Prometheus: A flawed but thought provoking horror movie.

Jun 20, 2012

Last night, after some juggling of schedules, Lyssa, Laurelindel, and I went to see Prometheus, the long-awaited prequel to the Alien movies which feature the designs of (and inspired by) the artist H.R. Giger. I have to admit, we had some trepidation going in because the Alien movies are some of our favorites (and there were only three, we maintain) and unless it was done right the prequel was destined to suck.

Well....

Prometheus is a deeply flawed movie. The writing is good in some parts, okay in others, but it has a few scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor because they seemed to ride roughshod over other things in the movie and weakened the story as a whole. The acting's rather of wooden, too; in fact, half of the cast (Charlize Theron included) could have been removed entirely and the movie would not have suffered one bit. When you remember the name of only a single character at the end of the movie, and it's not the one played by the big-name star, something's very wrong in the characterization. The religious allusions were applied with a trowel and we don't just see Checkhov's Gun on the mantelpiece, we're given the grand tour of Checkhov's Arsenal complete with a visit to The Box o' Truth. Visually, it was stunning and you should expect nothing less. As a horror movie you probably won't be disappointed; the elements of suspense lend a lot to the visual atmosphere of the movie and if your thing is body horror it somehow manages to top Parasite Eve. My hearts were in my mouth for a measurable fraction of the movie, so if nothing else it did that right. My recommendation is that if you see this movie you should go into it expecting a sci-fi/horror movie and not a canon part of the Alien franchise. Oh, and no shawarma.

Three screams that can't be heard in space out of five.

And now, below the cut is my spoiler-filled rumination on the movie.

It says something that the arguments started the moment we stepped outside. Lyssa, Laurelindel, and I immediately got into it. One of the things that Lyssa took away from the movie was a strongly misogynistic reading of the movie, with mother figure-as-mother of abomination overtones. The movie can be interpreted to make this statement because everything in the story went to hell when women showed up. Charlize Theron's character was, in fact, accused of not being human at all because she didn't immediately want to sleep with the captain of the exploration ship Prometheus. Lousy acting aside, the way it was portrayed the "My quarters in ten minutes" line positively dripped with molecular acid-like offscreen hate sex. I think Lyssa's on to something there. I had generalized this into a misanthropic reading of the movie because everything was fine until the humans showed up and started screwing around with things they didn't understand. To steal a line from Garth Ennis, the professionals were acting like amateurs and the amateurs were acting like idiots in a potential first contact situation, and there was a series of mistakes which lead to disaster (and this movie does indeed have overtones of summer disaster movie blockbuster, I'm sorry to report).

An obvious interpretation of the movie is that it's a retelling of the story of Prometheus. I'll not recount it here because others have already done so.

Another possible interpretation that Laurelindel came up with is that Prometheus tells the story of the Engineers by telling the story of the humans journeying to find them, because the cycle seems to repeat itself on every level of creation. The hypothesis goes like this: Engineers created hominid life on Earth and abandoned it to continue their grand project. At some point after that the Engineers split into factions with distinct goals and modus operandi. One of the factions was relatively benevolent and carried out scientific work that seeded life in the galaxy. Another faction was either selfish or warlike and decided that the relatively benevolent Engineers were in their way and turned on them. We see in the movie holograms of Engineers running for their lives, and one being ambushed and killed. We also see an abbatoir of Engineers that were killed and dumped out of the way. The humans were split into factions as well, from those motivated by scientific curiosity to corporate greed to "I'm just in this for the money" selfishness. The conflicts between these factions result in the selfish ones being killed and the corporate greed types treating the rest like servants and potential research specimens (David wanting to freeze Elizabeth Shaw because she had an alien embryo growing inside of her). We know from the other movies that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is in the business of terraforming; in fact, the motto of the Weyland Corporation ("Building better worlds.") suggests that they're already in the business. It is stated that the Engineers' vessel is generating a breathable oxy-nitro atmosphere, which suggests that they're doing the same thing to LV-226. Where the Engineers had their bioforming nanotech tools, the humans had an artificially aware android (David) as their tool. A sequence was cut from the theatrical release which suggests that the Engineers weren't at the top of the food chain, either. However, its canonicity is unclear due to its status.

Yet another interpretation of the movie is that it's a retelling of the story of Lilith, in her role as the mother of monsters and abominations. The character of Elizabeth, who is sterile, is impregnated by her nanotech-infected lover about halfway through the movie. It is revealed that she carries the monster inside her, something which isn't the Xenomorph that we're used to seeing in the Alien movies, but something entirely different that might spawn the race years later. In other words, an abomination came from the barrens, a thing that cannot be stopped. By the end of the movie the abomination impregnates the last Engineer we see, and some time later a proto-Xenomorph bursts from its body. This hypothesis seems to be reinforced by the robotically-performed Cesarian in the medical pod - the abortion of an abomination was itself a failure, showing that even tools are unable to stop it (though they do manage to contain it for a time).

I'd like to say that we're still not sure what the slime was, only what it did. Its depiction seems to be the twenty-first century's idea of what nanotechnology "is supposed to look like," i.e. a motile black or grey cloud. At the beginning of the movie an Engineer destroys itself by drinking some of it and ultimately creates hominid life in its image on Earth. he nanotech destructively analyzes the Engineer's genetic structure to figure out how it works and seeds the planet with it; reinforced by the discovery that the DNA of the decapitated engineer and a baseline human sample is identical in all meaningful ways. There is also the statement that there is no creation without destruction, which the Engineer nanotech seems capable of, and which also suggests that it's programmable, or at least adaptable. That said, we don't know if the nanotech later in the movie is the same stuff or if it's different stuff. It could be said that when simple life is exposed to it it's tranformed into something else (case in point, the worms crawling in the soil in in the crypt becoming the snake-like creatures that ganked the biologist and engineer). By extension it could also be said that higher lifeforms can be destroyed by it, vis a vis humans becoming corrupted monsters when they're exposed to it. Or, possibly the nanotech we see later in the movie isn't the same stuff at the beginning but something entirely different - an actual weapon, as the captain of the Prometheus states it might be.

If we use the "telling the story of the humans to tell the story of the Engineers" interpretation, perhaps they were going to destroy the life they had created (hold full of nanotech weapons, next programmed destination: Sol-3) because they figured out that it was destined to become corrupted and destructive. In a way they were going to clean up their mess in the same way that the humans cleaned up theirs (i.e., incinerating the infected - 'cleansing by fire'). It has also been suggested that, seeing as how the Engineers had visited Earth a number of times to check up on their creations (suggested at the beginning during the crew briefing), perhaps they were aware of the violent streak in the human race and were acting to minimize potential damage elsewhere in the galaxy. And then they ran into that potential danger on their home turf: A violent, sometimes warlike species with the capability of space travel poses a serious threat, and they'd figured out how to break into the Engineer ship and wake up the last remaining crew member. Not good. So, head to Earth and wipe them out before they can cause any more trouble. This also reinforces the nano-weapon argument.

There are suggestions of factions among the Engineers also, if we go with the recursive story argument. There is weak evidence that the Engineer seen at the beginning of the movie was a rogue among his kind, given that we see their ship take off just before he sacrifices himself. When the human explorers are first shown depictions of them they are running from something and later are found dead. The one that stands out was the Engineer that was decapitated but not killed in a fashion suggesting any other forms of life or nanotech; I'm inclined to think that he was assassinated by another of his kind. The implication here is that some of the Engineers turned on the others for some reason. Perhaps the Engineers that were seeding life were attacked by those trying to destroy it, or at least un-do their work in the galaxy. Perhaps the nanotech they were using turned into a pathogen and began infecting the Engineers, suggesting the tools-gone-bad argument (and mirroring David's actions among the human crew). We also see this echoed elsewhere in the human crew, in that non-Corporation personnel were treated like servants at best, expendible at worst.

There is another interpretation of Prometheus that I call the "when worlds collide" interpretation. In it, the Engineers created humans (or probably hominids) and promptly left the planet to its own devices. Thousands of years pass and humans found the staging area of the Engineers (the moon LV-226), traveled to visit them with their advanced technology, and all hell promptly broke loose. When the human finally ran into an Engineer conflict occurs between the two races and it kills all but two of the crew (not counting David, who's decapitated but not dead). The interaction of the tools of the Engineers and the humans (the creations of the Engineers) immediately begat lifeforms inimical to both species (the parasitic snake/worm, the octopoid proto-facehugged, and ultimately the proto-Xenomorph that probably turned into the nightmare that we so fondly recall from Alien and Aliens). The proto-Xenomorph kills the final Engineer when it tears its way out of the body and presumably eventually kicks off the original trilogy. It could be argued that only distance between the creator and the created can preserve both, and if the humans hadn't gone mucking about on LV-226 the nanoweapon would not have picked up traits of the worms in the ground, the human race, and then the bio-engineered Engineers to eventually form the Xenomorph race.

Maybe we're reading too much into this movie. Maybe a cigar is just a cigar, and a painting of a pipe is only a painting. Still, it's fun to go spelunking through a piece of media to see what's in there. There wasn't enough on the surface to go on, so we may as well get our money's worth by opening the hood and rummaging around in the engine.