PROMETHEUS: A MODERN FRANKENSTIEN – Why Ridley Scott’s Magnum Opus is a flawed masterpiece

Posted on July 12, 2012

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Ridley Scott’s Prometheus – the long-awaited pseudo-sequel to his 1977 seminal sci-fi/horror film – is finally out and, frankly, has left many people scratching their heads.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this confusion is that sequels generally answer questions raised by the films they purportedly predate (the Star Wars prequels are a prime example) rather than pose them. And in Prometheus, pose them Scott does.

In fact, Scott seems to have almost deliberately tried to avoid moments of fanboy revelation, preferring instead to merely postulate their meanings or possible origins. What we get instead is a whole host of new and exciting questions and a narrative that exceeds the confines of the “monster in a labyrinth” set by Alien. Whilst Alien is taut and almost claustrophobically tight in terms of both narrative and environment, Prometheus gives us huge themes and epic scope.

It’s hard to know where to start really, but let’s begin by looking at this film on the surface, before we go digging too deeply into the meaning beneath. Visually, this film is stunning. The framing is sensational, as one would expect from a filmmaker of Scott’s calibre, and the pace is pitched perfectly, languid when it needs to be and taut and tense when the narrative kicks up a gear. In terms of pure cinematography alone, this film is a masterpiece, with the direction, editing and sound design all coming together to produce an audiovisual extravaganza. The Real3D that can be such a gimmick when applied to some films, used for shock or for awe, simply serve to make the environments richer and deeper and it never feels exploitative. A particular moment echoed from Alien might have easily been used to more shocking effect with the use of 3D, but fortunately Scott steers clear of this rather obvious route.

Above, the Prometheus’ bridge, below Ron Cobb’s original concept for the bridge of the Nostromo.

Keeping with visuals, one of the most groundbreaking elements in Alien was its production design, with contributions not only from H.R. Giger, who was responsible for the bio-mechanoid world where the alien is first encountered, as well as the creature itself, but also from Ron Cobb, who did the interior world of the Nostromo. Chris Foss (better known for his Asimov book covers) did spaceship design and Jean Giraud, better known as the comic artist Mœbius, designed the spacesuits along with Star Wars’ costume designer, John Mollo. With this blending of visual styles, Alien gave us a rich, textured world that seemed all the more believable and jarring because of their juxtaposition. Prometheus certainly channels Alien’s design aesthetic in this regard and the legacy of these artists is evident in Prometheus’ every frame.

Concept art for Alien’s medlab and the Prometheus’ automated med pod 720i.

In terms of visual effects, this film has no equal. In comparison, Avatar hits you with a water balloon filled with bioluminescence and is so overtly rich in colour that it never feels quite real. Prometheus is subtle in its approach to effects in that it creates a genuine sense of realism to the environments and the creatures themselves.

Champagne cocktail, sir?

Prometheus has had its share of criticisms, however, not the least of which have been for the performances, although this is probably more the fault of poor characterization than the actors’ performances themselves.

Part of the viral campaign for Prometheus is this video introducing David. Creepy.

Ironically, the most fleshed-out character is Fassbender’s android David, who positively steals the film. For a robot with no emotion or feelings, Fassbender manages to imply that there is, at the very least, an element of resentment that has infected its way into his programming. There is almost a sense of bitter satisfaction in his superiority over his human companions. He is a genuinely disturbing character who also somehow manages to also provoke the most sympathy.

Probably don’t want to be opening that door.

Noomi Rapace’s scientist Elizabeth Shaw is also compelling, and in a certain scene that is Prometheus’ answer to Alien’s most memorable moment, she manages to create a sense of empathy for her character that you wished you didn’t share. Her character’s religious conviction is unusual for a scientist looking for answers to our creation amongst the stars, but it never feels forced or unbelievable.

Watch the road!

Idris Elba’s captain is charismatic and bears perhaps the least complex of agendas of the entire crew of Prometheus. His general laconic apathy is far more a reflection of our present society than the scientists’ hunger for answers and thus makes him the most relatable of the cast. However, at times he seems to care so little for the hapless scientists, that it verges on cruelty – which makes his new-found heroism by the end of the film ring slightly false, and makes the other two pilots somewhat unnerving in their cheerily suicidal loyalty to him.

Is it cold in here, or is it just you?

Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce are exceptionally capable actors but Theron’s charater, the ice queen Meredith Vickers, is paper thin and her character’s reveal is a twist that is patently obvious from early in the first act. Having said that, there could be more to her character than just an ambitious daughter or jealous “sibling”. She could, potentially be an android, too. However, whether she is or isn’t has little or no bearing on the eventual outcome of the film, and this is far away from the ambiguity about her humanity than say Harrison Ford’s in Scott’s other sci-fi classic, Blade Runner.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BBa_GHtNB0]

Another viral campaign video, this time introducing Weyland as a younger man, his ambitions already clearly marked out.

Guy Pearce seems a strange choice in many ways to play an aging billionaire with nefarious motives, being a younger man. However, when you learn that he was partially cast to be able to play his younger self in a scene that never makes the final cut, it makes far more sense. Pearce’s Weyland is suitably arrogant, but perhaps played too large, hampered as he is behind a veil of almost convincing prosthetics.

“We are both frikkin’ idiots.”

Other cast members, including Logan Marshal-Green’s improbably handsome scientist Holloway and Raff Spall and Sean Harris’ bumbling mismatched scientists, all play their parts well, despite their character’s obvious lack of depth or sense. Other characters seem to be entirely disposable and, indeed, are summarily disposed of before you even register their existence. As for the scientists’ inconsistent and, let’s face it, bizarre decisions, one can only put this down to poor writing.

“I am seriously never drinking again.”

The final characters are the alien Engineers themselves. Their rather too human appearance has been the cause of some derision in a franchise that has always boasted the most exotic of alien life, however their inclusion is absolutely essential to the narrative in terms of our origins and quest for answers. Unfortunately, their design leaves them looking like albino monks with alopecia and a fondness for pumping iron. There is a reason for this in the films allegorical narrative, but on the surface they almost seem a little ridiculous, especially if you go into the film unprepared.

So, there are questions posed and few questions answered, but when push comes to shove, what is Prometheus really about?

Well, there can be little doubt that Prometheus is crammed full of religious themes, some subtle and others delivered with the force of a sledge hammer blow. On the surface this is a film that attempts to follow the origins of our humanity and follow that journey to the stars, to meet our creators and answer the question that has plagued philosophers and spiritualists since the dawn of man: Why are we here?

In this sense, it is not dissimilar in terms of overall narrative theme to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and indeed there are some subtle visual references and some similar narrative beats to that film. But Ridley Scott’s vision of our origins is somewhat different.

Prometheus opens on what we assume is Earth, before life has taken hold. Here we see for the first time our pale humanoid Engineer as he is left abandoned on the surface by a spacecraft that looks like it belongs in the original V miniseries. Once alone, the Engineer imbibes what appears to be a living liquid, black as oil, that once in his system has the unfortunate effect of literally ripping him apart at the sub-cellular level. This suicidal engineer then topples into the water and his DNA disseminates, thus, it would seem, creating life on this world.

A deleted scene from Prometheus where the elder aliens drop of our hapless sacrificial Engineer.

Now, apparently, this all ties in with various religious ideas of creation, both from the ancient Sumerian and Biblical texts. The ancient Sumerian Gods, the Annunaki were happily terraforming the Earth when the demi-Gods they were using as labour, the Igigi, went on strike – probably over pay and conditions. So, the Annunaki decided to create the humans to do the heavy lifting instead and used Geshtu, one of the rebel Igigi, in order to do this. He was sacrificed and his body and blood mixed with the earth to create human beings (indeed, in a deleted scene in Prometheus, this Engineer is seen being given his black liquid by a similarly humanoid being, before being left to his fate.) The Igigi were then out of favour somewhat with their Annunaki superiors, much as in the Bible there were Fallen Angels who fell out of God’s favour. So it would appear that our Engineers are, in fact, supposed to represent the Sumerian Igigi, or even the Biblical Fallen Angels and the creators of humanity.

A Star Map inviting us to meet our Creator, or just a guy throwing some rocks?

Fast forward a couple of billion years and we get to meet our aforementioned scientists discovering an oft used sci-fi stand in of a cave painting, charting the way to a distant star system. Apparently, our scientist friends have been collating these star maps over many years (despite only looking like they only left college last week) from Earth cultures separated by great distances and substantial periods of time. Thus, on finding a final cave painting on the Isle of Skye, they decide to venture spaceward in search of answers. Quite why they wait until they’ve collected six or so of these symbols to do so is never really explained.

Above, Ron Cobb’s design for the Nostromo, below the Prometheus.

Once they arrive at LV223 (which looks remarkably like LV426, but isn’t) they brief the rest of the crew (who for some reason were willing to sign away two years of their life for a mission they knew nothing about) with the aid of a Rubik’s cube that’s actually a 3d projector. Neat, but stupid. Then, in an entry sequence that is very reminicent  of Alien’s landing, they just so happen to stumble upon a straight road (although, how they managed to find this quite so easily is a bit of a mystery) and clear evidence of alien life.  Apparently, according to our scientists, “God doesn’t build in straight lines.” Really? Huh. Guess he never saw a piece of Pyrite.

Anyway, they set down next what turns out to be the alien arms factory – obviously our ability to detect WMDs has vastly improved over the years. This alien installation, which, thanks to an old Giger design, looks a lot like a giant boob contains an alien world that looks just like the one Ripley et al found on LV426 (but isn’t) where containers of the oily black ooze wait patiently for our visitors to unknowingly activate them.

A bit of self-referencing never hurt anyone. Apart from these guys. Ouch!

So, what exactly is this black ooze and how does it fit in to the whole Alien world? The black ooze is, as mentioned in the film itself, some kind of biological weapon. However, given the religious themes of the film, it would be easy to view this ooze as a physical personification of evil, infecting life forms at a genetic level and transforming them into nightmare creatures. Unfortunately, there seems to be some inconsistency in its effects. In the case of the Engineers, it seems that a pure infection completely disintegrates them, whereas a human will become a bloated, twisted, John Merrick look-alike with a homicidal tendency, the strength of an enraged gorilla and a penchant for contortionism.

“It’s okay. It’s just a weird, hissing, alien maggot-worm with fangs. Think I’ll pet it.”

The strange, worm-like creatures that appear in the central chamber (the ones that are idiotically petted by “the world’s dumbest scientist,” despite looking like a vagina-faced king cobra) are the result of what happens when the maggots on the ground become infected, so it would seem this ooze affects every organism differently, which is intriguing but also a little disappointing, as it tends to look like poor writing as opposed to a deliberately conceived notion of how this stuff works.

Probably the only time in a sci-fi horror when it’s okay to wander off on your own.

Ultimately, at the conclusion of the film, its fusion with human DNA and being hosted in the body of an Engineer produces something akin to the original Alien’s xenomorph. So, perhaps humanity has to shoulder the blame for the alien, after all.

Time to call in pest control.

So, why have the Engineers created this killer ooze and just why do they wish to eliminate humanity with it after so generously creating us? Well, this is one of the big questions posed by Prometheus. Having answered the “why are we here” (to which the answer seems to be “why not?”) the protagonist must then face the question as to why, having made us in their image, the Engineers now want us dead. Come to think of it, why did they even leave clues of how to find them in the first place? And why invite them to your super-secret weapons facility? All questions that one would hope will be addressed in Prometheus’ sequel.

The original Alien synopsis by Dan O’Bannon

In an earlier version of the Prometheus script, the reason behind the Engineers’ hatred of humanity is played out more somewhat more obviously. In Prometheus, the 2000-year-old boob temple that houses the bio-weaponised slime was created around the same time as Jesus walked the Earth. The original script has it that Jesus was in fact an Engineer, sent to heal mankind of its sins. We all know how that worked out. So, enraged by our cruelty and stupidity for killing “space Jesus”, the Engineers decide to do something equally cruel and stupid and create a super-weapon to eradicate humanity. But, whoops! They dropped it and ended up wiping themselves out by accident. Scott wisely dropped this concept, considering it to be too “on the nose”. It is just a shame he didn’t see how heavy-handed he was being with some of the other religious elements that, like some religious facehugger, he was shoving down our throats.

“Altogether now: ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.'”

So, Prometheus is about aliens that have seeded humanity and, somehow now annoyed with us, have created an evil black sludge to kill us all. When we go looking for answers, we find only more questions and some nasty, goo-infected creatures intent on aiding our demise. The themes of faith and religion are addressed as well as the dangers of having too much knowledge too soon, much as the Prometheus of Greek legend did. As I’m sure we all remember from our classics classes or from Ray Harryhausen movies, Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity to help further the progression of the human race. Prometheus was eternally punished for this crime, being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle for all eternity. Prometheus also represents our quest for scientific knowledge, often with tragic consequences – hence Mary Shelly’s subtitle of Frankenstien as “The Modern Prometheus”. Perhaps this is the message here: We, like Prometheus, are striving for a power we aren’t yet ready to possess, and we must suffer the consequences.

What’s interesting about Prometheus is that it manages to squeeze all of these themes into a pretty scary sci-fi/horror film with fairly standard narrative structure. The surface narrative, although somewhat predictable and a little weak in places, manages hold up, even under the weight of all this religious subtext. Still, there is a lot of flab on this film that the first Alien didn’t have. In fact, Alien is tauter and leaner than Bolaji Badejo on a cabbage soup diet. Tonally, Alien is darker, too. Like a terrifying dream, Alien is all about our subconscious fears manifested, with the pseudo-sexual undertones replete with male and female violation. It’s about being trapped and confronting our demons – quite literally. Prometheus still bears that dreamlike quality, but it breaks out of the confines of our subconscious and goes looking for a more universal truth.

Above, H.R. Giger’s concept art for the original Alien egg silo. Below, concept art for the Engineers’ facility in Prometheus.

In the original Alien script, the derelict spacecraft was entirely separate to the egg chamber. The chamber itself was a pyramid that lay some distance away and contained the facehugger spores. The “space jockey” in the original film (unmasked, somewhat disappointingly as an Engineer in Prometheus) had no association with them, other than his obviously unfortunate encounter. This idea was carried through deep into production, with Giger designing the pyramid to be very much like the one found in Prometheus. The separate chamber was only removed from the script when they decided to combine the derelict craft with the egg chamber for budgetary reasons. On top of this, the original lifecycle of the alien was shown to be that the creature’s victims would form into the facehugger eggs and thus the alien would come full circle. This scene was even filmed by Scott and only removed because of issues with running time. What this means is that, had Scott more money and carte blanche on Alien, we would not have arrived at Prometheus. Simply put, the continuity wouldn’t work. However, as something of an Alien fan, it was rather nice to see Scott use some of the artistic and narrative ideas that he couldn’t use in Alien. Some of the concept art for Alien, including Scott’s own storyboards, look remarkably like the shots we now see in Prometheus.

Ridley Scott’s own storyboards from the original Alien. Look familiar?

In conclusion, Prometheus tries to accomplish so much. It tries to be both a prequel and yet not a prequel, a start of a new franchise with the end left open for further films. It attempts to be a psychological, claustrophobic sci-fi horror movie and also a film that attempts to answer the question of why we are here. It is both a religious allegory and a warning of the dangers of having too much, too soon. Prometheus doesn’t exactly fail in accomplishing these things, but in taking on so much, in being so ambitious, its reach somehow exceeds its grasp. Perhaps if it weren’t such a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, it may have succeeded, but in attempting so much Scott himself is somewhat of a Prometheus figure. Far from being a failure, however, Prometheus is a masterpiece of cinema, if somewhat flawed.

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