This post contains considerable spoilers for the new Ridley Scott film Prometheus. If you haven’t seen the film yet then, for now, I suggest you avoid both this and the spoilerific trailer…
Still here? Excellent.
I saw Prometheus on Friday but it’s taken me until now (Sunday afternoon) to resolve my feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s difficult to fault Scott’s eye and direction here. The picture is a visual treat, although it ababdons the “used future” astethic which defined Scott’s earlier Science Fiction milestones Alien and particularly Blade Runner (one of my favorite films of all time). Conversely, there are some major issues with how this film is written and, evidently, how it was conceived. I’ve seen a lot of comments online to the effect of “One of those guys from Lost wrote it, so no wonder it sucked”. But of course no part of that is fair…
Yes, Prometheus was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of Lost’s showrunners and a screenwriter with many years experience in both film and television, but Lindelof was brought onto the film to work on the original script at a point where the project was well established. Scott himself requested that the Lost veteran rewrite an earlier version of the film which was written by Jon Spaihts, a relative newcomer to the screenwriting business. The resulting screenplay, as Spaihts himself says, ‘is still very much the story I wrote to begin with, with my cast of characters, my structure and big set pieces. There’s a lot of new work in there, there’s a lot of Damon in it, but it’s still very much a lot of me.’
So, the characters, the structure, the big set pieces… Or, with due respect to Mr. Spaihts’s obvious potential and talent, the most problematic elements of Prometheus. Numerous scenes in the picture seem to have no purpose other than to create impressive visuals, which a film obviously needs… just not at the expense of logic. In fact, the lack of logical reasoning behind almost anything in Prometheus, along with the film’s unwillingness to answer any of the questions it asks, speak to issues rooted deep in Spaihts’s – not Lindelof’s – conception of the project. Consider:
- The protagonists are led to the alien world by a star-map they discover in the cave art of many ancient peoples. Only why would the alien ‘Engineers’ leave a map to what is essentially a ‘military installation’, an outpost where weapons of mass destruction are constructed?
- How is this mission supposed to go well when the characters have obviously not planned ahead or, in many cases, even met each other before emerging from hypersleep? The idea of briefing this group just before they arrive is ridiculous. The fact that they haven’t trained together, or perhaps even trained at all, for what they may encounter on a mission to another solar system stretches credibility.
- LV-223 is obviously the moon of a gas giant, however it has Earth-like gravity and a world the size of Earth is a big place. Yet Prometheus just happens to immediately discover the alien facility without doing any kind of survey, any kind of extensive investigation? I know it’s a film and that excessive scientific verisimilitude would kill the pacing, but still. It just happens because it has to happen, because it’s part of Spaihts’s structure.
- What purpose do the alien holograms serve? They’re a snazzy visual, and they clue the reader in on the fact that something bad went down in the tunnel system, but other than that…? Nothing.
- Why the giant head? Sure it’s a great set-piece, its huge, Olmec-like visage sitting silently above the vases containing the ampoules of bio-toxins, but… why? Why would any anyone store biological weapons like that?
- For that matter, why are the ampoules stored in a room where, once the door is open and the environmental conditions change, their contents are released? That’s like storing Ebola samples in a room where, once you open the door, they begin to leak out of their canisters.
- Are the biological weapon chosen by The Engineers, née Space Jockeys, really the best way to destroy humanity? Let’s work this through. The Engineers are going to deliver the aliens from Alien to Earth in order to wipe out Humanity; they’re going to infect Earth with millions of unstoppable killing machines. Now maybe they have a kill-switch for the aliens but, really, how is that better than, say, orbital bombardment? Do they intend to kill just Humans or all life on the planet? (Indeed, once you start questioning the role of The Engineers in evolution on Earth, the more problematic this strand of the story becomes).
- When Shaw and Vickers are running way from the crashing, rolling, spaceship, why don’t they just run away from it at a right angle instead of – essentially – running directly in front of a giant wheel? Because it’s a great set-piece, that’s why.
All these things look good but, essentially, don’t make any sense. Why? Because this is a picture built around set-pieces, Spaihts’s set-pieces as he admits himself: ‘It was in that first conversation [with Scott’s people] when I was asked what I would do to return to the Alien universe, that I found myself galvanized by the question, found an answer leaping forth fully formed from my head even though I hadn’t thought about it before. I talked for 45 minutes and outlined a pretty detailed story, including honestly, things as specific as set pieces and visual images, which are still present in the final film’. As answers go, it’s difficult not to read that asI made it up on the spot and now I’m stuck with it.
What then was Lindelof’s contribution to the project? Well sorry, Lost-bashers, but it’s arguably the thoughtfulness which occasionally threatens to turn Prometheus into the film we all wanted it to be: ‘We’re exploring the future… away from Earth and [asking] what are people like now?’ Lindelof says. ‘Space exploration in the future is going to evolve into this idea that it’s not just about going out there and finding planets to build colonies. It also has this inherent idea that the further we go out, the more we learn about ourselves. The characters in this movie are preoccupied by the idea: what are our origins?’ These are questions closely related to the arc of Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in the film, and I suspect that her characterization may be among the ‘new work’ Lindelof contributed.
Moreover, while many may complain about the picture’s open-endedness, attributing it to Lindelof because of his writing on Lost, it actually derives from Spaihts’s conception of Prometheus as a multi-picture story (possibly a trilogy) and from Scott’s desire for ‘ambiguity’. As Lindelof has said, ‘I think that Ridley was very interested in ambiguity […] There were drafts that were more explicitly spelled out. I think Ridley’s instinct kept being to pull back, and I would say, “Ridley, I’m still eating shit a year after Lost is over for all the things we didn’t directly spell out, Are you sure you want to do this?” And he said, “I would rather have people fighting about it and not know then spell it out”.’
If anything so, the more interesting and most engaging aspects of Prometheus – the interrogation of belief, the crisis of faith, the place of Humanity in the cosmos – all seem to stem from Lindelof’s work on the screenplay. This is particularly apparent in the version of Elizabeth Shaw who makes it into the finished film, a woman of both science and faith, a creatively profitable dichotomy Lindelof utilized to great effect throughout much of Lost. Her belief, combined with Lindelof’s comments about ‘what happened 2,000 years ago’ that ‘The Engineers decided to wipe us out’ confirm to me that Prometheus – and the films which will inevitably follow – are about religion.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. More and more, stories about religion, faith, belief, and so on are being overtly played out within a Science Fiction context (and I’d be remiss here if I didn’t plug my essay ‘All of This Has Happened Before: Considering Religious Discourse in Lost and Battlestar Galactica’, soon to be published in the Marc DiPaolo edited Controversial Theology in Fiction). Looked at from that perspective, the Prometheus mythology exhibits the potential to be a far more revealing and allegorical series of pictures than the original Alien films. That said, it’s a new direction which is off to a rocky start. Prometheus, for all its heritage and potential, struggles to deliver anything more than an expensive prologue. A lot of story elements here are not just opened-ended but are acutely lacking any meaning without the second and third films. Which, again, is attributable to Spaihts’s work and not to Lindelof’s.
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