Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Good Things About Prometheus

I remember there as a great deal of excitement when it was announced Ridley Scott was working on some sort of prequel to the Alien franchise, having directed the original film. That was followed by confusion when it was announced that the film would be in the same continuity but at the same time it would be something separate. Hype only increased with all the secrecy surrounding the film and vague hints. 

When the movie finally came out, reactions were mixed, but it received a lot of criticism. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say it was like The Phantom Menace all over again but there was a lot of disappointment. I myself have shifted my opinions quite a bit since its release, going from being unsure what to think to calling it brilliant to finding myself on the fence.

The reason I eventually ended up on the fence was the result of me finally having to confront the problems with the movie (and they are numerous) instead of just trying to rationalize everything. It is hard to overlook the problems. There are issues with the story (just before the initial entry to the cave, Shaw talks to a "security" crew member named Jackson who never appears at any other point in the film), but the big thing seems to be the bad science.

The part about Fifield getting lost after panicking despite having brought the mapping equipment was a bit of an odd choice on the part of the screenwriter. Sure, he didn't have much to contribute to the "gigantic dead body department" but perhaps it would have worked better if instead he had just said "I don't think there's much I can do here, I'm going to go check out the rocks" and then got separated after being distracted by some peculiar formations. While he had brought the mapping equipment, it was never explicitly shown that he could access that map while in the cave, but even then there was a map on the ship and one of the guys there could have used it to direct them to the exit.

An alternative scenario that might have worked better: perhaps Fifield is a bit anxious about the dead body and keeping his distance when he suddenly notices a peculiar rock formation. He turns toward the rest of the team and says "hey guys, that looks weird. I'm going to go check it out." Just as he briefly sees something move and reports it, which inspires Millburn to follow him in the hopes of seeing a live specimen.

Unknown to them, something about the room is causing interference with the radios so they don't hear the report of the storm (and can't access the map). They spend some time there but eventually they leave and re-establish contact at which point they find out they've been left behind and the crew can't get to them. That might have worked a bit better, but the version in the film seems a bit odd.

Then there was the part where they decided to go right into the cave immediately after landing without any knowledge of what was inside and only a few hours of daylight. Even with Holloway's justification ("It's Christmas, and I want to open my presents") the Captain could have just said "Alright, we'll do a preliminary survey and maybe send in the mapping equipment but we won't go in until tomorrow."

That said, there are some good things in Prometheus and it can be enjoyed if you're willing to overlook the problems. Since it is common to hate on the film I think is fair to highlight some of its better qualities. For one thing even with all the problems it does still have some very good ideas. After all we've already had four films centered around the premise of "Xenomorphs are loose and killing everybody one by one" (and that's not even getting into the various video games or the Alien vs. Predator series).

As iconic as the xenomorph aliens are they've been used way too much. They're not completely absent in Prometheus but I do think it was a smart move to downplay their role and find some other aspect of the universe to explore in the hopes of bringing out something new. Even if that idea didn't quite work the way Ridley Scott intended, it was refreshing to see something different instead of just a rehash of same plot as the other four films.

In fact, while the plot isn't directly connected to any of the other alien films, the attention to detail in Prometheus is really good. When looking at the design of some of the sets you can tell Scott had drawn from the original film. Yes, there are some logistical problems with the design of Prometheus but you can see it drew from the designs used for the Nostromo.

Similarly, we have the the scenes on the alien spaceship. The control room seen in Prometheus is instantly recognizable due to its resemblance to the room seen in the first act of Alien. In Prometheus it is a bit cleaner, in contrast to the dark and decomposing style of the original. In the original film it was hard to tell if we were seeing the alien fused to a chair or a suit, and Prometheus offered a partial explanation. 

However, to be fair the promotional material was somewhat misleading as it didn't actually explore the back story of that particular engineer (that would be the famous "space jockey seen in Alien) so much as it provided clues towards the nature of its species as a whole. In fact, I've even heard one potentially crazy fan theory exploiting the reveal that the "Space Jockey" was wearing a suit and claiming that underneath that was actually Elizabeth Shaw.

This film does also address a few aspects of Alien, including a minor plot hole in that film: in Alien, Ripley is able to decode part of the distress call even though there is no reason for her or anyone present to know the language. Taking into account the events of Prometheus and assuming that some of their information got back to Earth, it is a bit more plausible that the computer could have had partial data on the language of the Engineers. Some of that data might have even been programmed into the Nostromo's computers given the reveal that they were intended to collect an alien and bring it back to Earth.

The acting was also quite good in this film. Everybody seemed to give the film everything they had. Even the two guys that were obviously set up to die seemed to be trying to give a good performance even if their characters were not particularly well written. That said, there are some pretty good characters and some interesting ideas.

Elizabeth Shaw earned a place in my Women In Film Blogathon and she is an interesting character. The whole idea of her being constantly torn between science and religion, and trying to reconcile both extremes is a fascinating one. In addition, it is also nice that they tried to do something different with her personality. The Alien franchise is already full of tough girls: Ripley, Vasquez, and Call being good examples. All of these women turned out to be super-tough, sometimes better than the men.

As awesome as Ripley's assault on the queen was in Aliens it is nice to see them trying to go in a different direction. Rather than just making another Ellen Ripley they tried to write a new character with a distinct personality of her own. Shaw is a bit more vulnerable, with a few issues of her own. She never gets to hurl a hostile alien into space (which Ripley got to do twice), but she does still try to do the right thing and remains determined to keep pursuing the truth even when it seems hopeless.

She does have her character flaws but those make her more human (Ripley may have been tough enough but in the climax of Alien you can tell she's scared out of her mind, singing a lullaby in a desperate attempt to calm herself). Also, on the bright side, Shaw didn't have some director come along and make a sequel that opens by undoing every one of the few things she did accomplish in her film.

Of course, the real star of the film was David, the android. Even if you didn't like the film as a whole you have to admit that Michael Fassbender was exceptional with this one role. We know right from the start that he's an android programmed to assist the crew but he isn't just another Bishop. This character has some peculiar qualities, and you can never be sure whether to admire him or be afraid of him. He seems to care for the crew but he also tries to follow his programming. When all is said and done, David is basically free once his master is dead and seems to show concern for Shaw's safety (despite being literally reduced to a head) to the point where he agrees to help her in her pursuit of the truth behind the "engineers".

So in the long run, is Prometheus a terrible movie? I wouldn't go that far. It has its flaws, yes, some of them interfere with the main plot and can be a bit irritating. The bad science is a bit troublesome (though granted, the Alien franchise was never exactly hard sci-fi to begin with). However, the film does have its merits.

Maybe it's not as good as the original Alien, but I wouldn't say it is as bad a film as some people make it out to be. Flawed? Yes, but awful? Not really. This is where I'm left on the fence. One side, the problems with the film are hard to overcome, particularly the bad science, but the stuff that is good is really good.


  1. I have yet to sit through Alien or any of the sequels. I am just a scaredy cat and will have nightmares(geez I had nightmares about Ultraman-pathetic, no?). This sounds like a film you can take it or leave it

  2. You're right. I wouldn't call Prometheus terrible, but I'd call it a major disappointment from someone who's a huge fan of the Alien franchise. I think my biggest qualm (outside of the majority of complaints people had) was the overuse of CGI. That took a huge chunk of the eerie reality away for me that the other movies possessed. Not to mention while the characters did their best to play their parts well, they weren't memorable. I can remember almost all the supporting cast in Aliens, because they all left lasting impressions. Prometheus just didn't live up to my expectations :(

    1. To be fair I can see why. I thought that most of the visuals were pretty impressive but there were a few points here and there where the CGI was somewhat lacking (the "proto-xenomorph" at the end probably being the best example).

      I don't know that I could remember the whole supporting cast of Aliens, but I certainly remember a large portion of it (the only reason I don't remember all of them is probably just because of how many there were), but the same can be said with the cast of Alien as well.

  3. Very nice review! I've had a post about Prometheus sitting in my draft queue for the longest time, but I wasn't able to eloquently express my vast array of issues I had with the film; mainly the ones you pointed out here. I was initially disappointed with the movie when I first saw it in 2011, and having to analyze the movie in a class last semester, there is a lot of visually symbolic messages that are very interesting and intricately added to the script/design - but often after the first hour mark of the movie, I start thinking it's more about style than substance when the plotholes start to creep in.

    1. I've heard about some of the visual symbolism, and some of it is quite intriguing. Some of the room for ambiguity and speculation is also a nice touch, details like whether Vickers is actually an android (there's arguments both ways) are pretty intriguing.

      One criticism I still argue is invalid is the complaint that the film raises more questions than it answers. That's something that science fiction never ever does... except 2001, Alien, The Thing, Contact and a ton of other well-respected science fiction classics.