On Prometheus

Warning: spoilers!

Seriously, I’m not shitting you about the spoilers.

Poor Prometheus, chained to a rock and left to have his liver eaten by vultures only to see it renew overnight to be eaten again. As Wikipedia would tell us, in the classical tradition Prometheus also becomes associated with human striving for knowledge, in particular with that lone figure who slaves away in the laboratory in order to improve mankind’s lot whilst sacrificing their own happiness. Not for nothing did Mary Shelley subtitle her most famous novel ‘The Modern Prometheus’.

In ‘Prometheus’, Ridley Scott returns to the universe that he left in 1979 to delve into the events that occurred before the Nostromo’s crew landed on LV-223. Noomi Rapace plays scientist Elizabeth Shaw, the character who performs the lone figure striving to improve mankind’s lot, in this case answering the question of mankind’s origins. A strange quest for a Christian, as an incongruous dream sequence reveals her to be (more on that later). Her boyfriend Charlie plays the role of devil on her shoulder, feeding doubt into her ear and pushing the scientific/Darwinian explanation, which Shaw then goes on to disprove, finding them both to be wrong. We’ll return to the Prometheus legend later but for now we must move on and start appraising the film.

At the very opening of the movie we see a large, white-skinned but unmistakably humanoid creature commit some sort of ritual suicide – he drinks a liquid which appears to make him disintegrate and dissolve as he falls into a waterfall. In close-ups, we see DNA strands in the water, the assumption being that this is earth, and that the DNA in the water is what eventually leads to life starting on earth.

Ignoring the non-canonical AvP movies, the premise of the movie is that Shaw and her team have been researching similar artworks across ancient civilisations – Sumerians, Mayans, Egyptians, the people who lived on the Isles of Skye off Scotland, I don’t know whether they have a cool name – which appear to show giant figures pointing to a series of circles in the sky. Shaw interprets this not just as a celestial map, but as an invitation for mankind to go and meet their makers from across the galaxy.

It’s a science fiction film (with the emphasis on fiction rather than science) so I’m not going to go nuts debunking this part. Suffice it to say that a) the distance that this constellation is from the earth makes it impossible for ancient man to have seen them – the film makes it clear that even in 2094 only the long-range scanners could even pick up the presence of the planet that Shaw travels to (LV-223); and b) don’t even get me started on precession of the equinoxes. I’m not even sure that all these civilisations could have seen the constellation even if they had the equipment, but anyway…

But actually when we look closer there seems to be a major plot flaw here. Shaw interprets these paintings as an invitation to go visit them; later in the film, it becomes clear that the paintings are not an invitation to visit the planet, but a warning against visiting the planet. The large figure was clearly one of the alien visitors (do not confuse my use of the term ‘alien’ here, I’m simply talking about an extraterrestrial – if I mean the slimy killing machine with acid for blood, I will refer to it as the Xenomorph) pointing out to the different civilisations of Earth where they shouldn’t go. Now I don’t know whether the aliens had stopped to look around them for a while as they were handing out intergalactic instructions, but none of the ancient civilisations were really in a position to be travelling amongst the stars; all they’d done was leave a big red button and a sign saying ‘Don’t push this button’ for humanity to find.

And lo and behold, Shaw and her team are bursting to push the button.

In the next scene, we’re already onboard Prometheus and en route to the planet – from a cave on Skye to the ship in space in a single edit. And here’s is the film’s most fundamental flaw. It’s simply in too much of a rush to get to the end. As we came out of the film I commented to my girlfriend that there was ‘too much action and too much dialogue’, a statement that she mocked at first, but as we sat watching the original Alien later, I could better explain better what I meant. Nothing happens in the first ten minutes of Alien, no narrative, no action, but through the use of clever establishing shots you learn a great deal about the ship, the crew, about life on board the Nostromo. The cinematography and editing allows the original Alien film to breathe, but there’s none of that in Prometheus.

And everything suffers as a result. With exception of a sloppy dream-viewing sequence of Shaw as a child, none of the characters have any back story and as a result we do not care about them. And there are so many characters – 17 crew on the Prometheus, and we’re never sure if that includes the characters that Shaw only discovers onboard in the final reel. Contrast that with seven characters in the original film, where I bet that you could list all the characters in that movie by description, if not by name. That wouldn’t happen with Prometheus.

So we don’t know why Shaw believes in God but believes that her makers came from another planet at the same time. We don’t know why Charlie believes in Darwinism but goes along with Shaw’s cause. We don’t know why the synthetic, David, learns Peter O’Toole’s lines from an old movie or restyles his hair to look like O’Toole. We don’t know why Charlize Theron’s character is such a bitch: she makes for a very poor familiar of corporate greed when compared to Ash in Alien and Burke in Aliens, if that’s her intended role; also, we don’t understand what makes her relationship with her father (Old Man Weyland himself) is so fractious. Weyland is played by Guy Pearce, made up to look like an old man, presumably because there are no male actors of advanced years who could convincingly play an old man. Instead, we have a five minute cameo from Pearce in unconvincing prosthetics.

Along from the characters, the plot suffers. No plot strand is adequately explored, played with, or resolved. There is simply too much happening. And of the overall narrative, everything is telegraphed. In fact, we get so much prior notice that Shaw is going to be carrying a Xenomorph baby that it’s not so much a telegraph as a cave painting.

Shaw, in a poor nod to Alien 3, diagnoses her own condition using some sort of medical pod. From the first three films it’s possible to derive a real reading about the liminality of the pregnant mother, and the abjection that ensues from the condition of being pregnant. I won’t go into it here because there are already books about it, and lots of them. If you’re interested, go look up Julia Kristeva and Barbara Creed, and if you’re more interested in the way that Ripley’s character is affected by these issues, find the excellent “Alien Woman” by Gallardo and Smith or “Alien Sex” by Loughlin. Suffice it to say that Shaw, with the busy lifestyle of the modern woman, has no time for alien impregnation and so gives herself a caesarian section and removes the rapidly-growing Xenomorph in almost as little time as it’s taken you to read this paragraph. There’s no drawn-out suffering, no psychological dissection of the issue. She finds the Xenomorph foetus – she cuts it out.

The Xenomorph she leaves in the medical pod. We already know that the pod has miraculous powers of healing and growth, so when the Xenomorph (it turns out to be a tentacled facehugger) appears at the end of the movie it’s already about the same size as the Golden Gate bridge and no-one is surprised. Although Shaw escapes it, the last alien in the place is not so lucky and it impregnates him. At the end of the feeling, the Xenomorph offspring bursts out of the alien in its new bipedal, vaguely humanoid form.

And that’s really as much contact as you get with the Xenomorph facehugger. It does look amazing, especially when the multiple mouths open up. But it’s only onscreen for about 15 seconds and because it’s attacking the alien, you’re not really invested in who wins. And because it’s a prequel, you sort of know already anyway.

Let’s return momentarily to the legend of poor Prometheus. In the original Hesiodian version of the myth, Prometheus plays a trick on Zeus regarding the sacrificial meal that humans must dedicate to the Gods. He places beef inside the stomach of an ox – a palatable meal inside a repulsive exterior – and the bull’s bones wrapped in glistening fat; in other words, something awful hidden inside a pleasing exterior. Maybe this latter is a description that the film is trying to apply to the Xenomorph?

The later authors (Aesop, Ovid et al) add to the legend of Prometheus in their own way, but one of the most significant additions leads to Prometheus being credited with the creation of the human race (he fashions them out of clay). Here in Prometheus, there’s a twist in that it’s not humans who are created, but the bipedal Xenomorph form that we see in the other films.

The later films – Alien and Alien3 especially – are rich in this textual play, with different layers and levels of meaning woven together. There have been literally dozens of books written about this series of films. Unfortunately, there’s not enough in Prometheus to even warrant an appendix to any of them.

In what way would you like to disagree with me?

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