The Alexandrian

Prometheus - Ridley ScottRidley Scott’s Prometheus is an absolutely stunning and soul-searingly beautiful film. I saw it in 3D on an original IMAX screen (which undoubtedly assisted the breathtaking vistas), but if you want to see two hours of cinematic splendor this film will absolutely deliver that.

It is a testament to the film’s grandeur that I was absolutely captivated by it from one end to the other. Because everything else about the movie is mind-numbingly awful.

The problem can be easily summed up: The script is two tons of stupid in a one ton bag. The rest of this post is just a venting litany of its stupidities, so…

SPOILERS AHOY…

(1) Early in the film, while exploring an alien planet, the entire crew removes their helmets. This is the moment when I abruptly lost all sympathy or empathy with the characters, because they were all clearly idiots.

I mean, I was OK with the first guy doing it. He’d been consistently portrayed as cocky, arrogant, and naive. His instruments tell him that unknown chemical processes are terraforming the air to make it breathable and between his naivete, his arrogance, and his irrational faith in the goodwill of the Engineers it makes sense for him to do the stupid thing there.

But while he’s doing that stupid thing, literally everyone else is telling him not to do it. Then he takes off his helmet, he doesn’t immediately die after three seconds, and… suddenly everyone thinks it’s OK? Holy crap. You guys are dumb as bricks.

(2) Then, even after they believe that there’s the risk of biological contamination on the planet, they continue to deliberately walk around with their helmets off. The scenes of characters practically nuzzling their faces into alien chemicals with unknown properties are absolutely mind-boggling.

(3) From a structural standpoint, the screenplay fails again and again to provide necessary exposition. One of the things that made Alien an effective horror film was that the properties of the xenomorphs were clearly translated to the audience. This understanding allows the audience to experience dread when the characters wittingly or unwittingly take dangerous actions.

By contrast, the “black death” which forms the primary threat of Prometheus doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t seem to follow anything even vaguely resembling consistent rules: If you drink it, you get sick. If you get a face full of it, it turns you into a contortionist berserker. If some worms fall into it, they’ll turn into face-fuckers and kill you. If you have sex with someone who has been contaminated, then you’ll have a mystical pregnancy. The result of that mystical pregnancy will also face-fuck and kill you, but this time it’ll work like a facehugger and spawn a proto-xenomorph. If you get infected and then you get decapitated, your head will explode.

This failure of exposition extends to minor stuff, too: Sometimes the suits will process oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere. Sometimes they won’t.

(4) Ironically, despite failing to provide any of the clear exposition required to make the film successful, the screenwriter handles conversations between characters by having them speak in ham-fisted exposition without any subtlety or humanity at all.

It’s all well and good to want to tell a story about children wanting to kill their parents (as counterpoint to our alien parents wanting to kill their children), but your method for telling that story should be a little more subtle than just having both children say, “I want to kill you, dad.”

(5) On a similar note, the writer is clearly incompetent when it comes to setting up any kind of dramatic tension. For example, one of the climactic scenes is the main character begging the ship captain to take down the alien vessel before it can go to Earth and wipe out human life. Structurally, this scene is clearly meant to be tense: What will the captain do? Will he believe her and do the right thing? Or try to save himself and damn us all?

Only it’s not tense at all. Because two scenes earlier the writer went out of his way to have the captain literally say, “The only thing I care about in this universe is making sure that alien vessel doesn’t get to Earth.”

Wow. I wonder if he’ll do the thing he told us he would absolutely do no matter what just a couple of scenes ago?

(6) I’ve tried my best, but I can’t come up with any explanation for why David chooses to deliberately infect the archaeologist with the “black death”. It accomplishes absolutely nothing and does nothing to advance any of the agendas that David is supposedly pursuing.

(7) In a different film, I might believe that the willingness of Guy Pierce’s character to ignore the clear signs of biological doom that people are trying to warn him about is justified by his desperation to find a way to survive. But in the wider context of the film, it’s really just another bit of stupid to pile on top of all the other stupid.

(8) We can probably just toss it on the pile next to, “I want you dead and gone, dad.” “Oh? Really? Well, why don’t you just stay here in charge of the only ship that can take me home, then.”

(9) How do you lose track of two guys whose position is being tracked on a giant map directly behind you? How do those guys get lost when they have access to a map of the complex? Especially when one of them is the guy who apparently specializes in mapping and takes great pride in his “mapping pups”?

(10) So the aliens want to build a bioweapon to wipe out Earth. Fair enough. They build a facility on an otherwise empty planet because they don’t want to risk the bioweapon contaminating them. Good idea. But then why are they telling primitive cultures on Earth where the bioweapon manufacturing plant is? What is that supposed to be accomplishing?

(11) Holy shit! Their DNA is an exact 100% match for ours! … uh, okay. Then why are they 12 feet tall?

When the film throws a lampshade on “okay, let’s just ignore Darwinism” I’m willing to go along with it. But if you’re just going to throw stupid up on the screen over and over and over again, I’m going to check out.

SPECULATIONS

I don’t mind the ambiguity of the Engineers at all. Their motivations for creating us? Their desire to destroy us? The possibility that the group responsible for the former and the latter aren’t the same group of Engineers? Those are all great questions and they’re probably better for not being answered.

On a similar note, I think the film would have been better if it had ended with Elizabeth flying off on her journey of faith and searching instead of tacking on a “BTW, this is totally a prequel” coda. It probably would have been better to bump that until after the credits if it absolutely needed to be there.

But since it is there, lemme speculate a little: My hypothesis is that the bioweapon-that-creates-xenomorphs didn’t stay contained to this planet. The xenomorphs escaped 35,000 years ago and evolved. The xenomorphs and dead space jockey we see in Alien are the legacy of that history.

What I don’t understand is what the opening scene of Prometheus is supposed to be. It appears to be an Engineer sacrificing himself in order to seed Earth with life while his ship flies away. (Note that after we zoom in on his genetic structure breaking apart, we see part of it recombining and forming new cells.)  But if that’s true, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to hook into the legacy of Engineers being worshiped by primitive humans.

22 Responses to “Prometheus: A Litany of Stupid”

  1. Castellan says:

    I have to agree with everything you’ve said. Visually, the movie is great, but the plot and character interactions were awful.

    My wife and I left the movie with our friends cheering, “That was AWESOME!!!” When we got back to our car, she actually started in first, and we tore the movie apart all the way home.

    I’m glad I saw it, but I wish I’d waited for it to be on Netflix (except for the large-screen visuals).

    Thanks for a thoughtful review.

  2. Aris says:

    I disagree Justin –

    SPOILER ALERT

    1) and 2) the suits only contained so much oxygen (as depicted in one of the next not-so-tense scenes) so removing the helmets to explore longer and further was a good idea.

    3) the opening scene with the alien drinking the ‘black death’ shows that it messes up with your DNA. Not much more exposition is necessary nor should it be wanted by the audience — when you try to explain things that are unexplainable by modern scientific standards, you get something stupid (‘?metichlorians’ from star wars).

    4) and 5) the characters had characters — the ‘good meaning captain’ the ‘flat villainous Charlize’. They’re just supporting characters, why not?

    6) Guy Pierce was dying, imminently…if I was dying imminently, I might even let an alien burst out of my stomach cause that would be hardcore, let alone chase an opportunity to see our ‘creators’.

    11) Their DNA wasn’t an exact match…the screen showed that there were several differences and she said the word ‘almost’ in her second discussion of the DNA. Not to mention that hyperbole is allowed for a person reacting to that kind of news.

    It was a good movie that was a lot more than just special effects. No, it’s not going to win any Oscars, but to say that it was mind-numbing is a stretch.

    Just my thoughts,

  3. Doresh says:

    Is this a new thing? Trying to make Sci-Fi movies the Avatar-way Oo ?

  4. Auroch says:

    Point 11: Actually, not really a problem. A lot of our phenotype depends on the post-DNA factors (proteins binding to it etc.), and it’s at least plausible that these could as well.

  5. Yahzi says:

    My personal favorite: after the alien spaceship takes off, is rammed, crashes, and rolls… David’s head is still lying exactly where someone dropped it before the ship ever left the ground.

    Oh wait – what about two characters running away from doom from a rolling ship, and the only one smart enough to step to the side does so by accident.

    Or, why did Charlize Theron get into a lifepod? Didn’t the captain tell her to get into the separate module? Didn’t he explicitly give her sufficient time to do that before he ejected it? So why did she not do that, but instead, get in a spacesuit, eject via a liferaft, and then try to run to the separate module?

    Or – the aliens seeded life on Earth and started all of evolution 3 billion years ago… but in all that time, they haven’t evolved at all.

    Or…

    I could literally go on for 90 minutes. There wasn’t a single scene that wasn’t either pointless, contradictory, unbelievable, or some combination thereof.

    You got off easy, Jason. 3D tickets, glasses, and popcorn for two set me back $50 here in Australia. D

  6. Josep says:

    Ha ha, agree with everything. Hasn’t opened yet in Spain but fearing the worst I decided to watch it through… um… “unofficial channels”. I have to say it is the best comedy movie I have seen in some time, how I LOLd when Shaw had a calamari baby (maybe he was called Ackbar, ha ha), when the engineer went suddenly slasher on Shaw and baby Ackbar came to the rescue! Oh, and the incompetence of the engineers… “Wait, let’s try these weapons on some remote rock, we do not want a repeat of the past 2.356 incidents we’ve had with our bioweapons!” But hey, maybe I did not get the movie and they were all in a limbo in which Shaw was waiting for all her friends.

  7. Peter Robbins says:

    Some Prometheus analysis links you may find good:

    Some links you might like. SPOILER ALERT in all three**

    http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584135.html

    http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584373.html

    http://m15m.livejournal.com/23209.html

    - Peter Robbins (http://lairoflubidius.blogspot.com)

  8. Eldric IV says:

    There was a noticeable lack of ‘science’ in the science fiction. The two most egregious examples I remember off-hand:

    1. You cannot just carbon date something on a planet half a billion miles away.

    2. Abdominal surgery is not an arcade claw machine and a few staples is not going to hold your insides together while you run, fall, and otherwise exert yourself.

  9. Johnny DM says:

    I too, shuddered when everyone took off their helmets but remembered a quote from a filmmaker many years ago about characters losing their identity when filmed wearing helmets. So I chalked it up to artistitic license. Unfortunately artistic license progressively ran away with this movie. While visually stunning (3-D effects worked well with holo-mapping display), the cardboard characters and plot holes ultimately spoiled the experience.

    To add to your list of shame: Carbon dating only works on Earth, as Eldric points out, using known values of C-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere and a precise decay rate. In theory, after intensive studies, you could come up with a factor unique for another planet. Except it only works if the subject breathes the air its whole life and is native to that planet, neither of which applied to the Engineers.

    The Alien franchise has always ignored the Law of Conservation of Matter when it came to alien growth rates. Within hours an alien would increase its mass by (it was assumed) consuming other organic material, but what about her baby in the lifepod? Its mass increased a thousandfold in minutes while locked in a sterile environment. Did it loot the cupboards for Space Twinkies and Tang?

  10. Doresh says:

    @Johnny DM:

    I don’t think this quote can be applied if the helmet provides full view of the character’s face – like in this movie, or pretty much every sci-fi movie (except if the character in question is evil, of course).

  11. Yahzi says:

    Doresh@ – No, Johnny has it right. Scriptwriters really hate helmets. It’s not just spacesuits – knights, soldiers, firemen, you name it. At the moment dramatic conflict, off comes the helmet.

    And, in case you hadn’t noticed, every single dramatic arc ends with the heroes having fisticuffs. Even if they started out armed with swords, guns, or interstellar navies.

  12. thesecond says:

    The general underlying plot of the film was something like this.

    In the past the aliens created some sort of nanotechnology. The first alien we saw used that to seed earth (or other planets) with life, and then other aliens monitored the planet, probably using the base on the planet we see in the film.

    Humans started killing each other with the dawn of the roman empire so various emissaries were sent to tame their children. One of those aliens was Jesus, who humans crucified on a cross. The aliens were mad, hence the attack ship being from 2000 years ago as they noted with their magical carbon dating.

    To retaliate they sent a bioweapons ship to destroy the planet or to evolve humans. The bioweapon got out of hand and the last remaining alien went for the pod.

    It’s all explained in interviews. Not in the movie though. All your other points are not explained. The film was very holey.

  13. Sebastien Roblin says:

    Yeah, it’s aggravating how, despite millions invested in special effects, basic stuff like effective character development and reasonable plot so often fall by the wayside in these films. Or stuff such as ginning up dramatic tension at the complete expense of believability, like when it turns out the entire crew has no idea of their mission and is comically incompetent despite having sacrificed three years of their life and being transported by the corporation at immense expense. Or when Shaw decides to accompany the executive after he tried to force her to get eaten alive by her own alien baby. It would be so much scarier and compelling to see catastrophe striking intelligent people with reasonable motivations.

  14. tomZ says:

    Hahahah! I love it. The conservation of mass thing always bugs me, too. Before seeing this movie I had previously explained the law of conservation of mass to my wife in an attempt to get her to stop freaking out about the tens of pounds she would supposedly gain from consuming a 1/2 pound of butter. At the scene where the alien baby is shown as some 400 lb beast, she leans over and says “so, where did the squid get all the butter?”

    Laughed so loud I got some confused/annoyed looks from everyone else in the theater.

  15. Paul says:

    Best review by far. Just watched this again on DVD. Thank you for affirming my own gripes with this film. I wanted to love this movie, but found it flat and full of stupid. I thought it could be a brilliant complimentary film to Alien “canon” by expositing more of the scientific/rational questions regarding the Space Jockey/Engineer and xenomorph origins, but we only get teased and utterly confounded not by brilliance but sheer stupidity on so many levels. Not saying it doesn’t raise some interesting questions, deep and philosophical, but it does so with a lot of ridiculousness thrown in the way.

  16. Alan says:

    The thing that kills me about people like you is that you don’t get one simple fact-
    it’s a fucking movie. You are so wrapped up in the canon and story and all that stupid bullshit that you forget you are watching a movie. It doesn’t matter who did what or said what. So stop bitching and get a life.

  17. Joe says:

    Thank you, sir. I cracked up throughout the movie.

    There seems to be a tradition among Hollywood archaeologists of barging into a site and totally bungling it up on first arrival. Sealed door with possibly different atmosphere behind it? Let the android open it! Severed head with new cell growth? Activate it! More voltage! More voltage! Oops.

    Our 21st century technology apparently includes faster-than-light travel, but we missed that sandstorm until it was right on top of us. Crap!

    We signed up to go on this multi-year mission, but we don’t know who our fellow crew members are or what the mission is about until we arrive at the destination. Look, man, I don’t know who you are, but after I wake up from 2 years of hypersleep, I like to eat breakfast alone.

    And finally, why does the cracked one with the head tattoos have to be a geologist? I take professional offense.

  18. Jc says:

    @Alan – retards like you might be satisfied with mediocrity but I sure as fuck am not. This really could’ve been a great movie. It looks fantastic; the effects were truly great and Scott is a brilliant visual artist. Unfortunately stupid characters and plot holes courtesy of that dumbass Lindelof’s ridiculous script ruined this movie. What a shame.

  19. Paul says:

    Alan- I’m glad you really liked “She’s All That” and “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”. Those were just movies too. Try and wrap your angry little mind around this: there is a difference between a good film and a bad film just as there is a difference between a good dish and bad dish. You can reduce all arguments about taste to “it’s just food”, but there are degrees of palatable just as there are degrees in the suspension of disbelief.

    Oh, and fuck off dickweed.

  20. 80s Ted Danson says:

    I have to agree with you! It was very clear that the writer(s) could only move the story forward on the back of incredible stupidity of characters. There’s an unfortunate juxtaposition between the genius required to create the visuals of this film, the genius that must exist within the film’s universe to create the incredible technology it portrays, and the lazy, blundering mush that the scriptwriters produced.

  21. Armored Arachnid says:

    I think you’ve answered a lot of my questions, and I love the site…but here’s a question that also bothers me.
    Why…? Why would you go to a totally unexplored planet (and mind you) this planet may, or may not harbor lifeforms that maybe very hostile towards other lifeforms — why then, would you take a ship to that hostile world? And completely unarmed?
    This makes entirely no sense to me at all because we all know that a greedy corporate sponsor would want to protect its own interests, wouldn’t it? And by all means necessary.

    Think about it. If a corporation, or government sponsored such an event then there would be a science team on a science vessel, and that would be under the protection of at least, one, or two military vessels, and the military vessels would be there first for reconnaissance for the protection for all in that scientific venture.
    That is, if this venture was undertaken by humans. But, I think that it would be done with robotic technology first, and foremost.

  22. Impromptu says:

    I’m pretty sure everything will make sense after we see this prequel’s sequel.

    Artistic license and “it’s a f***ing movie” is all fine but.. come on. if you choose to make an absurd story, you can put absurd things, but when you display efforts here and there to make it coherent, then the space team all removing helmets kicks you right out of it as surely as if the Road Runner blasted accoss the scene (followed by Coyote on a rocket).

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