Prometheus: A Tragedy

Yesterday I went to see the movie Prometheus with a friend. A multitude of spoilers follow.

Several people whose taste in movies I share and/or respect made note of this movie as really good. More than one said something like: you must see it! Riddley Scott, I like and sci-fi, I like so I thought it was a good bet. Additionally, this movie had Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theoron, Guy Pearce and Idris Elba in the cast, all of whom I like a great deal. However, the liking went not much further than that.

Rarely have I been so disappointed in a film. This is due largely to what I actually expected: decent acting at the minimum, a bit of good action and suspense, good story and some sort of interesting underlying theme. There was not much of that at all.

Noomi Rapace, the woman who played the original Lisabeth Salander in the 2009 tattoo/fire/hornet’s nest movies and is likely a pretty good actress, plays Elizabeth Shaw, a….. well…. I’m not certain they every clearly state if she’s an archaeologist or an anthropologist but she’s one of the two. Her companion, Charlie Holloway, is played by Logan Marshall-Green and is also some ambiguous professional in that genre. They seem to believe, after years of searching in ancient tombs and finding nearly identical cave paintings depicting small humans worshiping a tall human who is pointing to the same configuration of stars, that the tall person is an alien and we are being invited to visit them. It is never clear why this is an invitation and I will confess this is the point at which my frustration began. In other films like this, Rapace’s character would have been an irritating idealist in the crew, not the sole survivor and pioneer moving forward, and Marshall-Green’s character, or the minimal personality attributed to him, would have been that of a minor character killed fairly early on for his cocky attitude.

The film begins with a bird’s eye view of what appears to be an alien landscape; beautiful and on a massive scale. There is a very pale, human shaped person who consumes some sort of food, utterly decomposes in an instant, and tumbles over an unimaginably huge waterfall as his DNA is unzipped. Was this on earth or on the moon to which our ill-fated Prometheus ship is to travel? It is never clear. Why did this happen? Was it murder or suicide? It is never clear. What does this have to do with the price of tea on the other side of the world? The implication (albeit a tenuous one) later on is that somehow this is why we share DNA with the aliens but that’s about it. Is this character meant to be Prometheus? If so, I am not certain that I understand the mythology as well as I thought.

After two years of time in frozen stasis, the crew is awakened as they reach the inhabitable moon. Everyone is woken up and, apart from the two anthropologists(?),the commander of sorts Meredith Vickers (Theron), and the holographic oh-gee-we-never-thought-he-might-really-be-on-board image of the bizarre and poorly aged recluse, Peter Weyland (Pearce), no one seems to know why they are there. This was another ‘huh?’ part for me, but ok. Scientists get on board a spaceship, sleep for over two years and do so without the foggiest notion as to why or where they are going. Oh and by the way, it’s because there is some sort of ambiguous, unsubstantiated invitation issued by ancient aliens from countless years ago extended to ancient man that is now for us.

Of course, that’s not really why they are there. It’s so the old guy can find a way not to die, so that the robot can watch his maker die, so that the woman can find out who made us and why and so that the commander can watch her father die.

Now that IS a Greek tragedy.

Everyone dies in fairly predictable order by fairly predictable means. There is a whole lot of—what the hell do you think you’re doing??—moments that put even more holes in my ability to suspend reality enough to enjoy this story. Who decides it’s a good idea to wait out the (who saw this coming?) massive storm by bedding down for the night in a room full of goo-leaking capsules arranged congregation style in front of an ominous carved face? What archae/anthropologist worth their salt who has studied burial sites forever misses the fact that this is some sort of burial mound or the giant skull face looming on the mountain? Come on, really?

I love sci-fi, fantasy and fiction in general and suspension of reality is not typically something I struggle with when watching a movie, but good storytelling, regardless of genre or category, still contains believable and credible elements on the part of the characters so that we can connect with them. There were so many foolish and not in the real world actions by the characters, it was difficult to feel a connection to any of them.

So the aliens turn out to be bad guys that are trying to kill all humanity. Of course, I’m not certain how we got to that. Just because the things they came into contact with in this one place were toxic would not automatically mean that they were maniacal mass murderers, but ok. These are the highly rational scientists who decided to reanimate the severed head of one of the aliens so I guess it seems right and we’ll just go with it.

The one character I found compelling was the robot, David, played by Michael Fassbender. Imagine Data from Star Trek with ambiguous motives and far less transparent personality. An issue that was lightly touched upon several times related to the ‘why were we made?’ question which humanity has asked probably forever. It is addressed a little more directly with ‘why did we make you?’ in relation to David. It is said early on that David has no soul and no feelings, however, it seems that is a bit of an over statement. In an exchange between Holloway and David, the drunk and pseudo roguish -ologist tells the robot that he was likely made just because we could. A flash of expression on David’s face belies this emotionless existence and he responds by asking Holloway how it would feel if his maker told him the same thing. The robot completes the exchange by giving him a roofie of alien goo so that he will impregnate the infertile Rapace.

There is a bloody and far too long scene of Rapace performing her own c-section inside a surgery capsule and producing a squid-like baby that seemed to be an entirely too literal homage to Aliens. Thankfully, however, she seems to have super human strength and is able to not only escape her bizarre newborn after this self-surgery, actually walk down the hallway, return to the site to see the spaceship and the reanimation of the human like alien, run like hell to escape, save the decapitated David and go off on another adventure. She’s so plucky!

There is also an utterly disposable scene between the captain and Vickers related to casual sex that seems to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the story (such that it is). There isn’t even sex in the scene, it is just spoken about. This is a shame for several reasons, one of which is that I really think Elba is a good actor, not widely known, and he’s short changed by this role. He was the lead in the British miniseries ‘Luther’ and played Heimdall in ‘Thor’. A big presence on screen and a beautiful voice stuffed into a stereo type role. He and the other crew members are thinly written and when they heroically pilot the Prometheus into the launching alien vessel to save all humanity, we have little emotional connection with them to see it as the great act of self-sacrifice we could have seen.

A couple of times, there is a tip of the hat to faith issues. Holladay tells Rapace she can remove cross now that she’s met her maker and David removes that cross, claiming it is contaminated, before she is to give birth to the squidbaby. Rapace also has a palpable sense of relief when she gets the cross back from David’s decapitated body. There is also the lightly touched reoccurring theme of ‘who made us and why?’ throughout. There was so much impairing my ability to take the story seriously, I had a difficult time seeing the movie as taking these issues of origin, faith, purpose, identity and deity seriously. In truth, it seemed to be a thin veneer of such questions laminated haphazardly on top of a poorly told sci-fi story.

I think it is rather obvious that I cannot recommend this movie for your summer viewing pleasure.

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