Jun.09, 2012, filed under movies
I should make something clear from the very start: Alien was my diving board into the world of science fiction in film. It wasn’t ET, or Star Wars, or Star Trek. For me these were not science. They weren’t real. They were fantasies, soap operas, adventure tales. They belonged with Black Beauty, Bonanza and Scooby Doo. Even back then, as a girl learning the OILRIG mnemonic for chemical reactions (Oxidation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain), I felt that science fiction was something edgier and harder than I was finding on the television or the movie screen. It was something I was only finding in books, where the mechanics and the plausibility couldn’t be glossed over with a veneer of special effects and explosions.
In space no one can hear you scream.
That was it. Right there. I was yet to experience the magnificent silence of Kubrick’s 2001. All I knew was that space is a vacuum, sound can’t travel in a vacuum because it is a compression wave, not a transverse wave, and Star Wars had given me far too many space lasers going “PEW PEW PIH-PEW-PEW-PEW!” followed by mega-explosions you could hear if you were standing on the moon.
No. Just no.
The gritty, industrial, supremely plausible sets of Alien, accompanied by the claustrophobic performances of the cast and, of course, the ultimate female action role model of Ripley (notable for not screaming), got me hooked on science fiction in film. As such, the film occupies a particularly well-kept pedestal in my mental gallery of things that have shaped my life.
You will understand, then, that I went to see Prometheus with something akin to a religious person going to witness some form of Holy Visitation, and I will save you the trouble of reading further, and exposing yourself to the ensuing spoilers, by telling you that the experience was rather like a Druid going on a trip to Stonehenge and discovering that it’s just a bunch of big rocks. Everyone around you is swooning over the mystic energies and the swirling chaos of Mother Earth reaching up and imparting visionary experiences of the Universe and Being At One With Existence and you’re thinking that it’s a shame it’s so close to the traffic and it’s not nearly as big as you thought it was going to be.
The film is extraordinarily pretty. It’s full of pretty. There is nothing in it that is not pretty. The scenery is pretty. The spaceship is pretty. The crew are all handsome or beautiful. Even old Weyland would have been good-looking, if they stripped off the cosmetics to reveal Guy Pearce (because, you know, there is a massive shortage of aging actors in the world who could have played that role — Ian Holm is still working and that would have been delicious). The Engineers are reasonably low on the ugly scale. Tall, built like rugby players, with a cupid’s bow lip (the male equivalent of the Jolie beestung pout). Charlize Theron is in fantastic shape, Fassbender’s grooming was lampshaded in the first section of the film — it’s all, you know, pretty.
Maybe that was part of the problem. I distrust pretty. Anything that pretty has to be distracting you from something and, when it comes to movies, it’s usually the story.
And, yes, there we go, the plot has so many holes in it you could use it to drain pasta. The characterisation of most of the characters bar the main four is so weak they might as well have been robots — there is little interaction, no badinage, nothing to distinguish them from NPCs at all. Plus, it makes the fatal mistake of a science fiction film: it gets the easy facts wrong.
The trip to find their makers starts with archaeologists uncovering a cave painting on the Isle of Skye and dating it to a time so close to the last major glaciation that the idea of anyone being there to paint it stretches plausibility past the Young’s modulus. One should also note that the evidence is unclear as to whether modern humans (as opposed to genetically not-identical Neanderthals) were in the UK at all 35,000 years ago. That is just the first of the WTF moments that had me motorboating like 4hp Evinrude two-stroke on a bad oil/petrol mix. There was the instant carbon dating on an alien planet where the CO2 isotope ratio had not been characterised. There was the thing with the head and the electric re-animation — seriously, what was that all about? You cannot trick a head into thinking it’s alive by tickling the vagus nerve with a purple wand. Really, you can’t.
There were others. Oh yes, there were others. Like how the ship was equipped with an autodoc capable of performing any conceivable type of surgery, but which couldn’t deal with having a female patient. Because it was calibrated for a man. I know that was supposed to make the audience ask why it would be for a man when it was supposedly Vickers’s autodoc, but flagging the presence of someone on board we didn’t know about was better done by David’s conversation with Weyland over the neural link, rather than asking us to believe something so advanced couldn’t re-calibrate itself. It was one of the many foreshadowing points throughout the film, the most t-shirt worthy of which was Chekov’s Space Squid (I know it’s not strictly speaking a Chekov’s anything, as it was hardly an irrelevant detail, but Foreshadowing Space Squid is more of a band name than a t-shirt).
Scott’s film has won praise, and I’ve even seen people accuse those who don’t like it of being stupid, of failing to “get it”. Well, hands up. I failed to get it. Oh I got the whole “be careful what you wish for” fable, and I don’t have a problem with a religious scientist. I have a problem with a scientist who is not only an archaeologist but also a forensic xeno-pathologist, because the level of experience needed for that level of expertise in both is not realistically achievable in someone of Shaw’s age.
There’s an automatic defensive reaction from writers who have honed their craft to people suggesting writing is just something you can do; that anyone who can string a few words together deserves to be published. I understand. When you’ve worked at your craft that effort should be recognised. But I have a huge beef with writers inventing characters who are polymaths in specialisations. It cheapens the work and effort of scientists who have spent decades achieving that expertise. It’s almost as bad as when people think their opinion on a scientific topic is as valid as an expert’s because they’ve seen a Horizon documentary about it or read the wikipedia article. I could have understood David being the one to examine the head, just as Ash had been the one to conduct the examination in Alien, but why get Shaw to do it? Why was their medical officer less skilled than their archaeologist?
Why would a bunch of scientists head 4 years into space to an unknown planet without finding out why they were going and what part of their expertise would be required? Why was any one of the other individuals picked? We didn’t ever get to find out enough about them to know, or even to care about their eventual fate. Was their biologist picked for his stupidity? What sort of biologist was he anyway? What sort of geologist was Fifield? Or was he picked for his hair-trigger temper and his tattoos? When the biologist and the geologist said they were going back to the ship, how come they ended up wandering around in the tunnels? The entire crew seemed to have been chosen according to the criteria of a reality-TV show rather than a science expedition, which makes me wonder if the big secret was that Weyland had also sold rights to a television company.
This was a science-fiction film that didn’t pay attention to the science.
How did they happen across the place where the plot was scant minutes after entering the atmosphere? How did a ship that shape and size carry enough fuel to manage landing and take-off? How did the Space Squid get so big with nothing to eat? The original Alien got big by nomming upon the crew of the Nostromo. There’s a conservation of mass issue, there, unless the Space Squid ate the autodoc. How did Shaw manage to belay the robot down a cliff with nothing holding her lower abdomen together bar a few staples on the outside?
There were many other questions.
Prometheus was billed as a film that would make the audience question, and I did. What it didn’t do was make me ponder the big questions of who we are as a species and how we came to be here. It didn’t make me feel like re-reading Chariots of the Gods (although, to be fair, there’s not much that would because it’s drivel). I suspect that the questions we were supposed to focus on were those to do with our evolution. How come the Engineers’ DNA matched ours exactly when our DNA differs from a chimp’s by 1% and a gorilla’s by 2%? Did they seed all life on earth and we failed to evolve? Or was Scott implying that we somehow evolved from a squiggly strand of denatured alien DNA to match those aliens in every genetic detail (but not in looks, though, because we don’t live in Space Heaven and there’s that whole nature-nurture thing) and that was why they were coming to wipe us out? Were we too much like them? Did they see us as competition? Did they think that one species like them in the Universe was already too much? Was this a film about hubris? Arrogance?
I think it was. And, in a way, it was successful at that, because there is an arrogance in the implication we are supposed not to notice or care about the basic errors and implausibilities. I don’t mean things like the technology or the idea that we could travel so far in such a short time: I’m talking about the little things, the things that should not have been wrong, that could have been right with a little more thought or care.
To get back to where I started this, it was when I started comparing this film to Alien that I began to grok what bothered me so much about it. Shaw’s painfully extended battle with her unwanted pregnancy did not come across as plot but as fanservice. Ripley, arguably Hollywood’s most significant strong female character, died “giving birth” to an Alien Queen. Shaw cut the Space Squid out with a device meant for a man and killed the Engineer with it. Take that! Shaw’s sterility wasn’t really a vital part of her character motivation, because other than a brief, weepy argument with Holloway it didn’t have any effect on her behaviour. Rather it seemed to reflect Ripley’s forced state of childlessness caused by decades lost in hypersleep and the loss of Newt. David wasn’t a Data-like prototype but a fully-fledged, functioning robot who seemed far in advance of either Ash or Bishop; and who possessed a self-awareness that allowed him to distinguish himself from humans — and consider himself superior. Shades of Alien: Resurrection there. Prometheus riffed so hard on the franchise that the story, the characters and the setting came across like fan-fiction written by someone who thought the original stuff was so brilliant it didn’t matter if this new story was full of holes left by jamming his favourite elements together in a big pot and not cooking them properly.
I thought Theron and Fassbender were great, Rapace did what she could with a character that needed to be much better written, Marshall-Green was left treading water with a character that lacked any believable sense of conviction and Elba managed to put more character into 3 lines of dialogue than the other NPCs had between them. The opening sequence was breathtaking, and my fangirl hard-science squee was jumping up and down in excitement at the vapour curling over the lip of the giant flying saucer. I just wish the rest of the film had followed through on that promise.
You may feel differently, but I like a bit more science in my science fiction.