Building A Better Prometheus

What the hell, Prometheus? Why won’t you get out of my brain already? Normally when I see a big, dumb, special effects laden summer shitstorm, I forget about it in hours. What’s there to think about? Nothing. Even in the case of, say, The Avengers, which for a movie about a bunch of CGI blobs bouncing around shooting lasers at each other was pretty amusing, there’s nothing to actually think about afterwards. All you can really say is, hey, that wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be, Robert Downey Jr. remains awesome, and where the fuck was Ant Man? Other than that the movie can be summed up as, in the words of a friend, “the best ad for the next Avengers movie money could buy.”

But Prometheus is something else. It’s better and it’s worse.  It contains all the building blocks needed to construct a thoughtful, intelligent science fiction movie, and does nothing with them. It’s full of ideas it never integrates into the story. It pays lip service to deep thoughts without actually having any. In short, it sits there yelling at one, “I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody! Instead of dumb, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Ridley!” For a great rundown of its thematic failures, check out Film Crit Hulk’s Lindelof Intervention.

I want to look at the movie from a scriptwriting standpoint, more or less. My brain wants me to write an 150 page screenplay fixing everything wrong in the movie, hand that script to Ridley Scott, and force him to remake the damn thing, but I fear this isn’t especially feasible. The only other option? A disjointed, ranting blog post that with any luck will show how a little more thought, a little more intelligence, and a little more imagination would have made this into a worthy (pre)successor to Alien.

To start off: the opening is a bad call. It shows the audience right away what’s going on. When the scientists claim faith tells them aliens started life on Earth, we already know they’re right. Where’s the faith in that? And the whole DNA matching exactly makes no scientific sense at all. What if the engineers seeded Earth with life 4 billion years ago, then came back now and again to work their advanced-culture magic, gently guiding evolution, over hundreds of millions of years, to form creatures that resemble themselves, while meanwhile the rest of life evolved naturally? Now that’s an interesting idea. More like gardeners than engineers. What if the movie began with the achaeologists finding an object left on Earth 4 billion years ago? A marker of some kind? Sure, that’s a bit like 2001’s monolith, but it wouldn’t be emitting noise or making our brains bigger or pointing to Jupiter or doing anything at all. Just that it exists is all we’d need. Then the cave paintings with the big guy pointing to the stars. And what if that ancient art appeared only once every 500 years, then stopped two thousand years ago? Why did it stop? The archaeologists might say: because we’re ready. It’s time for us to visit the aliens who created us. If there’s no object found, if there’s only the cave paintings, why would anyone infer that aliens hadn’t merely visited over the course of a couple thousand years, but had actually seeded life? They wouldn’t.

Or hell, skip the old object, stick with the cave paintings but lose the assumption that the visiting aliens started life on Earth. Their having begun life on Earth would make for a great reveal much deeper into the movie.

We don’t even need to open on Earth. We could open on the Prometheus with David wandering about watching recordings of how this mission came about, snippets of brief info, just a hint of what led to this journey. Speaking of which, the journey to this distant, only-observable-by-telescope planetary system takes only two years? Well fine, it’s easy enough to just let the whole “and also we can travel faster than light now” thing slide, but we’re making a smart version of the movie, so what can we do about this? What if the ship travels very close to lightspeed and the trip takes 200 years? Who would take that journey? Now things get interesting. Now the matter of faith, of believing that those simple paintings indicate a planet full of life out here, would truly be put to the test for these explorers. They’d be giving up everything and everyone they ever knew. If they even made it back alive, 400 years would have passed. Anyone who’d agree to such a trip would in my mind automatically be a very intriguing person. What reasons would each of our characters have for giving up their lives? The meatiness in terms of character here suddenly explodes, even if their true motivations are only ever hinted at later on in the story.

Doing this we also lose the nonsensical idea that none of these people has been told where they’re going or why they’re going there. They know damn well the risk they’re taking. And then there’s David. If we’re going to have a robot who goes nuts/gains true consciousness/whatever, having him kicking around the spaceship for 200 years makes whatever transformation he undergoes far more plausible.

The writers make a terrible mistake forgetting to allow their characters to be amazed at what they find. The movie claims these people are making a leap of faith, yet they act as if everything they find is just another boring confirmation of what they already know. The writers may know there’s life out there, and the audience rightly assumes it, but the characters can’t.

They’d look at the planet first. And find it dead. Uh oh. Only then would the moon reveal itself to have an atmosphere almost identical to Earth’s. And that alone should blow everyone’s minds! Why don’t we see that? Their mad hope has a basis in reality! After that, you milk the fact that no life is on the surface, until finally the structures are seen. More mind blowing. Total cronenberging all around.

The holograms. This should cause total brain-melting. Holograms of humanoid bipeds running around? And then they find a dead one! Naturally this makes the geologist angry and scared, so he and the biologist take off, because they’re complete fucking morons who don’t resemble real humans in the least.

Which here’s the thing, and we’re getting out of sequence, but no matter: the thing is, this movie doesn’t even know what it’s about. They want some kind of pseudo-religious faith element in there? But it’s done so ineptly you have to wonder why. This is so clearly a story about humanity’s hubris, thinking we know it all only to find we know nothing. In such a story, do you want the stupidest characters in the universe acting like idiots only to have disaster strike? No. You don’t. In that case you’d think, damn, if only smart people went on this mission, everything would be coming up roses. Whereas if you have incredibly smart people doing what seems to them and to the audience as the smartest things possible only to have disaster strike anyway, then you’re saying something meaningful.

So they find this dead alien. Holy shit. Alien life exists! And it exists where some ancient cave paintings said it did. That’s big news, people. Act like it. Only why is the dead alien trying to get into that room? That’s where all the deadly black goo is. Which presumably got out and caused all the trouble. And what about whatever creepy monsters the black goo made out of the blue guys? Why don’t our heroes find any bizarro skeletons, or a petrified monster half-emerged from an engineer’s stomach?

In our new version, finding the dead engineer is great news. Everyone’s thrilled and amazed. Until they find the freaky weird monster remains. There’s a nice creepy moment.

The storm. What a mess. This is called fake drama. Oh no! It’s a storm! Everybody run! The barn! Why? What does this get us? They found the alien, they got its head, David took an urn. It’s just a manufactured action scene to generate faux excitement. Which is probably the most boring sequence in the movie, because it’s meaningless. Nothing’s at stake. It seems to act as nothing but a gigantic, distracting excuse to strand two team members in the structure. Why are they lost again? I thought one guy was the geologist who two minutes ago mapped the entire thing and used some device to see that map and who was in contact with the ship anyway upon which a crazy cool 3D map of the structure is floating for all to see? It makes one’s head hurt, this level of stupid.

Okay then. The writers really want these guys to be stranded here. Why? They go right back to the place that scared them, only now the door is open and there’s biological black goo bubbling everywhere, and then when a penis with a vagina-head hisses at the biologist, he tries to pet it, only, oh my god! It’s not a kitty cat! And they both die. But why? Where does that story thread go? Oh, right. Nowhere.

nice kitty

Let’s jump ahead again. Eventually they wake up the engineer, he takes one look at these puny humans, goes apeshit on them, and immediately tries to get his ship up and running and on its way to Earth. Now hold on a minute. What does he know, this blue guy? He was put to sleep with his buddies, after which the black goo got out and killed everyone who was supposed to be flying the ship. Meaning blue guy doesn’t have any idea anything went wrong and expects to be awoken upon nearing or reaching Earth. Only now he wakes up, and there’s a bunch of humans in spacesuits staring at him! He’s been asleep for two thousand years. As far as he knows, humans are still scrabbling about in the sand. So what might he think and do at this point?

I think he’d gauge the danger, and find it lacking. They’re just puny humans. He’d next immediately check on his sleeping brothers. Oh shit, all dead. He’d next play back the hologram recording system to see what the fuck happened. Meanwhile, our human heroes are watching this, not having a clue what’s going on. And us too in the audience. Because for another thing, blue guy should be found much earlier in the story. Why not? Why’s he in such a hurry? This guy has 4 billion years of smarts on us. He’s not in a panic. He’d go about figuring out the situation. Is he even on Earth? No! Oh hell! He’s still back on this moon? He’s been out for two thousand fucking years? What about the other ships? Did any of them take off? I imagine he’d go about his business barely noticing the humans tagging along trying to make sense of things.

Eventually he’d realize he was the only one left. Or is he? Maybe on the other ships there’s another couple blue guys he can wake up. Can they fly the thing all alone? Maybe they go about making that happen. Meanwhile, our heroes try to make sense of what’s going on. Maybe David figures out how to talk to them. Would he be able to do so instantly? No, because that would be fucking stupid.

Which this goes back to that opening scene. Why reveal the blue guys right at the start? Why not make who they are and what they look like a surprise? Why not surprise us along with the characters? It’s boring to know more than the characters do at every moment. It makes them look dumb.

Wait a minute, what about that old guy? And whoever the fuck Charlize Theron is supposed to be? Why are they in this movie again? They serve no purpose at all. Old guy is just recycling an idea from Blade Runner. Hey Ridley–you already made that movie and it was awesome.

And so David. He poisons the sad archaeologist (aw, man, we came all the way out here and all we found out was that we were right, aliens made us, and we’ve got one of their heads (although oops, it cronenberged), and it took like a whole hour to find that out, and yet I’m not having a conversation with one of them! Wahhhh!) because he treats David like he’s a robot or because old guy told him to, and jesus, this is getting tiresome. None of this makes sense. Why does the black goo act so inconsistently? He gets eaten from within, but it takes a whole day, and when he has sex with what’s her name, she gets pregnant with a monster, but is herself otherwise unaffected, and who cares? What does that have to do with the story? That thread goes nowhere.

As has been noted by I believe everyone who has seen this movie, it is confusing. Mostly it’s confusing in the sense that everyone is an idiot, no one acts consistently in terms of character, story threads go nowhere, and it’s a thematic disaster. But then some otherwise wise commenters add into this mix the fact that we never learn why the engineers created us and why they want to destroy us. This is a different thing all together. Purposeful ambiguity, meaningful ambiguity, is a good thing. In a movie like the imaginary good version of Prometheus, it’s what it’s all about, that we can’t know these things we want answers to. Why does a gardener decide to plant strawberries one year? Why does he get rid of them two years later and plant lettuce? Who knows? Because he’s bored of strawberries? Maybe. Maybe his wife told him to. Maybe he’s just kinda mercurial like that. Maybe a talking worm told him veggies are healthier than berries.

We don’t need to know the intentions of our big blue gardeners. How could we? Coming to terms with our inability to learn why they think how they think only to find out that whatever they’re thinking, our arriving to ask them jump-started their otherwise thwarted plans to wipe out all life of Earth would make for a hell of a movie.

The ending. Was there a plan to make a trilogy that ends with a ship flying away that we know turns up at the start of Alien? Or was the notion of this leading directly to Alien simply set aside? I don’t get it. No one does. Why not have blue guy get away? Our heroes finally learn the truth: they screwed the pooch, they awakened evil and it’s now on its way to Earth. Their hubris destroyed them. Meanwhile, we in the audience know that blue guy’s going to have a chest-burster sidetrack him into landing on LV-426 where the Nostromo will one day find him and his cargo.

But our heroes don’t know that. And that’s why they decide to fly off to blue guy homeworld. Because in part they’ll have no home to go back to. And in part to learn who the blue guys really are. And in part to bring a shipful of black goo to their planet and see how they like it. Curiosity, hope, revenge. Sounds human.

And so ends my disjointed rant. Not quite a full re-write. In the end, I just wish a little more time, thought and imagination went into movies. Nobody every complained that a script wasn’t dumb enough.

Finally, let us all kneel together now and pray, to whatever gods or big blue guys you pray to, that Scott’s proposed sequel to Blade Runner doesn’t turn out like Prometheus did.

 

11 responses on “Building A Better Prometheus

  1. well, yes. that would have been a better film, indeed.

    the more i think about this film, though, the more i loathe it. and loathe is a strong word to use when discussing something like a film. even one you bought stupid IMAX 3D tickets for and went to on your birthday.

    and the reason i loathe it is somewhat pertinent to your excellent dissection/re-assemblage of Prometheus, so i’ll write about it here.

    here is what i loathe about Prometheus:

    let’s just say that those people who have seen religious subtext in this film are correct. let us, willingly, be kind and give the authors of this film the benefit of the doubt. let’s assume that it is not just a pile of flaming monkey dung but rather concede that there may be intention and thought buried within.

    if that’s the case, i’ve heard exactly ONE theory as to what the meaning woven into these dreadful scenes of ham-fisted dialogue might be. that theory is something akin to, “well, 2000 years ago there was this jesus dude and he was actually an ‘engineer’ and maybe we killed him (oops, our bad) and that’s why the other engineers decided to off us like so many hired thugs in a steven segal film. and that’s why we had idris elba fly a fucking christmas tree miniature 2 light years from home even when he didn’t know where he was going or presumably the DATE HE WOULD WAKE UP.”

    if that’s what they’re suggesting in this film, it’s stupid and it pisses me off.

    a) it doesn’t make sense on a logical level. the engineers, having been visiting our planet for ages, decide to come on down, dress one of themselves up like a human, and cure some lepers. then, he what? decides to go after the money lenders? and lets some roman dudes with SWORDS capture him and nail him to a cross? and after he’s buried in a cave he comes back to life using his space-magic and sends a message home to biological-weapon-manufacturing-moon-#43 that says, “hey man. these guys suck hardcore NOW. 500 years ago, when they were still being ruled by Rome, they were cool. and 1000 years ago when they figured out how to use iron to kill people faster they were quaint. but now they’ve gone too far. now they have politics and wolf-nipple chips. screw them. send in the facehuggers.”

    idiotic. sub-idiotic. infuriatingly moronic.

    b) ‘jesus loves you is’ the second shittiest subtext one could possibly give a film. it is second only to “and love saved the world” in terms of banality. i, for one, don’t believe jesus was any more the son of god than anyone else is or was. if i did (and many people i respect do), i’d be pretty irked that ridley scott was implying he was actually the sort of guy who’d send the facehuggers after us after he died for our sins.

    and that’s what he’s saying if there’s any meaning to this film at all: that Jesus tried to show us how to be good to each other, but we didn’t listen, so instead of turning the other cheek he—Jesus H. Christ—called in the alien version of a mexican drug cartel hit squad. it’s just lucky that they stepped in some gum or something and got hung up for 2,000 years…

    it’s not thought though. any way one plays it, it’s a horrible, ghastly faux-pas.

    c) i reserve the right to have a C later. now i’m tired and covered in sunscreen and i would like to write something about a movie that i’d actually recommend someone see. namely, The Grey. which isn’t fantastic by any means but which had some elements i appreciated and which made me think about movies, spoilers, and such.

  2. I want to watch your version of Prometheus.

    Hubby and I had an interesting discussion about the “science” in Prometheus wherein I suggested that they made some decisions in order to keep it simple enough for the average idiot to follow. Hubby made the better point that there is in fact a way to have the science remain complex and accurate and still engaging. So much can be conveyed through body language and intonation that what actually gets said – whether or not it’s comprehensible – may be beside the point.

    I think your suggestions also make for a more complex movie that is ultimately richer. We don’t need to understand everything in order to be satisfied.

  3. Yep. Just because you don’t NEED to understand the science in a movie to understand the movie (or else you’re in trouble), doesn’t mean the science has to be wrong and stupid. Learning about the science when writing can help one come up with different, smarter character and plot development.

  4. I really liked Prometheus when I first watched it, now after reading this I like it alot less. Not sure how to feel about this…

  5. My wife pointed out that Prometheus was a recombination of elements of other Scott pictures. There were no original ideas. Creation— Bladerunner, robot/replicant— Bladerunner, destroying one’s creations— Bladerunner, the rest— Alien. I made her watch Forbidden Planet to demonstrate a science fiction picture with a really thoughtful, coherent plot. She fell asleep repeatedly and afterward said that it was slow.

    It is interesting that there is a bimodal distribution of critics of Prometheus. One group says with much justification that it is just one damn thing happening after another. The other group points out with equal justification that it works visually. Kieślowski said that film is too primitive to communicate important ideas. Still, coherence is important, at least to me.

    I strongly agree about the speed of light issue.

  6. Forbidden Planet does have a tendency to bore people used to modern science fiction. Which is too bad, considering how great a movie it is.

    I’m going to have to take Kieslowski’s comment with a grain of salt, considering his having directed, among other things, The Decalogue, a work that more than most communicates important ideas.

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  9. I’m astonished that one point is always missed in these discussions about Prometheus: The worst decision was to depict the Space Jockey as a mere humanoid creature and therefore completely demysitifying and destroying H.R. Giger’s work. The original Space Jockey looked terrifying and menacing a complete contrast to the cheap looking human CGI monster. The unique aura of terror in Giger’s creations has been betrayed.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.