In Defense Of Prometheus: The Big Issues In Defense Of Prometheus: The Big Issues
Hello again. After dealing with the nitpicks in my other article, it’s time to get into the things that really seem to set Prometheus... In Defense Of Prometheus: The Big Issues

Hello again. After dealing with the nitpicks in my other article, it’s time to get into the things that really seem to set Prometheus critics into a frenzy. I’m talking about mythology expansion, bigger themes and scientific theories people don’t seem to like. This is a where a lot of people part ways with where Ridley Scott took this franchise I think and the nitpicks of the other article are subconscious reactions to how much these bigger elements piss people off which is the only way you can explain a comment like, “This is worse than the Star Wars prequels”, because you know, no matter how you feel about this movie, comments like that are absolute horseshit.

Let’s start with two basic facts about this movie. First, why a prequel? Well for that, lets go to John Spaihts: “We had to do a prequel because the sequels had become so strange.” Very true. Starting with Alien 3 and going all the way up to those awful Alien Versus Predator movies, the timeline had become a convoluted mess and for all the disagreement about what Scott himself added to the mythology with this film, what those other films pulled out of their ass is much, much worse. An Alien Queen in a Mayan temple in the middle of the Arctic? Newt and Hicks DOA from the first scene? And what the hell was going on with Resurrection? Unlike Nu-Star Trek, dialing it back to before the first film seems to be the logical way to go.

WTF.

The second big issue is this: Nothing was explained or as many have claimed, “It’s attempting to be clever by posing questions it has no answers for.” This is categorically untrue. Another movie once had this same critique lobbed at it. Go back and check out the reviews for 2001. The frustrations in those reviews mirror the complaints of Prometheus to an astonishing degree and as we know now, those complaints from 1968 were unfounded since all of the answers were right there. You just had to pay attention. Now, I’m not saying Prometheus is of the same quality as 2001, just that the same storytelling technique is being employed here as well. Or as Scott explains, “The clues are laid right through…It’s all there. Actually, if you’re looking, it’s quite subtle. Besides, I left it at a sequel. I want to start it NOW.”  A lot of people of course, blame this on Damon Lindelof who obviously has a history of this. Although I’ve never watched one episode of Lost, I know of the complaints that there was no answer to the mystery in the end but that doesn’t apply to Prometheus. First, he wasn’t the original screenwriter and it’s clear that Scott is driving this ship. He may have been the one to employ the plot structure of “holding back answers” but whatever the problems with his television series, they don’t apply to a film where he’s not in the creative pole position. Regardless, when speaking of Prometheus specifically, he makes some good points: “One of the things I love to do in my writing is not answer questions definitively. As frustrating as this is, I rely much more on human imagination and your ability to sort of theorize as to what you think may have happened. Although that might be frustrating, it’s what makes people talk about movies when they’re over. Movies that sort of explain every single thing that happened in them and why are much less interesting to me than movies that don’t. I’m still thinking about Inception and it came out two years ago.” However you feel about that quote, he’s right about one thing: We’re still talking about this movie.

Let’s start at the beginning here with an Engineer seeding the Earth with life. Right away people cried foul with this invoking Chariots of the Gods and right away, this is a false assumption. Here’s the thing, the whole Chariots of the Gods thing is more of a hippy, dippy, late 60’s idea based on Erich von Daniken’s book of the same name that was later made into a “documentary” in 1970, narrated by Rod Serling. It’s basic idea is that “ancient astronauts” influenced primitive cultures on Earth thousands of years ago and may have been responsible for the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. It’s been fodder for science fiction ever since. It’s the cornerstone of the entire Stargate franchise. But the idea of the evolution of life on Earth being influenced or even originating from an extraterrestrial source is a separate idea and a real scientific theory called Panspermia that basically hypothesizes that life may have been brought to Earth through micro organisms on asteroids or spacecraft and when they came in contact with an active biosphere like Earth’s, the dormant bacteria then started the process of evolution. This is a more modern idea so it hasn’t seen as much traction, basically coming about with the discovery of bacteria found on a Mars meteorite in 1993. This concept was used to great effect most notably in the X-Files. The Engineers in Prometheus didn’t influence our culture. They influenced our evolution. Returning maybe a couple hundred thousand years ago was a byproduct of this bigger experiment and plays heavily into the events found on LV-223 later in the film and even connects to the derelict ship in Alien but I’ll get into that later. I understand that the imagery of the cave markings found by Shaw and Holloway would lead one to this conclusion but that completely ignores the starting point of the movie’s backstory. Part of the confusion comes from some misinterpretation from a Ridley Scott quote concerning Jesus and how his death may have influenced what happened on LV-223, 2,000 years ago. When asked if he considered using Jesus as part of the backstory for events in the film, here’s what Scott said: “We definitely did and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an ‘our children are misbehaving down there’ scenario, there are moments when it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration started to happen. And you can say, ‘Let’s send down one of our emissaries to see if he can stop it’. Guess what? They crucified him.” Basically, Scott is sharing a discarded concept here, it being “too on the nose” which is exactly what most people seem to not like about that idea. Guess what? Scott agrees with you. What’s important about the statement he made is what he says about the Roman Empire and that, two thousand years ago, the Engineers checked up on their experiment and found (to their eyes) a brutally savage race that was not what they intended. If you want to take the crucifixion of Jesus as a historical fact or a metaphorical story it still speaks to the fact that, at that time on Earth; those who advocated for peace (like Martin Luther King or Ghandi, closer to our own time) were killed or silenced. That’s what set their plans in motion to create the xenomorphs. But no, the film in no way puts forth the idea that Jesus was a 9 foot tall, albino alien (heck, I would think that even if Jesus WERE one of them, they would be clever enough to genetically design him to look like one of us anyway, don’t you think?)

 

This brings up another issue many seem to have missed. Why did that Engineer wake up and immediately go apeshit on Weyland and the rest? Again, this seems pretty obvious to me and it’s all set up in the opening scene of the film. The Engineer in the beginning is shown taking place in what seems to be a sacred event which means they’ve been seeding other planets with DNA for a long time. Their advanced scientific techniques carry a kind of religious context to them. They’re one and the same but more importantly, this is an alien race that sacrifices themselves in order to create life. They give of themselves in order to perpetuate life. What the Engineer does in the opening scene is the ultimate selfless act. So this race that has sacrificed itself to give others life wakes up to an old man who refuses to let go of life (“A king has his reign and then he dies…”) and is willing to kill others just to hold onto the little bit of life he has left. The Engineer is immediately asked upon waking to help this old man live forever. And that’s after watching this man order his goons to shut up Shaw by punching her in  the stomach with his rifle. This request and the treatment he sees between these chattering monkeys is incredibly offensive to him and it only justifies their assessment of the human race. Before his eyes, he sees an old man who should have accepted his own mortality, treat other humans as expendable commodities to further his own selfish goals. This is diametrically opposed to everything the Engineer’s race believes. And to add further insult, he’s asked by a machine created by this man in what must seem like a perversion of what his race has been doing for millions of years. It’s all there in the film but was made cut and dry in the original scene which was cut when Scott decided not to explain every single detail to the audience and let them put the pieces together themselves. But here it is for further clarification:

So, the timeline that confuses most who don’t like the film seems pretty clear. About 2,000 years ago, the Engineers stopped by Sol to check up on their Panspermia Experiment to find an evolved race of apes that are the exact opposite of what they intended. In response, they set up a bio-weapons lab on LV-223 to create a biological killing machine that would wipe out the human infestation but leave the biosphere intact to start over again. But the experiment was so dangerous that the weapon got loose and killed them off as well before they could deliver the weapon to Earth. Many tried to escape as seen in the hologram David activates. At least one ship was able to leave the surface but before being able to leave the system, the pilot (who was already infected) was killed by a chestburster and crashed his ship on the neighboring planetoid, LV-426. This is the ship the Nostromo crew finds in Alien. Dallas even makes a comment about the Space Jokey looking “fossilized”, meaning it’s been there for some time. Now we know it’s been there for 2,000 years.

“It’s not my planet, monkey boy!”

This brings me to one of my favorite things about this movie: the expansion of the xenomorph’s origin and purpose.  A lot of people object to this, saying it destroys the original intention from what we see and know in the original film. I see the issue as providing the exact opposite. The first thing to understand here is that Sir Ridley is riffing on an old science fiction idea that was most prominently brought into the mass culture by Stanley Kubrick, once again in 2001. The basic idea there is that the Monolith is where the human race created it’s idea of God from. Kubrick even referred to this as “The God Concept” and the idea there is that this encounter with a highly evolved, transcendental, alien species has been passed down through “race memory” with the myth of God evolving from this original incident and has been literally encoded in our DNA for millions of years. The God Concept is ever present in Prometheus as well but just handled in a very different way. The Monolith has been swapped out for the Engineers and where the Monolith represented a benign but ultimately indifferent alien force, in Prometheus; the Engineers are anything but. This is a concept of God that hates you and wants to wipe you out. The idea of humanity, life on this planet being a mistake and needs to go; is as dark a concept as one can imagine and places the specificity of the xenomorph into a larger philosophical context that is the very definition of dread and terror. Not only that but it fully honors the Lovecraftian roots that Dan O’Bannon wrote into the original film. In his stories of The Old Ones, an ancient alien race who ruled the Earth billions of years ago; Lovecraft came to the conclusion that this advanced alien race were responsible for the evolution of life on our planet and that humans came about as some sort of “cruel joke” or ultimately as a food source. That’s not far off from the musings of Prometheus on the origins of human life. The idea that the sole purpose of the xenomorph is to wipe out all existence of the mistake that is human life only enhances the terror of it’s form and function as far as I’m concerned. This is malevolence on a cosmic scale and basically looks at the universe as something that wants to hurt you and despises your very existence. I love the idea of taking the instinctual terror of the first film and expanding it into an existential one. This concept of the xenomorphs purpose is hinted at with David’s line, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy”, which is actually a Joseph Stalin quote. Scott also explains a little further: “It’s about creation and destruction, if you realize whatever you’ve created is wrong; you want to kind of wipe it out, start again and wipe the slate clean.”

And what about that other element that eventually creates the xenomorphs in the first place? The black goo. This was perhaps, the most confusing aspect of the whole film but I think that’s partially intentional. The main question a lot of people have is, why does this stuff create life in the beginning but creates monsters like Fifefield later on? I think that’s also obvious. Whatever this substance is, it’s clearly been used by the Engineers for millions of years to interact with their DNA (which the film specifically states is a match with ours) to jump start cellular evolution on habitable planets. But this substance can also be manipulated into a weapon just like most scientific advances. Think of the splitting of the atom. You can either create a bomb from it or a power source to drive a spaceship or provide electricity to a city.

Good goo…

…bad goo.

The facility on LV-223 is a bio-weapons lab. This same source of life was taken there to transform it into a virus that apparently creates a xenomorph, eventually. How the full process works out, we still haven’t seen but perhaps that’s what Fifefield was turning into. The aggressiveness, agility and super human strength he displays when he attacks the crew in the launch bay certainly evokes the behavior of a xenomorph. And I think the ending of the film is definitely meant as an inverse version of the first scene. Once again, we see an Engineer being used as a vessel to create something but instead of seeding the Earth with life, he’s inadvertently responsible for creating the destructive force of a proto-xenomorph. Both life and death spring from the same source. That seems to be the takeaway here. And here’s Lindelof again to explain a little further: “The idea that it’s human DNA that’s sort of mixed up in all of this is sort of the point. What the Engineers were going to do with this stuff we’ll come to learn, is they were going to drop it on Earth but how would it have interacted with our population? What would it turn them into? We get a glimpse of that with Fifefield. So isn’t the idea just that it’s an experiment? This form of life that they originally created, humanity; was not particularly satisfying to them so they’re going to introduce a new mutagen and see what happens. Maybe just because they could. That’s kind of the point of the movie I think. The idea that our creators don’t really have a particular sense of greater ambition or meaning behind what they’re doing…the idea that Earth was just these people’s petri dish. But perhaps there’s more to why they created us in the first place which is sort of the spirit in which this movie ends.” I can say that the only issue I have is one of aesthetics. It recalls too strongly the Black Oil from the X-Files but I consider that a minor problem since it serves a different function. In the X-Files, the Black Oil WAS an alien life form itself rather than a genetic device like it is here.

Fifefield…

…and his new bowling partner.

The other complaint about the Black Goo is that it has no rules and can become whatever the writer wants it to be but it seems to fit within the rules of the story just fine. It’s set up from the beginning that it must interact with a biological organism in order to “activate” so the fact that you get different results when you combine the mutagen with a human as opposed to his impregnated sperm or through a giant facehugger that attacks an Engineer seems narratively consistent. Different results from different hosts. Makes sense and it’s a smart story decision because it means there’s an almost infinite number of combinations you could end up with depending on what the mutagen interacts with and in what stage. This is a good idea considering Scott now wants to make 6 of these films. Also, the idea that human DNA is mixed up in this (did the Engineers return to Earth in the past to harvest human DNA for the mutagens’ creation?) gives a good explanation as to why the xenomorph takes on the shape of whatever its birth host is. It seems to be very malleable to Earth DNA.

By this point, a lot of detractors would say “Yeah, I understand all of this. I’m not a moron. But I just don’t like the explanations presented.” Okay, fine. But why exactly? And that brings me to the big issue that I think hangs over this entire discussion. The catalyst for most of the negative receptions of this movie. I’m talking of course about the backstory of the Space Jockey. All of the issues in this article stem from this one decision by the filmmakers. This is nothing short of a clash between 50 years of pop culture tradition butting up against modern scientific theory. Allow me to explain.

The Space Jockey, introduced to us in 1979; was a product of a very long Hollywood tradition when it came to aliens and borne directly of necessity and budget constraints. Let’s go all the way back to 50’s science fiction and the original Star Trek. For a long, long time, the concept of an alien had one major constraint: it had to be either a suit that fit around a performer, or the cheaper option which were make up appliances like pointy ears or painting an actress green. This was for obvious technological constraints, budget issues or so the audience could relate to the character. The other reason was because there really wasn’t much science on the particular subject of how an alien life form would evolve. Remember, DNA itself wasn’t discovered until the 1950’s. Now, there were occasional instances when filmmakers ventured outside the humanoid form to present us with something really radical but those creatures were usually unconvincing puppets or bad rotoscope animation. It wasn’t until recently, with the advent of CGI effects that aliens depicted on screen could venture outside the humanoid form. Shortly before this however, a new scientific study emerged that’s now known as Astrobiology. Basically, this is the study of how carbon based life could evolve under a different set of conditions within a foreign biosphere. What this new science basically presented for the fodder of science fiction, was the fact that two arms, two legs and a head with eyes, a mouth and a nose; may very well be a living structure confined to this planet and that evolution may be going in all kinds of crazy directions out in the universe. Still confined to the limits of nature, yes but the shapes and forms extraterrestrials take may not be something you could fit over or on a Los Angeles day player. This revelation many science fiction authors over the decades had already guessed at but it kind of sent established science fiction properties scrambling. Most remember that early example of “retconning” on the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, The Chase. This is where it’s explained that the reason why almost all Star Trek aliens look like humans with forehead appliances is because an ancient alien civilization “seeded” the galaxy with their DNA which is of a humanoid form. Sound familiar?

What’s old…

…is new again.

Now let’s go back to 1979 and the release of Alien. There’s no CGI and no Astrobiology yet. The Space Jokey was, as far as anyone knew; what an alien would look like, Basically, this is a humanoid with an elephant-like proboscis. Also it’s huuuuge. In 1979, that passes as pretty out there. Now, not so much.

This isn’t an alien.

THESE are aliens…

Why do I mention all of this? Well, because between 1979 and now, two things happened. One, was Ridley Scott continued to be a big fan of hard science fiction and the latest scientific theory which was made evident to me right before the release of Prometheus when I went to a double feature of Alien and Blade Runner in which he spoke in between and conveyed in a very animated fashion, his passion for real science and it’s effect on how he approaches his work. Two, Alien, just like the other major sci-fi properties; became the fodder of the merchandise machine that decided to continue the story in the form of Dark Horse Comics. The continuation of popular franchises through licensed products was a popular convention in the 90’s when everything seemed stalled except for Star Trek. Star Wars exploded all over the place with novels, comics and then video games. But Alien, being a “smaller” property; created only one outlet that was partly born out of the lack of an immediate follow up after Aliens. For years, this was the only known continuation of this IP and because of that, I believe the expansion of the universe that it provided fans has been subconsciously solidified in their minds, possibly being partly responsible for the strong negative reaction to the next two sequels. And for good reason: It told a better story. Having said that, I think it has solidified what the Space Jockey should be to many and why so many object to Scott’s explanation. Quite frankly, someone else retconned it first. So when a lot of these people (who are undoubtedly the same ones who spew such negativity towards the film in chat rooms) walked into Prometheus, they had already subconsciously rejected the Engineer, instead expecting this guy to show up:

Maybe even sporting expository dialogue like this:

Admit it. This is the Space Jockey you’re looking for. But Scott wasn’t going to go that route. Just like what was decided with that TNG episode, it was clear to Scott that this guy looked far too human. So he decided on a similar retcon. The Space Jokey would become tied to our evolution explaining why it looks so close to a human form. Being a follower of Astrobiological theory and someone whose read way too much modern science fiction literature, I loved this explanation. My only complaint? The shrinking of the Engineer. In Alien, the Space Jockey must be at least 14 feet tall. But they’ve shrunk him to about 9 feet in Prometheus, basically making him into an albino version of Lebron James. I understand the reasons for this since now you have to have an actor in a suit interacting with Rapace and Pearce but it takes away a little bit of the majesty of the character for me but again, I consider this a minor quibble.

So the problem that now remains after tying the Engineer to our DNA? You still have a movie series called Alien, so as Jeff Goldblum would say, “Uh…you’re planning on eventually having aliens in your Alien movie?”. The answer to that is a big yes. This was something that was also set up in Prometheus when Shaw and Holloway discuss the DNA find and the fact that they’ve pretty much solved the mystery of God according to Holloway. But Shaw replies, “Who made them?”, and according to Scott, this is where the franchise is now heading: “If they’re not gods, if they’re simply us, then where does the buck stop? Who made them and why? What’s the grand plan? What’s the bucket that everything’s in so that you can go on evolving?”. And what will they look like? Well, some of the designers on the film have stated Scott hinted that some of the discarded concepts for Prometheus will be used in the future and specifically, he refers to this one:

Now that’s more like it. I also like the size difference with the human there for scale. But something tells me whatever made the Engineers may have transcended physical form like the aliens in 2001. It’s been hinted at in Spaiht’s original outline that the Engineers themselves are on the verge of transcending this dimensional universe so they’re creators must be even more advanced.

Either way, this series has enough hard science fiction concepts to grab my attention so I could care less if it veers away from the typical Alien movie structure which I for one, think has been done to death. We have four movies and two AVP films with people being picked off by a xenomorph one by one. Thank God Scott is doing something different. Many ask, “If he really wanted to make a big sci-fi film then why not just do it?”. Short answer? Because Hollywood wouldn’t let him. In case you haven’t noticed, bold, new ideas aren’t allowed anymore. Just sequels, reboots and comic book movies. I guarantee that the only reason The Martian was greenlit was because of the financial success of Prometheus. Scott was clever in opening up the Alien universe to create something new and yet connected to a universe we already know. Isn’t this exactly what people have been screaming for Disney to do with Star Wars? Isn’t the big complaint with that franchise that it keeps retreading the same territory and rehashing things we’ve already seen? And yet when someone comes along and shows the audience a corner of an established universe they haven’t seen yet, it’s met with derision. This is why we can’t have nice things.

In fact, one of the film’s biggest strengths is how it slowly connects with the tone of the original which is something I feel isn’t addressed enough. Remember how Alien begins with an atmosphere of dread established with the title sequence and that wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score? What I love about Prometheus is how it goes in the opposite direction tonally and once again, it’s through the film score. It begins with an air of optimistic discovery, almost like Star Trek. This is made clear in the cave scene and with another exceptional score by Marc Streitenfield. Listen to how everything begins:

Later, after the black goo is discovered and the storm hits, things start to take a turn as what started out as an intriguing mystery becomes something much worse than they anticipated:

It finally comes full circle to end here, sounding very much like Goldsmith score for the third act of the 1979 film:

That’s a great progression for me. Starting somewhere new and ending with were the tone of the first film started. That alone is a great story structure for this series and something entirely new for one of these films. I think Ridley was smart enough not to try to “out dread” the original film, knowing that simply wasn’t possible and instead taking a new approach.

Now with Covenant almost upon us, we’ll see if these ideas hold up or if it really does fall back into being another clone of the original. Something tells me, Scott’s going to split the difference. Either way, I think those who didn’t like Prometheus won’t have their minds changed while those of us who enjoyed it will enjoy this one. Ridley Scott has started a process here that you’re either on board with or you’re not and even if he reversed course now and simply makes Alien 5, I’m pretty sure the same folks who don’t like the radical departure that Prometheus represents, will hate that even more so hey, might as well soldier on.

I’m not sure what people expect from these films anymore and I strongly suspect they don’t either but regardless of where you land on the praise or critique of Prometheus, you have to admit; it’s a film whose ideas people are still talking about and you’re not going to get that out of a Transformers movie. So sure, hate it if you will but take into account what I’ve brought up here. And of course, if you’re going to damn the film, it’s obvious it doesn’t fall below a Star Wars prequel, a comic book film or a Michael Bay Joint. And in a world full of choices like those, can we at least agree that trying something different is better than being derivative? You may want to give Scott an F for presentation but the old bloke definitely gets an A for effort.

Like it or hate…get ready for more:

 

 

 

 

 

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