June 21st, 2012 / 8:01 am

Cinema x 2: “Prometheus” & Feature Friday

Michael Fassbender is...Galactus!


It’s been a while since Ridley Scott’s made a film I really admire (Hannibal?), and even longer since he’s made one I really love (Alien/Blade Runner/Legend). But the man’s got talent and I hoped his returning to LV-233 would bring it out.

His first mistake was not returning to LV-233.

Actually, Prometheus makes several mistakes. For one thing, it overvalues allusions to other artworks. Noomi Rapace’s emergency C-section, arguably the best scene in the film, isn’t successful because it obliquely references virgin births, or the lancing of Christ’s side, or Prometheus’s having been condemned to having his liver eternally eaten out by an eagle. It’s great because it’s tense and well acted and disgusting as fuck.

But in too many other scenes, Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof forgo similar pleasures in favor of vague allusions to Greek and Christian myths (what we might call “The Phantom Menace Fallacy”). Then they tread even more water referencing other Alien films: David shoots hoops like Ripley; Elizabeth Shaw looks like Ripley; David ultimately looks a lot like Bishop. This at best cute, at worst distracting and pretentious. (Is Prometheus the equal of the Bible?) They also significantly increase the film’s sense of authorial intrusion.

Which is constant. The dialogue, for instance, is almost entirely one-note, smacking over and over again of Spaihts and Lindelof shoveling plot points / exposition at the audience. Consider this gem of a scene:

The pacing there strikes me as much faster than in the actual movie, so this clip is probably abridged. But that doesn’t make the dialogue any less poorly heavy-handed:

Holloway: Please tell me you can read that.

Shaw: What are you doing, David?

David: I’m attempting to open the door.

Shaw: Wait. We don’t know what’s on the other side.

David: Whoops—sorry.


David: Remarkably human.


David: Beautiful painting.

Shaw: It’s a mural.


Shaw: Stop, stop—don’t touch it.

David: Sorry.

Shaw: Please don’t touch anything.


Shaw: Oh no. The murals are changing. I think we’ve affected the atmosphere in the room. Charlie! David! We must leave now!

Prometheus reminded me of Inception or a Grant Morrison comic in that the characters mostly stood around, explicitly stating everything the writers wanted the audience to know. And I don’t have a problem with movies or comics doing that to some extent but when it becomes all they do, it’s lazy and boring.

A lot of this dialogue also never matters. “The murals are changing”? The movie opened with Shaw discovering cave paintings and exposing them to air which couldn’t have been good, right? Yet she didn’t act concerned about their inevitable destruction.

Ridley Scott, admittedly, brings some flair to the film. But the fancy set designs can’t disguise the fact that, at heart, this is a bigger-budget version of television:

Worf: There are no reports of any damage to the Enterprise.

Data: Captain, the target was not the ship. The weapon was designed to drain the shields.

Worf: Confirmed. Shield effectiveness has been reduced twelve percent.

Wesley: Captain, the Borg ship is closing.

Worf: They’re firing again. […] Shields have been reduced forty-one percent. Another hit and we will be defenseless.

Riker: Arm the photon torpedoes.

Picard: Fire the photons.

Worf: The Borg ship was not damaged.

…which is already usually just an illustrated radio play. Prometheus is a movie as drained of artistry as the Enterprise‘s shields.

Finally, I’ve seen many making hay over Prometheus‘s plot holes and failure to “line up” with Alien. The funniest hay’s come from Red Letter Media’s Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman:

God bless them for their irreverence. Because the discrepancies and plot holes don’t matter. They’re the result of laziness and/or Scott &co. fucking with the audience. Watching Prometheus ten more times won’t answer any questions.

It’s sad. When Scott made Alien, he made a solid sci-fi/horror movie that surprised audiences with its poetry. And its stillness and mysteriousness and persistent creepiness remain beautiful and engaging 33 years later. (Christ’s lifetime—a clue??)

Now, though, he’s rebooting a franchise. Prometheus, much like an ancient cave painting, is an invitation—to filmgoing audiences everywhere, to speculate about what will happen in the inevitable sequels! (And to purchase advance tickets now.)

May it, too, dissolve.


For the past few months I’ve been running a little series, “Feature Friday,” over at Big Other. I find some feature film I like that’s up at YouTube, link to it, and say a few words of introduction. Think of it as a low-rent version of Chris Higgs’s Netflix instant post. Installments so far—all of which I’d call better/more interesting than Prometheus—include:

+Plus tomorrow’s movie, whatever it is, oh what could it be? … Enjoy!

Update 22 June 12: If you want to go down the Promethean rabbit hole, here’s one point of entry.

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  1. Bobby Dixon

      I just rewatched Alien the other day w/ my cat (she was into it) after watching Prometheus in the theater (cat couldn’t go, she has outside issues). 

      I liked Prometheus. I liked its lack of character development. I liked the unanswered questions. I find myself hating on people who get frustrated because a something (LOST, BSG) doesn’t answer their questions. 

      I think this super-fan video is pretty interesting:

  2. A D Jameson


      I don’t get upset when people hate on Prometheus or Lost because it doesn’t “answer questions.” But I also can’t believe they fall for it so easily. It seems clear to me that that screenwriter’s just fucking with people; it’s an easy way to generate controversy (and ratings).

      Twin Peaks was Lynch fucking with people but he gave everyone plenty to watch for other than the plot. With stuff like Lost and Prometheus, after the ninetieth close-up of some actor furrowing his/her brow while reading blatant exposition, or describing exactly what the camera’s already looking at (“The murals are changing!”), I just tune out.

  3. Bobby Dixon
  4. A D Jameson

      I would never want to deny anyone their fun!

  5. A D Jameson

      Oh and it makes total sense to me that cats would love Alien! It’s practically cat cinema, I think.

  6. A D Jameson

       Show her Cat People next?

  7. Marc

      The score to Prometheus annoyed the hell out of me. I don’t know why.

  8. Eric VanNewkirk

      I’m not sure why Prometheus‘ defenders seem to conflate “leaving plot holes” with “having unanswered questions”.  2001 leaves unanswered questions, but the plot itself fits together as smoothly and naturally as the workings of a German automobile (cosmic whatsits elevate protohumans to humans; cosmic whatsits leave a buried marker on the moon for humans to discover when they get there; humans discover the marker; the marker sends a radio signal to Jupiter; humans follow the radio signal; humans meet the cosmic whatsits; cosmic whatsits elevate humans to posthumans; the end(?)).

      I’m not bothered by Prometheus‘ unanswered questions.  I am bothered by its indifferent questions–the fact that it clearly thinks raising questions is sufficient, and doesn’t actually care if the questions are sensible, or if they’re informed.  E.g. it’s great to raise questions about whether blind faith and the scientific method can coexist or find a middle ground, but Prometheus doesn’t really raise those questions, since the filmmakers don’t seem concerned enough to figure out that religion and science are rival epistemological approaches; the way Prometheus handles it is to present a blind belief in special creation (by the Engineers) versus blind faith in random evolution, and treat that as if it’s “science versus religion” when it’s really just dogma-fighting.  Which is (1) boring and (2) not really very smart or informed and (3) disrespectful (to science, to religion, to philosophy, to thoughtfulness).

      Battlestar Galactica was mentioned, and it’s a good example of this kind of thing.  The problem with the finale wasn’t that it brought in religion or that it didn’t answer questions: the problem was that it did, actually, answer questions, only it gave them a kinda dumb, half-assed, pretty clueless answer that pretty much proved that what the audience thought were setups for big payoffs was, in fact, the writers treading water because they didn’t actually have anything particular in mind and were just doing things–the Cylons didn’t really have a plan; all those eerie opera house visions weren’t profound; Starbuck was just kind of in and out of the show because they thought it would be interesting to kill her off but didn’t foresee that they’d kind of need her; the “final five” were basically picked out of a hat and could have been anyone (and would have made more sense if they had been); etc.  (Contrast, say, another show that Ron Moore worked on for a while: Carnivàle, which, for all its faults, had a five-year plan in place and could make down payments on its foreshadowing and loose ends; or, for another contrast, Babylon 5, which, again, had a real, genuine outline in place so that things that happened in season one were relevant to season five.)

      I agree with Jameson that something like Twin Peaks is offering more than just fucking with the audience, which is much of what Prometheus is offering.  But what I’d also have to say is that David Lynch usually manages to offer up a coherent worldview, as counterintuitive as that may seem when talking about Lynch.  Yeah, his world may be utterly strange and seemingly chaotic, but there’s a consistency in that strangeness and chaos: you get the sense that this is really how David Lynch perceives the universe.  I don’t think Prometheus offers anything of the kind: at best, it’s just a sloppy mess (“uhhhhh… uhhhhh… it’s supposed to be symbolic?“); at worst, it’s a cynical, heartless exercise (“the audience expects a face-rape because we’ve promoted this as ‘maybe-or-maybe-not an Alien prequel’, so let’s have a character behave completely implausibly and at odds with the way he acted in the previous scene he appeared in so we can get our quota and check it off the list”)

  9. A D Jameson

      Very well said. And, yeah, agree that Lynch is always very coherent.

      I spend a lot of time reading comics, and Prometheus reminds me a lot of comics. Lots of “tune in next week for the resolution of this plot point you’re aware of because it’s been stated in the dialogue.” And which can only be resolved by means of characters hitting one another. Which is “justified,” somehow, by the fact that it’s “about” something deeper because it alludes to, like, big issues.

  10. Bobby Dixon
  11. A D Jameson

      I like the remake, but nothing beats the original.

      Tell her that if she ever has sex, she’ll turn into a woman.

  12. Tim Jones-Yelvington

       and read kevin killian’s “zoo story.”

  13. deadgod

      plot-point spoiler alert

      I think Scott (this one) is an entertaining and pretty competent director (in his near-cohort – Greenaway, Roeg –  he’s fated to be the ‘advert guy’, but that’s okay). 

      (I’d add Gladiator to Adam’s list of Scott’s poetically successful “solid” mass-fare.  The political and violence/ethics ‘problems’ are dramatized pretty schematically, but, for me, simple in Gladiator doesn’t decay into simplistic; it’s like a good-to-great Western or noir in this way.)

      –so I really expected Prometheus to be better than it is.

      I’m one of those pedants who gets irritated by minor screw-ups – it’s not a “galactic system”; it’s a planetary or solar system (in our galaxy, which we’re still traveling through superluminarily?) – .

      And Earth was barren of primate DNA… how long ago?  35,000 years?? Or the planet was seeded two billion years ago, and the Promethean organisms stopped evolving then? or their suspended-animation pod lasted two billion years unmolested by the geology of its planet?  The several-million-year fossil record of primate evolution? the Prometheans came to Earth 65 million years ago and introduced mammalian DNA after the KT-boundary event, and came back 35,000 to ~10,000 years ago, then stopped returning because of the weaponized-creature fuck-up?

      Look – I’m no scientist, and these questions occurred to me while I was watching the movie… of ‘scientists’ who barely mention the issue of an already-ultra-plausible explanation of human origins only to dismiss the challenge as… faith-based?? evolution is a faith trip???  Oh man.

      (I don’t think the wall-painting thing was shoddily done in the way Adam found it; had the cave paintings in the beginning started to change before their eyes – in a matter of seconds, really – , Shaw would’ve panicked then, too.  What was lazy, to me, in the later scene was the forced conversion of wonder and urgency into emergency — as Adam makes clear, in painful contrast to the eerie content-meshing pace of Alien.)

      I don’t mind intertextuality–but like Erik and Adam, I want the reference texts to be indicated elegantly.  Having a machine birth the organism parented by the super-survivor and her genes-altered-by-robot boyfriend–an organism that in turn mates with ‘Prometheus’ and impregnates him with the helmet-skulled mutant… well, that’s compact, clever, and it was well-acted — but in the shrill, scrambling – but conveniently uninjured way the survival of the heroine requires.

      For me, Adam and Erik are exactly right in suggesting – as I understand them – that this movie is really a sensation vehicle, calculated to push buttons by the shortest, most explicit cut.  Bodies are flung against walls or tumble dozens of feet onto hard ground, and if it’s a survivor-for-now, scratch- and bruise-free.  If it’s time to get rid of that counter in the crisis game, see ya!  If you feel this manipulation happening – you feel it “intrusively”, unnaturally – , that’s another sourly resentful moviegoer.

  14. Nate

      I liked the movie. Calling it “a bigger-budget version of television” devalues what Scott does. You offer some suggestions as to how the movie could have been “better.” I’m curious, what were you expecting this movie to be, reveal, etc.?

  15. Anonymous

      it annoyed me how one dimensional the ‘engineers’ were in their actions
      they were just ‘bad guys’ and all they did was kill
      everything interesting about them was speculation
      they showed no human emotions, no complex agenda
      they were just murderous

  16. A D Jameson

      No, what Scott does devalues what Scott does.

      I was hoping it would be something more than a calculated attempt to reboot a franchise. Scott used to be an artist.

  17. A D Jameson

      My ultimate complaint is that it’s lazy both cinematically and in its attempt to be “a sensation vehicle.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

  18. A D Jameson

      Yes. Lazy.

  19. Eric VanNewkirk

      That’s hard to answer, I think for two primary reasons.  The first is that many of the script’s flaws go back to a kind of dumbness or laziness.  The second is that many of the remaining flaws may have been inherent in the concept of trying to graft a 2001-ish cosmic wonder story to C.S. Lewisian apologetics to an Alien franchise film.

      With regards to the first, a non-all-inclusive list might include:

      *Characters who act the way real scientists or business types might be expected to act.  E.g. a geologist who shows more interest in geology than just saying he’s a geologist, or an archaeologist who doesn’t suddenly turn into a medical doctor when the script requires her to.

      *Boning up on the coursework before you write the paper.  E.g. learning enough about how genetic drift works to grok that lines like someone saying DNA is a perfect match is somewhere between meaningless (we share quite a lot of our DNA with primates, obviously, but also with grapefruits and pretty much all life on Earth; by “match” do they mean “compatible” or “similar” or “common”?) and plain wrong (an exact match of DNA would mean the Engineers were all our fraternal twins; what?!).  Reading up on how real archaeologists on contemporary Earth investigate sites (hint: they don’t just open a door and waltz on in and stomp around in big heavy boots and touch everything they see).  Things like that.  This is the kind of thing Stanley Kubrick did very well (even when he wasn’t working with Arthur C. Clarke, who was just as brilliant about science and technology as a professional layperson could be) and James Cameron does relentlessly (one is reminded, for instance, of how one of the biggest alterations to the re-release of Titanic was fixing the sky on the night the Titanic sank–because astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson teased him about getting it wrong and Cameron admitted he knew he botched it and was mad at himself for it).

      *Boning up on the coursework before you write the paper, redux.  You’ve been asked to write a science-fiction screenplay about humans trying to find God.  Okay, so why not start with looking around to see what movies and books have already covered those kinds of themes?  Religious faith versus scientific skepticism is a big part of this–why not read up on your theology and maybe talk to some priests, theologians, philosophers, etc.  It isn’t like this subject is virgin ground.

      *Basic competency in your medium.  There’s an old rule-of-thumb in cinema: “Show, don’t tell.”  It gets a little abused: sometimes you just have to tell and not show.  But you’re trying to create awe and mystery–so why have a crucial early scene that’s essentially a PowerPoint presentation laying out your whole plot?  Why have characters spouting lines that are just describing what they’re doing while you’re showing them doing it?  Are characters who make vast leaps of logic based on insufficient evidence screwing up–which is something you need to set up–or are they just spouting off the plot points you couldn’t figure out a way to develop otherwise (which is how things come off in the last act of Prometheus)?  And how about character consistency: e.g. if characters are frightened by a dead alien in one scene, it seems reasonable they’d be scared of a living alien in the next scene.  And how about event consistency: if a character has staples in her stomach, I’ll bet she’s not running around very much (if she’s an acrobat as a result of awesome future medicine, you probably need to show that, and there are ways to do it–various incarnations of Star Trek used to do just that almost weekly).

      And with regards to the second (apologies for the length of this comment):

      I’ve been thinking about Prometheus, and how awesome it could have been if, in addition to treating science and religion competently, it simply hadn’t been an Alien movie with the requisite beats.  And that’s probably unrealistic, because I don’t know that Hollywood would make a big-budget, glossy, effects-laden nerd movie.  But imagine, if you will, a movie about a team of scientists approaching a new planet (or moon): they do surveys from orbit; they launch satellites and atmospheric drones to do further surveys; they pick a landing zone a reasonable distance from a likely site (where they won’t risk crushing artifacts); they come to an awesome alien structure–with, what’s this, an obviously human head on top of it; they go inside; they find evidence of some cataclysm that destroyed things and events begin to occur, threatening the explorers.  Actually, it’s not so hard to imagine such a movie, since a lot of what I just wrote in fact describes Forbidden Planet, the 1956 classic.

      Instead, one of the things that happens with Prometheus is that the (clumsily handled and poorly-researched) “wonders of exploration” part crashes into the “Alien prequel” part, the whole thing runs off the rails.  It ends up, like the saying goes, neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring.

      Conversely, if you want an Alien prequel, just do an Alien prequel.  Make it smaller, and scarier, and cut all the pseudoscientific Von Däniken cruft.  The remarkable thing about Alien, you know, was that it managed to be epic and cosmic just by showing a bunch of weird stuff early in the film without comment: a ringed planet and its moons, a frighteningly stormy atmosphere, a necrocalyptic hellscape covered in ash and bones, a ship from nowhere with a dead giant at the helm(?) with a hole in its chest, a vast chamber full of eggs and an eerie energy field.  That world raises more goosebumps than Prometheus, and then to have the claustrophobic remainder of the film, trapped in a spaceship’s labyrinthine tunnel with a thing.  It’s been done, yeah, but if it’s what the filmmakers wanted, they coulda done it again.

      Sorry for the length.  I hope that was an enlightening response.

  20. Greg Hunter

      Twin Peaks is a good point of reference. I think the plot holes in Prometheus bothered me on occasion—couldn’t help it—because of the stubborn literal-mindedness of the film. Nothing like the dream logic of a Twin Peaks or a film like Stalker—or Blade Runner?—to sweep you up/impose itself on you/etc. I suspect the answers matter for people because the film doesn’t offer something bigger or weirder.

      (I’d argue, meanwhile, that the best Morrison comics are innocent of the dreaded explication you mention—we3, All-Star Superman, his ‘Club of Heroes’ Batman arc, are wonderfully efficient stories, tossing off details for readers to make fit into the larger whole as the stories keep moving, all forward momentum.)

  21. jtc

      i didn’t see prometheus because of the coors light advertisement.

  22. Nate

      Thank you, Eric. That does help.

  23. deadgod

      Definitely, discarding the objection that evolution already explains our ‘origins’ in order to get through the Engineers to the alien was less of a short cut than an irrational whatev.  They could’ve told the same Engineer story without the fake Earth-seeding facet and the whole Alien prequelization might’ve been smoother, at least from the plot point of view.  The cinematic laziness, with all the effort and talent that went into what they did do… I don’t get why Scott wouldn’t be more disciplined with himself by that point.

      See you at the prequel-sequel anyway!

  24. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      if nothing else, it was fucking beautiful

  25. Tom Beshear

      “they were just murderous

      Which may be the point. As I remarked to someone, if Elizabeth gets to ask her question of the “creators” in the sequel, the answer will be her head ripped from her shoulders.

  26. Mike James

      Why do we assume that the Engineers are humanity’s creators? Because the characters say it? In story, I feel as if just because the character’s believe it, doesn’t mean it is the truth — ie, they assumed the Engineers would welcome them, but they did not. The film is ambiguous enough that we cannot be sure. (Even when taking into account the opening scene). The more interesting possibility, is that they did not create us, and once they found out we exist, there was something about us that caused them to become disgusted, or they observed us and found us useless. This would account for their murderous behavior toward their supposed creations.

  27. A D Jameson

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I myself was disappointed, but perhaps I can never be pleased.

  28. A D Jameson

      I think Scott has said that somewhere: that the opening scene is the creation of humanity. Or something like it.

      But you’re right in general: a lot of people reading the film are making all kinds of assumptions. The characters in the film, do, too (“It’s a weapons facility.”). Which is why I think trying to answer all those questions is kinda silly: the information needed isn’t in the film. It’s deliberately evasive; watching it ten more times won’t answer anything.

      What’s going to happen is that in another two years or so, there will be a Prometheus 2, then a Prometheus 3, and characters in it will stand around and exposit whatever the screenwriters want the audience to know. Mark my words. And then audiences will complain about how underwhelming those answers & explanations are. And then the Lost guy will go write something else, something “mysterious,” that generates buzz….

  29. Mike James

      If that is true, then this will be the first movie that I officially dislike, but that I will have in my DVD collection.

  30. A D Jameson

      I find I’m just as likely to have copies of films that I dislike as I like. For instance, I got Inception as quickly as I could, because I often have to refer to it.

      Though I collect films only digitally these days. I sold most of my DVDs a while back.

  31. A D Jameson

      I couldn’t believe that when I saw it! Well, actually, I could, sadly.

  32. A D Jameson

      Thanks for taking the time to write all that, Eric! Many excellent points there.

  33. A D Jameson

      One lesson that I hope Prometheus teaches people is how good a writer Dan O’Bannon was.

  34. Luke Geddes

      Dark Star is the shit.

  35. A D Jameson

      Yeah, it’s so good. Alien0.

  36. Mike James

      Me? Not so much. I analyze films simultaneously w/ my enjoyment, so films I dislike, I feel, I’ve already consumed all the data I can and then discarded. I believe this is the line, so to speak, the reason why there are films I dislike and films I enjoy. The films I dislike tend to have less data over an extended period of time.

      Don’t get started on Inception. I’ve been following your opinion on that film for a long time, and I am quietly putting together an essay on the matter.

  37. A D Jameson

      I will look forward to reading your essay! Please direct me to it when it’s done.

      I suppose one could say that I like Inception because I’ve written about it so much, and seen it so many times (I think at least 10 by now). But for me, liking or disliking something doesn’t directly correlate with whether I think it’s “good” or “bad,” or whether I want to write about it. I started writing about Inception because I thought it exemplified a way of filmmaking I severely dislike, and because everyone else I saw was praising it, and no one was really talking about its style. And I wanted to contribute that point of view, that perspective, to the conversation, at least a little bit, as much as I could. But I also feel as though I’ve made those points, through the posts and that one video, and I don’t have much more to say about it that’s new, and so I’ve kind of stopped.

      … Though I still get weekly emails from people who’ve just found the posts, and who are dying to tell me how wrong I am. Their argument usually goes like this: “You’re stupid, you’re wrong.” I remain unconvinced…


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  40. jim

      The score had elements, notably the robot w/ the hologram scenes, that
      lifted a Star Trek theme practicaly note for note.