Sci-Fi Movie Review: Prometheus

[Prometheus. Released June 2012. Directed by Ridley Scott, Writers John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

The opening scene of Prometheus, which demands interpretation right out of the reel, is of a humanoid alien imbibing some kind of nanotechnology that transforms him (it?, there seem to be no females) into a cloud of particles that spill into the ocean, turn into DNA molecules and presumably ‘seed’ the human race. (See Science Spoilers below.) I don’t know how many people will understand the scene, but for sure, it is portentous.

In fact, Prometheus is a movie with portentous overload. It’s about nothing less than the origin of the human species – and one other species with a telescoping dental apparatus. It’s ‘about’ many other things, depending on the interpretation. That’s why the movie is portentous, in this case meaning ominously significant; it demands interpretation, even while you’re watching. Put in other terms, it’s a dark-toned ‘heavy’ film in both mood and content, which will not appeal to someone looking for, say, the flash and excitement of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek.

The movie is a ‘prequel’ to the popular sci-fi-horror Aliens franchise (at least the first two movies of the original four remain popular). Prequels give the storyteller a chance to create backstory and explain mysteries so carefully wrapped by enigma in the subsequent movies. In this case, the prime auteur – Ridley Scott – chose to wrap the story around the notion that human beings are the result of genetics from an alien species known as the Engineers – one that looks mostly human, only bigger, balder, paler, stronger, presumably smarter (though just as viciously arbitrary) than contemporary humans.

Ostensibly, the story is a quest. Scientists – primarily two of the story’s lead characters, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) – discover evidence, primitive drawings, on Earth that human ancestors were periodically visited by aliens. They suspect that these aliens were in some way our progenitors, providing the ‘spark’ that turned apes (or whatever) into intelligent beings (or whatever).

The movie cuts abruptly to 2093 and far into space aboard the spaceship “Prometheus.” A privately funded expedition has been sent to track down the solar system alluded to in the Earth-side prehistoric drawings. On board is a “team of scientists.” I put this in quotes because there seem to be more crew personnel than scientists and most of the scientists are very peculiar about the science and definitely not a team. We see them waking up from deep-sleep, just in time to discover the habitable moon of a large planet and the abandoned facilities of the Engineers.

The first scenes aboard ship are the relatively cheerful moments; the mood goes rapidly downhill from there. For one thing, the crew and scientists are about as misfit for each other as possible. It’s almost as if the writers deliberately created characters to be abrasive, bad tempered and guaranteed to dislike each other. In fact, other than Dr. Shaw, there is hardly a sympathetic character in the whole movie. In the hands of good writers, a spaceship load of repellant characters can be interesting, if not, the character conflicts become artificially melodramatic.

As in all movies of the Aliens franchise, there is one android character, in this case, David. He is creepy, which is also typical. Played by Michael Fassbender, in a solidly believable magnetronic performance, David is at once helpful and arouses suspicion. We get the sense that he follows another agenda, other than the ship’s mission to find the progenitors and discover how they created the human species. It is David’s curiosity and willingness to take risks that brings upon the explorers most of their misfortune, especially once they are inside the massive alien structure.

David touches things, tastes things, pushes buttons and generally like a kid in a toyshop does things that are unwise in an alien environment. Of course, that’s how things about the ancient aliens are discovered, such as the ghostly 3-D projection system that conveniently recreates the last minutes of the alien’s occupation of the facility. As for the environment within the structure, it’s what you’ve come to expect from a Ridley Scott production with lots of ooze, moisture, dark shadows and claustrophobic spaces. Of course, there are also monsters.

In one of many odd scenes, the biologist Millburn, played by Rafe Spall, sees a cobra-like creature in a canal of sludge and immediately sidles up to it cooing about it as if it were a cute little gerbil. The same guy was afraid of his own shadow only one scene before. Naturally, the suspense builds, as we know something bad is going to happen. Enter the face suckers of the Alien series. My reaction, probably not unique, was how could a trained exobiologist be so stupid?

The movie is full of such psychologically odd incidents, gratuitous shocks and inexplicable plot-twists that don’t hang together. The most significant of these incidents is the slow reveal of the Prometheus’s true mission. The guy who pays everyone’s salary, the multibillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), is secretly onboard the ship and he’s looking for the Engineers to prolong his life. Why he thinks they can – or will – do this is unexplained. In any case, it leads to the final disasters of the mission, when they awaken the last remaining Engineer, who immediately beheads David and kills everybody else in the room (except Dr. Shaw). The sequence adds to the cumulative disaffection for the story and most of the characters. In any case, by the end there’s only one human survivor, as the Prometheus and crew sacrifice themselves to prevent the Engineers from wiping out the human race on Earth.

Why would the Engineers want to do that? The movie isn’t clear about this important point. Are the gods unhappy with their creation? If so, why? Does our presence in their world constitute a transgression? Is it because we’re violent and ugly? (I note that the Engineers are not exactly gentle and peace loving.) Along these lines, there’s a key moment in the dialog:

David (android): “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw: “I didn’t.”

In such a gloomy-doomy movie, this interchange stands out as a bright piece of optimism.

It takes about twenty minutes for the show to wind up the killing and pyrotechnics. In the end, the last Engineer is also dead – destroyed by the face-sucking beast it created to annihilate humanity. Only David and Dr. Shaw remain, battered, but willing to carry on. The last shot is the takeoff of an alien spaceship, which David knows how to fly (presuming Dr. Shaw can put his head back on his body), continuing the quest to find the progenitors. It reminded me, just a little, of Don Quixote, riding out into the universe to find the Engineers and ask why they hate the humans they created.

Science Spoilers

Obviously, Prometheus has great vibrating overtones of the debate about religion and science. The central character, Dr. Shaw, is both religious (she wears a crucifix) and a scientist (an archeologist). Yet the movie features the human species created by aliens, not God, and apparently the aliens (Engineers) are hardly gods themselves, as their science unleashes the creature, the warrior alien of the series, which not only is intended to destroy humanity but in fact, destroys the Engineers at least at this facility.

In short, the movie tries to muck around with science and sciency material and generally makes a muddle. For example, the ‘star maps’ introduced early in the movie that supposedly guide the spaceship to the Engineer’s facility. What we see are pre-historical cave drawings and similar primitive representations with a cluster of dots – presumably stars. As if, a handful of hand-drawn dots provides an accurate stellar position for celestial navigation. From whose perspective? Not to mention that the position of stars is constantly changing and the representation of thousands of years ago is no longer valid.

Then there’s the whole evolution thing. What happens after the Engineers introduce their DNA? When, exactly, could this have happened? Does humanity evolve from there, from what into what? There are some real scientific problems with the genetic story, yet not one of the scientists in the movie even mentions the issues. Of course, the movie is not interested in addressing them. The science is a kind of ‘MacGuffin’, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for something that seems to be important but really is peripheral to the story. You know from they way the so-called scientists behave that Prometheus indulges pseudo-science, using scientific window dressing, and is not about any kind of actual scientific enquiry. This is typical for most science fiction movies, but some will give Prometheus credit for trying to look scientific.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 23, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Very great to look at and features a spot-on direction from Scott, but it seems like there was too many missed opportunities for this flick to be great. Instead, it just went for ok and that’s what bummed me out. Still, can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself. Nice review.

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