Cinematic Release: 2012
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender
Written by: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott
There has been an awful lot of hype about this movie. There have been rumours both that it is an Alien prequel, and that it is not. I’ve tried to avoid all of it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to see it after I heard Michael Fassbender was in it. This is not because of his acting ability – I thought he was excellent as Magneto – but rather because of the allegations that he broke his girlfriend’s nose and burst an ovarian cyst whilst dragging her alongside a car.
Ultimately the charges were dropped, as so often happens where a Hollywood star is involved, and I can’t find anything but rumours as to why. There are reports that she dropped the charges because she didn’t want to hurt his career (she later got back together with him), and (as far as my Google-fu can tell) unsubstantiated rumours that she was just making the accusation for the money, and that she had ‘done it before’ – i.e. accused another famous boyfriend of beating her up. I’m always curious when a woman is beaten up by two different men and it’s cast as her doing something before. Doing what, exactly? Getting beaten up? Daring to take the matter to court? If she was doing it for the money, she doesn’t seem to have got anything out of it. And while I know that women who are attracted to a certain type of man will make the mistake of following that attraction more than once, and even go back to a man who has beaten them, I can’t for the life of me see why a man would go back to a woman who had wrongfully accused him of beating her if there was no truth to the charges.
It’s a quandary. I believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but I know that even proven guilty men are treated as innocent in Hollywood. Chris Brown beat Rihanna in a really quite horrific way. He turned himself in and was judged guilty of this crime. This year he was invited to present the Grammys, and the Grammys explained their decision as being that they felt they were the victims because they hadn’t been able to use him for a few years. This is a man who was convicted of an incredibly violent beating.
In most ordinary circumstances it is difficult for women to have their stories believed in cases of domestic violence; in Hollywood the industry feels victimised when confronted by the moral failings of its stars and the woman is blamed for bringing ill-repute on the man. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if pressure was applied to Leasi Andrews to hush up, and hence why I don’t want to support Michael Fassbender by going to see movies that he is in, and why I find it a little disturbing to see people gushing over him.
So. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Prometheus, despite the hype. But then I saw the trailer, and I had to admit that it looked like it was going to be a significant cinematic event. And I reflected on the fact that this is a film by Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott gave me Thelma and Louise and the incandescently iconic Ripley from the original Alien films. If you haven’t read the incredibly powerful article ‘Ellen Ripley Saved My Life’, by Sady Doyle, you need to correct that. Because Ridley Scott doesn’t simply create and enable feminist icons, he makes films that have a powerful impact on real women’s lives, and if he had produced another work in the same vein as the Alien films that looked like it might be as powerful and beautiful as the trailer convinced me this film could be, I wanted to see it. Michael Fassbender is just one actor. He wasn’t convicted of anything. Did I really want to condemn the work of all the other actors, and of Ridley Scott because of what one man might have done? If Ridley was prepared to use this actor, shouldn’t I be prepared to watch this film?
I don’t know. It still feels a bit like I’m making excuses for compromising my morals. If you scroll down to the bottom of that link I gave you on the Chris Brown thing, you can see from the comments I add that I’ve struggled with this before with other actors I liked about whom nothing has been proven. I guess my compromise is to go see the film, and then review it, presenting all my qualms and leaving you to draw your own conclusions. Comments will be disabled on this post because I suspect that any debate about Mr Fassbender will be along similar lines to what I have seen repeatedly in looking into discussions of this elsewhere on the net. I just wanted to make this better known, as the net has been unusually quiet on this one.
But for now, let us set that behind us and discuss the film itself:
Two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green), discover ancient artifacts from disparate ancient civilisations from around the world that they believe are an invitation from aliens who created life on Earth. Their evidence is apparently compelling enough to convince a vastly wealthy company to commission a mission to go to the place indicated by the cave paintings and see what’s there. The head of the company, Peter Weyland (Pearce), is an old man, and dying, and he wants to fund a mission so that mankind can go talk to their makers.
Everyone on the mission goes into stasis for the two years it takes to get there. Except, that is, for David (Fassbender), who is a robot created by the man who heads the company. When they reach their destination he wakes everyone up and they go down to the planet to see what can be seen. What they find are the apparently deserted ruins of a ‘pyramid’. As David has been learning the languages of all the ancient civilisations that contained the markers that led them here, he can now read the language of these ancient aliens by working out what their symbols mean. Using this ability he is able to trigger a holographic projection which leads them to a dead alien body – the alien was decapitated by a closing door. Entering the room they find a massive humanoid stone head surrounded by metallic objects that are totally-not-alien-eggs.Everything looks pretty dead inside this tomb-like pyramid, but David notices that by opening the room they have changed the atmosphere, and the surface of the totally-not-alien-eggs starts to change in response. Before they can investigate further, a powerful storm draws the crew back to the ship… except for Milburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), who are stranded in the pyramid, which is maybe not quite as dead as it first appeared…
How was it?
I have to admit, Prometheus impressed me. Part of it was just that I haven’t seen a proper science-fiction movie in so long. I love me some superhero films, but I miss the part of me that used to get inspired to dream about space and other worlds. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that was really trying for science-fiction in this way since Moon, and I have to say, just like Moon it was very pretty. This was grown up CGI. CGI that doesn’t even look like CGI, but is taking us to other worlds, freeing us from planet Earth. I suppose the other major contender of recent years would be Avatar, but in its constant bright, sunny colours, Avatar lacked the gritty, visual realism-combined-with-wonder of Moon and Prometheus.
That said, I’m not going to stress the realism point beyond the visuals. My geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, was much less impressed by the film than I was, and I think I can understand why. In terms of themes and big ideas, this was science fiction, but the actual science was pretty light. The trouble with doing a prequel (or prequel-like-film) is that you are constrained by the existing set-up. There is no room for the advances we have made in computing to be reflected in the vision of AI presented to us. David is fixed in the same vogue as Bishop and Ash, and in fact condemned to being an earlier model. He therefore maintains a sort of aloofness and affected lack of emotion that no longer seems plausible.
I’m not prejudging the matter of whether robots really could feel emotion (my personal feeling is yes, but the matter is still hotly debated) but rather how well they might perform it. Anyone who has ever messed around with a chatbot will know that whilst they can still sometimes be hilarious in their mistakes, they’re also based on programs that learn from those they interact with. They therefore work on a principle that allows them to seem increasingly like us, and not therefore distanced by an artificial aloofness. The idea that a computer as advanced as David clearly is would not thus be able to perform human behaviour and emotions more seamlessly than he does is simply ludicrous in 2012 in a way that it wasn’t in the 80s. Not that there aren’t hints that David does have emotions despite what everyone says, but his performance of them is still marked by an attempt to project ‘otherness’ that I don’t find wholly convincing. This is not, incidentally, a knock at Fassbender – it’s a part of the writing, and I’m pretty much sure it was a directorial decision as well.
Which brings me to another point. The technology required to produce a being like David… maybe we’ll have it before the century is out, but the tech to get us to other worlds? No. The technology that fills this film is simply too far in advance of our own. I wish I could say I thought we’d see it in my lifetime, but in all honesty, I don’t believe it.
The other major split with realism comes towards the end of the film, so this will be slightly spoilery, but I don’t feel I can adequately review some of the most significant aspects of the film without covering it. Basically, there is an instance of alien impregnation. The protagonist is having none of that, however, and manages to haul herself into an automated surgical machine (one designed solely for use on the male body, no less) and gets it to perform an abortion on her by telling it to remove the foreign body. Nevermind that her whole womb would be a foreign body on a man – let’s assume she’s a computer wiz and knew just what to input to prevent such a mistake. Having had abdominal surgery, after which the wound is sealed by staples, she fights off the surprisingly deadly alien that had been ripped prematurely from her body, struggles out of the room, and, dosed up on painkillers, manages to run, jump, fight, abseil – basically everything that is required of an action hero, for the rest of the movie. The actor, to her credit, does a pretty ace job of acting like this really fucking hurts, but you can’t get around the fact that it seems unlikely that she would have been able to stand, let alone walk or run, so soon after such an operation.
I’m in two minds on this last point. On the one hand, it’s laughably implausible. But on the other, I wonder if it would seem so if she were a male action hero. Male action heroes routinely suffer injuries that should leave them out for the count, and yet they go on to save the day – usually with less honest expression of pain than Noomi Rapace delivers. There’s a part of me that’s kind of cheering to see such a bold statement that simple possession of a womb and the ability to get pregnant does not render a person weak and helpless. Of course, Ripley was a more believable illustration of this, but I also appreciate the counterpoint to the backtracking that seemed to place all Ripley’s strength in a mothering instinct in Aliens. Elizabeth Shaw is a character who does want children, but she acts quickly to get the abortion she needs to survive. With the sort of draconian legislation that has been proposed in the US recently to further remove the power women have over their own bodies, such a bold pro-choice statement is actually pretty welcome. A few years ago I might have wondered if something that drastic was really necessary, but given the breathtaking attitudes expressed in the link above I kind of feel like the symbolic sledgehammer might have a role at this place and time on this issue.
Props should also be given (and with fewer qualms) to Charlize Theron and her portrayal of Meredith Vickers. Vickers is tough, commanding, and capable of burning a man alive if that is what’s necessary to save her team. Yet she is not frigid or unattractive as such female characters are so often portrayed. She is allowed to have a sexuality, but she does not need to use her sexuality to control her male subordinates. It slightly grated that Janek had to ‘educate’ her in asking for sex if that’s what she wanted, but this was slightly alleviated when her decision to follow his suggestion is given as a command for him to come to her quarters at a place and time of her choosing.
I also appreciated the racial diversity in this film. It’s a rare thing to have a female action hero who is not sexualised up the wazoo, it’s rarer still to have a female, mixed-race protagonist. Although the cast is still predominantly white, the inclusion of Idris Elba as another prominent character and Benedict Wong in a supporting role still help to make this a more racially mixed movie than your average Hollywood blockbuster.
The other major facet of this film was an exploration of religious belief. Unfortunately, this was not as well-developed as I would have liked. Although other belief-systems are mentioned in passing, the only religion any of the characters express any devotion to is Christianity. The over-arching message seemed to slightly awkwardly equate hope and religious belief (especially Christianity). Whilst I wouldn’t put Prometheus on a par with Signs for heavy-handed religious symbolism, the film was clearly attempting to evoke deep questioning here, and, for me anyway, only achieved something fairly shallow. There was a gesture towards a discussion about the relationship between religious belief and the human drive to seek answers in a universe that rarely gives them, but the narrow focus on Christianity artificially limited the bounds of that discussion. Equally, although a few characters in the film professed atheism, this was too often equated with not wanting answers, or with giving up, which, as an atheist philosopher, I find bizarre and a little offensive. Religion is not the only place human beings have turned to in search of answers for the ‘big’ questions about where we have come from, what life means, and how we should live. In a film called ‘Prometheus‘, which frequently underscores the fact that the fact that aliens might have created human beings, there is surprisingly little substance to its discussion of what this might mean for human belief systems, and the focus on Christianity, to the extent of making it happen at Christmas oddly polarised the debate, as though Christianity and a cold, empty atheism were the only options.
That said, I still give it props for trying. My hope is that this film will give other film makers the jolt they need to start thinking about what we can do with science fiction again. We have the technology to make it look pretty, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to just keep giving bigger and bigger budgets to films that just roll out the familiar tropes against a backdrop of very pretty scenery. Take us to other worlds and use that to make us consider other ways of viewing our world. That’s what I love science fiction for, and I have to give Prometheus some respect for bringing that to our screens again.
Prometheus: it’s worth your time. At the very least, it’s extremely pretty.