can accept Shaw’s line of thinking…but when I consider the movie from an outsider-looking-in perspective, and as someone who knows this is part of the Alien canon, this is a phenomenally brain-dead idea. 

It wouldn’t be so bad if -- by my theoretical chart -- the movie didn’t demand rational thought by way of being intelligent by design.  But it is.  When you have a team of scientists, you expect each and every one of them, even if they’re out of their field, to use rational thought and think about their own self-preservation well before first contact.  When you have one scientist that takes off his helmet and encourages others to do the same, and when you have another scientist who bans the use of defensive measures, it hurts the movie.  It makes it increasingly stupid by execution.


--Side note, now that I think about it: I like how during the briefing, the two guys who think that meeting God is bullshit and/or pointless have raised their death flags so high they might as well have strapped them to the top of the Empire State Building.  

--The group sees holographic projections of the big white guys running through the caves.  Apparently, one of them was following the rest of the group and trying to escape, but he ended up getting decapitated by the door.  Sooooo…how exactly did he manage that?  No matter; Alien Head get!  Anyway, I like how the cannon fodder brothers Fifield and Milburn decide to split off from the rest of the group hoping to improve their odds.  It doesn’t work, but…hey, at least they tried.


--A big damn storm sweeps over the surface, forcing the group (sans the two “smart guys”) to head back until it blows over.  It brings a decisive end to the exploration bit that I enjoyed, but I’ll let that slide.  What I want to know is how Shaw manages to drop the alien head -- the one thing that they should have kept practically fused to their bodies -- onto the ground. Sure, she manages to get it back (albeit at the risk of getting swept up by the storm), but still…that seems like the kind of thing you’d want to take better care of.

--Maybe my memory’s a little hazy, but were there any attempts to scan the crew after they walked back onto the ship?  You know, since they were running around without helmets?  If they were concerned enough to use flamethrowers to clean up the refuse from the storm, wouldn’t they be equally concerned about the well-being of the team?  Janek, especially?  I mean, come on, man…


--Okay, let’s talk about some of the other characters for a bit.  Captain Janek (whose name I didn’t know until I checked the Wiki -- I knew it was something with a J, though) is a pretty cool character…and I’m not just saying that because he’s black, or because he was in Thor.  I hold levity in stories in EXTREMELY high esteem; I’ll accept that not every story needs to be full of laughs, and some stories revel in grit, but I think that tone is more than just “angst angst angst angst drama grit angst” all day long.  Granted Prometheus isn’t exactly an angst festival, but you get my point -- and seeing Janek do things like set up a Christmas tree, play some music, and curl up in a blanket adds some humanity to the movie.  I also like how Janek goes from A to B and suggests making merry with Vickers.   Guess Heimdall’s gotta keep himself busy somehow since the Bifrost is broken…

--And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Vickers.  Even though she’s distinctly cold, I think I like her character as well (so generally, it’s a toss-up between her and Janek for my favorite characters in the movie).  She brings an air of professionalism and calculation to the movie…although, like Janek, she has some humanizing elements here and there that make her a well-rounded character. 


…Okay, bad choice of words.  But you know what I mean.  She’s intelligent, self-serving, and -- for the most part -- keeps a heel atop the situation.  I’ve heard the theory that Vickers is actually an android like David, and I can see why people might think that -- especially because they look kind of similar.  And depending on how you interpret the reveal that she’s Weyland’s daughter, you could make the argument.  There’s still the implication that she and Janek did the deed, but…well, when has that ever stopped anyone in fiction?

--Finally, we turn to David.  Even though he’s not my favorite, David is definitely an interesting character, and deserving of all the praise heaped upon him (and by extension, the praise for Michael Fassbender’s performance).     His very existence brings a lot of questions into the movie.  You can feel the venom in his voice every time he talks to the humans that consistently talk down to him.  But moreover, it’s David of all people that goes through what’s not only my favorite scene, but what I think is the most important scene in the movie.


David -- who’s going on orders from a mysterious schemer -- heads into the cavern to investigate.  It isn’t long before he finds exactly what the Prometheus crew is looking for: evidence of the Engineers’ efforts.  Taking advantage of their technology, he activates one of their maps and sees just how advanced they are.  And the audience gets two things as a result: a glimpse of the answers they want, AND a moment of pure wonder and discovery that, whether you like the movie/franchise or not, very nearly makes the ticket price worth it.

--And after that…ehhhhhhhhhhhhh…this is where things start to get dicey.  But seeing as how I’ve already hit the three thousand word count with this, I’ll leave it here for now.  Next time, I’ll get to the part where -- in my opinion -- things start to take a turn for the worse.

Have a paper bag ready.  This could get a little messy.

5 comments:

  1. Since it's late, I can only leave a brief comment.

    You're way, way more dedicate when it comes to reviews. You raise some very good points, and support them quite well. I wish I can have some more of your motivation.

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    1. Heh heh...well, if you want motivation, you can do one of three things:

      1) Write about something you love.

      2) Write about something you hate.

      3) Write about something that you feel ehhhhhhhhhhhhh about, and need to figure our whether you love or hate it.

      You can probably guess what camp I've subscribed to in the case of this review/rant. In the case of other things, however -- to paraphrase Final Fantasy 12's Gabranth -- HATRED IS WHAT DRIVES ME!

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  2. First of all, I really like where the review is going and I like how it doesn't degenerate into another one of those "Herp-Derp the characters are duuumb" reviews the internet is chock full about Prometheus.

    Now, for the parts I agree with you:

    -Yes, most of the crew is doomed, according to decades-long ALIEN movie tradition. The poor, helpless Earth Monkeys bite more than they can chew and end up getting slaughtered by the inhuman hazards they encounter. But, they're all well-written characters and I was honestly saddened by the fact that some (well, almost everybody died)

    -David was an excellently written and presented misanthrope, who acted like any AI-equipped android I consider would have reacted according to the circumstances. But as to why he bothered with studying the languages old-school style, instead of uploading them? I think this was because David was honestly trying to become more...human-like. And to be honest, I loved the opening scewnes, where David struggles to get himself a character, a certain flair like a normal human being.

    -The unexplained backstory: this was a dumb move on behalf of the creative team. Why? Because people have already been burned on LOST and other bumb-ass shpows that shower you with questions and cock-tease you with the answers. Nobody wants to go through that again, no matter what and I get that. I really get the fact that the audience did not like the fact that they did not get their exposition and that the answers were promised NEXT WEEK, ON THE SAME CHANNEL.

    Now, for the part where I disagree with you:

    I understand how you said that the movie was smartly stupid and how it attempted to ttackle large themes by first shoving you the great big question in your face, risking its credibility with what I'd call a 'trolling narrative attempt', but let's face facts:

    You have to have BALLS to deal with a question like the origin of our species and a possible disproving of both God and Darwinism. The fact that most people (you included) got pissed off at this was because the movie chose not to present its answers for the sake of marketting.

    But the movie did it, despite the great risk it knew it was undertaking. And for that, I must applaud it.

    Weyland was also an interesting character and so was Vickers, who definitely needed more screen time, but they present two other very important questions and points of humanity:

    -The dreaded conflict between generations (where the old king denies to give up his place and seeks to cheat Nature)

    -And the conflict between man and machine as they fight for the affectations of an old son of a bitch, whom they both hate and love in the same breath.

    Weyland neede more screen time. He neede to be more active in the movie and to be properly presented as the evil, unnatural, selfish creature that he was, because let's face it, the relationship mechanics between David-Weyland-Vickers were in a way a representation of the sturggle between the Engineers and Humanity.

    -The opening scene: Honestly, both the opening scene and the cockpit scene (where David stands inside the hologram) didn't work that well because they weren't in a novel. What I'm saying is you couldn't possibly expect these scenes to work if you couldn't tell what the hell was going on in the characters' minds, no matter how well presented they might have been.

    However, both scenes did a great job of presenting these scenes and ideas and they gave me a lot to think about and hypothesize about the possible answers behind everything.

    More to come later on.

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    1. To be fair, I can see why the "characters are dumb" complaints matter so much in other reviews. On one hand, in the movie's context I can see why it might be a necessary evil -- the plot, and events therein, have to get moving somehow. On the other hand, why not have them act intelligently and fail in spite of their efforts? This is more of an issue that I have than others, but characters should act logically or it jettisons me out of the story. When I'm watching a movie and thinking "Don't mess with that horrible alien schlong-beast!" and the character does it anyway, it's SERIOUSLY annoying. By the sound of other reviews, I'm not alone on this.

      But on the other hand, I can see why people might love this movie. While the amount of answers given here (or lack thereof) is problematic, I ca see WHY they'd do it. The fact that you can see it and come up with your own interpretations, and I can see it and come up with MY OWN interpretations speaks volumes -- it's a movie that engages you, and gets your mind going. It's a movie that'll be divisive by design, I suppose...though whether that's ultimately a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

      Also, I am in 100% agreement with you on Weyland needing more screen time. I mean, what exactly did his reveal change in the context of the story? Wouldn't you think that his reveal would make bigger ripples in the movie? Why did he have to stay hidden in the first place? The expedition was funded by him, wasn't it? Couldn't he have just tagged along by virtue of paying for the trip, and adding a minor stipulation like "BTW guys, I'm coming too so I can maybe live a little longer"?

      Well, I suppose I'll get to that -- and other things -- soon enough.

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  3. This film is Harry Potter in Space with more ass and tits!
    Imma reply properly as I'm just re reading your funky review.

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