Spoiler Alert. I’m going to talk about a few plot points. If you’re the sort that hates spoilers, I recommend you skip this one. 🙂
Ridley Scott is one of those directors whose reputation is solely dependent on a clutch of films. He’s got a great eye for detail, lighting and design and his films often look fantastic but his duds all betray a bit of bombast and in many ways a boring sensibility with plot. Of course, his best creation is ‘Blade Runner’ followed by the original ‘Alien’ so he keeps on getting slack from the fans of those two films but really, has he done anything as satisfying since? His films since have either been period pieces of one description or another, crappy cop show movies and a movie about outlaw women in an open top Thunderbird.
So when was the last time Ridley Scott gave us a really full-tilt, open throttle Science Fiction movie? ‘Blade Runner’. That’s 30 freakin’ long years, to have not given what his biggest supporters who like his oeuvre what they wanted. Over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to reconcile the director of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with the director of ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘American Gangster’.
Finally, he’s come out with something I can sink my teeth into and it’s a prequel to ‘Alien’.
What’s Good About It
It’s a Ridley Scott film, so the visuals are great. He really is a master of tone and detail as well as some very subtle camera moves. His technique as a director of camera and framing are all on show in this one. He even touches off visual cues from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as well as linking it into his original ‘Alien’ film from 1978. The craft is simply extraordinary.
Then there’s Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron. It’s usually Theron that puts in fearless-crazy performances, but this time she’s just there to play the stock standard Ice Queen. It’s Rapace who puts in a performance that holds together an altogether implausible sequence of action that only a jaded horror writer might dream up.
Michael Fassbender’s android David is a revelation too. It’s a performance for the ages in its coldness as well as dispassionate, yet ironic, sadism. As per convention, the android ends up just a head, but even then there’s something extraordinary about this one.
The horror bits are truly gross-out and horrific, so he should get a tick of approval for that. Some of it is leg-crossing-squirm-in-your-seat stuff. The foulness of the vision needs to be seen to be believed, but that is all good.
What’s Bad About It
At the end of the day, this is a bad-science kind of science fiction movie. I know Scott just wants to tell a rollicking story with this one, but it just doesn’t really make any bloody sense.
Consider for the moment that humans from 35,000 years ago are pointing at a bunch of stars. The crew go there, only to find ancient aliens who turn out to be humans of some kind. The logical reasoning the characters follow is that these must be the progenitors of life on Earth, but magically the DNA lines up with modern humans. And it’s magic because there’s no scientific way that would happen.
The other thesis that seems to be running is the panspermia hypothesis, that the building blocks of life are ubiquitous, and somehow what arises out of these fundamental building blocks of life is humanity – but they are somehow engineered.
When you think about it – not much, only a little – it can’t be both scenarios. They’re mutually exclusive, but the film just sort of muddles on to the next horror cue, and so it never explains itself properly on scientific terms. Worse still, the characters want to go talking about faith all the time, when in fact what they’re seeing should be telling them that God (and the notion of a Maker) really can’t be shoe-horned into the discussion. It’s as bad as the same discourse in ‘Contact’ starring Jodie Foster.
It’s a bit like seeing, let’s hypothetically say, artefacts on Mars, and then trying to ask questions as to whether one should place faith in Jesus given that there are artefacts on Mars. In the ordinary course of scientific thought, you’d think discussions of faith should be dispensed as irrelevant by Occam’s Razor. But maybe that’s just me being a science snob, looking down on the metaphysical concerns of characters.
What’s Interesting About It
Okay, it’s much better than that. The mirrored plot is to that of ‘2001’ so we might start with that. In ‘2001’, Apes encounter the monolith, humans encounter the monolith and so they fly out to deep space to have a transformative, lethal adventure of their lives.
For a film that is given to more prosaic story-telling than the Kubrick film, the actual structure of what is actually being discussed seems to be far more opaque – in fact as opaque as ‘2001’ itself. If ‘2001’ was about consciousness and transformation of the conscious, then ‘Prometheus’ might be about fear and the transformation of fear.
In neither film does knowledge become explicit. They both present an understanding that is intuitive obvious to the characters but bears no relationship to logic. Elisabeth Shaw played by Noomi Rapace, leaps at the conclusion that the black ooze is meant for Earth to exterminate life there. We don’t really know; and in some ways, all the other Alien movies are pointed in that direction so we’re sort of forced to take that story on as a given at that point. But that insight isn’t really explicated. This is strange.
Guy Pearce’s Rupert Diction
Now, this was funny. Guy Pearce playing an aged mogul trying to defy death and extend his life. So he delivers lines like Rupert Murdoch at the recent hearings. He had the voice down very well, but you wonder how that’s going to fly with 20th Century Fox who are distributing this movie – also owned by News Corp for many years.
More seriously, Ridley Scott is revisiting some of his tropes. The aging mogul is facing off with death and wants to meet his maker for more life. Isn’t that Roy Batty’s problem in ‘Blade Runner’?
The motif of the two spiritual children who grow up to be opposites of a coin – Deckard and Roy, Maximus and Commodus, is repeated with David and Meredith. Although it is hard to see if Meredith really is the bad one and David is the good one. David seems to come in a long line of naughty robots who do things that are actually harmful to the crew of the Alien series with the exception of Bishop.
A Quick Meditation On Naughty Robots
Asimov had his 3 laws of robotics, pretty much to stop robots in his stories from going ‘Frankenstein’. Frankenstein of course has a story arc where an inanimate object is brought to life but the unintended consequence is that it’s a monster and must so be destroyed.
Asimov’s three laws of robotics were a great innovation and contribution for Science Fiction because it led to a whole bunch of shot stories about robots that weren’t about the Frankenstein syndrome. Mind you, there seem to be no end of robots that come with faulty circuitry when it comes to those three laws. R2D2 has a mind of its own and wanders through the 6 Star Wars movies just doing his thing, his way.
The androids in Alien movies are similarly oblivious to the rule about not letting any harm come to any human being. It’s particularly vexing when David spikes Charlie’s drink with the black goo and we never get an explanation as to why David would or could do this knowing full well that it is going to be dangerous.
What’s Wrong About It
Here’s a bit of a story logic problem. The black ooze comes out of the jars. This stuff is capable of making your head explode. We see this twice – once with the 2000 year old preserved head, and then with the character Charlie.
Charlie has sex with Elizabeth which gives rise to the squid-monster pregnancy. Presumably, the black ooze has somehow gone and genetically wrapped itself into human DNA, so, the squid monster is some kind of hybrid of human and black ooze.
Later in the film, the Squid Monster grows into something huge and wrestles with the ‘Engineer’ proto-human race, and inserts its tentacle into the Engineer’s mouth. This gives rise to the first Geiger Alien as we recognise it, ripping out of the corpse of the Engineer.
If the ‘Engineers’ as they are called, are genetically human, then none of this makes any bloody sense because the thing should become a closer hybrid with humanity. Unless the Geiger Alien is somehow a hybrid between the squid monster and human genome; but it just doesn’t look that way.
Also… Elizabeth saw what happened when the android David spoke to the Engineer. What possible good question could there be for the Engineers?
The Geiger Alien at 34
A lot’s happened to the H.R. Geiger Alien since it was brought to the screen in 1978. In the sequel, it got a hive and a Queen; in the next sequel we found out it could have its DNA meld with even a dog; and then in the fourth film we found out that it could even have a womb and call Ripley “mama”.
The Geiger Alien must be one of the most important creations in fiction in the late 20th Century next to Indiana Jones, a bunch of Marvel Comics characters and Buffy the Vampire slayer.
Needless to say, this film fits the recent mold of having to do an ‘origin story’ for the Geiger Alien, but as origin stories go, it’s really under-explained. Then again, the Geiger alien’s not exactly known for dialogue.
There’s a lot less goo and slime in this film. This might be conscious on the part of Ridley Scott. Sigourney Weaver once made the observation that as the sequels went on, there was ever more increasing goo and slime in each subsequent sequel. It stands to reason there’s less than even the first Alien movie.
The Lean Homage
For some pithy reason, the blonde android David is obsessed with Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. They share something in common, which is big panoramas and sweeping, epic narratives but a certain inertness of emotions. It’s a little bit of conceit on the part of Ridley Scott, I think.
Although, I have to say that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is a kind of ‘Heart of Darkness’ text where an allegedly civilised man goes into the wilderness – and the ship Prometheus is sort of going up the river into heart of darkness – space itself – in this film as well.
Aha! But Is It Enjoyable?
Having waited for Ridley Scott to do another Science Fiction film for so long, I kind of think that maybe he’s left it a little too late. The weirdest observation I have to make is that this film would make an excellent movie double with ‘Avatar’.