When I was probably five years old at the most (c. 1981), I remember my parents getting this really amazing machine called a VCR. Well, actually, it was an array of machines; there was the VCR unit itself that the tape went into, there was a separate unit that served as the TV tuner and timer (and I remember the hours that we had to spend turning the little knobs for each channel on that thing to get them to actually come in clearly so we could record TV), and then the humongous camera that connected to the VCR (which you then had to carry around with a shoulder strap if you were recording anything).
I don’t know why I remember this particular detail, but I do; the first movie my parents watched on that VCR was Alien. Maybe part of why I remember it is because they allowed me to be in the room, but I had to have my back to the TV the whole time, which I didn’t understand.
I didn’t actually see Alien myself until probably sometime in the early 1990s, perhaps some time after the time I first watched Blade Runner, which itself was probably around 1990 or so. Now is not the time necessarily to write a full-length essay about my love of Blade Runner, but what I will say is that it was a vital step along the way in my movie geekdom. Batman (1989) had gotten me excited about a number of things when it came to film — director as auteur, production design, the importance of the score, and so on — but Blade Runner really got me thinking about the process of filmmaking and how things change, evolve, progress, and yes, sometimes get messed up in the journey from page to screen. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea that there might have been a very different movie left behind somewhere in the process, and that it might be well worthwhile to restore those other concepts. (I’m sure somebody has mused at some point about the parallels between scholarly production of editions of texts based on application of theories of textual criticism to manuscript culture and the phenomenon of multiple existing cuts of a film.) Although I missed the original theatrical run in 1982, I saw it at the Neptune Theater in Seattle once if not twice in 1991, I saw the “Director’s Cut” (that wasn’t really a director’s cut, but never mind) at the Egyptian Theater in 1992, and I was also fortunate enough to see the so-called Workprint at the same theater in 1999. Another thing I remember is that each time I saw it, the place was packed to the gills. And yes, I’ve got one of the Final Cut briefcase sets. It’s right next to the Inception set. Don’t judge me.
Since Blade Runner, I have found Ridley Scott to be always creatively ambitious in the process with the final product being somewhat hit or miss, depending on the film. I still think The Duellists is an incredibly underrated and underappreciated piece of work; Legend (of which I’ve only ever watched the director’s cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score) is a movie with some fascinating ideas and beautiful visuals but that clearly was trying to overreach in terms of what could be done at the time (and in general makes me glad that nobody seriously attempted a live-action Lord of the Rings any sooner than they did); Black Rain and Hannibal are both technically terrific, and I like both movies, but they’re clearly work-for-hire efforts; Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (the extended cut, anyway) are both great; I liked American Gangster and Body of Lies well enough even if neither were exactly earth-shattering; Robin Hood seemed like a fantastic idea with epic scope that somewhere along the way got scaled down to an attempt to use some leftover bits from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven for a younger audience, and while it had its good points, it never seemed like I was actually watching a final product anybody intended me to see, but rather something that got assembled more or less by committee.
Which brings me to Prometheus.
The idea of Ridley Scott returning to what we might call “fantastic” fiction for the first time since Legend and getting to play in the Alien universe again has been an intriguing one to me from the get-go. He’s certainly a different filmmaker than he was in 1979, and technology has perhaps caught up more to the way somebody like him thinks — so what would he do? He’s said many times in interviews over the years that he would be interested in asking the question where the big guy in the chair in the first Alien came from, so presumably that’s where he would go. How would he get there and what would he do with it? At the same time, the business of filmmaking has changed a lot since 1979, so how would that impact the movie?
I saw Prometheus last night in IMAX 3-D. I’m not really going to write a review of it, as such; I can tell you that I enjoyed it immensely, thought it had a great cast, was stunning visually, told an interesting story that I expect is really just the prologue to the movie Scott really wants to make, and that it’s really more along the lines of SF adventure that has some tense, squirmy moments, rather than being a horror movie set in an SF context the way Alien was — but writing a critical evaluation of it point-by-point isn’t what I’m interested in doing. Right now I’m really quite turned off by a certain subset of movie geekdom that seems to go out of its way to tear down to component atoms anything that dares to not be exactly the same movie they’ve already made in their head (see the comboxes on a site like Ain’t It Cool News, for example — man, that site used to be pure gold; how far the mighty have fallen), and that’s not where I want to go. I’m more interested in talking about the ideas in the film, and how they link up with other things one finds in Scott’s filmography.
I will, however, acknowledge up front the impact that present-day moviemaking economics appears to have had on Prometheus so I can get it out of the way. There was a lot of nattering over the film’s rating; would it be R, like the original Alien, or would it be PG-13? Would the business side of how movies get made today allow for an ambitious R-rated SF film? You could do it back in 1979 for a number of reasons, but with today’s emphasis on the biggest opening weekend possible, it would seem to be a harder sell. When Prometheus was finally announced as having an R rating a few weeks ago, there were some who assumed that it was a “soft” R — that is, it had been edited down as much as possible in hopes of getting a PG-13, but ultimately couldn’t get there, and by that point it was too late to say, “Okay, we’ve got an R movie, it is what it is, let’s go ahead and throw everything back in.” And yes, that in fact seems to be the case. There is a lot of, shall we say, connective tissue that is missing from certain moments in the film that I assume to have been cut out in the quest for a PG-13. There are a couple of events that I suspect are the, shall we say, irreducibly minimal R-rated bits (if you’re a pregnant woman, you’re probably not going to want to see this movie until you’re well past delivery, I’ll say that much), but aside from those, in terms of language, general level of violence, sex, nudity, etc. there’s nothing that makes this a characteristically R-rated movie in the way that, say, Watchmen is. Does it come across as creatively compromised as a result? Not exactly, but I’m very curious to see how the inevitable unrated Director’s Cut differs when it comes out on Blu-Ray.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
I had a conversation the other day with one of my fellow DO summer school students in which the seeming affinity on the part of certain Evangelical Christians for Judaism and Israel came up. My colleague said, “Well, when you’re a kid, if you don’t like what Dad tells you [i.e., Catholicism/Orthodoxy], you go and ask Grandpa [Judaism]. Makes perfect sense.”
Prometheus is a story about going and asking Dad questions, and Dad not really liking that you asked and you not really liking the answers. In this way, it’s really more of a piece with Blade Runner, which in terms of theme is all about the creation getting to ask the creator, “Why did you make me, and why did you make me flawed?” It’s a moment that also crops up in Gladiator, when Commodus demands to know from Marcus Aurelius why he’s getting passed over (which is also paralleled in Prometheus by a scene between Guy Pearce’s Weyland and Charlize Theron’s Vickers). “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father,” Marcus Aurelius tells him, which echoes Tyrell telling Roy Batty, “You were made as well as we could make you.” The consequences are the same for both Tyrell and Marcus Aurelius, with the artificial golden-eyed owl in the former case and the statue heads of the Antonines in the latter case all impersonally witnessing the patricide.
Ellie Shaw has to do the same thing to her creator, her genetic “father”, but in this case it’s because her creator is about to kill her. She has led seventeen people to a far corner of the universe in order to meet the race that she believes engineered the human race, only to find out that God does not like us very much. Why? Well, that’s a question that isn’t directly answered, but the title combined with certain details in the film suggest some intriguing possibilities. Prometheus the Titan gave mankind fire against the will of the gods, and subsequently had to endure being chained to a mountain peak and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day for the rest of eternity. Were we created without permission? Certainly the film makes a visual point of the Engineers’ ship at the very beginning being a completely different design from the ships we see in towards the end, suggesting different factions. Are the Engineers ultimately victims of their own hubris, with their propensity for meddling with natural biologies resulting in weapons they can’t control, among which they count us? Certainly that would tie the iconic image of the xenomorph chestburster (which, yes, we do see in some form) to Prometheus’ mythological fate — which, incidentally, is why I don’t think the film’s final scene is “tacked on” in any way, as some have argued. It is part and parcel of the imagery and themes invoked by the title, and hardly just thrown in to underscore the obvious.
Back to the idea of going to Grandpa when you don’t like what Dad tells you. David, the android that is participating in the mission, is one part Ash (Ian Holm’s murderous robot in Alien), one part Roy Batty, one part HAL 9000, and a bit of Lance Henriksen’s Bishop from Aliens, but Michael Fassbender makes it entirely his own thing, too. He’s not terribly impressed with his creators, but he’s fascinated and delighted by what he encounters of the Engineers. David’s actions are never entirely benign, but neither is he exactly vicious in the way that HAL and Ash are. I’m certain that he was acting under Weyland’s orders to infect Holloway and get the impregnated Shaw into cryosleep as quickly as possible, but he also acts genuinely curious to see what will happen when he carries out those orders — like Ash, he admires what they’ve found, and wants to see the end result. David isn’t all that interested in why humans made him; one gets the impression that he wants to ask the Engineers (i.e., Grandpa) why they bothered making the humans in the first place. My guess is that the Engineer knocks David’s head off because he sees David as the result of humanity’s hubris, the same hubris that seems to have resulted in whatever happened on LV-223’s installation 2,000 years ago (what I assume to be an outbreak of xenomorphs, judging by the burst chests of the Engineer corpses).
I said that I expect Prometheus to be a prologue to the story Ridley Scott really wants to tell. I say that because of the narrative problem of deciding to tell the story of “the big guy in the chair”. In order for such a story to work, it has to be told from the standpoint of a human being, an audience surrogate. This protagonist has to have a reason to seek that race out, and how do you do that in a way that makes sense when, in terms of storytelling logic and what appears to be the framework set up in Alien, there’s no way the protagonist could know they exist? Well, by the end of Prometheus, Ellie Shaw knows they exist and has a reason to seek them out on their own turf, and it’s propelling the story forward into another film.
Miscellaneous comments: Ridley Scott has a thing for closeups of eyes. Instantly-recognizable shot from Blade Runner:
And Holloway in Prometheus:
I rather liked that David’s head was leaking milk. Nice visual tie to Ash in Alien. I also noticed that Ellie is dragging his body along as well, so presumably he will be whole again in a sequel.
I assume there is more of Patrick Wilson as Ellie’s father somewhere on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, why bother casting Patrick Wilson? Seems like luxury casting for five lines. Along similar lines, I assume there was footage shot of a younger Peter Weyland, because it doesn’t make sense to me to cast Guy Pearce specifically to put him in old age makeup. I could be wrong on both counts.
In terms of narrative ties to Alien — I’m sure we’ll find out more for certain in any future film, but it seems to me that the Engineers’ rush to leave the installation 2,000 years ago (and I’m intentionally not going to discuss the implications of that date in terms of Earth history) is probably what results in the ship that crash-landed on LV-426. Their weapons stock got out of control, and David mentions that there are “other ships”, plural, so not just the one that he and Ellie are flying to the Engineers’ home planet. The one on LV-426 was perhaps the one that actually was able to take off.
However, one point that I find really intriguing is the possibility of what the star map that David was interacting with might have been. Was it keeping track of every place that the Engineers had interfered or interacted with the evolutionary process? If so, they’ve seeded a lot of worlds. What else is out there to be found in this universe besides xenomorphs?
Even in its clearly toned-down form, Shaw’s self-caesarean was pretty rough going (and I assume it was ultimately one of the barriers for a PG-13 rating). I found it very uncomfortable to watch as a man; I can’t imagine what it would be like for a woman, let alone a pregnant woman. I won’t be suggesting to my wife that she watch it until we’re well past the birth. I’ll note that it is also one of the ways the imagery of Prometheus having his liver pecked out and eaten is invoked; Shaw’s faith and optimism are ultimately used against her, and this is the price. This is maybe overthinking it a touch, but as a name, Προμηθεύς means something like “forethought”, which Shaw seems to lack — she didn’t really think her ideas through sufficiently.
Anyway — Prometheus has my recommendation. Go see it and draw your own conclusions.