It's as rotten a turkey as Thanksgiving in in alley, but where did Prometheus go wrong and what films should it have aspired to?
Like many people, I wanted to love Prometheus. I thought it would be a welcome return to the Ridley Scott of Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982). I thought it would be flawlessly designed, nay, tessellated with every geeky detail, in order to slot the film in at exactly the right point of the Alien universe. Also, because within the first five minutes Prometheus raised questions surrounding religion, human origins, functionalism, and creationism (think von Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods? armed with a flamethrower), I thought that the film might intelligently explore these age-old concepts.
In fact, none of my expectations were met, and, instead, I was reminded that Ridley Scott is a visual artist, not a thinker. He is the opposite of Woody Allen he is a director in the purest sense of the word; Ridley Scott is not credited with the story or screenplay of Prometheus, or of any of his films for that matter, therefore any of the praise, surplus to the films’ visual merit, is owed elsewhere; or, in this case, the blame.
Still Ridley doesn’t get off scot(t)-free. Ultimately, this is a film which no one will remember for the simple reason that it only makes you think of other films that we already remember.
Here I will limit myself to exposing Prometheus’ five most egregious miss-hits and suggest five other films where these aspects are done properly.
1- Where is the post-industrial bleak with its real people?
Alien and Blade Runner come from the bleak, post-industrial aesthetic; a genre where filthy, sweaty, grease-pump realism saturates the pores and lies between the hairs and under the nails of the whole fabric of the film. These worlds share with steam punk the concept that great wealth comes from the destruction of the environment and human conscience. Their visual power comes from Scott deliberately running against the Star Trek conceit, that just by being in space humans would spontaneously evolve into sexless, perfectly groomed, full-sentence-speaking, latex models of themselves.
In the Alien universe people in space are just people in space. Prometheus either forgets this history, or lets loose a catastrophic misfire.
In the Alien universe people in space are just people in space
Perhaps it could be argued that they tried. But if they tried, and it’s a big if, they failed cringingly. It would be yet another case of the Hollywood jetset, dense as mahogany, and living in a bubble, forgetting what real human beings are actually like.
Take the geologist character Fifield (Sean Harris). What these Hollywood types thought a geologist would look like is astonishing. Real life geologists wear thick socks high over hiking boots, checkered shirts and beige trousers with dull brown leather belts. Geologists are the sort of people who wear their hair only one way, the way that they were shown to have it by an uncle or a head boy when they were thirteen.
Instead, for Prometheus they seem to have envisaged their geologist as an apocalyptic, post-punk, ginger werewolf.
They probably got confused between geologist and miner, but who cares? The geologist, like his sidekick the biologist, are cut-outs, devices, whose function is to provide some misplaced Shakespearian comic relief.
Indeed, the only character that appears human, or at least any human being that I recognise, is Janek, the pilot (Idris Elba). Other than that, there just are no fully-fledged characters, real people.
They seem to have envisaged their geologist as an apocalyptic, post-punk, ginger werewolf
Take even just the dinner scene in Alien (yes, that one). It was a scene of stomach ripping gore, and even that scene starts with the din of conversations, and in those fifty or so seconds we saw more ‘real people’ time than in the whole of Prometheus.
Outland (1981) Dir. Peter Hyams
There is nothing overworked or cliché in what, on the surface, looks like an over the top trash-fest. It is nothing of the kind. The roughness and viciousness of the world of off-world mining is presented as subtly as possible, though the everyday interactions of its characters. It is truly otherworldly to see intimate family breakfast scenes with such implicit violent language a propos of nothing, and not reacted to in any way.
Mother: I know it won’t be too much longer though.
Son: How soon?
Father: How soon for what?
Son: How soon til I get my braces off?
Father: You want crooked teeth?
Son: I don’t mind them.
Father: You’ll be missing some teeth in a minute if you don’t eat your breakfast.
Everything about this film screams – do not engage with the characters – this is all bullshit – none of this could happen. But you find yourself drawn in immediately.
Specifically, Prometheus looks 2012 advanced, while Alien looks 1979 advanced
2- 2094 technology better than 2122 technology
Alien is set in 2122, and Prometheus in 2094; approximately 3 decades before, and yet, the design of the technology in Prometheus looks very much more advanced than Alien. Specifically, Prometheus looks 2012 advanced, while Alien looks 1979 advanced.
The most noticeable fancy gadget in Prometheus is a full room, dense looking, full colour hologram, these have no conceivable correlate in Alien. But maybe after thirty years they just thought they were creepy and scrapped them.
Most interestingly, however, is the omnipresence of touch screens on giant glass panes or even in the air. These are by now obligatory in all sci-fi following the wide dissemination of iPhone.
In Prometheus we are asked to believe that this touch screen technology would be suddenly replaced thirty years after with giant hulking plastic buttons. Though perhaps they just finally had enough of cracked screens.
What I find most amazing about this error is that there was simply no reason to try to impress us mere 2012ians with giant touch screens and holograms. We know Prometheus is the future, they’d just traveled half a billion miles to an unknown solar system, who’s going to turn around and say: ‘oh but look their interfaces look cheap’.
Whedon’s idea of a Western in space is very, very well known in geek circles
Serenity (2005) Dir. Joss Whedon
Serenity has a wonderfully consistent feel technology wise, none of the equipment will break the laws of physics and the class divisions of access to technology are apparent. Poor people travel in rust bucket and practically have to spanner their bulkheads shut every twenty minutes, while the evil State travel in style, and in a classic of Whedon originality, the courtesans shuttle around in incense filled throw-cushioned whorepods.
Whedon’s idea of a Western in space is very, very well known in geek circles, but deserves a wider audience. It’s one of those films, that if you don’t think you’ll like it, you should watch it anyway- you never know. Serenity’s opening scene really does make you jump, in fact, it provides more of a shock than anything in Prometheus, and in addition to that, Prometheus had the temerity to incorporate Serenity’s sunny and open hologram style.
3- Horror Castrated
Alien was a film that pushed the boundaries of violence in cinema, and, though more limited by the censure of the time, Alien had a sexual tension throughout that reached a climax in the ‘I’m gonna change into my spacesuit’ scene. The scene is claustrophobic and voyeuristic. The public feel embarrassed at witnessing this private moment of an un-erotic realistic body being stripped and redressed.
Violence and horror aside, it has perhaps the tamest, most pathetic sex scene imaginable
In this regard, Prometheus is just one of the many films that is taking us on a massive leap backwards for mankind. This is a space horror without the horror.
Violence and horror aside, it has perhaps the tamest, most pathetic sex scene imaginable. What will blow your mind is that this is the sex that two hot scientists make after landing the ‘biggest discovery in the history of mankind’ after four years in deep freeze. Can you imagine what their sex life would be like after an everyday trip to the shops?
Sadly, this R rated film will not show any sexual realism, and this is the fault of the director. Hollywood has four levels of intensity to its sex scenes and is only very rarely willing to go to the fifth step.
1- on sofa, or bed suddenly (usually) they’re laughing their heads off. He lunges at her and they stare for just a moment, look serious and fade out.
2- on bed, slow movement, already serious and she peels his shirt off, and fade out- quickly for God’s sake! Fade out.
3- ditto above, but perhaps a few turns in the bed, man on top, and eventually trousers and pants off- bare ass! and fade out!!!
4- ditto above, plus her breasts somehow come out during this process, usually seen in profile. If it’s really going for it, she may get flipped or be on top. Otherwise, it’s missionary all the way between 1-3.
Prometheus takes us to a timid self-censored step two, and this, in an R rated film, heir to Alien, made after thirty years of censure relaxation.
Barbarella is a supercharged, technicolor, sex fest from Mars
Barbarella (1968) Dir. Roger Vadim
Barbarella is a supercharged, technicolor, sex fest from Mars (well not from Mars) with classic lines, naff set design, and kitch everywhere. Think Flash Gordon with tits. What it shows is that you can present sexuality without showing it. And what you’ll be amazed by is how much more titillating Jane Fonda’s performance is in what are supposed to be joke scenes, than the androgynous pseudo-passion of Prometheus which is supposed to be a sex scene.
4- Maybe it’s a joke played on us: “yes… FATHER… that is all”
Yes, this film. Prometheus, made in 2012 has a FATHER-line:
A- Is that it?
B- Yes… FATHER… that is all”
Du da daaaaahahhh!
At this point one wanders if it is even a real film or actually a subtle satire, but the dialogue everywhere else is so weak that we just have to believe that it wasn’t tongue in cheek. Here is just a snippet of what you’re missing if you don’t watch this film:
A- not a map an invitation
B- from who?
A- we call them engineers
B- mind telling us what they engineered
A- they engineered us
C- […] if you’re willing to disregard three centuries of Darwinism then that’s hhheeeeeeeeeuuuuuuuuuuuwwwwwwwww.
In those fifty or so seconds we saw more ‘real people’ time than in the whole of Prometheus
Children of Men (2006) Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Children of Men is set in 2027, and what is certain is that the screenplay was not written after the conversation: ‘what do you think people will talk like in 2027?’, ‘I think they will all say ‘in-du-bi-ta-bly’ when they mean ‘of course’’, ‘Yes! they would have evolved past short words!’.
The dialogue is so extremely natural in Children of Men you’d be forgiven for thinking that the writers knew human beings. Iconic scene, Clive Owen and Michael Caine jabbering away while they smoke a joint. Yes a joint! Even though it is the future! Can you imagine that on USS Boredom in Star Trek? Are we supposed to believe that? All those replicators, and no one ordering a bag of Kush?
5- Anchoring References
The role of Sci-Fi is to make you believe the story it is telling, the so-called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Personally, I have never seen anything willing about it, you cannot consciously will yourself to like anything (just think of that guy at work), and indeed this film.
Never heard of them? That’s because they were made 80 years ago and they were top, top grossing films
One the most common conceits in aiding suspension of disbelief is to introduce references to real events/things. This way the invented event of the film is anchored to a real event in your mind.
The reference might be a real life song, a line or scene from a film, a memorable quote or a famous person’s name. Too many times, it is a kitchy cartoon from the 50s.
In Prometheus, however, this attempt at introducing references into itself reaches hysterical proportions and the nature of the references completely and utterly reverse their intended effect.
The film cites, amongst others, Lawrence of Arabia ‘not to mind that it hurts’, Pinocchio ‘you’re not a real boy’, and Neil Armstrong ‘one giant leap for…’.
The idea of a future explorer quoting Lawrence of Arabia in 2094 is about as ridiculous as a modern astronaut quoting events from The Jazz Singer, or She’s Done him Wrong, or Queen Charisma. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Never heard of them? That’s because they were made 80 years ago and they were top, top grossing films.
Quoting ‘one small step for…’ is highly unlikely as well. We are being asked to believe that in the world of 2094 where inter solar system travel by humans has been easily achieved, in the seventy years between them and us they didn’t develop any new quotes?
Surely there would have been other achievements, the first man on Mars, the first woman on Europa, the first landing on a planet outside of the solar system. Did none of these people say anything momentous while they were doing these infinitely more impressive things?
You may object here and say: “but the moon was the first blah blah blah….”.
Do you remember the first words in space said by Yuri Gagarin? No.
No one does. Yet those would be the first words ever spoken outside of our atmosphere. Why are these overshadowed, the drama and spectacle of the moon landing took over, and everyone forgot all the details of the earlier spaceflights.
Referencing the moon landing (even if it did actually happen), and is small potatoes and referencing it in Prometheus takes me back to 1969 instead of pushing me forward to 2094.
Fascists on Mars (2006) Dir. Corrado Guzzanti, Igor Skofic
This hard to find Italian gem is the tale of an intrepid troupe of fascists who launch a space ship and claim Mars for King and Duce. Every line of the film is a reference either to fascist Italy or to (just about not fascist) modern day Italy. The director also includes a surprisingly large number of tongue in cheek anti-British references which if you’re up to the challenge of a) finding this film and b) following the machine gun fire delivery of the commentary will well reward a viewing.
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