Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Does Prometheus make any sense?

After I watched Prometheus I tweeted that it's a beautiful-looking film with some great performances, but that it works neither as a good sci-fi movie nor as an Alien tie-in. I want to backpedal on that a little bit by making some observations about the film's themes and the questions it raises.


The central mystery of the movie is the motivation of the Engineers for creating human life. As the film opens, anthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are tracking down ancient sites that point to the stars as the origin of humanity (a la Chariots of the Gods and - I guess - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). They convince the Weyland Corporation to fund an expedition into space so that they can  meet their makers.

If I were to spend any time at all picking at the many, many plot holes, weird motivations, and stupid characters in Prometheus, it would add a gazillion words to this post, so I'm not going to do that. Not when Red Letter Media (thanks, Snell!) has already done that so very well. I'm going to stick to very big-picture stuff, because that's where the movie is worth discussing.

Once the scientists reach the world indicated by Earth's most ancient cultures, they learn that the Engineers (as Shaw calls our alien creators) decided to kill us off and start over. Why they decided that becomes the new, burning question of the film, especially for Shaw. My burning question as I was walking out of the theater, was whether or not Prometheus ever so much as tried to answer its burning question. A lot of people think, "No." But after thinking about it some more, I'm not so sure.

There are a few lines in the film that are keys to unlocking the mystery. The first one I want to point out is a conversation between Holloway and David (Michael Fassbender), the android created by Peter Weyland, current head of Weyland Corp. Holloway is devastated by the discovery that the Engineers are all dead, so David asks the scientist what he hoped to achieve on the mission, Holloway repeats the initial mystery of the film: to learn "why they even made us in the first place."

David replies, "Why do you think your people made me?"

Without giving it any real thought, Holloway answers, "We made you because we could."

David's response to that is important. "Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"

I imagine that Weyland had a deeper reason for creating David than just "because he could," but Holloway's attitude about the question is telling. People do create "just because they can." We doodle. We sketch. We toss our art in the garbage when we're not completely happy with it. Holloway sees no real value in David and doesn't even think his question about his own origins is even worth considering.

So, what if the Engineers felt the same way about us?

There's some Internet buzz about abandoned plans for Prometheus to suggest that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the event that triggered the Engineer's displeasure with humanity (because Jesus was himself an emissary of the Engineers, you see). There's still an artifact of that idea in the movie when the scientists notice that the event that killed the Engineers happened 2000 years ago ("give or take"). It's possible that idea was abandoned because it makes more sense for the Engineers to not have a reason to destroy humanity. We're just an abandoned canvass that needs to be painted over to make room for something new.

As Weyland executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) observes at one point, "A king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable." She's not talking about humanity, but the similarities between the various creators/creatures in the film are obvious. The Engineers and humanity are just like Weyland and his android. Or Weyland and his daughter. As sloppy and anticlimactic as the revelation is that Vickers is Weyland's daughter, it's important for us to know what that relationship really is. Weyland created Vickers and at some point, it's his job to get out of the way so that she can have her time.

Her comment mirrors the one that David made earlier about everyone's wanting to kill their parents. That's a horrible thing to say and I don't even think it's true, but it fits the theme that Prometheus is exploring. The creation supplants the creator.

That's why he's so nonchalant about killing Holloway. That's why Vickers is so angry about Weyland's extending his life. That's why the Engineer freaks out when he wakes up and finds humanity standing over him. Especially when humanity - like the mythological Prometheus - has stolen fire from the gods and created their own life in David. The creators, whether they're the Engineers or Weyland, aren't ready to give up their spot, so they're fighting for it. Weyland's fighting by coming on this expedition. The Engineer fights by renewing his efforts to destroy humanity (now out of survival instead of apathy).

The major themes of Prometheus do make sense and there's evidence that the film is actually thinking about them. Shaw's religious beliefs are an attempt to bring God into the creator/creature discussion, though the movie fails to do that in an interesting way. There's even a hint at the Engineer's own religious beliefs by way of a mural depicting what looks like a xenomorph in a Christ-like pose. Do the Engineers worship the xenomorphs? (I don't think that the final scene in the movie is good evidence that the events of Prometheus are responsible for creating the xenomorphs.) Do they worship death itself? It's arguable that the xenomorphs are symbols for death. It also makes sense that the Engineers respect death as much as life since each makes the other possible.

That raises another thought. If the death of humanity paves the way for a new creation, what is that creation? I spent most of the movie thinking it was the xenomorphs, but I don't think so now. The xenomorphs and other monsters in Prometheus are the agents of change. They represent the death that has to occur so that the old king can step down and the new king can take his place. We don't know what the Engineers planned as the new king, but has David spoiled their plans and stepped into that role?

There's a lot to think about and I'm interested in seeing the movie again. It still has a lot of problems that I can't overlook, but I'm curious to see if a second viewing supports my theories about the movie's themes. And if it does, will that lessen the impact of its flaws? I still don't think Prometheus is a great science fiction film, but there's enough there that I'm comfortable calling it a good one. And it does tie in well with the rest of the Alien series, not only for the symbolism of the xenomorphs as the death of humanity, but also for offering the androids as a potential replacement (which supports Ripley's deep distrust of them).


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I appreciate the mention of the "Because we could" discussion between Halloway and David. That scene was depicted in some of the later promotional material and I was a bit put off by how dismissive a statement it was and lent weight to a common criticism I had heard about the film, "Ridley Scott thinks that mentioning these ideas is the same as exploring them."

I haven't seen the movie yet, but the controversy about its overall quality has me curious. I'm thinking DVD might be ideal for viewing when attitudes have cooled down a bit so that observations like these can crop up and allow for a more rounded discussion and analysis.

Michael May said...

If you're interested in it, I highly recommend seeing it in the theater. The problem with waiting for DVD is that you'd be missing out on some STUNNING cinematography. Whatever its flaws, Prometheus is gorgeous.

I hear the 3D is also amazing, so if I get the chance to see the movie again, I'm going to pony up for the full experience.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the movie, aside from the awful purely-functional characters and thethe fact thatthat NONE ofof the 'science' in the film is science at all, is that if your explanation is correct, then even though Charlie and David's discourse is nonsense (David was obviously created with a purpose and great care), the movie still claims that we all are created without purpose. It's an incoherent argument. Also, the damn alien imagery throughout the ship really doesnt make any sense and has annoyed me ever since i saw the film. They obviously worship the Xeno, but simultaneously dont worship death and run away from it in the magical unencoded holo-video. Also, they build primitive tunnels in mountains connecting tothem ships with the equivalent of enormous Michaelangelo cave drawingsthroughout amd carvings of aliens rather than actual sensible military installations. Its nonsense from a military or strategic standpoint.


Anonymous said...

Unless the assertion by Scott is that the Xeno predates the Engineers and somehow created them. Perhaps they are trying to create God rather than life by creating the black goo in order to recreate a mythical pleasant form of the Xenomorph which gave them life and that went awry? But that also makes no sense given the other portions of the story and the fact that it is clearly a military installation, not a church or lab, with angry ogers who wish to kill humanity.

Michael May said...

I don't have a problem with the combination of religion and science. I can imagine a culture that worships the concepts it's also seeking to study scientifically.

In reference to the Engineer's running away from death, I think there's a difference between worshiping death as a concept and embracing it when it comes for you. I don't know a lot about actual, historical death cults, but I don't suppose any of them revered death to the point where it was preferable to life. If that's the case, there wouldn't be a cult for long because everyone would kill themselves.

I agree with you though that there's inconsistency between the care that obviously went into David and the movie's theme about haphazard creation. Obviously, not all creation is casual and the film does a lousy job of exploring that aspect of it.

Unknown said...

I agree that religion and science is a perfect conflict or study in a film. However, it seems absurd that a military base and ship would be constructed like primitive cave cathedrals as they are in this film. And absolutely none of the science in the film is accurate, right up to the ion propulsion nonsense at the end and the DNA and evolution mischaracterizations. The only way the writer could thunk to put religion on equal footing with science was to wholely lie about what science is, how it is practiced, and what scientific facts are. The whole film is a straw man/red harring.

Michael May said...

Yeah, I agree that science and religion aren't on equal footing in the movie. The movie's certainly not hard sci-fi. It's more interested in thinking about social questions than scientific ones. I'm totally okay with that (in fact, I generally prefer it), but I understand how that's not to everyone's tastes.

Anonymous said...

You missed a key plot element - when Weyland is awakened David is seen washing his feet. This is an obviously JC reference that David worships his father. Man has replaced G-d in the eye's of his artificial creation.

Kal said...

That was a terrific explanation and got me thinking about this movie in other way. Like you I want to see this again while I have your excellent theories rattling around my brain. I really want to GET this film.


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