The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Owen Weetch.

Photo from the article Prometheus renegotiates the events in the Alien franchise, presenting a creation myth that interweaves the birth of the xenomorph with the evolution of humankind. This piece will explore how this creation narrative moves Prometheus away from the horror conventions in which the original Alien (1979) traded. I’ll also consider my own negative response to what is admittedly an adequately constructed and beautiful-looking science-fiction adventure film. I think this might not be solely down the filmmakers’ failure to meet my own (probably unfair) expectations: it might also have something to do with the different industrial practices of 1979 and 2012, and the pressures that today’s filmmakers face when blockbusters are constructed a priori to be part of a franchise.

Both commercial demand and fandom culture have clearly influenced the production of Prometheus, and the curious intertwining of these two pressures is symptomatic of wider industrial trends. When The Avengers was released earlier this year, ‘Drew McWeeny’ wrote a piece called ‘The Bigger Picture: Muppets, Avengers, and Life in the Age of Fanfiction’, in which he opined that these films are indicative of a systematic shift in Hollywood: “we seem to have handed over our entire industry to the creation of fanfiction on a corporate level, and at this point, I'm not sure how we're expecting the pendulum to ever swing back.” Not to do a discredit to fanfiction as a whole, but it is interesting to note that the most financially successful mainstream blockbusters of this year, such as The Avengers and The Muppets, are essentially the results of what happens when creators finally ‘get their hands’ on the properties that they loved from their youth. New instalments in franchises are now produced by those who cut their imaginative teeth watching the earlier instalments, and function as articulations to a mass audience as to why the property deserves that audience.

Prometheus is no different. While directed by Ridley Scott, it was written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, both whippersnappers when the first film was released. Their previous work - much of it in the science-fiction thriller genre - suggests the influence of Scott’s cinema, and they have now been charged with creating something new out of the pre-existing Alien property. As Spaihts and Lindelof admit in this fascinating interview, “There’s a cult of existing intellectual property in town.” The mysteries of the original Alien are thus investigated and accounted for by imaginations sparked by that very film, so that the latest movie seems guilty of tracing over its originator rather than expanding upon it.

The xenomorph in the 1979 film was indeed a fundamentally alien presence, unpredictable and unknowable; the Weyland-Yutani corporation was hubristic and imbecilic to think that they could harness it as something as crassly utilitarian as a bio-weapon. In Prometheus, we are informed that this alien was actually created as a bio weapon in the first place, making it little more than sentient pesticide. The entity that many have referred to in the first film as the ‘Space Jockey’ is similarly reduced: when Dallas, Lambert and Kane stumbled upon its inter-galaxial dirigible in Alien, the corpse they discovered within was an unfathomable portent, a giant simultaneously elephantine and deific. Here, it’s an etiolated bodybuilder in a nappy. What’s more, his narrative simply repeats that of the franchise’s human characters, so that the series folds in on itself: ‘The Engineer’ is a cryosleeper who fell foul of the things he created, just as the crew of the Nostromo fell foul to Ash, the android, and in just the same way as the scientists aboard the Prometheus are (along with many audience members) unable to work out just what in blinking hell it is that David is up to.

There is the counter-argument that this objection is churlish, that one shouldn’t criticise a film for not being another film. Furthermore, perhaps these riffs on the original are meant as rhymes and resonances, intended to be expressive in their allusion. In the above interview Lindelof says that Scott is, “very interested in ambiguous sci-fi, or think-piece sci-fi, where all of the dots are not connected for you” and Spaihts observes that “there’s an art to leaving yourself open.” The original film is a prime example of this because its chthonic weirdness is readable in other terms than those that Prometheus prescribes.

While the first film hints at investigations of sexuality, capitalism and humanity’s place in the universe, it never provides any answers. Nor does it presume to ‘ask questions’ as such, which would imply the possibility that they be answered. Prometheus, however, not only keeps shouting at you through a foghorn every step of the way that it’s asking you big and highly important questions about the provenance of humankind, but its evocative title functions as both a question and an instruction manual on how to answer that very question.

In fact, the title is worth further consideration in relation to its forebears. Each of titles in the series is telling, in terms of both the respective films’ concepts and expressive qualities: Alien is a noun and an adjective, referring to not only the threat but also the investigation into its otherness; Aliens (1986) removes the adjective and rams the plural down our throats, anxious like that movie’s frantic marines to descend into furious shock and awe; Alien 3 (1992) betrays both Ripley and the filmmakers’ resignation to the creature’s self-perpetuity, an absurd hopelessness that sowed the franchise’s end; Alien Resurrection (1997) is a title that sounds pretty cool but doesn’t really make much sense if you think about it in terms of the other ones; and Prometheus is a portentous-sounding proper noun that refers to something which isn’t technically in the film. Lindelof has stated in interviews, “part of the fun of the movie is understanding exactly why we called it Prometheus. And also, it sounds really pretentious […] so we were just like, 'Yeah, that makes the movie sound really smart!'” Blog writer Cavalorn here unpacks the title’s allusions to come up with an interpretation that is in many ways more exciting than the film itself.

The intended ‘ambiguity’ of the whole enterprise is further compromised by other agendas: the filmmakers have stated that they had to bow to commercial pressures in order to provide a film that also functions as an entertainment. In this interview Scott acknowledges that with such a large budget there is a pressure to provide entertainment as well as explore the weighty issues in which the film trades, and that he feels his job is to make sure the film is at the least “communicating.” Lindelof’s comments elsewhere are also telling, and highly indicative of the results that this had on the film, when he says things like: “Just when the movie is getting lost in its own sense of importance, then the fuse gets lit, and you’re like, ‘Well those questions are going to have to wait for another time because now we’re in survivor mode.’” Prometheus polarises ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’, seeing the former as self-important and laborious. The result is an oddly staccato experience: a film always in two minds as to what it should be doing at any particular moment, so that it ends up doing little convincing of either.

This isn’t to say that the film connects all of its dots, though - far from it. There are many questions left unanswered. The problem here is that they seem to be left as such because of commercial rather than expressive reasons. Lindelof has said that movies of this magnitude now have to have sequels built into them, and it seems that the writers have passed the buck of responsibility over to these possible future instalments rather than harry themselves with presently saying anything cogent. Plot holes and character inconsistency abound, apparently excusable because Prometheus 2 will, one hopes, tell us whether the particular triangle of miscegenation between human, xeno-tadpole, and Engineer is responsible for the climactic life form’s appearance, or whether that was always the Engineers’ intention and we’ve simply spent two hours watching a convoluted game of musical bodies. Hopefully this coming attraction will also explain why the Engineers pointed humankind in the direction of a provincial weapon testing facility in the middle of nowhere rather than towards their home planet and, surely - surely - it will at least hint at just what in the name of dithering Christ it was that David spent the entirety of the movie doing.

I will concede that it may not be fair to criticise a film for not being the film that you want it to be, but it’s downright lazy to produce a film that isn’t fully what it itself purports to hope to be. Such cynicism suffuses character dialogue and action, so that when Shaw closes the film by saying that she is “still searching” it functions as little more than a trailer for Elizabeth Shaw and David’s Severed Head: The Search Continues. (Though not, we could note, with Theron’s Meredith Vickers: the idea of continuing a blockbuster franchise by centring it on two strong female characters is apparently so unprecedented that there was nothing else but have her hurriedly and ignominiously squished.) Prometheus is a film that raises questions, yes, but they’re questions regarding narrative intelligibility, commercial pressures on contemporary franchise filmmaking, and the difference between an open film and an incomplete one.

What is remarkable about Prometheus is the creation narrative it proposes, and the way in which it deploys and then fundamentally renegotiates canonical science fiction tropes. As Jon Korn observes, one of the most palpable influences on the film’s narrative comes from the stories of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s works often tell of explorers who happen upon evidence that the earthbound existence of cyclopean, tentacled extraterrestrials predates - and is in many ways responsible for - the genesis of Earth’s humans. In fact, Prometheus is so narratively similar to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that Guillermo del Toro, who has long been attempting to procure financing for a film adaptation of the novella, reportedly believes that Scott’s film “will probably mark a long pause - if not the demise - of [his adaptation].” The 1979 film is itself Lovecraftian in its attempts to insinuate that mankind might not be at the centre of the universe, and the design of the xenomorph is based on H.R. Giger’s painting Necronom IV (The Necronomicon is a fictional tome featured in Lovecraft’s stories). The 2012 film takes this further, schematising the xenomorph’s genesis so as to essentially rewrite the franchise as a straight adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, albeit one whose object of horror is skewed differently.

In Lovecraft’s tale, explorers in the Antarctic discover a deserted city of inhumanly large scale, whose edifices’ bas-reliefs describe how the original inhabitants of the planet - the “Great Old Ones” - “filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake.” (The entire novella can be found online here). It turns out that the Old Ones were eventually destroyed by their genetically-engineered beasts of burden. These amorphous, many-eyed blobs, called “shoggoths”, rose up against them and - as the human boffins discover to their dismay - still hold sway over this dread antediluvian megalopolis. In Prometheus, then, the xenomorphs are similar to the shoggoths: they spell their creators’ end and incidentally cause the humans (also created by their engineers) considerable calamity. The ripple effect of this is to reduce the scope of the previous films in the Alien franchise: there is now the almost patronising implication that we have spent the past thirty years indulging ourselves by watching a rather trivial series of killer bug movies when we really should have been considering more important things.

It is in its treatment of these “more important things”, though, where the film insinuates something rather interesting. The attitude that the Engineers take towards their handiwork, once deciphered, has grand philosophical implications. Korn, who also notes the influence of the literature of Arthur C. Clarke on the film, has this to say:

“Examining Lovecraft and Clarke's own takes on ancient astronauts also allows us to see where, in macro terms, Prometheus's narrative stumbles. Both the older authors succeed by limiting our contact with the superior races they describe, rendering them fittingly unknowable. In contrast, Prometheus tries to have it both ways, giving the Engineers a lot of screen time while keeping their intentions frustratingly opaque. It becomes hard to parse their reasoning for initiating life on Earth, then returning often to the planet during early human development, and ultimately wanting to destroy the same beings they created.”

There is one thing that the Engineers’ desire for destruction makes abundantly clear, and it is something that neither Lovecraft nor the previous Alien films ever implied: in the eyes of the gods, Prometheus seems to be say, human beings matter. For Lovecraft, we were just a “joke or a mistake”, and the xenomorphs in the previous films were only ever hungry or bent on procreation; but here the Engineers’ Old Testament-style wrath actually serves to aggrandise humanity’s significance. The moment the sole remaining Engineer awakes, he doggedly sets about ensuring humankind’s destruction. While this presents the protagonists with an immediate threat, on a cosmic level there’s something rather reassuring about it: we’re the first thing that the gods think about when they wake up in the morning.

This invites further investigation the film’s cosmogony. While most of the existential conversations between characters in the film centre on humankind’s relationship to its makers and the motivations for those makers’ actions, there is never the slightest insinuation that the Engineers are also responsible for existence as a whole. The film never implies that the Engineers actually are deities. Furthermore, if they are, it is due to their ability to create life out of matter, and not the other way around. If the Engineers can be called ‘gods’, the film suggests, then humans might as well be also: we created androids - and only because we could. The gods are disappointed with us, and vice versa.

The Engineers are ultimately as capricious as humankind in a way that befits the title’s invocation of Greek mythology, where the Olympians’ petty bickering and betrayal wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Gossip Girl. When Weyland, who was so eager for immortality, meets his maker and is both killed and shocked by its violence, he says that “there is nothing” and slips away: nothing in the film challenges his assessment. Shaw’s desperation to hold on to her faith is represented as a personal issue and does not reach outside of itself. No unmoved mover is posited. The film proposes only three certainties: atrophy, destruction, and the birth of a giant insect with acid for blood that just wants to kill and fuck everything.

You could say, then, that, in its refusal to depict transcendence, Prometheus tells a story about disappointment on a cosmic level. Sadly, this dovetails with the film’s own shoddiness and cynicism, and the result is that it’s all too easy to share in its protagonists’ disillusionment. Furthermore, the incompleteness of the franchise makes all such conjecture quite moot - at least, that is, until another instalment in the franchise comes along to give us some more information. The wait, at any rate, will probably not be a long one: Scott is purportedly in the process of gearing up a sequel already, apparently featuring a ‘God-like creature’, and tentatively titled Paradise.

This Alternate Take was published on July 05, 2012.

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