Ah Prometheus, the film that divided a million nerds, at least on the internet. I say this because outside of the cyberworld, I really haven’t met anyone who hasn’t liked the film. And I’m not talking about just a close padre of friends. I’m talking about people from all walks of life, ones in the industry and without. I’m also not saying they don’t exist but it’s not like we haven’t seen this phenomenon before. Snakes On A Plane anyone? Remember how the internet just knew it was going to be a big hit because everyone was so fired up about it? Prometheus seems to be the same thing but inverted. It made a total box office gross of 403,354,469 on a budget of 130 million so there should be no surprise that we will soon have a sequel this May. It’s also not like I don’t understand why some people don’t like it but let’s be honest, the LEVEL of dislike for this movie seems to be on a scale of irrationality that makes me question the sanity of a lot of the people behind the comments I’ve seen in talkbacks. Maybe not so much here but if you scroll through ANY talkback on other sites that has anything remotely to do with this film or Covenant, people freely talk about this being an “abomination” or “worse than every bad movie ever”. No matter how you feel about this movie, I don’t know how anyone can logically defend that kind of hyperbole.
I’m not looking to change anyone’s minds here. I know that in this age of entrenched positions most of us have, not just on film but everything else; that this is a fruitless exercise but as an unabashed and unapologetic lover of this film, I have read so many criticisms of the movie that are based on wrong assumptions, misreading of dialogue, misremembering of events, making-of quotes taken out of context or even a willful dismissal of information to the contrary that I feel it’s time to offer a reasoned defense of this movie and maybe get to the real reason for such vitriol towards what I consider to be one of the best hard science fiction films of the 21st century.
Is it a perfect film? No. That would be 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has it’s flaws but nothing so large that it ruins the film for me. Not by a long shot. But that’s the strange thing about the criticisms I see hurled at the movie. Most of them I would put in the “nitpicking” category which is something all too common with movie buffs these days. This I define as the inability to enjoy a narrative due to minor elements that they disagree with. By these standards, many classic films wouldn’t hold up. Would a great white really explode by shooting an air tank in it’s mouth? Would Indiana Jones really survive hanging on to the outside of a submarine all the way to that island? How did that mothership “rise” from behind the Devil’s Tower mountain in Close Encounters? Did it dig a ditch in the ground first? Not to say anything of the original Alien film but I’ll get to that later. Regardless, I think these are just symptoms of a bigger problem a lot of people have with this movie which I’ll try to address. But first, let’s start with those “nits” people have cited so very often.
I’m just going to address every detractors’ favorite “what the fuck” moment in this movie which I will affectionately call Milburn Pets The Space Snake. Detractors hate this scene and I understand why. This is the modern equivalent of the old horror movie cliche we’ve seen so many times in the Friday the 13th movies of teenagers purposely putting themselves in harms way so the plot can advance. But I feel the simple analysis of “no one in their right mind would be this stupid” is to ignore a lot of things, from character beats to the first Alien film. First off, it IS stupid but not for the character of Milburn. Just because YOU wouldn’t do a thing doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. And there was an attempt to set up his motivations for this in a scene that was unfortunately cut for time that I personally think shouldn’t have been because it sure as hell explains a lot. In it, the Prometheus crew comes upon signs of life in the form of worms. This is a really big deal for everyone especially Milburn because, as he explains; at this point in the Alien Universe, no life more advanced than bacteria has ever been found. Milburn is ecstatic and collects samples. This sets up his even greater excitement at finding a space cobra. Lindeloff explains this futher on the commentary: “What you and I would do in a scenario like this is, we would run as far away from that little snake-like wormy thing as we could. Milburn however, is a xenobiologist. He’s very interested in this thing and excited by it. I think perhaps one of the things we lost by dropping the previous scene, although it was wise to do so; was it really showed how excited Milburn was about experiencing any kind of extraterrestrial, sophisticated life and that certainly explains why he’s acting like a complete moron here. You know, the last thing you do when you see a snake in the wild is get your face really close to it and start smiling and extending your hand like you want to pet it. I can’t imagine what Milburn thinks is going to happen here. And Fifefield is articulating everything that we’re feeling as an audience.”
That statement has a lot of self-awareness to it which I think a lot of people assumed wasn’t there for the filmmakers. And just in case anyone thinks this is him reacting to audience criticism, it’s mentioned earlier in the commentary that this was recorded before the movie was released. I know a lot of people don’t like Lindeloff and to be honest, I’m not a fan either. I don’t like the Star Trek movies he wrote and both Lost and The Leftovers just don’t appeal to me but his comments on the Blu Ray make a lot of sense throughout that make it clear he gave a lot of thought to the decisions made in the story, not to mention that if you have read Spaiths’ draft of the script; he definitely improved it, dropping a paint-by-numbers third act repeat of the original film and dropping a lot of corny bible quotes the characters keep spouting that hit you over the head with the film’s subtext.
And it’s not like there isn’t both in-universe and real-life precedents for this. Let’s start with real life since that seems to be the basis for why a lot of people think this situation would never happen. Well, two words come right to mind: Steve Irwin. Here was a man very experienced around dangerous animals who also in the end, let his enthusiasm cloud his judgement, resulting in a a sting ray tail to the heart. But then there’s also the Alien universe itself. Honestly, if people have a problem with what Milburn did, then they should have just as big a problem with this guy:
I mean, why don’t you just do a nose dive into the gestating, alien egg you found in the spooky, fog-enshrouded room? And before anyone pulls the “it’s okay for manual labor workers to be morons” defense, let me just remind everyone that Kane is one of the scientists on the ship. That’s why you have John Hurt with his British accent among the space trucker Yanks with the exception of the other scientist, Ian Holm. And just like Milburn, he’s enthusiastic about new discoveries (“We must go on! We have to go on!”). There’s even the deleted scene that’s restored in the Director’s Cut of Alien that has the opposite effect of the Prometheus deleted scene. In this one, Kane is shown with a gun which before leaning over the unknown alien organism, HE SETS DOWN. Yeah, why would he need that? But maybe it’s the tenor of performance we’re talking about. Kane does something stupid but still feels like an inquisitive guy who makes a wrong move but as you can see from Milburn’s shit-eating grin, Ridley Scott wants you to know how stupid this guy is being. That’s a controversial choice right there. I call this the “Sienfeld Effect”. Essentially, like that sitcom; the story is being told from the point of view of characters that aren’t necessarily likable. It’s a common trope and another that was very popular in the 70’s and 90’s. But like many other decisions made in this film, these are not conventional choices for a 21st Century tentpole movie. The Prometheus crew ain’t exactly the Avengers now are they? For me, it’s a refreshing change of pace and definitely more in line with the original film. Yes, we all love that ragtag crew of space miners today but hindsight is twenty-twenty. Remember, Alien was released in 1979, two years after Star Wars introduced us to some of the most likable characters ever to appear in a big, space adventure and because of it’s success; likable characters and sci-fi went hand in hand. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with Luke, Han and the Princess? Then Alien came along with its’ crew of grimy, working-class space truckers who yelled at each other. At the time this was very new in this kind of world. Of course, now it’s common place (The Expanse, Battlestar Galactica) and as the world has become more corporate and all the rough edges of our society have been sanded down, the crew of the Nostromo now have a quaint feeling of nostalgia to them and feel realer than ever. Prometheus gave us another unlikable crew in some ways but with a different twist which I’ll get into a little later. But nonetheless, this was a purposeful move which makes the few sympathetic characters stand out even more and I like that.
Speaking of unlikable characters, how about that Holloway? Elizabeth Shaw’s boyfriend and fellow archeologist is most DEFINITELY not supposed to be likable. He’s kind’ve an arrogant douche in fact. Again, a purposeful move. How do I know? Because it’s what gets him killed. But let’s start with this cocky little bastard’s most talked about action: Taking off the helmet. This is a guy who defines action through character. And it’s clear from the beginning that this guy isn’t going to play it safe. First, he’s the one to jump out of his seat when they’re entering the atmosphere which clearly rankles Captain Yanek. Right there, it’s clear this guy has no regard for his own safety. And again, aside from being in line with the character; the removing of the helmet has precedent elsewhere in film as Lindeloff once again explains: “I also think this is sort of a leap of faith. There’s this great moment in Close Encounters where Roy Neary is in the back of a helicopter and he knows there’s not poison gas in the air at all and he takes off his gas mask and sort of takes this breath but he’s not sure whether or not he’s right and I kind of feel like this is the same thing here which is if you’re really going to be a bravura scientist and Holloway is sort of an adventure seeker. One of the things we left out of the script was when David goes over and checks out Holloway, he’s in cryosleep in the beginning of the movie…he’s always doing crazy lunges or jumping off of things so he’s a guy who’s not afraid to put his life on the line for science even though he claims to be an atheist. He’s pretty irresponsible. I guess maybe because he is an atheist…”
But more than that, there’s also precedent in the Alien Universe for this which makes me curious why people get so upset about it as if this is the first time a character has not taken the proper precautions when walking on an alien world. In Aliens, the Colonial Marines sure don’t mind running around LV-426 sans pressure suits even though they’re investigating a situation where contact has been lost with a group of terraforming colonists. They have no idea about the nature of the communications loss so how do they know it’s not an airborne virus involved? Nope, shock helmets will do just fine.
In both films though and in really all science fiction films set in space, this is always going to be a practical decision born out of production realities as John Spaith explains: ” Another inevitable tug of war in space exploration/sci-fi is the helmet. Logic demands the helmets stay on almost always for head protection, for atmosphere, pressure could blow, infection could set in…the director and the actors will always want their helmets off for performances sake and there will always be pressure to give the actors a good excuse to take their hats off and we went back and forth on that a few different ways.”
But aside from basic filming needs, it’s not like there isn’t consequences for Holloway’s personality traits. That same arrogance and disregard for personal safety is his downfall. When David uses his own arrogance against him to “get permission” to infect him, this becomes obvious:
This not only gives more than enough motivation for why he removes his helmet over everyone’s protestations but gives the character a perfect arc. First, he realizes his attitude trips him up when he inadvertently insults Shaw’s ability to not have children which softens him a bit but he’s completely humbled by the infection, ending with him sacrificing his own life so as not to bring the contaminant on the ship to harm the others. But beyond that, this risk-taking character trait is there from the first scene and extends to Shaw as well who simply reacts to the unfolding events in a different way defined by her character. Either way, these are two scientists with a burning desire to find answers which is a great way to take care of another common narrative roadblock a screenwriter comes up against in this kind of story. Once again, Lindeloff: “In horror movies traditionally, and I feel Prometheus certainly has defined horror elements; one of the things you always say to yourself and the audience is, ‘If you hear noises in the attic, why the hell are you going in the attic?’. And you try to answer that on a character level. That’s what we were kind of thinking with Shaw and Holloway in terms of, they just can’t stay out of the attic even if they know it’s dangerous and stupid. Whatever discoveries they might make, there just too exciting for them to look away.” I would say from all of the above examples of well-defined character traits, the answers are well provided.
On the same note, the other big character objection comes from Fifefield…the geologist who gets lost while mapping the alien structure he’s in. Okay, to me this is on a bit of shaky ground but again, like most problems people have with this movie; the dialogue and visuals in the movie provide a pretty definitive answer. And for the answer to a lot of this, my I-Phone provides a good explanation. On my phone is Google Maps which I use to navigate when I’m lost. Now, even though I can see the map on my phone, if I go out of satellite range like when I go hiking in the mountains, the map freezes and stops providing new information. The reason I bring this up is because it seems to parallel what happens to Fifefield and the data his “pups” are gathering. First off, it’s shone that all the data isn’t going to his suit but to the computers creating the holographic map aboard the ship. If his suit had the memory capacity to hold all of that data then he should have seen the lifeform “ping” that Yanek has to tell him about. I don’t know in what detail but the storm containing “silica and static electricity” had something to do with the relay of all of that information that I would think, takes up a lot more bandwith than a radio transmission. And even that gets interrupted here and there in the film. Like a certain professor who once “got lost in his own museum”, Fifefield seems to be a bit of a pussycat underneath his mohawk and tattoos. He’s obviously (like most of this team) a bit of an eccentric which comes with some phobias that he has trouble controlling which brings me to the bigger issue and complaint a lot of people have and something I got wrong myself at first.
For a while, I presumed that, contrary to what a lot of others extrapolated; that this crew was not made up of “experts in the field” and I argued this point vigorously in many threads but it turns out, I was wrong. This was the ire of many who see a crew of such professionals making bone-headed decisions as absurd. But in the clarification I found in Ridley Scotts’ own words also lay the reason why they did the things they did and supports their bad reasoning better than my original assumption: “Every one of these people on board this ship of course, would be science leading…cutting edge scientist and that’s why they’re such a bunch of characters.” Look at what he says here. Yes, they’re experts but there on the fringe edge of their fields, leading the way. You don’t get there by playing it safe. They’re eccentrics. This is pretty obvious with Fifefields’ appearance, the geologist with a mohawk and head tattoos. And this isn’t a new idea in film as Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park demonstrates. These are “rock star scientists” and do the scientific equivalent of Jim Morrison whipping his dick out on stage. Part of the perception people have of how these guys should behave seems to be tied to a very long tradition of how scientists are portrayed in science fiction films, most notably seen in the 50’s. the “good” scientist was always seen as a buttoned up conformist, conservatively dressed, well annunciated with thick glasses and a gentlemanly manner. The other guy creating the monsters is the “mad scientist”, flaunting the rules of “God” and has clearly split from the program. These guys fit more in the latter category or in the terms of the Alien Universe, they’re somewhere between the space truckers of the original film and an intellectual like Ash or Kane. And from my own experience, this fits more with reality. I once worked on a seismic survey vessel for Halliburton. On my ship were the tool pushers doing the manual labor and on the other, were the technicians with college degrees analyzing the data. But they weren’t the conservative guys in lab coats. They were somewhere in between the tool pushers and a college professor much like the crew of the Prometheus which is why this film resonated as so familiar to me. This is more the reality then people’s perceptions based on decades of film tradition. It seems to me that most people are expecting this crew to behave as if they’re in a military organization where there are well-defined orders to follow and a clear set of procedures. But as the film shows us in dialogue and their general approach, this isn’t the case.
As many science fiction films before have shown us, some really fucked up things can go down when you don’t let your crew in on what the hell is going on. And despite many detractor’s objections that this crew is “well-trained” for this mission, this isn’t at all the case. This is made explicit in the very beginning of the debriefing scene where two of the crew members are clearly trying to guess what the nature of their mission is with one finally saying, “It’s a corporate run. They’re not telling us shit.” Remember how in 2001, David Bowman and Frank Poole had no idea of the real reason they were heading to Jupiter and through their questioning of the mission’s real objective to HAL, really bad things happened? Okay…but besides that, why have a debriefing if the crew is so “well-trained”? This is the logic that makes no sense to me when it comes to the movie’s criticisms. Other people even insist that because it’s a “well funded” corporate mission that this crew wouldn’t make any of the mistakes they’ve made even though we live in a world where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and due to the negligence of the mega corporation that built it. And it’s not like this wouldn’t happen in government either. The three astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 disaster burned to death because of a dangerous amount of flammable, pure oxygen that was being used. This, despite 1000’s of contractors double and triple checking every conceivable detail. And check on all of those expeditions to the Arctic during the 18th century that ended with everyone dying. Very, very well funded by monarchs, governments and yes, sometimes very rich entrepreneurs not unlike Peter Weyland. With so many examples and a history of THIS particular corporation fucking over it’s employees since the first film, this critique doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Or put in other terms, just because you throw money at a problem, doesn’t mean it’s fixed.
Also on this particular issue, many say that despite all of the above factors, this crew would still act very cautiously because this is a scientific expedition to another planet which should be treated as a really big deal since it’s such an awe inspiring event and how dare they not make a big deal out of everything. Well, to you and me traveling light years to another planet on a scientific expedition of discovery may seem a big deal but not here, not in any of the other Alien films and certainly not in a lot of science fiction since Star Trek where in one of the first episodes aired (The Corbomite Maneuver), the crew treats space exploration as routine and they’re clearly bored by it. Revolutionary at the time, this concept has become standard in a lot of science fiction films and is a staple of this franchise. This isn’t a Spielberg film where everyone is staring at the unknown in slack-jawed wonder. This is just another job and another paycheck and even with the possible enormity of the the true objective revealed to the crew upon awakening, everyone is still highly skeptical of Shaw’s claims so why would they treat it as the biggest thing ever. Even again, in 2001; when the monolith is discovered on the moon, those guys just continue making small talk about how shitty their ham sandwiches are because a lot of times, this is how humans respond to overwhelming circumstances. Lindeloff even acknowledges this approach in the commentary: “I like that Ridley is treating this directorally, without a great sense of, kind of pretension or majesty. They’re just guys doing a job. Although Shaw and Holloway obviously have grander ambitions, the rest of the characters in the movie are sort of just collecting a paycheck and they will behave accordingly. In other words, die accordingly. That’s what happens when you’re in it just for the paycheck, folks…die.”
There’s something else going on here too that’s much more subtle. One of the things people really love about that original group of actors in ’79, is the naturalistic style of performance. It felt as if they’re just having conversations that the camera just happened to catch. They’re talking over each other, improvising lines, etc. This has a lot more to do with the time than anything else. Character actors in the 70’s simply approached the work this way in all films. The talking over each other was something Robert Altman made famous and when big science fiction films started to take off, actors and directors brought this technique over with them. You can see this in Close Encounters as well. Now, after 40 years of blockbuster films; it seems actors come at them with a more stylized performance approach. The days of an actor tackling these roles in the same way they would if it was Chinatown or Five Easy Pieces, seems to be over and so we get the new way of acting in these tentpoles in Prometheus. I think this creates a bit of a disconnect with people when they subconsciously compare Prometheus to Alien. Having said that, from the clips released so far of Covenant; it looks like Scott is attempting to correct this and get back to the more “informal”, improvised style of the first film. We’ll know for sure very soon.
With the big nits out of the way, it’s time to address everyone’s favorite action scene and why even this objection doesn’t hold weight especially if you understand film language and see what’s so obvious in the sequence. I’m of course talking about running in a straight line when trying to stay out in front of a giant, rolling spaceship. This one is really in your face but for some reason people want to ignore it in order to find fault with the film. After the Prometheus impacts with the alien ship, it explodes into raining debris at the same time the ship hits the ground and starts to roll. Scott shows many wide shots in the sequence to clearly show GIANT pieces of the Prometheus hitting all around them like meteors. Shaw and Vickers are running in a straight line because the ship rolling toward them is also sheltering them from the debris hitting everywhere around them. At that moment, it’s the only safe path to take. Really, it’s all right there. In the film. In multiple shots.
Another minor nitpick? Shaw recovering from surgery too quickly. Again, it’s the future so first off, we have no idea how advanced these drugs and equipment are. We’ve all accepted a lot out of medical devices in science fiction for a long time now so this seems strange to me. Not only that, but this film does a lot more at acknowledging the healing wound than many previous science fiction stories. For one, Shaw limps to the room where Weyland is and then later, there’s an obvious time transition as they get ready to make one more trip to the alien vessel. But as Shaw is putting on her suit and zips it up, she clearly grunts in pain from her ordeal and is sweaty and in pain throughout the confrontation with the Engineer so it’s not like the element is dropped after the scene. There’s a lot more screen time given to this than most films I can think of and I’m not sure how much more people are expecting the film to dwell on this. If it did, I’m sure that would be a complaint in itself.
And finally, the last nitpick: Why was Guy Pearce cast as an elderly man when you could have just gotten an older actor? This was a production issue. Originally when David talks to Weyland and we see him telling Vickers afterward that he said to “Try harder”, the actual scene of David conversing with him was to be shown just like how he virtually entered Shaw’s dreams in the first act. In this scene, Weyland would have chosen to be his younger self in hyper sleep, jet skiing on a yacht with super models. This would’ve been the reveal of his presence on the ship before it was decided to hold this as a major plot revelation in the end sequence. By the time this was decided, Pearce was already cast so his addition to the film stayed. And he may yet have an appearance in Covenant from some of the promotional scenes released so it looks like his presence may be mined some more as his younger self.
The last thing to address is basic aesthetics and something that’s come up before with prequels. It’s always been handled in different ways but John Spaihts has a fine explanation for it here: “Some testy nerds will raise their hands and ask why it is that the Nostromo which lies many years in the future of this moment, seems to be a much cruder ship but my answer for them would be that the Nostromo’s a tug boat and this is a state of the art research vessel with the best everything. Moreover, the Nostromo might well have been 150 years old and in service that long ( just like an aircraft carrier or battleship) by the time we join it so I actually don’t trip too much over the anachronism of this beautiful technology.” Well said. For those of us that like the film, most of us pretty much assumed this anyway without having to be told.
All of these nitpicks though, are part and parcel to a bigger issue I think a lot of people have with this film. As Spielberg once said when someone pointed out to him that an oxygen tank doesn’t explode by shooting at it, “If I’ve held the audiences attention for two hours, they’ll believe anything.” That’s what I think these complaints are about. There are bigger issues here that people had with the movie which makes them criticize it in ways that they wouldn’t many other films. A lot of what I pointed out above are perfectly acceptable in many movies we now see as classics. These nitpicks are more a symptom of the films bigger concepts and general tone which is the real meat of the problem many have. It’s the larger philosophical themes and tone of the film that really irks people. This is what really separates the film’s critics from the supporters. But since this article is way too long already, I’ll tackle all of this in the other one: The Big Issues; and talk about why these ideas are not only valid elements to add into the franchise but actually consistent with the mythology and expands upon it in a satisfying fashion…well, for me at least but hey, if you disagree then just remember this: