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Chekov’s Ray Gun

June 9, 2012
Science fiction stories are able to use the uncertainty of the future in place of faith to make legends real. Even hard-headed rationalists get to enjoy what might as well be religious myths, and even dream that one day they could come true, while avoiding being accused of blind faith*. Which brings us to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, whose solution to “where did we come from?” replaces God with a storyline inspired by the title character, a God from Greek legends of old.

For those (like me) who lack an encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek gods, here’s a summary of Prometheus based on this wonderful source:

According to legend, Prometheus was a great trickster, and a constant opponent of Zeus. After creating man from earth and water, he deceived Zeus to benefit his creations. Zeus punished him by punishing humanity, withdrawing fire from the mortal world. Prometheus again tricked Zeus and took fire back to man. He also taught men ‘the useful arts’, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, domestication of animals and so on.

To punish Prometheus once and for all, Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver daily. His liver regrew every night, so Prometheus was trapped in eternal torture. Zeus also ordered the creation of the virgin Pandora, the first woman, and sent her to Earth along with a jar** which held plagues, diseases, and all other mortal evils, as well as hope. She, out of pure curiosity rather than malice, opened the jar and released everything but hope, which remained trapped away.

Another story says that after Zeus ascended to the throne of the Gods he intended to destroy humanity and replace it with a new, different race. Prometheus single-handedly stopped him, and also saved humanity from the visions of doom that tormented them by giving them blind hopes.

There are plenty of parallels to this mythology in Ridley Scott’s version, though it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the film is designed to be much more about the predictable horror-movie elements than exploring the mythology. Since plot summary is boring, here’s the Wikipedia synopsis if you forgot some details of the plot.

The ship being called Prometheus seems like a bit of a mistake, and perhaps the giant seen in the first scene, the character closest to the actual title card, is the Prometheus stand-in, being punished for defying the others and nurturing ancient human civilisations. His message communicated in the paintings may have pointed to a world that could have been suitable for humanity’s expansion, or his own home, which was then converted into a death factory. For some unexplained reason the weapons on the planet never left for Earth, which means that the planet has become more like Pandora’s jar.

The excellent Michael Fassbender turns what could have been mere plot driving idiotic curiosity (‘don’t go in there!’) into more naïve Pandora-like curiosity that has tragic effects. Although we find out later that he is getting rather selfish orders from Weyland, I got the impression that he had a fair bit of HAL 9000 in him. HAL’s problem was how to reconcile his programmed honesty and dedication to the success of the mission with the need to keep the true mission secret. Likewise in Prometheus the real purpose of the mission is secret, and while David doesn’t seem to mind keeping secrets he is obsessively curious, even poisoning one of the crew just to find out more. (or at least I couldn’t figure out any other reason for it). One of the disappointing things about the film was that this potentially interesting tragic-flaw-type curiosity ultimately does end up simply driving the horror plot.

The malign contents of the pyramid that the crew find certainly seem to fit the Pandora-type variety of evil, with various different awful afflictions and monsters coming from those creepy jars. However, in a twist on the mythology, it seems that the relentless alien impregnation which so nicely parallels eternal liver-eating has ended up punishing those who wanted to destroy humanity. Maybe there’s also some kind of Icarus-type thing going on with Weyland’s desire to live forever through spending a trillion dollars on a space mission ending in his doom. (hmm, Icarus, that reminds me of another film that tried to do the deep-and-meaningful sci fi thing and turned into a horror…)

So that’s most of the heavy epic thematic content of the film. In the end basically none of this is really resolved, with the plot instead concentrating on killing off all the minimally-backstoried minor characters that nobody cared about anyway. It’s certainly not a bad film: it mostly looks flawless, and the wonderful design aesthetic invented for Alien is still creepy and mysterious. The spaceship, especially the special lifeboat bit with a pointless grand piano also looked great, and the horror was horrible. The opening shots of distant planets and/or Earth were beautiful, although I feel like I could tell where the real Earth bits ended and CGI began (maybe it’s all CGI and I got double-tricked!). They also managed to get enough of a sense of scale into the shots of the spaceships and mountains to make them look convincingly huge.

The disappointing aspects are pretty common to a lot of films: some extremely clunky dialogue, no interesting relationships between any of the characters, a weird disconnection between some of the crew and apparently massive events (the caesarean scene happens without anyone coming to look for who just bashed two of the crew and ran off and nobody ever discovers the cute baby squid, the flaming zombie man goes unnoticed by those in the room with Weyland…), and a whole lot of terrible horror tropes (it’s almost night, but we can’t wait another day before exploring on a two year mission! we’re stuck here for the night in a creepy pyramid, let’s go exploring!).

I’ve read various fan comments defending the movie by arguing that reviewers always over-analyse and can’t just have fun. On the other hand, there are also plenty saying that if you thought that there were lots of unresolved threads you either missed something or care too much about things making sense. I think what really let Prometheus down was that it took itself way too seriously to be ‘just a good stupid fun action movie’ (if such things exist) but then didn’t bother to actually deliver on the big existential themes it set up. People may raise similar objections to something like 2001, but whereas 2001 gave the impression that there was an explanation for everything (and the later  books eventually proved that), I felt like whoever wrote Prometheus didn’t really care about coherence and included that stuff as an additional special effect rather than something intended to have real meaning. Perhaps we should update Chekov’s famous statement

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

to

“One must not have a giant marble god-type guy kill himself with death-caviar before the titles without explaining why.”

[*] Maybe the breaking of this convention is one of the reasons why so many people found the ending of the new Battlestar Galactica so unacceptable.

[**] Apparently ‘box’ is a mistranslation of ‘jar’. If I recall correctly the cylinder things are actually referred to as ‘jars’ in the film, so perhaps we could generously assume that they knew what they were doing .

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 10, 2012 10:54 pm

    Yes, just seen it and agree in many respects Giles. That beginning bit where the guy eats the death-caviar was very confusing…. something to do with the DNA mixing??? The landscape was lovely though! And you can’t tell me a woman who has just had an alien ripped out of her, then got stapled can just get up and kick arse!!! Mind you I did like that the women survived after the blokes – makes a change!
    I agree that it wasn’t silly enough to be a mindless action movie, but not enough detail and care to give a serious re thinking of these ideas…

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