Big Things Have Small Beginnings

It should be noted that if you haven’t seen ‘Prometheus’, you shouldn’t be reading this…at all.

By now, for most of you, the cat is out of the bag. Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to sci-fi has well and truly landed and has thus far split critics and fans right down the middle. To be fair to Scott, I’m fairly sure that this reaction is exactly what he expected, and more to the point, what he had hoped for. There are always going to be haters. Some people even seem to like to hate, because it makes them seem cool, or whatever. Hell, I can almost guarantee that when ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ drops in six weeks time, the first people to turn their noses up at it will be the relentless Nolanophiles who have deconstructed every pixel of every photograph on every website. As discussed in my previous blog regarding ‘Prometheus’, the most anticipated blockbusters are becoming more and more succeptable to an almost unrealistic standard of expectation. While ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will find it easier to tick people’s boxes for the simple reason that it is the ‘epic conclusion’ to a franchise that is only seven years old, the public reaction (so far) to ‘Prometheus’ can be partially attributed to the fact that this is Scott’s first venture into sci-fi since 1982. Let it be known, I am in no way using that fact as an excuse for anything. In fact, the last thing I want is for this piece to come across as defensive. I’m very much of the mind that the film does just fine speaking for itself.

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See? I managed to write an entire introductory paragraph without mentioning ‘Alien’ once. Not so hard, is it? This ‘prequel’ preconception that critics have driven themselves mad over has turned out to be without a doubt the single most detrimental attitude you could possibly take into your first screening of this film. If you are in some way able to block it out of your mindset for two hours, you are guaranteed an incredible journey. It’s almost that simple.

Unfortunately, almost everyone involved with the making and the marketing of this film is responsible for this unnecessary bloodlined attachment to Scott’s ‘Alien’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s true, the film does ‘share DNA with Alien’, as Ridley Scott himself has repeatedly put it. And although that particular line has up until this point sounded simply like some sort of artsy cop-out, having watched the film twice in 24 hours, it could not be a more true, sensical statement. I only wish that if they had been 100% committed to the film being viewed as a standalone piece, perhaps they might have eased off on the trailer/featurette/overall marketing angle. But hey, at the end of the day, you want to sell as many tickets as possible. We would have to be fools not to understand that. Especially when you consider how much box office take 20th Century Fox will have sacrificed by allowing Scott to release the film as a 15/R.

Negative as many may be having had the secrets of ‘Prometheus’ revealed to them, it is important to recognise that positive or negative, the narrative content of the film is a massive talking point. Sparking debate is a dream come true for any filmmaker, and ‘Prometheus’ has certainly done that in the few days since it’s international release. As it is not released in the US until Friday, we will have to wait until then to discover just how much of a summer box office juggernaut the film will prove to be. Could the internationally negative word of mouth spread to the US in time to affect flock numbers? Time will tell.

Critics opinions and statistics aside, underneath it all is an incredibly thoughtful science fiction narrative. Save for a few choice moments of underwhelming dialogue (mostly delivered by Charlize Theron’s Vickers), ‘Prometheus‘ is solidly written. Now, before you throw your chips at your screen and start yelling, ‘are you kidding me?!’, I am aware that this statement may come as a shock to those of you who have seen it. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you stop reading now. My definition of ‘writing‘ in the case of ‘Prometheus‘ has to do entirely with the narrative content of the film rather than the actual dialogue. And though the narrative structure is admittedly flawed, it succeeds in its messiness by asking five times as many questions as it answers. Through it’s flaws, what is actually contained and presented in the film is about as mouthwatering as it gets.

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‘Since when did leaving things open for interpretation and debate make a film dissatisfying?’

- Simon Pegg, June 2012

From the opening aerial shots that soar over vast landscapes, ‘Prometheus’ is jaw-droppingly epic in its overall scope, not only in terms of direction and cinematography, but in its ideas. The pre-title sequence is noticeably Kubrickian, inclusive of everything from a rising earth to the kickstarting of human intelligence by an unknown alien superior, and the rest of the film, thematically, follows suit though it never quite defines itself in the way that you would expect. What was defining about films like ‘2001’, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ had a lot to do with the era during which it was made. It is becoming increasingly difficult to impress in a market dominated by astonishing visual effects, so to compensate for the public’s new found numbness to what they are seeing (I’m casting eyes at you, ‘Battleship’), filmmakers (and more specifically, screenwriters) are under more pressure than ever to tell a story that counts for something other than thrills and spills. Luckily for Ridley Scott, he had a head start having helmed two of the most original sci-fi films ever made. The question on everyone’s minds leading up to the release of ‘Prometheus’ was, would Scott be able to harness the power of his younger self and set a brand new benchmark for a genre he is massively responsible for, especially in terms of helping to drive into the 21st century.

Though many, many critics (as well as a lot of my peers) will disagree with me, I think ‘Prometheus’ has accomplished a lot more than it is currently being given credit for. In my opinion, there have only been an handful of outstanding science fiction films since the turn of the century. If for arguement’s sake, we say that those films are ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Children of Men’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Sunshine’, and ‘District 9’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Star Trek’, when you then throw ‘Prometheus’ in to the mix considering themes, conventions and visual spectacle, it becomes more difficult than you might think to not put it at the top, if only for it’s loose ties to ‘Alien’ which (let’s be honest) make it all the more enjoyable. To have that cult familiarity already attached, and to know the questions you want answered before you’ve even really got any knowledge of the film’s plot is undeniably exciting.

As far as the early criticisms go, they seem to mainly revolve around the fact that we don’t get the answers that we seek, and in fact, the film asks five times as many questions as it answers. But doesn’t that mean that as viewers, we are sharing the same frustration that Shaw and Holloway encountered when they first arrived on LV-223? And if that is the case, how can one deny connection to the characters?

While connection to the characters is surprisingly limited, I don’t recognise this as as much of a flaw as an overlooked necessity. ‘Prometheus’ is a film that is about the origins of mankind, the birth of humanity, the idea that the human condition is the experimental spawn of a superior (in every way) race of humanoids from halfway across the universe. If you feel like you need to be disappointed with the depth of character attached to the ship’s captain (who self admits ‘I just drive the ship’) or the Weyland fat cat who is questioned as to whether or not she is a robot, I’m afraid you might be missing the point slightly. These characters are not important, and should be viewed as vessels for supporting and then driving the overall narrative forward. If they happen to die in the process, and you find yourself feeling like you don’t care, don’t be dismayed. The universe didn’t shed a tear either. These characters died alone, half a billion miles from anyone who cares for them. The fact that the viewer is left feeling nothing for them is representative of the bigger picture that ‘Prometheus’ attempts to frame for us. Are any of them really that different from say, Lambert, Brett or Parker?

That being said, the film revolves around two characters on which it fully depends (well, three if you count the engineers). Shaw and David represent everything that is necessary for the story to proceed and to succeed. Shaw, her ability to reproduce, her intimidating intelligence (doctorates in paleontology, archeology, human mythology and metics), and the fact that she is a woman of faith means that she is perfect candidate for representing the entire human form. David, on the other end of the spectrum as a David 8 cybernetic individual, represents the furthest advancement of human technology. If we are to consider them in that particular semiotic form, then the other 15 members of Prometheus’ crew begin to feel even more defunct.

If we first consider the latter, David is integral to the story for a variety of reasons. The most intriguing being his questionable decision making process and his apparent eagerness to withhold information from the crew members he is allegedly on board to serve. As a servant, he doesn’t half take liberties as far as jeopardising the safety of his human colleagues. Whether it be pressing buttons, opening doors without any way of knowing what harm could potentially lie beyond, or plunging needle-based sedatives into people’s arms and legs, David’s agenda is initially hard to place. That is, until you start to view him as sort of very capable and helpful Frankenstein’s monster. And who is Frankenstein in the case of ‘Prometheus’? None other than Peter Weyland himself, a man driven by arrogance and the quest for (what else?) immortality. Once we can start to understand Weyland as David’s ‘master’, the choices David makes over the course of the film start to make a lot more sense.

David happily obliges his colleages, but he operates entirely on a need to know basis. Having been programmed by Weyland, it is for this reason that we often perceive him to be following his own agendas, specifically in the crew’s first visit to the pyramid and then later when he explores the pilot room. Most interesting though, is the way that he goes about infecting Dr. Holloway. This is something he has been instructed to do by Weyland himself. But why? The simple answer is, Weyland wanted to move things along after their initial discoveries yielded no lifeforms.

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The bigger question regarding Holloway’s infection is, how did David know that the black matter would result in an effect on Holloway that would enable him to impregnate the infertile Shaw with whom he was known to be intimate? Without reading further into it than we need to, he didn’t? ‘Prometheus’ very much deals with the theme of faith, and when instructed by Weyland to ‘try harder’ (as in, any type of lifeform will do), David took it upon himself to take that particular leap. He had no idea what would happen should he successfully infect Holloway, nor if dropping the black matter in his drink would ‘infect’ him at all. But being the calculated being he is, one can only assume that the route he decided to take on the back of Weyland’s command was mathematically the most likely to produce any sort of result considering the limited resources to hand. And to be fair, he gave Holloway the chance to opt out. When asked how far he would go to get the answers he sought, Holloway replied that he would do ‘anything and everything’. If you’re going to give answers that generalised to a very much goal-oriented synthetic, he’s going to assume self-sacrifice is included.

The fact that Shaw was able to become pregnant is admittedly somewhat questionable but only if you’re approaching it in a logical sense. In the words of Doctor Emmett Brown, ‘you’re not thinking fourth dimensionally!’. This is sci-fi by one of the forefathers of sci-fi. No one should be shocked and shaken if an infertile woman is magically pregnant with a ‘non-traditional fetus’. I for one thought it was a fantastic reveal, and really highlighted the power of this mysterious, biological black matter. I mean, hell, Kane was able to develop a fetus and he was a damn man! You don’t hear many people picking holes in that!

What follows is an intense sequence involving a auto-surgery machine that is classic Scott. Out of nowhere, I found myself clutching my fists tight and squirming in my seat for the entirety of a scene that epitomises sci-fi horror.

Keeping with the theories surrounding the black matter, through the transformation and eventual death of Fifield, we learn that should one make direct contact with the black matter, you become an extremely hard to kill, superstrong menace. So far, we know that direct contact and ingestion produce unfavourable transformations, but with what intention? Well, the conclusion that Prometheus’ crew lands on is that our ‘engineers’ were testing it as a biological weapon of sorts. A weapon that essentially ‘weaponises’ any organic life it comes into contact with. What appeared to be simple earthworms mutated into angry cobra-like worms upon contact, Fifield became a raging killing machine, and finally (and perhaps most shockingly) Holloway’s sperm. The latter producing a cesarian-born squid-hugger that eventually impregnantes the surviving engineer. The results of which are the most familiar sight in the entire film.

If you choose to break it down further, it could well be that the black matter is an evolutionary elixir with no less than three underlining properties: a) when ingested by a complex organism (the sacrificial engineer from the opening scene/Holloway), the organism breaks down into primordial material that can then reproduce through cell division to be ingested by simple organisms, b) when ingested by simple organisms, the organism mutates exponentially resulting in a kind of accelerated evolution (Cambrian life on earth etc, cobra-worms), and c) when coming into contact with dead cells/organisms, the result is re-animation (Shaw’s womb/dead Fifield).

Janek points out that they were clever enough to test their weapons far from home, and with good reason judging by the results that we see. My question though, is why they were experimenting with such dangerous methods of bioweaponry in the first place? What were these life-creating, physically intimidating and all-intelligent beings so afraid of that warranted such drastic measures? Another answer best saved for the sequel, it seems. Thanks, Lindelof. The only theory I have been able to conjure up is that the engineers that we encounter in ‘Prometheus’ are some sort of cloned ‘worker bees’ that have been manufactured by a superior intelligence that is even higher still. Perhaps the same beings who thought it would be a good idea to mass produce Xenomorphs. ‘What ifs’ aside, I would say that in all probability, there is a race of beings from another planet that are not included in ‘Prometheus’, and they are fans of terraforming and genetic manipulation/domination.

vickers

The next riddle worth having a look at involves the latter stages of the film, in particular when Shaw, Weyland and David come into contact with the awakened engineer. We know that David is the only one educated in ancient languages to be able to communicate with the engineer, but that’s not to say that the engineer was not intelligent enough to understand English. If they ‘created us’, there’s no telling how much influence they may have had in the construction of human languages. What’s most important to consider is David’s loyalty to Weyland. Regardless of Shaw’s pleading, David was always going to follow his own agenda (Weyland’s agenda) when making this first contact. In a rather intense interaction, Shaw desperately tries to find out from the engineer why if they created humanity, then why do they hate humanity and want to destroy it. This is a far more pertinent way to start a conversation than ‘how can you make me immortal, please?’, but nevertheless, David’s grand logic is overruled by the fact that he essentially a cybernetic extension of Weyland and he proceeds to pose Weyland’s queries.

What’s most interesting about what happened next is the engineers reaction to what is happening. He is of superhuman strength and intelligence, and is most likely cranky due to the fact that he’s just woken from hypersleep, all his friends are dead, and he is being squawked at by a group of pithy humans. What he does do though is react to Shaw’s pleading with what can only be described as a curious consideration. For a brief moment, it almost looks as if he is at least willing to hear her out and, who knows, perhaps even offer some sort of explanation. Even if he couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying, for me, he clearly recognised the emotion in her manner and was prepared to respond to it empathetically. This fleeting chance at a truce is then completely ruined by David’s immediately following actions.

Upon the posing of Weyland’s arrogant query to the engineer, he proceeds to rip David’s head off and kill everyone else in the room (apart from Shaw, who escapes). Without having any guarantees that the engineer would understand the language that David has considered appropriate, I believe that the reaction would have remained the same for the simple reason that the engineer was deeply offended that upon first contact he was being questioned by an inferior synthetic life form. Couple this with that fact that he may have also felt threatened by human kind’s apparant ability to create (a self aware, cybernetic individual) and all of a sudden you’ve got a number of reasons for him to pop off and go loco.

Finally, there’s the speculation as to what the ending not only means for Shaw, but what it means for the franchise. That is, if you choose to include ‘Prometheus’ as part of the Alien franchise. Because of the undeniable links, I suppose you have to. But I wouldn’t expect to see it as part of any boxsets any time soon.

Rather than decide to return to Earth, we learn that Shaw is still driven, more than ever, to uncover the secrets of our origins. David, now only a head (the part of him that matters most), agrees to help her travel to the Derelict-spaceship’s home planet. The reason they are able to do this is because of the many ships buried under the surface of LV-223. Ships that, according to David, can just as easily be piloted by a human. Given that the last engineer was impregnated by ‘Shaw’s Son’ and then became the victim of a chest-burst birth, as the final scene proves, Shaw is now potentially going to be chased down by what can only be described at this point as a ‘first-gen xenomorph’ that is comprised not only of the DNA of Holloway, Shaw and the last engineer, but of the biological compounds contained in the black matter. This makes for one powerful, intelligent and angry son-of-a-bitch. Seeing as gestation periods have been so short up to this point (both within Shaw and the engineer), it seems natural to assume that it will mature rapidly and use its wealth of intelligence to figure how to commandeer another one of LV-223’s remaining ships and try and find it’s way off the planet.

Taking all of this into account (and I realise how speculative it must sound), it got me thinking about how much time separates the end of ‘Prometheus’ from the beginning of ‘Alien’. A mere 29 years separates Shaw’s escape from LV-223 from Kane’s discovery on LV-426. If we speculate that the alien from the final scene of ‘Prometheus’ does in fact pursue Shaw, is it beyond the realms of the Ridley Scott universe to suggest that Shaw may in fact be the female DNA responsible for spawning a more familiar face? I propose the following as final food for thought.

The ‘first-gen’ catches up with Shaw and impregnates her. Having survived the attack but not the (for want of a better word) rape, she, driven by her unflinching determination, continues on her quest for answers. Whilst in transit, she falls victim to a ‘chest-burst’ and is killed. Her ship descends, out of control, and crash lands…on LV-426.

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