Prometheus Bound

The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.

Here’s my thoughts.

prom1Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.

It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that.  The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.

But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions.  So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.

It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.

So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.

Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste,  activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.

You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan.  Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:

prom2You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?

Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?

A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.

Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.

No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3,  I quite like Prometheus going  somewhere else, into Space Gods territory-  it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.

I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate-  leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.

The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?

I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.


8 thoughts on “Prometheus Bound

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Well, you know I’m guaranteed to comment on this, so…

    I honestly doubt there’s a better edit of Prometheus to be found, unless it’s a whole different film based on a whole different script. By a better director. It’s just so fundamentally flawed as to be irreparable.

    I remember when Alien and Blade Runner came out, and through the 80s, and there was a common curmudgeonly critical grumbling about Scott, that he was a commercials director through and through – great at visuals but no good at basic film-making and storytelling. That seemed unthinkable as a teenage fan of those two movies, but damn if the intervening decades of mostly disappointments haven’t proved that right.

    Prometheus is just another ramshackle collection of glossy (a word often lobbed at Scott as a criticism, and never truer than this shiny CGI-fest) movie moments, pasted together hastily and presented as a package with a prestige label on it: A Ridley Scott Movie. But it’s much like buying an ill-fitting pair of designer jeans – deep down you know it’s just a pair of crap, overpriced, badly made trousers with a designer tag attached.

    Scott does seem to be going full-Lucas at the moment. If Prometheus was his The Phantom Menace – a return to a world he created, introducing a lot of very bad ideas, and making a total hash of things – then Covenant seems to be his AOTC: making a movie that has more of the things fans want, more monsters and guns. But still fatally underpinned by the bad ideas of the previous film.* And he seems determined to see this course through with at least another film in his Prequel Trilogy.

    Anyway. We watched Alien last weekend, as prep for Covenant. It’s still unassailable. I can’t think of any approach or angle that makes another Alien movie worthwhile, I’m burned out on it. It’s two and a half great movies and then 25 years+! of bad ones, with no end in sight.

    But hey – I still bought those tickets! Alien: Covenant in IMAX tonight!

    Be sure and post your review, and you can bet on a comment from over here.

    *Lucas, at least, had the excuse of not having directed for 20 years, and having fatally complett creative freedom. Scott does not have that excuse.

  2. You are absolutely right of course, and had I watched Covenant after watching Alien I’m sure I would be much less forgiving, which is why I chose to watch Prometheus. I just felt that… well, comparing ANY film to Alien seems almost unfair. Its a film from the 1970s, when films were better, actors more human/normal-looking, when Ridley was young and on fire creatively.

    That said…

    The last time I watched Alien, I loathed all that Ash is a robot/”the Goddam Company!” stuff. It just doesn’t make sense- in that way Alien is a very Modern Movie. The Nostromo discovering the signal and exploring the derelict and falling foul of the Alien is enough. That would be perfect. The sub-plot of the robot and the Company isn’t needed and doesn’t really work. If the Company wanted the alien, well a) they would have to know about the alien and what that transmission meant beforehand anyway b) there would be better, more efficient ways of picking it up (a ship piloted by Ash robots?) and c) Ash could have frozen Kane with Facehugger attached and simply transported him home. Alien rather gets away with it because of how brilliant the rest of the film is, but that sub-plot is clear indication that Ridley wasn’t always perfect and hinted at what would eventually happen with Prometheus.

    A little while ago. I re-watched the 1982 cut of Blade Runner. And I stopped watching it halfway. Back when I was a teenager and adored the film I could forgive all its errors, but now…. Well. I would not necessarily state that The Final Cut was my favourite version, but that 1982 version… its clearly broken. Cables on Spinner-cars, scenes edited out of order resulting in continuity errors (Gaff leading Deckard right past Rachel to see Bryant, for instance, and then Deckard noticing her across the street for the first time and chasing after her). The Zhora stunt-double disaster. All sorts of weird stuff going on. So that film was never perfect either. But so few films really are ever perfect.

    Which is my long-around way of saying that Ridley was never perfect and even his best films are flawed, and that maybe we should expect less of these new films? And I’m saying that as someone who has seen every film Ridley has ever made and would go see every future film he
    will make. Diminished expectations are sometimes healthy. So I watched Prometheus before watching Covenant.

    1. Matthew McKinnon

      Yeah, that’s definite a more sensible way to go about things. But I just couldn’t bear another viewing of Prometheus. I bought it cheap cheap on Blu a while back for the 3hr making-of, but even that I had to watch piecemeal.

      Actually, we didn’t watch Alien as prep for Covenant; it was because we went to the HR Giger museum in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago (it was amazing, much bigger than I expected. It even has the original Alien head with all the hydraulic cables etc still inside) and Kerry mentioned she couldn’t remember much of Alien. So, any excuse to watch it again.

      I’d never considered those nitpicks about Alien. I guess my counter argument is that maybe the company thought the Nostromo would be a handy incubator for their experiment. It was in the area, it was old and run-down; they could set it up the way it went down so they could claim plausible denial if anything bad happened? Cheaper than sending a team of expensive robots out specially.

      1. Wow, that Giger museum sounds like something of a pilgrimage. Any photos to share? I have the Taschen book H R Giger com and some of its imagery, particularly the 3D stuff like chairs, objects etc, seems like literally stepping into someone elses mind. I think I read that the original Alien costume is on display in the museum?

  3. Thank you for reminding me I meant to rewatch this before Covenant! Somehow I’d completely forgotten and hadn’t made time for it, but now I will.

    I always thought the details of the original screenplay sounded better than the finished product (though I’ve forgotten what the differences were now). But maybe it does improve on repeat viewings anyway. I guess I’ll find out. Plus I’ll watch it in 3D this time, so at least it’ll look extra “ooh”-y if nothing else…

    1. Yes, Prometheus is one of those films I bought in 2D and 3D, but i’ve never had the opportunity to watch the 3D version. I’ll be fascinated to hear how Ridley handles the 3D, so please write a post about it.

      I think Covenant was shot in 2D and has no 3D conversion- if so, thats a telling appraisal of the state of 3D, as at one point i think Ridley intended to shoot all future films in 3D, and you’d think Covenant would be a cert for it.

      1. I wonder if he lost interest or if the studio wouldn’t pony up for it? You’d think they would for a blockbuster, but I guess the market’s smaller with R-rated films. But considering the likes of Ang Lee still use it for non-blockbusters, you’d think Scott could’ve if he’d wanted to.

      2. Matthew McKinnon

        Given how cheap-looking a lot of A:C is, I’d imagine it was make pretty quick & dirty, and there wasn’t time to mess about with 3D.
        That, and the costs saved in not having to factor 3D into the VFX, and make all those 3D digital prints.

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