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11 June 2012 @ 09:59 pm
Prometheus: Deep, Lengthy Thoughts on the Alien Prequel (sans Alien)  

I've got so much to say about Prometheus that it's hard to know exactly where to begin. My mind has been boiling with thoughts ever since I left the theater, and it's hard to stop thinking about it sometimes.

Rest assured that I'll start off vague, then I'll warn you when we get into some basic plot spoilers, and then I'll warn you again when I get really spoiler-heavy.

For the first day after the film, I pondered if it was worth such heavy analysis, or if it was really just thin. The deeper I dove into what I saw in my own mind, the more I felt satisfied that it was definitely worthy of the time to dig down into the movie's juicy core. This movie is the antithesis of the paper-thin heart found at the core of Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

Ultimately, this is a movie that's all about subverted expectations and the classic concept "getting what you thought you wanted, but not the way you wanted." This extends even beyond the film itself. People seem to have gone in with ideas of what this movie would be about, and it seems to have defied many of those, for better or worse. However, that core tenet is really a major part of the story as a whole. Every character has some kind of expectations for this mission or their lives as a whole that didn't/doesn't go the way they planned. Nothing about the mission of the Prometheus turns out as its leaders or greatest detractors hoped, and that extends well into individual backstories and characterizations. It feels like Ridley Scott, now in his 80s, is probably bringing out some of his own demons through that theme.

Okay, you're already getting that I'm inclined to dig pretty hard into this flick. It's more than just a raw piece of entertainment in my mind. There are really three levels to the movie: The core entertainment level, the textual level that deals with what the narrative is trying to say about life and its origins, and the metatextual, thematic level where Ridley Scott seems to be saying something about his own perspectives. That's not even talking about how this movie surely plays differently for the Alien fans than it does for the newcomers. In short: This is some Inception shit, people. We're going DEEP.

But let's start with the beginning: I remember how frustrated and disappointed I felt when Ridley announced that the Alien prequel would now be a standalone film titled Prometheus that might deal with some of the same basic tenets, but wouldn't really lead into Alien proper. I believe I even posted about my disappointment here. Yet as time went on, it became clear that Ridley was definitely going to be exploring the "Space Jockey" creature that we saw dead in that biomechanical starship way back in Alien. However, as that became public, we still weren't sure where this would fit into Alien continuity, if it even fit at all, and we certainly felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't expect to see a capital-A "ALIEN" in the movie. (Or a "xenomorph," if you prefer.)

As the movie approached, a viral campaign began that revealed Guy Pierce would be playing the new head of Weyland Industries, Peter Weyland. At this point, I cut myself off from the viral campaign. I didn't want to learn too much or get too hyped. Truth be told, I lacked faith. I hadn't liked or even cared about much of what Ridley Scott did for the past 15 years or so. I had little idea of what this movie was going to be, but I didn't expect suspense or action.

As the movie got closer, I of course stumbled across various tidbits via commercials, theatrical trailers and the occasional snippet of info. Of course the movie was going to deal with humans traveling to a distant world in an attempt to find aliens they believed created humanity on Earth - creatures they called "Engineers" but whom fans already knew as "Space Jockeys." But from there, the rumors conflicted: The movie would contain zero xenomorphs, but it would show how the ship crash-landed on LV-426. Wait, no, it wouldn't show that at all, but it would indeed hint at the origin of the xenomorphs. But then again, maybe we'd never LV-426 OR any alien. Or maybe we'd see a facehugger, but not a full-grown alien. Or nothing at all. Wait. What?

In the end, all we knew was that this wasn't really an Alien movie. It was something else in that same world, something with grander aspirations.

Finally, I had to see the movie to really find out what was up. I walked in aware of what the trailers showed me (which sure looked like horror/action to me), the fact that Guy Pierce played Peter Weyland, and the fact that Michael Fassbender played an android.

When I walked out? I loved it. In fact, I was glued to the screen from roughly 15 minutes in on forward. Over the past two days? I've grown to be more frustrated with some elements than others. But ultimately, I still think this is a huge victory for Ridley Scott.

Now, this is a movie more concerned with questions than answers. That's really one of its strongest assets - the fact that you can interpret and/or intuit much of what you see - and also one of its most frustrating elements. I love how many questions are left wide open without really leaving plot holes. You can see various potential answers, and you can even intuit the clearest ones. But you don't know for sure, and I dig that.

On the other hand, I think the film's weakest aspect is that the opening sequence never quite makes sense based on what we learn in the film. This is obviously by design; Scott and the screenwriters want us to talk it out. But I feel like that one question may be a step slightly too far.

Okay, we need to get into some basic plot spoilers.

Beyond "things don't go the way you plan or expect" theme, there's also something narrower here. The movie is, on a less deep level, about characters being forced to learn that as soon as you start projecting human expectations and behaviors onto anything that isn't human - be it your God, a generic force of "destiny," some animal life or even extraterrestrials - you've totally gone down the wrong road. There's no reason to believe that anything that isn't human would ever think, react, behave, emote or understand anything the way that humans do. We see it in the behavior of David the android; we see it in the foolishness of the scientists who try to treat a snake like a pet; we see it in how our two lead scientists react to the discoveries on LV-223.

Yes, LV-223. Not LV-426. No, this isn't going to lead us directly into where we wind up as the first Alien begins. Does it need to, though? It gives us more than enough context to intuit how that ship might've wound up in that predicament. Many fans insisted they didn't want to know all the secrets of the "Jockey" (which I will now call an "Engineer," because that's a hell of a lot more respectable). In a sense, they won out. We don't get all those answers. We don't really need them. We get enough to ponder and maybe even extrapolate, and we should just go with that.

Okay, let's just get to the nitty-gritty. HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW.

If you're a hardcore Alien fan, you're sure to find allusions to the other four films here. Scott has mentioned his knowledge of all the sequels in previous interviews, and he throws out a few cute in-jokes for the familiar fans. The most familiar element will be the aesthetic of being on a ship that predates the Nostromo that served as home to Ripley, Dallas, Kane, Parker and the like. You'll also hear Jerry Goldsmith's classic score at times, and of course, you'll see the spacecraft and Engineer design that left so many questions open in Alien.

However, I don't believe Scott has much affection for the fact that we eventually got Alien vs. Predator. That's funny, given that the plot setup in this movie is so very similar to the first AVP. Tell me if this sounds familiar: A group of scientists is assembled by Mr. Weyland to investigate what may be one of the most significant discoveries in human history. It's not until after they're nearly at their destination that they're told by the people in charge what that discovery is: Near-identical artwork and artifacts that are shared across multiple ancient human cultures, suggesting a heretofore unimagined link between them despite the distance and time that separated the existence of each ancient culture. Weyland seeks to validate this discovery for personal reasons, but the scientists are thrilled for more scientific purposes. That is, of course, until they all enter a pyramid that contains mortal dangers. It's there that they discover giant humanoid extraterrestrials that linked these cultures - beings once worshipped as gods by those human cultures of yore.

Yeah, I either described Prometheus or AVP right there. Both fit that description, yet the approach and execution is distinctive this time. It's now 30 years before Alien, and our crew is traveling to LV-223 (not LV-426, the site of the original Alien and Aliens) to investigate ancient paintings of what appear to be our creators - giant beings from the stars. The paintings included enough of a star map to lead the scientists to LV-223. Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce caked in old-age makeup) believes in these creatures, but company liason Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) has no such faith.

They aren't our leads, though. The real leads are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the scientists/lovers who are so anxious to discover where life came from. They're supported and antagonized by the android David, played by Michael Fassbender.

The three primary leads.

What do they discover? A sort of black protoplasm that is central to the movie's storyline and to what makes it all so interesting. These protoplasm naturally evolves life based on whatever environment it's exposed to. Put a little bit in the dirt, you get some earthworms. Spill a bunch into wet, marsh-like terrain, and you wind up with water snakes. Shoot some into a human womb, and a swimming jellyfish/octopus. This reveal comes gradually, of course, but it's fun to wrap your head around it. (There are also times when I had to wonder about the logic of a couple of the evolutions at play; you can explain them, but they don't always seem totally clear, nor is it clear when the evolving will STOP.)

The protoplasm tends to destroy any other life form it touches in the process of creating something new. In the prologue, we watch as an Engineer eats some of it, then his body dissolves horribly, only to reform into the seeds of life on Earth. Later, we see one of our crew members ingest a small portion of it, and he winds up getting a slow-burn version of the same fate. Shouldn't ingestion cause something to evolve in the gastrointestinal system? Apparently not; it doesn't work that way for the Engineer or the human. Something in there triggers a different result. "Something." Again with the mystery that's sure to invoke debate, but not in a "that made no sense" kind of way. Which is great.

As I said, this isn't a direct lead-in to Alien. This movie gives us some insight into what could've happened to leave that dead Jockey/Engineer where he is in Alien, but it doesn't go so far as to show us how he got there or why his ship crashed there. That's not in the cards. We're not even on that planet, after all. Scott leaves this to address another time, perhaps in a Prometheus sequel, but he still leaves us with adequate evidence for the big questions internal to this film. In other words: He may never tell us why David puts the protoplasm into that drink, but there's enough given to his character's obvious motivation that we can suss it out.

If you want to get technical about the movie, I have no complaints about this movie's performances. They're pretty great across the board, and the characters always behave in a fairly logical fashion, even if I don't agree with their motivations. Shaw has some crazysauce in her for still caring about the question of "WHY" at the film's end, but I understand it's true to her nature. I really appreciated Noomi Rapace in this... she's not really Ripley, because she's a much warmer, more emotional character than Ripley initially was. We relate to her because of her feelings. She's not out for revenge or gung-ho survival instincts. Ultimately, she never wavers from what she wants: Answers. Even after horrifying experience, she doesn't lose who she is, and we can always understand why.

I particularly loved Captain Janek (Idris Elba), who appears to be one of the saner members of the crew. He serves as a polar opposite to Peter Weyland. The wealthy Weyland will do anything to connect with the engineers at the end of his life in some vain hope that they can extend his existence. Janek, in comparison, is a blue-collar guy who will do anything to avoid the engineers, including giving up his life - one that still has many years ahead.

I have no complaints about the direction. The film looks beautiful in every respect, and even drawn-out segments like David exploring the ship while the others sleep manage to completely glue my focus to the screen. I was really concerned that Scott would make use of his annoying "grainy-cam" for action sequences, which is like a variation on shakycam that includes static. You can see it in most of his action/suspense films since Gladiator, but he keeps things classy here.

I have no complaints about the suspense, because it's constantly intriguing and frequently harsh. I loved the search through the Giger ship, and I love the race back to the Prometheus. The climax goes longer than I thought and carries the characters farther than I had wagered. The "Cesarean" scene is a particular highlight.

It's also a scene that I could gripe about, I suppose, if I wanted to do so. So yeah, I do have a few small gripes about how things play out, but I'm going to be pretty limited on that front. Even so, let's go there.


- The two characters who get lost in the alien ship - Fifield the geologist and Millburn the biologist - are fairly obvious fodder. We don't know precisely how it's going to go down, and it proves to be a somewhat interesting sequence of events, but it's also fairly ham-fisted that they're screwed from the moment they get separated, and it's kind of awkward how the movie forces it to happen. It's not unbelievable, just a little weird.

- The two engineers/co-pilots who assist the Captain when he does his kamikaze run aren't developed anywhere near enough for me to easily accept that they'd up and commit suicide for this cause. I believe Janek will go down to stop the Engineers, but I have to assume unspoken backstory between them and the Captain to accept that they're just going to do the same.

- I already mentioned how Shaw barely avoids being ripped open from the inside by performing an awkward surgery on herself. One of the film's best scenes — Maria was squeezing my hand like crazy during this bit. The scene is so good that I'm able to overlook that, in a real-life situation, the surgery that happens to her would still result in her death. I mean, unless somebody removed the placenta off-screen... oh, don't worry about it. It's futuremedicine! Who knows what they injected into her at some point. Maybe she dissolved her damn placenta herself. It's such an intense, wonderful segment that I can't piss on it much.

So, what's next for Prometheus-Alien-stuff? Scott has mentioned that he pictured this as a two-part story. (And I'll lay good odds that he tries to hand off any sequels to Carl Rinsch, the guy he wanted to have do this one in the first place until Fox called his bluff.) One of the screenwriters says that he has ideas for two sequels, potentially. What's left to explore?

Unanswered Questions:

- As Shaw repeatedly demands, why do the Engineers now wish us dead? There are plenty of plausible reasons, but none explicitly given.

- Why was that engineer on Earth at the beginning, killing himself to kick-start life on the blue planet? Was this a punishment? A separate tribe from the ones that want us dead? This lingering question is really the one that bothers me the most. It's the single element that feels the least detailed or thought-out in the final film.

- At the end of the film, we see a sort of "prototype" xenomorph burst from within an engineer. But the engineers obviously already know of these creatures, because they have a giant relief of one embedded in a mural within their spaceship. Indeed, the relief of the famous capital-A Alien is the centerpiece of that wall. What does this mean? Do they see the Alien as the ultimate evolution of their protoplasm - a "perfect organism," as Ash postulated in Alien? Did the Engineers discover Aliens elsewhere and reverse-engineer them into the goop, perhaps, leaving the Alien as the logical endpoint? Have the Engineers been intentionally birthing Aliens? What's the situation?

After the first viewing and a few days to ruminate, here's the current theory I've developed on the whole thing: Indeed, as Ranek theorizes, I think this is a military installation that our heroes stumbled across. The protoplasm has been turned into a weapon by them, but I don't think it started out that way. Maybe it was a difference of opinion among the engineers, or maybe their desires evolved... but for some reason, they went from creating and shepherding humans to creating and shepherding weapons. And, as Ash said in Alien, the xenomorph is the "perfect organism," particularly for weapon use. It's the pinaccle of their creations. I think this protoplasm here is designed to head towards the perfect weapon - hence the room full of protoplasm vases that features the Alien prominently on the back wall, and the fact that multiple evolutions that come out of the goo display facehugger-esque tendencies.

That's just one idea, though. I could be wrong. And the sequel, if they make it, could tell us something entirely distinct from any of our expectations. Until then, we have years to discuss the possibilities — just as we fans spent years discussing the Space Jockey up until now. How fun is that? The intellectual possibilities are a big part of what makes this another film to love. A film that, once again, re-validates my fandom of the whole shared franchise.
Djinndustries™djinndustries on June 12th, 2012 06:42 am (UTC)

There's a reply in there that references this post which seems quite thorough, though annoying:

Whomeveroberongeiger on June 13th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
So what about you? I'm assuming, based on your previous use of the word "rant" to describe your feelings, that you were among the non-fans. It's been fairly divisive.
Djinndustries™djinndustries on June 13th, 2012 03:29 am (UTC)
You can see some of my nuisances listed in the epi-lj link posted up there, but I guess the things that bother me most are the reasons why I didn't enjoy the AVP movies.

1. Poor sense of place. The massive vistas are lovely and evoke a certain sense of desolation, and this is fine. However, randomly sticking what seems to be a relatively rudimentary cave network into a hill with what seems to be pretty linear pathing to a single room with a giant head as a set piece just didn't work for me at all. The giant head blocking a xenomorph bas relief? WTF.

2. The adjunct characters are actively stupid. I can't imagine you would hire the world's best (it's a presumption of course, since it's a $1T investment) and then have them be antisocial (geologist) or practically suicidal (biologist). I have absolutely no reason to believe in their characters. I have less problems accepting biological organic weapons than the fact that they don't bother planning for a landing before entering the atmosphere.

3. So many opportunities to tie things to the previous films and then just leaving things flapping in the wind. So many Weyland references that could have been incorporated and just...weren't. Unsatisfying.

David was well acted, but the constant obstinacy and irregular behavior was difficult for me to believe.
Whomeveroberongeiger on June 14th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
But the cave system is all the spaceship, yes? Or were there caves that were distinct from the spaceship? I wasn't really clear on that, honestly. Going back tomorrow night, though, so hoping for some more clarity on that issue.

Regarding the landing, I thought it was just that they weren't prepared to land there or at least that soon, before doing a more thorough flyover.

As for the rest, well... it's all individual perspective, obviously.