Haiku Revu: Prometheus

My haiku review of Prometheus:

Director finds god,
contained in human genome,
ruins film in process

Warning, SPOILERS. Also, wtf.

Nearly four billion years ago a lone camera panned across unpopulated vistas which we later learn are from our fair planet. A loin cloth attired seraphic Space Jockey watched a teardrop shaped starship lifting off through the clouds whilst a single tear wound it’s slow way from an eerily human eye. The Jockey sacrificed himself by drinking a deadly black enzymatic liquid, which reduced his cellular structure to a lump of simple proteins. His macadamised remains fell into our barren oceans to seed an Earth with its first life. Nearly four billion years later a British person in a darkened cinema feels a distinct sinking sensation as he realises that the film just “Did A Lucas” with the Aliens franchise.

If the previous paragraph wasn’t obvious enough, I’ll spell it out; Ridley Scott created a “Science Fiction” movie where large humanoid aliens seed life on Earth by sacrificing themselves to create the biomass which “evolved” into you and me. In one fell swoop the director and writing team eviscerated any hope of a decent science based fiction film that fleshed out the Alien back story. The assumptions taken to believe just that scene broke the film for me in less time than it took to realise Hicks was a badass:

  • Life was transported to Earth, and didn’t evolve from inorganic simple interactions leading to emergent complexity over a large time-span. For the sake of a film I could let that slide.
  • There was no life on the planet, but there was an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Oxygen is a byproduct of life, its so reactive that without organisms to constantly recycle it any free oxygen is captured in a variety of oxides… you can even measure the changing levels over time due to respiration/synthesis. I’m having to assume at this point the director doesn’t want to create a Science Fiction movie and that I should be content with seeing a vision of a world through another person’s eyes.
  • The only way to create life is to destroy something already existing. Forget for a moment that the Jockey could seed life by shedding some bacteria laden skin, or if he were feeling particularly fruity, defecating into the ocean would “dump” enough basic life to create everything we see today 4 billion years later. At this point, I’m only thinking about disintegrations and blog posts.

In a bid to deliver a slightly more balanced review, I’ve split it into three sections; what works, what I thought didn’t work, and what the $%*!.

The Good

There are some great parts to the film, it looks incredible, with beautiful sets and amazing looking tech. The acting surpassed my expectations, with Idris Elba putting in a strong performance as the doomed captain, and Michael Fassbender excelling as the subtly demented android David. Even the flight crew came across well, and although more could have been made of Benedict Wong and Emun Elliot there was enough in the minute amount of screen time they were given to suggest a parallel between Parker, Dallas and Brett from Alien.

David in particular was one of the shining beacons in an otherwise disappointing film. The writers created a strange paradox which saw the most advanced sentient being in human existence slipping by almost unnoticed allowing the rest of the humans on the ship to treat him like a very backward child as they mawkishly underline his lack of soul both mystical and mythical. One scene showed David racing around the ship on a bicycle whilst throwing perfect hoops and reconstructing the dead language of the Engineers unseen by the hibernating crew. The director/writers seemed to be pointing out the stupidity of travelling across the galaxy to possibly meet some aliens who may or may not have created life on Earth when there is a god-like being for you to talk to watching over you whilst you sleep. If the crew of the Prometheus had spent more time understanding the demi-god that walked among them they would probably have been more prepared for what came next.

David’s travel along a path culminating in total carnage was expertly handled by the director. It was obvious that the android understood the Space Jockey technology, could read their language and work their machinery, so knew exactly what was the cause of the catastrophe which befell the Space Jockey’s race. With definite intent he led Weyland and the team of the Prometheus to their doom. At one stage he talks to a recently awoken Space Jockey, the contents of the conversation we will never be privy to, the end result of which left Weyland of Weyland-Yutani fame broken and dead, destroyed at the hand of the alien god he had travelled across the galaxy to meet. The humans didn’t seem to grasp the full extent of David’s knowledge of the Engineer/Space Jockey culture allowing him to calmly throw explosive spanners into the works of the people around him. Its interesting that one of the most destructive actions in the film, whereby Noomi Rapace’s character convinces the Captain to fly the Prometheus into an escaping alien vessel on the premise that it was heading for Earth to disgorge a payload of biological weapons, suggests the reality that there was as much chance that the Space Jockey pilot may have been held captive and was trying to escape. The characters didn’t spend time interacting with David, and as a result there wasn’t enough actual data for Noomi’s character to form her conclusion, and raised the spectre that the film was actually a carefully wrought Comedy of Errors.

Noomi Rapace handled Elizabeth well, piloting the character from her initial moments uncovering further evidence of the Engineers existence in pre-history on her way to becoming an agent of raw survival as Prometheus-like, she opens herself up to create humanity’s nemesis. Its unfortunate that David’s path overshadows hers. The film is set on LV-223, and from David’s previous form, its entirely possible that after the credits roll he may actually be responsible for the appearance of the Space-Jockey on LV-426, creating the continuity for Alien and the eventual death of Elizabeth.

The Bad

The film was woven from twisted fabric, resulting in what felt like an old man’s/men’s attempt to find meaning for life and a demiurge behind the scenes. The Space Jockeys are portrayed as creators of life on a myriad of worlds, and as caretakers/engineers of those worlds. They are shown in the mythology of various ancient cultures pointing out a star cluster that they purportedly originated from. Their size and demeanour suggests that they are supposed to be the Seraphim/Nephilim noted in the bible or the titans of ancient Greece/Achea. An attempt to carve a story close to the roots of religious belief reduces what could have been an amazing tale about humanity’s place in a universe teeming with alien life, to what amounts to a pseudo-scientific rationalisation for a variety of genesis apocrypha. A brief history of time as shown in Prometheus:

  • 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth formed from the gradual accretion of solar matter.
  • Nearly 4 billion years ago, an Engineer lands on Earth and sacrifices himself to seed the planet with life.
  • 40,000 years ago, the Engineers were interacting with early Homo Sapiens, and were captured in cave paintings outlining a star cluster, which apparently we weren’t supposed to go to as it was an Engineer bio-weapons facility (more on this later.)
  • 6,000 years ago, the Engineers are back, telling early Sumerian culture about a star cluster that they probably shouldn’t go to, but somehow managed to make it look like we really would want to go there… those ker-azy Engineers!
  • 2,000 years ago, the Engineers appear a little peeved at something early humanity has done, and decide to start again on Earth. They stock a ship with bio-weapons to cleanse our planet but something goes wrong
  • 2,000 years ago give or take a few days. One or more Engineers sacrifice themselves to destroy the bioweapons facility and somehow by extension the entire Engineer civilisation which has until now existed for 4-billion years plus, to give us humans a chance to live. You might say they died so that we may be forgiven our sins.
  • 100 years in the future, Noomi Rapace finds out that the genetic material of the Engineers who would have been our common ancestor 4 billion years ago is a perfect match for our genetic material after both lines have evolved in vastly different environments all this time. WTF.

Given this potted history, we’re to take it, that somehow a sublimely long lived civilisation was taken out around 2000 years ago, so that humanity had a chance which would put us firmly at the centre of a galaxy of a billion stars. This stretches disbelief beyond breaking point, the Engineer culture would have been amazingly rich and widespread and the film reduces them to Homer Simpson-esque ineptitude as some catastrophic failure takes out the facility and by extension their entire civilisation.

One of the most annoying things about the film is that we really never know exactly what is happening, because the human characters don’t seem to be that interested in finding out exactly what is going on around them. They do things completely out of character to help the story along, things happen to them, and they seem woe-fully ill prepared for anything that occurs throughout the film. What we’re left with is a film full of religious and mythical iconography and we have to use that as a metric to understand the unfolding events. We have David appearing like Lucifer, annointing the sacrificial God-king Weyland’s feet before sending him to his doom. Then we have the ship Prometheus hinting that like the eponymous titan of Greek mythology the Engineers both created humanity and punish themselves in some bizarre way. Was the Engineer at the start of the film being forced to sacrifice himself in punishment like the Greek titan, or was it his own choice? Why would a long lived culture not just create life from “clay” when we have people like Craig Venter doing that now. By extension we don’t know what the surviving Engineer was actually doing, or even if he was actually a criminal about to be sacrificed when everything fell apart.

The What The $%*!

There were so many moments that just didn’t make any sense. It felt like someone was literally pulling things that would move the story forward from their arse, and no one said, “you know, no human with their background would actually do that…” It broke suspension of disbelief, and turned what would have been tolerable into a ground molar of a movie for me. I’ve outlined a far from exhaustive list below of the events that stuck out in my mind:

  • When they first investigate the Engineer facility the archaeologist Charlie Holloway takes his helmet off, breathes in and states, “the air is fine.” No one really says anything about this, apart from what amounts to “that ker-azy guy” and they take their helmets off too. There are many things they would have actually said to him, for example “ok, you want to come back and say that in two weeks after we’ve put you in quarantine” or “oh, that was just a moving pocket of air, you’re now breathing in the poison that killed off the aliens we’ve come to find.”
  • The person that gets taken out by the snake looking thing was a biologist. He would have had an inkling that the thing with the hood that made it look like a cobra could well have killed him, but he went ahead and tried to get a closer look anyway. At this point they still don’t know what took out the Engineers whose bodies they found and it could have been the poisonous snake being…
  • They had anti-gravity mapping globes, which managed to somehow stay aloft all night on a single charge… but they still rode around in wheeled vehicles.
  • As I mentioned before, they were woe-fully unprepared for anything. One man with a machine-gun would have brutalised them. I’m not sure what they were prepared for, they didn’t have proper decontamination facilities, any real weaponry or even a vague idea of creating firebreaks between themselves and completely alien, possibly hostile lifeforms on a new planet.
  • Their decontamination amounted to a man walking around with a flamer saying, “ah’m a flame here and here, and you’re done” with the contaminated atmosphere of the planet flooding in around him.
  • Our DNA was a perfect match for the Engineers… really? Even with divergent evolution, really?
  • David infects Charlie Holloway in the most ridiculous way possible. “David, can I have another glass where your haven’t just dipped your fingers in it please…”
  • There are two team members lost in the Engineer Facility who are transmitting what they see and hear to the bridge of the Prometheus. There happens to be no one there when they get taken out, but for some reason they don’t record their video feed so when everyone wakes up in the morning, they don’t just say “yup we’ve lost their feeds, but if we scrub back through the data from last night we can see the exact moment when they get hosed. Best crack open the pulse rifles.”
  • Charlie Holloway is the first and only human to ever be infected with an Engineer pathogen, rather than contain him in the facilities they were going to use for Elizabeth later, they decide to use their “decontamination” implements on him and burn him to death. You have scientists who should have said, “wait, there are pathogens here that can infect people, we need to study this shit!”
  • The comic death of Charlize Theron. Penny Arcade handled this here in a much more succinct manner than using mere words alone.
  • The probably un-necessary sacrifice of the Prometheus. The film is set in 2093, there was a functioning space fleet and orbital weapons facilities. If crashing the Prometheus into the Engineer ship caused the amount of damage we see, it would have been reduced to atoms on entering our solar system. The ship wasn’t going to wreak havoc from orbit, it had to land and infect people with bio-weapons. As noted above, we don’t know what the motivations of the surviving Engineer actually were.
  • The alien queen coming out of the Engineer almost fully formed. It really felt like it was shoe-horned in to link the film with the Alien mythos and not only had to effectively retcon the previous films, but was particularly superfluous.
  • Throughout the film, none of the human characters seem particularly interested that David knew how to use the Engineer technology, even if simply because they needed a backup in case David malfunctioned… “we’ve come halfway across the galaxy to meet these things, and now this rockfall took out David and we have no way of working out what to do, we’d best fly all the way back to Earth…”

Conclusion

I was massively disappointed with this film, and like the Phantom Menace, I’ve personally retcon’d this film from my internal Alien continuity. Two thumbs down.