Someone to hear me scream: the problem with Prometheus

20120609-200617.jpgThe best things about Prometheus are the things that aren’t explicitly do to with the Alien series, which makes it a shame that the film has been crafted and sold as part of the Alien series, because the most disappointing thing about Prometheus is that it’s not really an Alien film. Sure, it has the motifs of an Alien film: tough female heroes, reproduction as horror, face raping space vaginas. But its addition to that world diminishes rather than expands the mythology – and as I’m going to talk about that mythology in some detail, spoilers are pretty much inevitable from here. (And after you’re done reading this, go and see what the brilliant Nathan has to say about the same showing of the same film. I think he liked it more than I did.)

Prometheus is an origins story, for both humans and the alien, as archeologists Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) lead an expedition in search of what they think could be the species that created humanity – referred to as “the engineers”. What they find is a lot of dead engineers and a huge puddle of black goo that has bizarre and unpleasant effects on everything it touches.

Writer Damon Lindelof has explained (in one of the many, many interviews he’s given for Prometheus) that he was conscious of the way prequels can close off a story, and explicitly tried to avoid that in the script he wrote: “We wanted Prometheus to open up the universe, so it’s not a prequel at all.” And that puddle was intended to supply Prometheus’ ambiguity: “There’s a speculative part of it – the question becomes, ‘What does the black goo do?’ That is the question that you’re supposed to be asking coming out of this movie.”

Only, the question I was asking as I left Prometheus wasn’t, “What does the black goo do?” Coming out of the movie, I felt pretty confident, actually, that I knew what the black goo did. What the black goo does is “anything that might advance the story” – from seeding human DNA, to turning worms into savage nob snakes, to turning unfortunate geologists into pitiable and vicious monsters, to putting a squid baby inside Noomi Rapace.

What the black goo does is ambiguous, then, but only in the sense that it’s unconfined – its abilities seep and spread to wherever the movie wants a creature for a set-piece. I’ve recently been reading Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman, which has this to say about ambiguity:

Any skilled writer doles out any sort of ambiguity like very good wine – that is, sparingly. We can make an expressive point about hanging stories or unresolved characters if we do not leave them hanging or unresolved too often.

My beef with Prometheus is that, even though it may well have an expressive point about hanging stories and unresolved characters (and John Warrender makes that case eloquently in this blogpost), the film itself handles ambiguity ineptly in scene after scene. The notable exception to this is Michael Fassbender as android David, with his unguessably inhuman motives; but he’s also a means to demolish ambiguity, using his robo-powers to snoop on Shaw’s subconscious while she’s in suspended animation and uncover to the audience the formative loss on which her religious faith is based.

There’s more in the same vein. As Shaw and Holloway share an intimate moment in her cabin around the midpoint of the movie, he (an atheist) teases her about the ease with which the engineers appear to have created life. “I can’t create life,” she moans, and turns towards her pillow. It would be a flat-flooted revelation in any film, clearly intended for the audience rather than sounding like the organic, easy conversation of lovers and colleagues who must be long used to the fact of her infertility. In a film that belongs to the Alien world, where we know to be on the lookout for malignant reproduction and strange maternity, the line thuds through like a mech suit.

Sure enough, a few scenes later, she’s told that she’s pregnant – and there’s no surprise, because the surprise was so thoroughly set up. The auto-abortion she performs is a high horror moment (the best in the film), but sold short when it immediately gives way to another foreshadowed shock (surprise! That old guy they said was dead is not dead after all!). And worst of all, when Shaw discovers the ancient and not-dead Weyland, he’s attended by the same two members of crew Shaw earlier twatted in the head with a metal bar in order to escape so she could get rid of the Squidward jr swimming in her belly. Neither of them seem surprised to see her. Which is odd.

That kind of narrative illogic sucks all the power away from the ambiguity that’s supposed to be important: when there are things that don’t make sense all over a film, the question of “what the black goo does” is no more meaningful than the question “why doesn’t anyone care that Shaw is naked, covered in blood and full of staples?” But maybe my biggest disappointment in Prometheus is that meaning should matter at all. It’s a film that rewards the hunt for answers, even if it doesn’t give any. At the end of the film, the sole human survivor is Shaw, headed to the engineers’ homeworld with the assistance of a decapitated David. The one with faith – the one who sought solutions – gets away.

The real horror of the alien, though, is that it has always had a completely self-sufficient, mundanely Darwinist explanation. Why does the alien want to hurt us? Because that’s how the alien survives. There’s no animus, only life. Hinting that the alien has a proxy human motivation by implying it’s the product of the engineers’ own motives just makes it less scary. It puts the alien on our level, when the first two films were coldly insistent that we see ourselves from the parasite’s perspective.

Alien and Aliens are clean, sharp storytelling with a soul-shaking uncertainty: does being human mean anything if this creature can just use you as an incubator? Prometheus implies that even our status as prey has something to do with our specialness to the engineers. If I feel special, I feel reassured rather than frightened – and a sci-fi that comforts rather than questions is doing the opposite of what I want from my science fiction. Prometheus’ biggest mistake is giving us someone to hear us scream.

Text © Sarah Ditum

7 thoughts on “Someone to hear me scream: the problem with Prometheus

  1. Well, that’s reminde me that it was annoying. It was a good film, but like a lot of Holywood, it was spectacle over story.

    The likelyhood of a top scientist being religious is very slim. Making that into some saving grace / force seems very clunky to me, but not quite as clunky and anachronistic as Weyland’s sexism.

    Really? That far in the future a trillionaire captain of industry will *still* be blindly, dismissively sexist to his own daughter?

    Just so many things that create huge holes in the “story”. Very annoying.

  2. Thanks for the props! Excellent stuff, touching on many of the things that irked me too, but I will argue, baselessly, with no evidence whatsoever, that humanity means very little to the Engineers, that we’re bio-waste that got out of hand, & the clean-up operation went wrong. As for the Aliens, we haven’t really seen them yet (that was either a mutated form or an earlier version or something something fanwank), & I suspect they may be more important to the Engineers (there was a sculpture of one on the black goop room’s wall, hinting that they were either revered or feared). In that scenario we’re even more abandoned than David. But that’s just what I took from it. I may well be wrong.

  3. i think the movie is ok. i know we havent seen any aliens but maybe there is but they havnt shown them yet. i just cant wait to find the truth about the space jockey guy on the big gun :)

  4. Ridley Scott said from the beginning that it was NOT an alien prequel, although the planet and the alien pods are part of the plot. He totally split off at the end with a new thread. The alien birth at the very end was just an illusion for those fans who wanted the crew to be hunted down again, one by one. Great movie and I’m going back to see it again today. And, as with Inception, maybe a third time. In the end, humans were/are better than the Engineers. And, in the end, as she said, God created the Engineers. Prometheus is the most controversial movie in a decade, with Ridey Scott thinking BIGGER than Alien and BladeRunner.
    @James many scientists are religious!

  5. I’m pleased someone enjoyed it enough to overlook the glaring brokenness of the key dramatic moments and emptiness of all the human characters. As for the religiosity or otherwise of scientists — it takes a special sort of shallowness to think that introducing Jesus as starman to proceedings will reconcile everything.

  6. Raider one, infinitesimally few scientists are religious. It doesn’t lend itself to critical thought.

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