'Prometheus' Second look: Digging deep into spoilers and questions
The moment I posted my review for "Prometheus," I knew we would have to run a second piece that asked more questions about the film and that tried to offer a deeper analysis of it.
Greg Ellwood also followed up with me, asking if we were going to do a piece about the unanswered questions. The thing is, the questions that people are talking about when they discuss this film range from the easily answered to fundamental confusion about the nature of the story being told. I don't have any special inside knowledge, but at this point, I've read enough from the people who made the film and from other people who have watched it that I have questions, I have comments, and I have observations and frustrations. All in all, I have mixed feelings about "Prometheus," and it drives me sort of crazy as a result.
Any time you watch something a second time, it's going to be a different experience, especially when it's something that arrives with the sort of expectations and hype that "Prometheus" had. I'd honestly seen as little as possible before seeing the film. After the first one or two trailers, I checked out. I haven't seen the last five or six trailers or the TV spots, so I didn't have every image in the movie already in my head by the time I walked in the door.
And make no mistake… this is a visual experience. There is a reason to recommend this movie, and that is because of the remarkable technical craft on display. The entire frame is just art, from beginning to end, with individual frames of the film representing some of the best things Ridley Scott has ever done.
When I saw "Blade Runner" for the first of four times in the summer of '82, I was 12 years old. My dad was in the next theater over seeing "Firefox." It had been a real point of contention between us, and in the end, he bought two tickets for the R-rated film, walked me in, sat me down, and then left so he could watch what he wanted to watch. And so "Blade Runner" happened to me by myself. Just me and the movie.
From the moment the first images appeared on the screen, I felt like I fell into it. I can speak at length now about how I think the text and the subtext of "Blade Runner" are both masterful, a true accomplishment of writing and editing and performance, a collision of things that were all sort of big risks, all of it somehow working together like magic. At the time, though, what mainly knocked me flat about "Blade Runner" was just looking at it. That first spinner ride over the city is one of those moments that I'll always remember with full sensory recall. I know what seat I was in, which row of the theater, and exactly how far I levitated above the seat for pretty much the entire running time.
There is some of that magic in "Prometheus." As a visual craftsman, he is pretty much as good as anyone working today if not better. We've seen a lot of big names take their shot at space travel and 3D and Ridley creates a complete atmospheric feeling for this film. He uses all of his tools to make you feel like you are in the Prometheus or in the giant Beehive Of Alien Doom. He dazzles at every opportunity, and since he's free to do whatever he wants this time, each new scene is like a brand new movie, a brand-new episode of "Let's See What Ridley Thinks Looks Amazing," and each time, it really does look amazing. And I can't deny that I've been thinking about the film almost constantly in the week since I saw it and reviewed it the first time, and that most of what I've been thinking about in that "I have an itch I need to scratch" sort of way is the visual elements of the movie.
Writing about a film twice in the same month in any depth is unusual, and in this case, this is a movie with huge ambitions. If you've read or watched any of the interviews our own Dan Fienberg did with the cast and crew of the film, it's obvious that everyone approached this very seriously, and it was treated as A Very Important Film from day one. Honestly, that might be part of the problem. "Alien" wasn't treated as A Very Important Film by Fox. Ridley Scott took it very seriously, and his cast got what he was trying and the producers were hip enough to understand that they were getting above and beyond, but the studio? The studio greenlit "'Star Wars' plus a monster movie." The film they got was not what they expected, and the reason it matters is because of what Ridley Scott brought to the table that was not part of the original conception.
This time out, we have a very different Ridley Scott, someone who is now pretty much an industry legend, a heavy hitter who felt like he got screwed out of the "Alien" franchise early on. He's often talked about how slighted he felt when he found out James Cameron would be writing and directing "Aliens," since he never even heard that there was a sequel in development. He decided to cash in some of that clout and make the sequel they stopped him from making 25 or 30 years ago. Because this is a film that represents a pretty pivotal moment for a major filmmaker, it's worth taking this second look.
We're going to drill down, really see what secrets the film holds, what themes it wrestles with, what questions it raises, and which answers it fails to find. Hopefully, you'll take this as a starting point for a larger conversation, because I'm certainly open to other reads on the material. All I can offer is my perspective on what is genuinely one of the most frustrating films I've had to review in recent memory.
"You should always, always, always write to theme."
Guillermo Del Toro said that to Scott Swan and I about something we were working on for him, and it was something he stressed both before the first draft, after the first draft, during the rewrites, and pretty much each time we started to take the material apart again. It's something I react strongly to when I see it done well in films because I think it's hard for some people. I think some people like to just tell good yarns, and themes in their work are somewhat unintentional, arising more from the way they tell the story and the choices they make within than any conscious decision to write "about" something. But some people work from theme to story, and "Prometheus" feels like a film where a few big images, a few big ideas, and a few franchise touchstones were all thrown together and then connective tissue had to be created to try to make some sense of those elements. It is not a film that feels like it fully explores any of the ideas it raises, and a few big things it introduces are almost incidental in the end.
For example, in most movies, a technical device that allows you to watch the dreams of other people would be the main plot of the film. Here, it's something we see David use early in the movie once, and it's remarked on one other time, but it's not a shock to anyone in the film, nor is it particularly important. It exists merely so later in the movie, David can say, "By the way, I was watching your dreams. SICK BURN. FACE." It's a huge idea thrown away to very little effect.
Oh, wait, that's not true. David also uses it to talk to Weyland while he's asleep, leading to that very, very dramatic scene between Vickers and David where, having just established that David has much more pronounced-than-human strength, we see Vickers throw David up against a wall and hold him there while she questions him. If Vickers isn't an android… and the film seems to go way out of its way to say that she's not… then how does she do that? And if she is, then a lot of the other beats the film shows us involving her no longer make sense.
Self-sacrifice is a major element in the film. The movie opens and closes with self-sacrifices that are incredibly important. In the beginning of the film, it is a ritual, an act that seeds a planet with change, bringing forth new life, a new world. In the end of the film, it is an act of desperate heroism, an act that saves a planet from destruction, stranding the Engineers and their weapons. Only… that's sort of not true. But we'll get to that.
Why sacrifice? Why, specifically, self-sacrifice?
I saw a movie at the Cannes Film Festival this year called "Reality," a film by Matteo Garrone that is very, very, very Italian and very, very, very Roman Catholic. The film is awash in religious symbolism and the second half of the movie could be viewed as a head-first attack on the notion of living a life of good only because you think someone's watching you and taking notes. It is a movie that is almost wholly consumed with ideas of faith and Catholic dogma, and yet it is not nearly as consumed with the overt use of Catholic imagery as "Prometheus" is. It may be named after a Greek myth, but this film has got religion on its mind, and in the most literal, lunk-headed way possible.
Another of the films I saw this year at Cannes was Bertolucci's "You and Me," and like Francis Ford Coppola's most recent films, there's something about it that strikes me as Bertolucci almost re-learning his craft from scratch. There's a film student quality to their work that is very interesting and unexpected, given the scale of films they've produced in the past. These guys have marshaled the resources to make films like "Apocalypse Now" and "The Last Emperor," but their newest movies feel like they're just figuring out how to block even the most rudimentary of dialogue scenes. Ridley Scott may have the technical craft polished to an almost absurdly accomplished level, but the script itself feels like the stoned-at-3:00 AM musings of a first-year philosophy student. It is deep in the most shallow of ways, asking some of the biggest questions of our existence with a puppyish enthusiasm and without even the vaguest hint of an answer.
It's easy to draw comparisons between this film and "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Scott seems to be inviting those comparisons with his first image here, an almost-direct quotation of Kubrick's movie. The difference is that Kubrick didn't graft the Hollywood structure onto his examination of the moments where life has taken a quantum jump forward in complexity and sophistication. He had enough faith in the strength of what he was doing that he told a very unconventional version of a narrative. But anything he raised as a question in that movie, he answered. If you think "2001" is in any way "vague," you need to see it again. That is a movie where every piece of information you need from it is contained within. Although I enjoy "2010" as a piece of mainstream science-fiction, it is very much the dumb cousin of the first film. It spells things out, or tries to, in a way that is almost insulting after how carefully constructed "2001" is to reveal it secrets to a patient and inquisitive audience. Unfortunately, "Prometheus" is far more "2010" than "2001."
"Prometheus" suggests to me that Ridley Scott, Jon Spaihts, and Damon Lindelof all must have had some very interesting conversations and some very heady goals when they sat down to start work on this movie. I appreciate the ambition. I think the most basic conceptual mistake they made was attaching this in any way to "Alien." I think the idea that the film is structured like a mystery, slow to yield any real information, is also a problem. It is a largely passive experience for the characters, and as a result, it is the sort of film where it feels like we're watching something happen at a remove. Because there are things that have to happen to underline the points of The Big Message, characters act in ways that no human being would, functioning more in service of the action than having the action result from the expression of character. If none of that matters to you, then "Prometheus" might well be a great experience for you, but when I don't recognize basic human responses, then drama doesn't work for me. It's that basic.
The only way we can really dig into it is to round up as many of the questions our HitFix staff and the readers and people on Twitter are asking, see which ones we feel there are answers for, which ones can't be answered at all, and which ones were created just to drive you mad.
Why did Weyland's presence have to remain a secret on the ship? Because his company and the world think he's dead? Who cares?
OUR TAKE: That's one of those decisions where the only reason his presence is a secret is so it can be revealed to the audience. The dude is a multi-trillionaire. He built the ship. He paid for the ship. If he wants to be on the ship, who is going to say no to him? There's absolutely no reason for it to be a secret except so we can have a start-of-Act-III reveal. It serves no purpose within the plot, so we have to assume it was done for the sake of the audience only.
Is Meredith Vickers human? Is she a cyborg like David? Is she really Weyland's daughter?
OUR TAKE: Yes, no, and yes. There's a moment early on where Ridley basically underlines things and circles them in red. It's during Weyland's presentation by hologram, when he refers to David as "the closest thing to a son I'll ever have." The look on Meredith's face pretty much sums up the relationship and the insane slight she feels at having her father admit that he loves his robot more than his daughter. The reason people are having trouble with this storyline is because Charlize plays it like she's totally a robot, and there's that moment where she throws David up against a wall and holds him there while she asks him questions, even though we just saw that he's got crazy superhuman strength. There is nothing in the text that commits to the idea of her as an android, though, and while I'm sure people will tie themselves in knots "proving" it, the text doesn't support it, so neither do we.
Why do they have Vickers go through the trouble of escaping the ship at the end just to have her die two minutes later?
OUR TAKE: So they could have two extra minutes of Charlize in the film?
Honestly, it's one of the most bizarre beats in the whole movie. They do so much cross-cutting to ratchet up the tension, and she just barely makes it off, and then she almost outruns the thing aaaaand… squish. It's a strange choice, but by that point in the film, the strange choices are stacking up left and right, and her death is the least of the problems.
Why does the Engineer want to kill the humans?
OUR TAKE: That's the question the whole film hinges on, isn't it? The film goes out of its way to never give the Engineers any articulated motives, so all we can do is watch what they do and listen to the few clues that are dropped in the film's dialogue, all of which is still just speculation.
Thanks to an interview with Ridley Scott, people are now connecting the dots in a way that the film simply doesn't, and I'm not going to give the film the benefit of something the director said at a junket if he didn't actually include it in the film. There are a few lines in the film where they state that whatever happened to the Engineers happened 2000 years ago, more or less. And since the film is set on Christmas, one could assume that is not an accident. When Ridley Scott tells one person that he originally wanted to include the idea that Jesus Christ was, in fact, an Engineer and that his crucifixion was the event that caused the Engineers to turn against humanity, that is certainly a provocation. But it's not in the film. In the film, the Engineers are utterly unknowable, which then allows the filmmakers to make everything feel like it is very important while never actually committing to any sort of explanation.
What one could assume from the film itself, without any interviews or outside clues, is that at some point between the initial invitations being left on Earth and the moment where something went wrong on the planet where "Prometheus" is set, they decided that we were toxic, no longer worthy of the invitation they extended to us. They were preparing to take the black goo, which appears to be a biological accelerant, and evidently wipe us clean with it, when something went wrong, the ship was contaminated, and they were killed.
This does not address the one Engineer left sleeping, though. Based on his reaction, it seems that he is outraged at human presence on the ship, and when David tries to address him in the language of the Engineers, it sets him off on his murderous rampage. Again… without any further contextual clues, the Engineer just seems like a big dumb blue monster. In a way, this is a moment that mirrors the scene in "Blade Runner" where Roy Batty finally meets Tyrell face to face, only in that film, it is the creation that is so disappointed in the encounter that he has no choice but to kill his maker. Here, it is the angry god who reacts, throwing the last few anonymous cast members around after ripping off Fassbender's head.
The last exchange between Weyland and David as they both lay broken on the floor of the chamber sounds significant in the film...
Weyland: There's… nothing.
David: I know. Have a good journey, Mr. Weyland.
… but the entire film is full of these cryptic pseudo-heavy exchanges that sounds good without actually saying anything. I loved the open ended nature of "Lost" when it was on the air precisely because it was a TV show, and I knew they weren't going to explain things immediately. Here, though, it feels like the connections to "Alien" and the desire to kickstart a new franchise both hobble the film, forcing them to lay coy with things that should be answered while answering things that needed no answer originally.
Why does the Engineer go after Shaw? Why not just go to one of the other ships and escape?
OUR TAKE: An excellent question. First, it makes no sense at all that the Engineer finds Shaw with such speed and precision, and it makes no sense at all that David somehow knows what the Engineer is doing since he's just a head laying on a floor in a room. But the notion that he's got to kill Shaw simply doesn't track. He took off. He got in his ship and he tried to fly away, and then the Prometheus crashed into him. Why he would immediately react by going after Shaw isn't explained at all, and the later reveal by David that there are many other ships is infuriating. If that's true, are there also other Engineers asleep? If that's true, why didn't they go to Earth to finish the mission that this one ship bungled?
There appears to be a minimum of three ships on the planet in the first longshot we see. One is destroyed and crashes. That's the ship (we think) that's explored in "Alien." The second takes Shaw and David off the planet. Why wouldn't the terraformers discover the third ship in "Aliens" let alone "Alien"?
OUR TAKE: This 100% is not the planet from "Alien" or "Aliens." The film's production design seems to be confusing casual fans of the series, but eagle-eyed viewers can attest that this is a completely different planet that we've ever seen before, which means that the ships we see in this film are not the same ships from "Alien" or "Aliens" at all. Same type? Yes. Same ships? Nope.
Why do Weyland, Vickers and their staff not react at all to a bloody Shaw coming into their quarters?
OUR TAKE: This is the beginning of a whole stretch of film where no one behaves the way we'd expect people to behave faced with these circumstances. Yes, it's a big deal that they're waking up Weyland, but when a half-nude woman covered in blood with a fresh surgical incision comes stumbling into a room, you would expect people to react. Nothing. Not even the slightest hint that this might be out of the ordinary.
Why doesn't Shaw tell everyone about the seemingly frozen alien in the surgery machine so they get it off the ship?
OUR TAKE: David knows full well what happened in the surgery machine. His comment to her, "I didn't know you had it in you," in a non-too-subtle jab at Shaw, but he seems completely uninterested in following up at all, even if he's the one who started that particular ball in motion. Even when he's got Weyland to contend with, it would seem like David could find five extra minutes to walk over, check out the still-very-much-alive creature that he knows was inside Shaw, and decide what to do with it.
Again… this last act of the film depends largely on people doing things that no one would actually do. It's all in service to the plot, not in service to good character writing. The characters in this part of the movie are almost exactly as smart as the teenagers in a typical "Friday the 13th" film, and for the same precise reason.
Are Fifield and Milburn the stupidest scientists ever? Why would they go back to the one room that an alien was killed in?
OUR TAKE: As a whole, the film seems to be filled with scientists who have never heard of the scientific method. Fifield in particular is just a train wreck of a character, both in conception and execution. For some reason, he's a barking lunatic in some moments, then he's a shaky coward in the next moment, then he's smoking pot through his space suit's respirator. We see that he's the one who is running the probes that are mapping the entire structure, and that he is able to state exactly where he is because of a read-out on his suit. So why is it that he gets lost the moment he leaves the rest of the group? If he and Milburn are able to tell Janek exactly where they are when he asks, why can't they simply use the digital map they're building to find their way out? Once they are trapped inside, though, they proceed to make a series of monumentally terrible choices. Milburn, faced with a brand-new alien life form, and having already seen its terrifying little mouth, proceeds to try to pet the damn thing. This is a trained biologist? This is the guy you pick to fly to a planet where you may well encounter the first extraterrestrial life you've ever encountered? These characters are emblematic of the film's larger issues and the way things are driven forward by illogical behavior. The attack on them in the Big Giant Head room is well-staged, but it depends on them making pretty much every wrong decision that two people could make.
Is there no governmental authority on space travel? Wouldn't some body or agency need to know where this Weyland ship was going and why?
OUR TAKE: We have so little idea of the way society works at this point that it might help to see some glimpse of the bureaucracy they had to navigate to mount a trillion-dollar expedition. I am perfectly willing and able to believe that space will have been privatized to some degree by the point the film is set.
Besides, if we're going to accept that most of the crew of this trip allowed themselves to be frozen for two years, flown to a distant unexplored planet, all without having any idea why, then accepting that the ship left without telling anyone where they're going seems easy enough to accept.
If they are exploring an alien planet no one has ever been to before after an alien race has "invited" them, why is there no security crew? Why does no one have any guns or real weapons besides a flame thrower?
OUR TAKE: We definitely see some guns. They empty several clips trying to kill Fifield, to very little effect. In general, though, their behavior during the excursion is, as we observed above, totally nonsensical. When Holloway takes his helmet off because he think the atmosphere might be okay, that seems like a complete and utter breach of professional protocol. So of course, everyone immediately does the same thing, even after they see an Engineer's head explode from some sort of biological mishap. Since having a security team as part of their expedition makes perfect logical sense, of course they don't have one.
Is David evil? Why does he want to put Shaw - who never was mean to him like Holloway - into stasis with the alien in her instead of getting it out?
OUR TAKE: I don't think "evil" plays into it at all. David is simply dispassionate, utterly without empathy. When he contaminates Holloway, he's careful to first ask him for what David reads as permission first. When he realizes what's happening, David decides that studying the thing growing inside her is more important than any human compassion. Shaw is simply a subject to be studied, not a friend or a peer. It's just a matter of curiosity for him.
Of course, he's not curious enough to take two minutes to examine the thing once he learns Shaw cut it out of herself, but he's curious, nonetheless. David is fascinated by the Engineers, determined to see them close-up and at work, and he wants to see what their technology can do. He has already determined that humans hold him in a specific kind of contempt, expressed most clearly through Holloway's behavior, but in general, he feels no obligation to protect them. It's a safe bet that Asimov's laws of robotics do not apply in the world of "Prometheus."
A surgery machine just for a man? Seriously? You develop something that advanced and it only works on one sex or another?
OUR TAKE: Actually, it should work on either gender, but this particular one has been calibrated for a man. The whole reason it's onboard is to provide support for Weyland once he's awake again, so it's been calibrated for his particular biological needs. I'm guessing they could have recalibrated it for a woman, but it would have taken longer than Shaw had to do so.
When you've got two of your crew members missing and presumably trapped in an alien ship full of dead bodies, is that really a good time for the captain and the officer in charge of the mission to bump uglies?
OUR TAKE: It's like each scene in the film works fine as a scene, but when they are stacked together, the lack of logic from one to the next starts to get overwhelming. This is a good example. Idris Elba and Charlize Theron are both good in the scene and they play off each other well, but it seems like they've forgotten about any of the tensions that are building in service of a beat that goes nowhere.
Why cave paintings? And why would anybody fund a trillion dollar -- even assuming inflation -- mission on the basis of a few cave paintings? And why does Weyland assume that these cave paintings are going to lead him to people who will give him immortality?
OUR TAKE: Some big strange assumptions are made by these characters. While it is indeed odd that all these different cultures on Earth ended up painting the same pattern on walls hundreds of years apart, what's even more odd is trying to work out what actually happened. Did the Engineers spend signifiant time on Earth in the past? Did they come back repeatedly over time to make sure ancient man painted those invitations on the walls? If they really wanted us to visit them, why would their invitation lead us to a planet where they don't live? Weyland's assumption that they could extend his life essentially means that he is Roy Batty in "Blade Runner," desperate to look his maker in the eye so he can ask for more. Perhaps this is simply wishful thinking on the part of a dying man and not a logical belief, but it does seem to be a very expensive whim to indulge.
Based on the seemingly pointless presence of Patrick Wilson, do we assume that Shaw's deceased father has a greater importance of some sort?
OUR TAKE: That is a strange and distracting bit of casting considering how little he's in the film, just as it's a strange choice to have Guy Pearce buried under truly awful old-age make-up when it would have made more sense just to hire an old guy. It's not like Pearce does anything in the film that an older actor couldn't. Wilson's fine in his scene, but it does make us wonder if Shaw had more flashbacks that were cut for time, because Wilson seems to bring unnecessary star power to a two-minute role.
I've seen a lot of scorn heaped on Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts this weekend, and I think it would probably be a good idea for people to dial that back a bit. This is, in every way, a Ridley Scott film, and if it has a primary author, he is that author. Yes, Lindelof and Spaihts wrote the script, but they were taking their marching orders on this one from the guy who's been living with this kernel of an idea for over 30 years. Ridley's the one who was fascinated by the Space Jockey. He's the one who wanted to explore these ideas. He's the one who ultimately signed off on everything.
For one film to contain an opening image as provocative and interesting as the Engineer seeding the planet with his own death and a closing image as pointless and annoying as that proto-Alien posing for the camera to show off its teeth is impressive, and in both cases, they are images in search of a context.
Ultimately, my biggest question about the film is "Why didn't Ridley just make the 'Blade Runner' sequel instead?" It's obvious watching the film that David is the character he's most interested in, and the questions he explores with David would work just as well in the "Blade Runner" world. If Ridley wanted to play the game with a character who might or might not be a Replicant, as it appears he's doing with Vickers, then why not do that in the actual "Blade Runner" world as well?
In fact, this whole film would have worked just as well in that world, and there wouldn't be the need to reverse engineer the origins of the Aliens at all. After all, in "Blade Runner," everyone has left the Earth. We see over and over that "Offworld Living" is the ideal, the thing that people want now, and that anyone left on Earth is riffraff and trash. With mankind starting to spread across the universe, taking with us these new life-forms that look and sound exactly like us, wouldn't that be an interesting time to run into the beings that made us? This film could have taken the entire creator-creation dynamic even further.
I've seen plenty of tension online as people have started breaking into camps over the film, but even with all of my questions and complaints about the film, I stand by the "B-" ranking I gave it. It is a remarkable visual experience. Sitting through it the second time, I was floored once again by what Scott and his production team accomplished. I'm glad to have seen Fassbender's performance as David, precise and methodical and beautifully nuanced. I'm glad to have seen how Ridley Scott adapted to the use of 3D, and I'll point out that the 3D version of the Scott Free logo is sort of awesome.
I believe that the makers of the film, from Scott to the screenwriters to everyone else involved, wanted this to be a provocative experience, and they wanted people to have conversations afterwards, and they wanted to push buttons and ask questions. I wish the ambiguities were such that I felt energized by them instead of annoyed, and I wish they'd broken loose of the monster-movie structure of much of the film in favor of recognizable human behavior and smarter, deeper scares.
Hopefully this re-review of the film has helped answer some questions for you or helped to dig into the text in some way. There are plenty of interesting theories out there right now, even if I don't fully agree with them, so if you want to keep reading or talking about the film, there are places to do so. And if you have questions we didn't address here, please… that's what the comments section is for. This is meant to be the start of a conversation, not the conclusion of it.
"Prometheus" is now playing everywhere.