WARNING: This review is full of spoilers. You have been warned.
Kelli and I used part of our Sunday to see Ridley Scott’s “sorta but not really” prequel to the Aliens trilogy. I was excited going in because the trailers looked fantastic. While it’s beautifully done, it’s so full of jarring nonsense that I kept finding myself pulled out of the movie trying to figure out what just happened.
Normally, I’m very critical of books and very uncritical of movies. I’ll overlook a lot if I still feel a movie is enjoyable. But if you are creating a universe with no internal consistency, it breaks my brain. For instance, if in your movie humans have eliminated all the bacteria that create cavities, but halfway through the film you show someone brushing their teeth with toothpaste, you’d better have a very good reason why. Prometheus is full of internal inconsistencies and ridiculous character behavior none of which had to be there.
The opening scene of the film shows a big white proto-human drinking some black goop and subsequently being torn down at a molecular level, and falling into a water source. You can actually see the double helixes of his DNA being stripped down and rebuilt into something else. This sets the stage for the entire film. DNA is important to this film. Now we’re going to spend the next 2 hours getting every important fact we know about DNA completely wrong.
Our adventure actually begins with 2 archeologists finding a cave painting in Scotland, but this is no ordinary painting. It depicts a giant human pointing at six circles. Apparently this is the 9th such find across the world and across multiple cultures. Our two plucky heroes apparently found all other 8 as well. How did they know to look for the 9th in Scotland as opposed to say Iceland? Bah, who cares. All that matters is they found a 9th one and apparently 9 was the magic number to convince people that this is evidence of Alien visitation. Apparently we can also conclude from these pictographs that these giants may be our creators. What in the pictographs tells us this? Nothing. Why was 9 pictographs so much more compelling than say 8 or 7? This is the movies!
Fast forward a handful of years and we’re launching a 35 light year space voyage!
What’s that? Oh humans have spaceships capable of faster than light travel? They sure do! We’re not going to tell you when or how, but let’s just roll with the punches huh? What’s that? You say humans have been exploring space since 2032? You want to know if in all that time we’ve seen any other evidence of alien life? Anything more substantial than 9 cave paintings to justify a trillion dollar investment? Why would we even look into that?
Oh and you’d like to know how, out of billions and billions and billions of stars, we were able to locate the right one based on a 2 dimensional representation that would be wrong if viewed at any other angle than the one used to create it? And it’s not visible to the naked eye? No problem, we’ll just gloss right past that.
This may all feel like picking nits, so lets get to the mission.
We wake up our crew to hear a mission briefing because apparently most of them signed up without knowing what they would be doing for at least the next 4 years of their lives. Our hero Elizabeth Shaw explains the 9 pictograms and we’re on a mission to look for our creators. The one trained biologist on the mission points out that this would be going against everything we know about evolution, and have known for hundreds of years. She says she chooses to believe differently. Which he shrugs off.
Hold the fuck up. We’re on an incredibly expensive and dangerous mission to potentially make contact with an alien species and our leader doesn’t believe in a fundamental tenant of biology? And the only evidence we have to justify this mission is 9 pictures? We’re going to toss out the fact that we know humans have co-evolved over the course of billions of years and share huge chunks of our genetic code with almost every other form of life on the planet?
I’ve noticed that we’re not taking physics quite as lightly since you’re not believing us to the alien planet. But okay yeah, we’ll just let genetics slide. Oh yeah, also, why is this biologist wearing glasses 70 years into the future? He couldn’t afford Lasik before his big space adventure? We can cure cancer but we haven’t figured out myopia? Maybe he just likes his glasses right? No big deal. I’m sure there’s an optometrist and a lab on board the ship in case you accidentally break them at some point in your SPACE ADVENTURE.
We also get to meet our angry future punk geologist/map maker who’s only in it for the money and doesn’t want to make friends. This is the same fellow who will later declare he’s on the mission because he loves rocks and proceeds to get lost in the tunnels despite the fact that he JUST MAPPED THEM.
Let’s fast forward a bit. Turns out that the “engineers” are actually a complete genetic match to humans despite the fact that they are hairless giants almost double our size. Okay, well what does a “perfect match” mean? We share 96% of our DNA with chimps. Did the engineers seed the genetic material for all life on earth? And if so, why kick off a completely new biosphere to ultimately recreate the thing you already have – your exact genetic match. Just send a colony of clones and be done with it.
In a surprise twist we discover that Peter Weyland, who was supposed to be dead was in fact on board and napping in a hyper sleep chamber and communicating with the ships android through a neural interface. Turns out he really is close to dead, and is hoping the engineers will make him immortal. Why would he think they could? Doesn’t matter – he has faith.
Well apparently this super genius is a complete idiot. A man who’s obsessed with living forever, or at least for a while longer, puts himself on a SPACESHIP? Yeah that’s not dangerous. Probably the safest place you could be. No risk of dying there. This is the same super genius who insists on being there in person when they wake up the GIANT ALIEN. This is clearly a man terrified of death. This is a guy who could have installed a hyper sleep chamber in an impenetrable fortress on earth and been in no danger of dying from his age. He could have sent the team with specific instructions to see if our god aliens could in fact fix him and waited for their reply. He doesn’t even have to be out of it the whole time as he’s clearly having lucid conversations with David through the neural connection. He could continue to run his entire empire from the chamber while he awaits their return. Nope.
And apparently his daughter is equally stupid. She eagerly wants daddy to die so she can sweep in and claim her birthright, making her the richest person in the galaxy. Perhaps she had been ordered to take this mission and make sure it’s a success? Perhaps she accepts it grudgingly deciding that it’s only a matter of years before he’s kicked the bucket. Nope. She volunteers for the mission. Why? Is she planning on killing daddy if he does achieve newfound youth? Dad has a security detail and she has no contingency plan in place. She has nothing to gain by going on the mission and everything to lose.
As a further demonstration of the Weyland incompetence – this is a family with functionally unlimited power and income. They churn out thousands of crazy smart androids with none of the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of humans. They don’t get bored, don’t need sleep and will always follow orders no matter how stupid or irrational. If I was an eccentric trillionaire or a greedy dilettante galavanting across the galaxy, I might think of staffing my spaceship with a slave army of super smart androids, none of whom need food or space suits or oxygen or hypersleep beds. Said army of androids could do fun things like explore potentially dangerous alien ruins and if you lose 5 or 10 or 20 of them to a hostile alien bioweapon it’s no biggie, there’s 20 more where that came from.
And our nemesis? The terrible black goop? It’s apparently magical nightmare juice. If warmed up even fractionally, it apparently can ooze through 2 different containers designed specifically to control it. But only when it wants to because there’s no oozing on the cargo bay of the alien ship despite the exact same conditions. It apparently changes worms from insects into insanely powerful, 6 foot long space snakes. It makes geologists into super flexible super strong space zombies with an unexplainable urge to kill former team members. Apparently when ingested it turns one archeologist into a horny grey guy with some pretty crazy sperm. You get the picture, it basically does whatever the fuck Ridley Scott says it does. Is it a biological agent? A nanobot swarm? Who knows, who cares, why would we explain it?
Oh the engineers want to murder our whole planet with this stuff? Care to explain why? Fuck you, that’s why. Some vague bullshit supposition about being disappointed with us? May I remind sir that the engineers have EXACTLY the same DNA as us? Someone needs to take a long hard look at the man in the mirror.
There’s an awesome point in the film where the screen writers must have just acknowledged that none of this shit makes any sense, and that maybe they should throw us a bone. So they just flat out have a character say “this isn’t their home world, it’s a weapons factory and they’re going to kill us”. You know why they had to have him do that? Because there’s no logical way to reach that same conclusion by watching the film.
Apparently Ridley Scott did this on purpose because he likes leaving the audience with a sense of mystery. The intertubes are awash with sweaty fanboys weaving intricate fantasies trying to explain away how badly constructed this film is. I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Blade Runner and how weird it was. But the holes of the two films are incredibly different. There is one core unanswered question from blade runner, “is Deckard a replicant”. That question, and the littered clues throughout the movie drive a lot of speculation. But that question, and its clues aren’t THE CORE OF THE STORY. Bladerunner becomes no more or less comprehensible for not knowing the answer. You’re also never left wondering why Roy wants to extend his life or why he feels like he needs to kill people to find an answer. You’re not left wondering why Deckard was chasing down the replicants in the first place.
Prometheus on the other hand seems to revel in not answering any of the questions it sets up. You may contend that this is the central thesis of the film, that some questions will never have satisfying answers. That may be reasonable. But that doesn’t excuse characters doing incredibly stupid things for no reason. Further more, almost all of the issues can be fixed simply.
List of other stupid crap that I don’t want to take the time to write about:
- a 3% atmospheric concentration of CO2 isn’t toxic (the reason they had to wear helmets)
- a man who’s father in law died from an infectious disease is pretty quick to pull off his helmet on a foreign planet.
- the alien installation is at -11c but everyone’s fine with having their helmets off.
- still can’t invent helmets that don’t fog up huh?
- Medpods are only calibrated to one gender? Really?
- having all your abdominal muscles cut and then stapled shut pretty much means you can’t walk let alone run
- Engineers still write in cuneiform and their language hasn’t changed in thousands of years?
- How did they not notice the gigantic storm as they flew in from space?
- Why does it have to be daylight to explore the big dark structure with no windows?
- Hey where are geologist guy and biologist guy? I don’t know maybe we should look on the giant map with the arrows that point to our team members.
- Lets examine this giant alien head out in the open, no need to use a shroud or anything
- I’m a single minded engineer headed to earth to wipe out your species. You used your one ship to stop my first attempt. Good thing I’ve got a bunch more ships. I’ll just be going. On second thought, I’m going to try and kill you first even though you pose no remaining threat to me.
- You know how I unlock the navigation system of my spaceship? I play 4 secret notes on my space flute here which for some reason I’ve filmed on my holoVCR. Oh and for some reason all the ships are unlocked the same way. They were made by Ford.
- I’m a biologist who for some reason wants to touch a completely new alien species that’s hissing at me.
- Literally no one is surprised by Weyland popping up, not even Shaw who’s just been through emergency surgery. Can someone muster up some surprise? Maybe the doctor who’s helping Weyland get cleaned up who not 10 minutes ago got smacked in the head by Shaw?
- Shaw is apparently ready to let bygones be bygones with David once Weyland shows up despite the doping and using her as an alien breeding cow.
- The medpod is smart enough to detect and remove a foreign body, but not smart enough to detect say, ovaries or a uterus and then error out?
- What did David do with the leftover nightmare juice after poisoning Charlie? It was in a glass ampule he had to break to access. Did he just throw some Saran Wrap on it and pop it back in the fridge?
- How the hell did squid baby / protofacehugger grow so large while trapped in a room with no food source?
There’s unfortunately a lot more than this.
While I love Ebert, I firmly believe his review is the product of illicit drug use. Either that or Ridley Scott sent him the good version of the movie.
UPDATE 2: After reading some interviews with Damon Lindelof and looking at images from the Art book they just published, I’m convinced that Scott had no idea what he actually wanted to accomplish with this movie. He just cobbled together a lousy understanding of christian mythology and a flawed idea of genetics and tried to paste it on top of the Alien franchise. I live in dread of the Blade Runner sequel. Also, Lindelof wrote a bad movie and he should feel bad.