Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts on Prometheus

        There seem to be a lot of differing opinions about Prometheus, some very positive, some very negative. After seeing the film, I decided to wait until I had time to fully process it before sharing my own view. So, for what it’s worth, here it is. Warning: the following contains spoilers!
       Firstly, I’d like to say that despite its flaws, Prometheus is undeniably a beautiful film. Scene for scene, the imagery is stark, gothic, creepy, and just plain cool. Ridley Scott does a brilliant job conveying information visually. I can’t believe how many SF movies these days rely on voiceover to fill in back story, as if the audience is too uneducated to understand that what they are watching is set in an alternate world (*cough, John Carter, cough*). The overreliance on voiceover has become something of a red flag for me. If the film begins with a shot of space and some disembodied Morgan Freemanesque voice saying “In the distant future…,” as if no one bothered to watch the trailer before dropping 10 bucks at the box office, it will almost certainly be terrible. There’s a reason the director’s cut of Blade Runner sans Harrison Ford’s narration is considered superior to the one that was originally shown in theaters. So, I applaud the writers of Prometheus for not treating us like a bunch of morons and explaining every single detail of the universe and its mythology.      
       That being said, one of the common complaints I’ve heard about this film is that there is too little explanation. People want to know who the Engineers are, why they created humanity, and why they eventually decided to destroy us. I also initially wanted to know the answer to this question, but upon reflection, I’m happy the writers decided not to give us a long winded infodump at the end, which they easily could have. Instead, many of the mysteries remain mysteries, which rings true to me. In the real world, almost nothing wraps up as neatly as it does in the movies, and oftentimes the answer to one question will simply spawn more questions. This is especially true for some of the most basic questions, which the film raises: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?
       One of the things I think makes Prometheus a good film is how it takes the creation myth and reexamines it, exploring a central idea of the science fiction genre: the irresponsible creator. This concept can be traced all the way back to one of the first SF novels ever written, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is in many ways a proto-artificial intelligence story. Incidentally, Frankenstein’s original title was “The Modern Prometheus.” According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created humans from clay, then gave them fire and was punished by the gods. He was chained to a large rock and forced to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day for all eternity. Prometheus was, in essence, punished for being irresponsible with his creations (fire was meant only for the gods). In Frankenstein, Victor creates the monster, then abandons him, failing in his responsibility to care for the life he engendered, and he is eventually punished for it when the monster turns on him and the human species as a whole. 
       The film Prometheus opens with a shot of a large alien (an Engineer) standing on a cliff on a world that may or may not be Earth in the distant past. He drinks a black liquid, which destroys his DNA, and falls down a waterfall, spreading the remnants of his genetic material to create life. It is unclear whether this was done voluntarily or if this was some sort of punishment. A comment later made by David, the android, recalls this scene, "Sometimes to create life, one must first destroy," in other words, one being sacrifices itself to give life to another. This is also symbolic of the statement Vickers makes to Weyland, "A king has his reign and then he dies." The life-death-life cycle is recounted throughout the film in many different ways. Contrary to what Janek says, I don't think the black substance was intended to be a weapon, but was a form of organic technology used to alter DNA and create life. Only, something went wrong. Its wielders were irresponsible with the technology and it destroyed them, just as humanity was irresponsible in its creation of the AI, David, whose actions also resulted in many of the characters' deaths. 
       Throughout the film, David is treated as an inferior. The humans on the ship have little to no regard for their creation. Though he claims to have no desire and no emotions, David very clearly does. He despises humans and finds their search for their creators to be arrogant and ultimately foolish. In fact, humanity's arrogance is one of the principle flaws that leads to so much of the horror and destruction in the movie. David infects Holloway with the black substance after asking him what he would do in order to meet his maker. Holloway says "anything," which, to David is a foolish answer. The fact that humans see the Engineers as all-powerful, even godlike, annoys him, since he cannot have the same reverence for his own creators. When the Engineer's head explodes, David says "mortal after all," as if there was some question as to whether or not the Engineers were  transcendent beings simply because they had the power to create life. Humans also have the power to create life, and they are far from godlike.
       Because humanity was irresponsible in its creation of artificial intelligence, David's actions are not only understandable, but inevitable, because he's sentient, he's a person (albeit a flawed, unguided one), and he most definitely has emotions, just like the monster in Frankenstein. Instead of guiding or helping David, all of the characters in the film treat him like a machine. Vickers orders him around, and David spitefully refers to her as "Mom." Near the end of the film, when he asks Shaw why she needs to know all the answers, she tells him it's because she's human and he can't understand because he isn't. This is quite an arrogant statement in my opinion, as David seems just as capable as any of the human crew. Shaw places herself, and humanity, on a pedestal, above other forms of life, which is foolish and self-righteous. Like the Engineers, humans attempt to master nature and use their technology without any sense of responsibility, and because of this, terrible things happen. Thus you have the final scene of the film. It is the culmination of the irresponsible actions of the Engineers, humanity, and David, that creates the proto-alien, which spawns an entire species that wreaks so much havoc later on. 
      I don't think Prometheus is a perfect film, far from it, but it does have a bit more depth than its harshest critics have given it credit for. Despite its underdeveloped characters and somewhat convoluted plot, I believe it is definitely worth seeing. The cinematography alone is second to none. It's definitely better than most recent SF, and I think it has just enough connections to the original Alien film that fans of the franchise will be quite pleased (I know I was!). Doubtless, there'll be innumerable Prometheus sequels in the future, and I can't say that I'll be disappointed if there are.