Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus Review (Spoiler Alert)

This review is CHOCK FULL OF SPOILERS!  Don't read on unless you've seen the film or don't care.  There. It's been said.

Prometheus might just be the most important hard science fiction film since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I'm going to spend the rest of this post defending and explaining that statement.  Before I do though, let me say that I consider myself a cinephile, have a degree and Film and Television and am enough of an Alien fan that I have one tattooed on my back.  Now you have a little context.

Despite what all the fan boys and forums are saying for or against Prometheus, I'm a strong believer in a film standing on its own legs. It doesn't really matter in the long run whether this is a true 'prequel' to Alien or not.  The film has to be viewed on it's own merits and flaws.  Prometheus has both.

Almost everyone I've spoken to about the film has had a very strong reaction to it one way or another.  Some want to trash it immediately, others are drawn into deep conversation about symbolism, themes and the visual beauty of the film.

Something that needs to be kept in mind when discussing Prometheus is that modern viewing audiences aren't really encouraged to think much in cinema these days.  While plots can be clever or complex occasionally (Memento, Inception, and Moon come to mind), they don't really require anyone doing any real mental math.  Even films like the Matrix have someone in the film who will eventually spell out the premise  for some other character, creating a simple path for the viewer to follow.

Prometheus' primary focus is on some pretty grand themes:  Where do we come from? Why are we here?  The biggest questions humanity faces.  Had director Ridley Scott given us an easy two hour explanation, the film either would have been too simple or too heavy handed.  Philosopher's have been asking these questions for thousands of years and a filmmaker strolling in and handing you the answers would have been the height of hubris.

So, the answers Prometheus delivers are woven carefully throughout the film in a quilt of dialogue and visuals that require work on the part of the viewer and a realization that answers sometimes aren't clear cut, but can be vague, unnerving, lead to more questions or are sometimes right under our noses.

There have been many nitpicks over the plot and script and I'm going to attempt to address those as well as my interpretation of the larger issues the film tackles into one thread. There's a lot to cover, but that's one of the many reasons I enjoy this film.

The film opens on a shot of what may be Earth, many years ago. It's important to note that we see greenery and life as we approach the shot of the waterfall.  Life already exists on Earth.  Then we see a robed alien who is dressed in a cloth wrapping of underwear underneath.  As a large disk shaped vessel leaves him behind, he ingests a strange substance from a dish.  His dress, the dish, the substance, the ship are all important details for later.  The scene is there for a reason.  The alien ingests a substance which disintegrates a good portion of him and the remainder of his body falls into the water.

It's important to note that if the alien wanted to just leave his own DNA behind to affect future life on the planet, then he need not ingest the liquid.  He could've just as easily leaped into the water and drowned, insuring that more of his DNA would still exist.  The substance *changed* his DNA.  If humans are the offshoot of the aliens, then it's clear that the aliens were not trying to create replicas of themselves, but something else, something different.

As the scene ends, the ship is leaving and the only alien we've seen appears to be dead now.  In the next few scenes with the scientists, Shaw and Holloway, we learn some more important information.  The aliens have been back visiting us over the ages.  All the symbols, drawings and pictographs represent the aliens as having visited us and referenced a star-system by pointing to it.  The oldest date back to a couple of thousand years ago. This is also important.  Shaw thinks this is an invitation and says so.  However, note that this is an assumption on the part of Shaw and other than the literal determination of 'where' the star-system is, we have no actual proof that it's an invitation.  And in fact, we have reason to believe later in the film that these glyphs were actually *threats*. Here, Scott is running a parallel with the first Alien film, albeit subtly.  The ship in the first Alien film assumes the signal they're receiving is a distress call which the computer later figures out is a warning beacon.  In Prometheus, the scientists assume a benevolent race is inviting us when in fact there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this is an industrious species keeping it's creation in line.

Once aboard the Prometheus, we're given a few minutes to meet David, who is by far the most important character in the film.  He's the Rosetta Stone by which many of the films important questions and answers are translated.  While it's made clear that he's a robot, it's equally clear that he has many human like qualities. He's a shadow of a human, much in the way we are shadows of the Engineers, which is what Shaw refers to the aliens as. He chooses to emulate Peter O'Toole in Laurence of Arabia, an interesting choice.  O'Toole is both an outsider and a hero in the film.

But we also see that his ethics are not in line with ours.  He casually watches Shaw's dreams while she's in hibernation and pries into her private life in a way that we would consider serious violations.  Was he programmed to behave that way or was it a lack of programming that allowed him to so casually violate standard human ethics? Regardless, in just those few minutes, it's been established that while he emulates humans, he is definitely not one.

Another important note here is the visual representation of the dreams Holloway has. They're layered and almost look 'pixelated' for lack of a better term.  This visual style is very similar to the one we see later used by the aliens in their holographic re-creations.  Scott is very carefully drawing comparisons between humans and Engineers.  The alien in the opening scene is dressed nearly identically to Shaw and the other scientists aboard Prometheus -  a robe with white linen undergarments.

When we get to the briefing scene, we get another big chunk of information.  Weyland's hologram mentions David being the closest thing he has to a son and instantly they cut to Vickers and her disappointed look.  We can assume that not only that she his daughter, but that their relationship is less than loving. And was that a slight look of pride on David's face?

The relationship between David, Vickers and Weyland is another example of Scott pursuing the theme of disappointment between parents and children - in both directions. In this scene it's obvious that Weyland spent years developing David to be the child that he didn't believe Vickers to be.

Vickers and David meet with Shaw and Holloway to discuss the mission priorities and we see Shaw gush over a rare automated surgical table.  She says it's used for bypass and asks why Vickers brought it.  Her answer is evasive and curt.  This is a set up for later scenes.  She also tells them that the scientists are not to engage the aliens should they see them.  Besides the fact that Vickers has her own agenda and secrets, it's also an allusion to other Alien films which deal heavily with malevolent corporate influences.

The Prometheus lands on planet LV-223.  It's shown very clearly in the hologram earlier and this is to make it crystal clear that they are NOT landing on the planet in the first Alien film.  The planet is clearly designated LV-426 in the other films which hints at a relative proximity perhaps, but definitely not the same planet.

Next, upon landing on LV-223 we get another huge piece of information.  The planet itself has striking similarities to the Earth-like planet in the opening scene. When the crew enters the dome structures, they realize that there's a breathable atmosphere.  Holloway stupidly takes off his helmet to test the air.  Quite a few people criticized that move as unrealistic, but I had no problem with it.  First, any scientist willing to spend two years in hibernation traveling billions of miles because of cave paintings is a pretty unusual and determined character. I bought it.

But it's also important to note that Weyland's slogan is 'Building Better Worlds'.  You don't use that slogan for your company unless you're a major terraformer.  This implies that other planets, other atmospheres, these are things that are pretty standard for these people.  They trust their gear at this point to give them accurate readings.  Also, I think it's critical to point out that nowhere, ever does anyone say that we haven't seen other lifeforms on other planets in the past.  This very well may not be first contact at all.  I also realize that while not specifically in this film, Aliens (the James Cameron film) makes it pretty clear that humans have run across other species and in fact they may be common.

At one point one of the scientists, I forget which, refers to the atmospheric situation and says 'they're terraforming' here.  We already know that the Engineers breath the same things we do so it's a good assumption then that Earth was terraformed by them.  This planet also may then be in the process of being terraformed, but I don't think so.

Next we see David being rather willful and acting on his own, reading glyphs without translating, activating doors.  This is our first hint that David has agendas that don't include the scientists.

Shaw says that the headless body of the Engineer they find in the corridor dates back to about 2000 years.  This puts it about the same time that the Engineers stopped appearing in various records on Earth. Another clue.  David opens the door, which unlike other places seems to be sealed.  This is perhaps why the Engineer was running to that door in the first place - it was perhaps some way to escape something that was either chasing them or to avoid contamination.

Here's where many people watching the film had issues.  There is a scene of David's feet in the room.  When his foot moves there are two worm-like creatures under his feet in the soil.  Shortly after that, we see that the atmosphere of the room has changed, along with the mural and the behavior of the frozen liquid in the cylinders.

My take on all of this, and I don't think there are any logical fallacies here, is that the entire facility is a military installation (Janek says as much later in the film).  The room in which the find the vases is a room specifically carrying bio-weapons meant for humans.  There are plenty of safety precautions for the Engineers (the substance is frozen), which explains why the Engineer might have tried to get in that room during an outbreak.  However, the weapons are built to activate in the presence of human beings.

What is this weapon? How does it work?  Imagine you wanted to wipe out a whole species without decimating the planet itself.  A weapon that was keyed not just to the species itself, which might be able to isolate itself or partially defend itself, but to it's entire ecosystem.  If the weapon contacts species other than humans it mutates them into something dangerous and life threatening to humans.  This is what happens to the two worms under David's feet that later attack Fifield and Milburn.  If it connects with humans then it infects them at various rates with death as the final outcome.  But, as any biologist will tell you, the most dangerous diseases are the ones that have a number of ways to spread.  In this case, a face full of the weapon transformed Fifield into a killing machine.  I'm sure that eventually he would have died, but not before possibly spreading the plague to others. Then we have Holloway, who got only a tiny drop of the stuff, ingested through a drink.  Not only does it do the same job it did to Fifield, a bit more slowly, it affects even his chances at reproduction. Causing the offspring he generates with Shaw to be another malevolent creature aimed at killing humans.

So, after the first expedition out to the Engineer facility, they've left behind two crew members and are returning with an Engineers head.  The facility obviously wanted to also keep the humans contained within the area once they set off the canisters as it was obvious the storm was generated by the atmosphere processors. It's also what seemed (emphasis on seemed) to create confusion as to why Fifield and Milburn got lost, as Janek mentions that there was both interference and large amounts of static.

I was a little dismayed that Milburn seemed to show so little interest in the dead alien corpse and head. That is, after all, his area of expertise.  Fail number one.

Upon returning to the ship, we see David speaking through his VR helmet and standing over someone still in hibernation.  We now know that Weyland is alive and that he is probably the source of David's semi-hidden agendas.  From the one way conversation it's easy to tell that Weyland isn't pleased with the results so far and that he expects David to do whatever is necessary.

This plays out in the next scene with David and Vickers.  Vickers hate for David is apparent and his summation of Weylands comments as 'try harder' make it clear that Weyland has instructed David to do whatever it takes to make progress.  We also know that Vickers is aware of Weyland's presence on the ship, which explains some of her attitudes earlier.

The examination of the head confirms what I've suggested above.  The weapon, having gotten loose had infected this Engineer.  It might not even be the same weapon, but assuming it is, since he was running for the 'safe room', it lay dormant in his head, frozen, until 'reactivated' and stimulated by the scientists.

David, now on a time table is forced to take drastic action.  But he also has certain ethical programs embedded that he finds 'inconvenient'.  A robot however can't regard ethical programming as inherently important, only a hurdle to overcome on the way to his objective. He asks Holloway what he would be willing to do to get the answers he wanted.  Once Holloway says 'anything', David is ethically able to put the bioweapon in Holloway's drink.  I think he specifically chose Holloway because he seemed the most likely to take chances and thereby move David's agenda ahead.

But this scene is also crucial to the rest of the film.  When David asks 'Why did you (humans) make me?' and Holloway responds with a drunken 'because we could', we get to the heart of the film.  While we assume that David can't be 'disappointed' as he says, there's a nagging voice in us that says that that is a lie. David yearns to be greater than he is, to become closer to his creator.  He searches for the same answers we do.  And just as the Engineers' motives seem foreign to us, so too does David seem unable to completely connect with ours.

A few people have commented that the scene between Vickers and Janek is pointless.  I completely disagree.  First, it explains why no one is on the bridge when Fifield and Milburn call for help.  Second it establishes a very real question for Janek - is Vickers an android?  Which considering Vickers situation, is a question which cuts pretty deep.  Her response is one that is very reasonable - 'I'll do the one thing I can do to prove I'm nothing like David'.  Her sex with Janek is an act without love, born out of pain.  On the other hand, the sex between Shaw and Holloway happening at the same time is an act of love that brings about a monster.

Milburn and Fifield encounter the two mutated worms and get killed.  Milburn was stupidly optimistic in his behavior toward the snake, but I'll defer to the character on this one.  For all we know Milburn had had similar encounters with other creatures who turned out to be friendly.  Also, maybe Milburn wasn't aware he was in a sci-fi/horror film.

The next day, the crew searches for the two lost crew members and Holloway begins to succumb to the bio-weapon.  One of my other primary complaints about  the film is his reaction to seeing the silvery movement in his eye.  While Holloway might be reckless, ignoring this blatant symptom of infection wasn't just stupid, it was obviously dangerous to the whole crew and his lover.  He should have immediately quarantined himself.  I caught myself going 'Oh come on!' out loud during that scene.  Fail number two.

Upon returning, Vickers kills Holloway, who lets himself be burned to death - a little late for his altruism.  Nevertheless, it's a great scene for Charlize Theron who is firm that he not come aboard.  We see at this point she's willing to put the safety of herself and her crew above the ambitions of her father.  But once she's set him ablaze there's a true look of horror on her face.  Much of Vickers coldness is bravado and she's wonderfully human in that scene.

Meanwhile, David has gone off on his own, even cutting off Vickers and has found a spaceship underground, attached to the base.  It's loaded with the bio-weapons and there is at least one Engineer still left on board in hibernation (another allusion to the similarities between humans and Engineers - the use of hibernation chambers).  To me, this scene is at the heart of the whole film.  It's the second time we've seen the world solely through the eyes of David (the first is before the crew wakes up).  This time, David is communing with the machines of the Engineers with the language that he understands.  He's understanding his creator's creator.  He's in the cockpit of God's father and best of all he can grasp the significance and wonder of it all.  He's also at the point where he knows he can wake up Weyland.

Back on board, the focus shifts to Shaw who once she realizes she's pregnant is determined to end it.  Here, Scott is playing with our memories and emotions tied to the Aliens franchise.  The involuntary impregnation, the malevolent robot who almost seems to be encouraging the situation and suggesting taking her back to earth in hibernation.

She escapes the medical ward and heads for the automated surgical unit we saw earlier. The computer informs her that it's calibrated for male patients.  The only reason to have written it that way was to give us another clue that Weyland was alive, on board, and might be in need of surgery at some point.

Once she's done the self-surgery (which will probably go down as a classic sci-fi scene for years to come), she stumbles into the ward where Weyland is being awoken and readied for his trip to meet the Engineer.

The scene between Weyland and Vickers completes the picture of their relationship and how exactly everything went down.  Weyland wanted to fly off into space to look for immortality - for any number of reasons he would want to keep that a secret.  Perhaps his taking what would surely be a one way trip would cause stock problems with his company or incite a hostile takeover.  Also, the scientists might not have agreed to come if their trip's main goal was to grant Weyland eternal life. Or maybe if the ailing head of a major corporation announced he was flying off to a remote planet, other companies might have tried to horde in.  Regardless, his presence was a secret and Vickers wanted to be on board not to help her father but to make sure she was there at either his triumph or failure.  She attempts to make one last emotional connection with him before he leaves but is again rebuffed.

Once the Engineer has been revitalized and stands before the humans, both Shaw and Weyland try to convince David to ask the Engineer their own important questions.  I read that there actually is a translation as to what David said to the Engineer, but I don't think it really matters what it literally meant.  The Engineer's reaction says it all:  He strokes David's head softly once, before pulling it off and then beats Weyland with it.

So, here's my take from the Engineer's point of view:  2000 years ago, roughly, something happened (maybe on Earth or maybe within the world of the Engineers) and there was a decision:  Time to kill the humans.  This particular Engineer was assigned to the ship that would fly to Earth and decimate it with the bio-weapon.  Unbeknownst to him, there was a leak and something got out.

(Sidenote for Alien fans:  This is where I believe the two films connect.  In the first Alien film, the space jocky is described as 'fossilized'.  Perhaps at the same time the virus broke out, another ship, this one carrying a different bio-weapon, the aliens we know from the Aliens films, took off from LV-223.  That ship also had a breach, the pilot was infected and the ship crashed on LV-426 before it could reach it's destination.  Of course, this is all speculation and not important or relevant to Prometheus.  Just fun.)

Back to my hypothesis.  The bio-weapon had gotten out, contaminated those on the base and putting the whole thing on something like a lockdown.  Meanwhile, the rest of the ship's crew never showed up and the one Engineer was left in stasis, waiting.  When he wakes up, David says something to him.  Regardless of what it is, the Engineer then figures out that the mission failed and something has gone wrong.  His target is now standing there in front of him.  His mission is now more urgent than ever.  He has to kill these humans and get this ship to Earth, ASAP.

The rest of the film plays out fairly self-explanatory, but there are a few interesting points still in there.  I've seen the film three times now and after the first someone said 'Hey, Shaw figured out that David poisoned Holloway after she remarked about the air possibly being unsafe and David saying he was sure it wasn't.  If she knew David poisoned him, why was she so friendly to him at the end?'  After watching the film again, there's no look of understanding or recognition on Shaw's face. The look on David's is an assessing one. Does she know? Has she figured out that I did it?  I think the answer is no, Shaw wouldn't believe that David's programming would allow him to do that.  Maybe that will be explored in potential sequels though.

A friend suggested an alternate spot to end the film and I really like it.  After Shaw has escaped the life boat and is crying, David's voice comes over the communicators and he says 'we don't have to die here. There are other ships. I can fly them.'  Bam.  The end. Right there.   What more really needs to be shown or said.

Other people and friends have shown unhappiness with the 'squid thing' that comes out of Shaw and the 'alien' that comes out of the Engineer at the end as being either too similar to the facehugger and aliens of the other films or not similar enough.  What are the implications there?

My personal take on this - and mind you have I have no direct evidence for this - is that the Engineers perhaps found the aliens that we see in the other films and were attempting to use properties culled from them for bio-weapons purposes.  Why do I think that?  Because over and over in the films, human corporations want to use the Aliens for weapons and it always turns out badly.  Prometheus is about how we are the Engineers and they are us, so it makes sense that the Engineers failed as badly as we would've at trying to control the Aliens.  Of course, the Engineers failed to destroy us too.  Which brings us back to one of the many themes used in all of these films - messing with mother nature can and will come back to bit you.

Here's what I didn't like:  Milburn's lack of interest in the Engineer's body.  Holloway not telling anyone that he was infected.  Vickers unseemly death from failing to just turn left.  Those are all fairly small nitpicks in my opinion. I also might have liked to see a little more character development from everyone, especially Janek, Holloway and Shaw.  Lastly, the score seemed a little off to me.  It often seemed 'hopeful' or 'wondrous' where it should have been 'ominous' or 'foreboding'.

But there's a lot to love here.  Prometheus sets up a grand view of the universe and an interesting role for human beings in it.  It doesn't step on any of the other franchises (with the exception of Aliens vs. Predator, but does anyone really care?) and it left us with two interesting characters with a lot of room for development.

There are definitely things left ambiguous.  The biggest being 'why did the Engineers turn on us?'  What exactly is the relationship between the creatures in Prometheus and the aliens from the other films?  What did David say to the Engineer?

Things I really enjoyed:  The Engineer at the beginning is obviously different from the others.  He doesn't wear the armor, but robes and underwear and his ship is different.  I think he's a scientist like the humans or a 'creator' as opposed to the 'destroyer' Engineers.  The self-surgery scene is just breathtaking and incredible.  Michael Fassbender's performance as David is Oscar worthy.  I suggest watching the 'promo' video for his 'line':

Of course, I'm just scratching the surface here.  You could launch into long discussions with this film: theism vs. atheism, gnosticism, fear of our own bodies and biology, the morality of science, bioethics...and on and on.

This review isn't meant to cover everything, and I'd love to hear if others have different opinions, gripes, etc.


VitalemRecords said...

I like the movie a lot. The low point for me was the old man makeup on Weyland. I don't see plot holes anywhere in the movie. If a character made a bad decision, that is called "character development". These people aren't there to make the RIGHT decision. They are there to portray different aspects of the human condition. It wasn't like in the horror movie where you're like "Don't go into the woods alone at night! COME ON!" There's my two cents.

GerryDingle said...

"Prometheus might just be the most important hard science fiction film since 2001: A Space Odyssey."

That gave me a chuckle...

Unknown said...

I really like your take on the movie and you've helped my understand some of the finer points. I just saw it today and loved it.