Sunday, 3 June 2012

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

I finally finished the marking. Yay!

I also just about managed to squeeze in a trip to see Prometheus (hoping to catch Snow White and the Huntsman later this week). I'm not as well up on the Alien franchise as I should be, but I did see the extended Alien at the cinema when it was re-released a few years ago and I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott, so I was excited. Major spoilers follow.

Prometheus is the name of the spaceship because it's basically a rule that spaceship names be ironically related to the plot in some way. During the Exposition Scene, the best known bit of the myth of Prometheus gets a direct shout-out from Weyland (the gorgeous Guy Pearce in layers of make-up - what a waste!), who tells everyone that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings to put them on a equal footing with said gods (and for this, he was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten every day).

It's the rest of Prometheus' story, though, that's much more relevant to the plot. Prometheus didn't just give humans fire - he created human beings from clay and is, therefore, the father of mankind. It's natural, then, that the ship that goes off in search of a race of alien beings Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw believes created us is called 'Prometheus'. Even more importantly, Prometheus is also a Titan, a deity a generation above the Olympian gods. Fellow Titan Cronus was in the habit of eating his children - i.e., destroying his creations - until Zeus escaped and defeated the Titans, imprisoning them in Tartarus. That is to say, the children (metaphorically) killed/destroyed/locked up the parents.

If you've seen the film, I probably don't need to spell out the relevance of this! There's a whole cycle of mutual destruction going on throughout the film, in which the aliens apparently created and then tried to destroy us, so we go and find them and destroy them, and in the process Shaw and Holloway (and David) create a new creature, which will go on to destroy more of our kind... It's a strange, pseudo-Freudian (without the sex part), really rather depressing view of the cycle of life, the exact opposite of the rather more positive trope of the sacrifices parents make for their children, though it's not as simple as the notion of parents killing their children either. Here, both generations are locked into an eternal struggle in which they all seem to want to kill each other. Except David the android, who sacrifices other people to try to save his 'father' (at least, I think that was the idea. To be honest, I'm pretty confused about why he infected Charlie. Which is unfortunate, as that's kind of the point of the film).

As if all this Greek-tragedy-esque ancient myth wasn't enough, this film is also the latest entry into the Hero Archaeologists genre. Noomi Rapace totally kicks ass as Shaw - the scene with her in the medical bed thingy was, for me, the best scene in the film, absolutely horrific and nail-bitingly tense. I remember reading a TV review a while back that suggested that for women, watching weird pregnancy stuff is the equivalent of a man watching a male character get kicked in his special place. I don't think this is true if you haven't actually had a baby - for me it's more like watching a man get kicked in his special place and thinking, 'gosh, that looks nasty, I'm glad it can't happen to me' - except the last part is replaced by '...I wonder if one day that will happen to me.' Still, either way, ew and the scene was fabulous.

More importantly, Rapace kicks ass in a believable way for an archaeologist. At no point does she do anything an archaeologist could not feasibly do - she has no whip and no gun, she doesn't fight anyone or fix a spaceship or suddenly turn out to be the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess. What she does is use quick thinking and intelligence, together with a conveniently impressive medical device (next best thing to an Emergency Medical Hologram, I swear I half-expected it to say 'Please state the nature of the medical emergency') to keep going and, somehow, keep faith. I also loved the film's solution to the problem of the Omnilingual Archaeologist (a variant of, and often over-lapping with, the Omnidisciplinary Scientist). David the android spends two years learning every ancient language on Earth because he's an android and he can do that, and then uses his android brain to speak what is presumably some form of Proto-Indo-European with the big alien dude. It works, it's logical, it solves the problem and nobody has to come with a ridiculously improbable skill set.

Oh, and Charlie Holloway, who's also an archaeologist, is really hot. Best Movie Archaeologists Ever.

I do have to nit-pick a little bit. During the Exposition Scene, Shaw and Holloway wax lyrical about the images of the aliens they've found spread all over the world from different periods. I'm not sure there was much of an ancient civilization on the Isle of Skye, but I think maybe that's the point - it's a new discovery, so I'll let it go. But the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites and Egyptians were not as solidly separated by time and space as the script implies. The Sumerians and Babylonians are both from Mesopotamia and the Hittites are from modern Turkey - they're separated by time, but not by space. And I'm pretty sure the ancient Egyptians, whose civilization lasted for millennia, traded with all of them. Still, it's totally worth a little inaccuracy to see pseudo-ancient images of funky alien dudes in that pretty hologram thing they have.

I didn't have room to mention these two. They were great as well.

I really enjoyed this film. It's not perfect - there were at least two moments early on where Brother and I said to each other 'that'll come in handy later', the plot devices were so awkwardly and uncomfortably telegraphed. It's pretty great though. It's steeped in the general awesomeness of great science fiction, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. I suspect the similarity of the medical bed thingy's request to Voyager's Doctor is not a coincidence, and the computer cheerily saying 'Good morning David' definitely isn't. On the other hand, my absolute conviction that when Shaw finds herself in a tight spot towards the end, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy should chirp up and tell her at least life had been good to her so far is probably just my issue, and the fact that, in the final climatic and iconic moments, I was seeing Abed from Community mixed with Red Dwarf's Polymorph in my mind's eye is definitely my problem, and a testament to the enduring power of the first film. And I'm still unclear on what exactly David hoped to achieve in that crucial moment. But all in all, there is awesomeness here. Well worth the wait.

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  1. You know, I rather got the impression that David infected Charlie just to see what would happen. Yes, there was probably an element of seeing if the result could in any way help Weyland, and also whether he could find anything out about how the Engineers got wiped out, but mostly he seemed to be doing it for the Science and the LOLZ... And without a soul/conscience, he doesn't have the guilt or second-guessing about such an action that a human would have...

  2. I'm going to be a curmudgeon on this one and say that I was pretty disappointed. I thought the CGI and other effects, and the photography in general were great. I liked that they got the distance right (10^14 km is, in fact, about 100 lightyears, so that shows that someone can actually use a calculator, which I consider a big plus in film). And I really liked Noomi Rapace's Shaw, who stands up well in comparison to Ripley, I think. And Fassbender's David is brilliant; I love the Lawrence of Arabia touches, and the air of complete indifference to his human charges. The technology aboard the ship was cool; the autodoc was well done, and the scene in which Shaw uses it is absolutely riveting.

    Everything else about this film sucked, I'm afraid.

    This is meant to be a scientific expedition, but with the exception of Shaw, the bunch aboard this ship make the crew of Nostromo, who were basically prospectors, look like Nobel laureates. I don't think I've seen a dumber, less impressive bunch of people aboard a spaceship in a long time. They have no protocols for dealing with alien contact, no safety rules, the only way on and off the ship is to open it wide to whatever is coming at them, and they have no weapons more sophisticated than flamethrowers. The other 'scientists' on the expedition are completely worthless and serve only as alien fodder. There is, in fact, virtually no 'science' on display on this scientific expedition.

    The whole business with the ancient star arrangements would be interesting if it made any sense at all. Charlie, the 'archaeologist' (and I use that term *extremely* loosely, as he appears actually to be a surfer on spring break), makes some vague reference to 'galactic configuration', which is rubbish, as one can find a 'configuration' exactly matching any star pattern you like anywhere you want, unless there is something more specific about those stars that identifies them (distances from known pulsars, for example), and in any event stars move; after thousands of years those stars are not going to be in the same position.

    But those are all technicalities, and I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. But the characters, other than Shaw and David, are boring. Nobody is developed. What makes Charlize Theron's character (whose name I can't even remember) really tick? Who knows? What is Weyland really looking for? Immortality? Why? How would he know to expect anything from this expedition at all? Nothing he says makes any sense at all. What is Theron there for? We'll never know, as she gets mooshed because she's too stupid to run off to the side, out of the path of a rolling spaceship, instead of directly along its path. Where is the background, the binding, that leads the remaining crew to join their captain in one final, desperate attack? I sense nothing in these characters that justifies this kind of camaraderie, the love and loyalty that would allow men to give their lives for each other. Nothing. Brett, Dallas, Lambert, Parker, and Ripley (and, yes, Ash) showed more charisma, more development, more interesting personalities when they were sitting around the fucking table eating breakfast than this lot showed during the entire bloody film.

    And don't get me started on the soundtrack, which was insipid and banal in its saccharine main theme and its bombastic, omnipresent hollowness.

    You know, I started this writeup disappointed in this film. As i finish, I find that I really hate it. And that's just a crying shame, because it really could have been something special.

    If I want to watch a good Alien film, I'll just have to go watch Alien and Aliens.

  3. I liked it, though it certainly isn't flawless. Kermode pointed out that where the first film had people talking like real people, this one had dialogue about the Big Questions which is too obvious and totally unnatural, which I think is true. A friend of mine brought up the idiotic behaviour and lack of safety protocols which I thought was interesting because it never occurred to me, which I think is because if you're an archaeologist, you don't usually work with safety protocols (and the most famous 19th century archaeologists are well known for idiotically destroying loads of stuff trying to reach what they're after). These probably should, being on an alien planet and all, but it's not something I thought of.

    The scene with Noomi in the autodoc was amazing.

    Gemma, I'm totally going with that as the explanation. Life becomes so much easier to understand if you decide people are just doing it For The Evulz...

  4. Oh -- and, congrats on finishing the marking! :)

  5. Juliette, this is a refreshingly smart take on the film. Most reviews have focused on the fan's expectations of another ALIEN, but I was pleasantly surprised that the film took a wholly different direction.

    I'm very interested in the Greek mythology inspiring the film, especially this theme of parents hating children and the other way round. Could you elaborate more on that.

    I found many parallels with HAMLET, especially when Elizabeth Shaw takes on his role with the android's head in her hands, asking existential questions.

  6. Hi dejan, and thanks!

    I haven't time to give further proper thought to the parents and children theme at the moment (I've been on the sofa with a migraine all day!) but I do think it's strange and fascinating - I'll soon be reading my student's essay on child-killing that I mentioned a few posts back and am really intrigued to see what she says as I think it's a fascinating topic! If you follow the 'Prometheus' link, has comprehensive coverages of the myths themselves.

    I hadn't thought of the Hamlet link, good point - and Hamlet was the other play (along with Oedipus Rex) that Freud based the Oedipus complex on, which is all about wanting to kill your father... very interesting...

  7. I'm sorry about the migraine, Juliette.

    What made me think of Hamlet is that David puts his ear against the sleeping Engineer's heart, which instantly conjures up the lot of Hamlet's father, who was poisoned through his ear. ALso the fact that Elizabeth Shaw refuses birth, in a manner of speaking, reminds one of Hamlet's lament to Ophelia - that she should not bear children, because they'll only end up unfortunate in the corrupted world.

    For me this connects to the film's overall theme, which seems to be reproduction. From the opening shot of the duplicating cells, down to the ubiquitous doubling and coupling (everything is given in pairs) and the double helix of the DNA, of course, it all seems an exploration of the classic Gothic theme of doubling.

    Even the film itself can be seen as a doubling of the original ALIEN's structure, whereby it's interesting that it doesn't reproduce literally, there is always something slightly off, a deviation from the original pattern, and in this deviation there seems to open a space for incredible new insights.

    Which is interesting because in this ''Digital Age'' we seem to have come to a historic and cultural point where things are continuously reproduced but there's no sign of invention, of originality...on the one hand...and on the other hand, there opens before us the perspective of multiple views, multiple religions, myths, readings.

    It is fascinating the repercussions this has on (digital) archaeology, psychoanalysis as a form of personal archaeology, feminism and gender studies, and futuristic debates, so I wanted to take the discussion much further than what I see being repeated ad nauseaum in various marketing texts that have flooded the internet since the premiere - in other words I think this is a multi-layered and potent text much more advanced than your average SF opera.

    The Oedipus is interestingly brought in tension with the more modern, you could say feminist viewpoints especially in the way the Weyland enterprise is designated as patriarchal and oppressive to women, so that you could see Vickers and Elizabeth as on a journey of emancipation.

  8. I'll almost certainly see this one when it comes out. Until then, must avoid spoilers!

  9. Yes, Weyland's attitude towards Vickers and David is very interesting, and Shaw is fabulous. I've always enjoyed Scott's depiction of strong women - Lucilla in Gladiator, who works entirely within the confines of a Roman matron's role but is strong and powerful within those boundaries, is an especially interesting one

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  11. *sorry for the double post - had to fix one of the links*

    Thanks for the review Juliette! Hope you're feeling better after the migraine.

    I love the multiple levels this film is making folks respond to - there are reviewers who seem to be responding to the film as if it's a science documentary, wondering why everyone in space is so stupid and why "proper" infection protocol isn't being used etc...then you have reviewers (not to mention the creators of the film itself) openly acknowledging the intended ambiguity and deliberate "Science vs religion" interplay that laces the entire film. There are some whopping chunks of Nietszsche, Milton and Bible lore dropped in among the gadgetry - and I really love the viral videos you can see at Project Prometheus, especially the TED 2023 Talk and the No Law unlisted video clip (seemingly before Weyland takes the stage at TED) where you can see a young Weyland quoting Nietzsche directly.

    I hope they do get around to the planned sequel as some of the questions do deserve answers (as writer Lindelof openly admits). I think I'm more leaning towards Brad Brevet's idea that we can't be sure that the engineers intended to wipe humans out entirely, possibly just evolve them, and that the last contact was in the 7th century, not just the 1st Century CE/around the time of Christ which many seem focused on. His review is probably the most approachable of those considering the "philosophy vs science" themes in the film.

    Kind Regards

  12. I'm glad there's a deleted scene with young Weyland - with the film as it stands, Brother and I were baffled as to why they hadn't just hired an older actor!


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