Note: This article contains minor spoilers for the film Prometheus.
I had very high expectations for Prometheus. Not only was this Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he fundamentally influenced through Alien and Blade Runner, but the film's viral marketing (see below) made me believe Prometheus was going to be more thought-provoking than the run of the mill scifi.
When the movie was released, I was extremely busy transitioning between jobs, so I uncharacteristically delayed seeing it. Later, after reading all of the mixed reviews, I put off Prometheus until I could Netflix it. I was already bummed that so many people hated the film and I didn't want to spend $15+ on a movie that was going to break my fanboy heart.
I finally saw the movie on Blu-ray this past week. Visually, Prometheus was stunning. The special effects, cinematography, and sets all gave the film an expansive sense of scale that hasn’t been seen since 2009's Avatar. I LOVED Michael Fassbender's android, David. His acting was nuanced and Oscar-worthy (which of course will never happen).
Unfortunately, there's not much else to like. The remaining characters were one dimensional (e.g. the corporate boss with a hidden agenda) or acted unrealistically (e.g. scientists doing very unscientific things). Marc Streitenfeld's score was dull, which is unfortunate since Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator had such iconic music. And then there's the plot…
Prometheus is about the quest to understand the origins of our species (like Star Trek: TNG's “The Chase”), at least the first half is. The second half closely mirrors Alien (strange goo + android under orders from an evil corporation = xenomorph on the loose). Both stories are drawn out from the iconic image of a “space jockey” in Alien.
The film doesn't do either story justice. The pieces are all
there, but they never come together. For example, there was an opportunity to
link the extraterrestrial creation of humans with the human creation of
Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it's good you can't be disappointed.
That thread is never fleshed out. Neither are the film's other big questions about science and faith. There are glimmers of bold and ambitious ideas, but they never crystalize.
When it comes to the action, Prometheus doesn't achieve the suspense of Alien or the excitement of Aliens. There wasn't anything fresh - the film is filled with predictable variations of moments every science fiction fan has seen before.
Clearly, I was disappointed. It was the same type of disappointment I felt while watching the last episode of LOST, Battlestar Galactica's The Plan, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Wars: Episodes I-III, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and bunch of other prequels/sequels that promised to deliver big explanations about already established mythologies. The issue isn’t getting answers, but the post-hoc nature of stories that provide new explanations long after the original source material was developed (e.g. using Prometheus to explain the backstory of Alien’s space jockey). You can almost always tell the difference between stories that have completely developed arcs (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) versus stories that backpedal explanations (e.g. Caprica) (notable exceptions include Godfather: Part II and X-Men: First Class).
Outside of storytelling, this type of fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this") has long plagued evolutionary theories. Stephen Jay Gould (one of my favorite science authors) describes in Bully for Brontosaurus how we use current behavior to make explanations for past evolution:
“We have no proof that the [giraffe’s] long neck evolved by natural selection for eating leaves at the tops of acacia trees. We only prefer this explanation because it matches current orthodoxy. Giraffes do munch the topmost leaves, and this habit obviously helps them to thrive, but who knows how or why their necks elongated? They may have lengthened for other reasons and then been fortuitously suited for acacia leaves.”
Like evolution, you can always make up explanations for source material but since the explanations must fit within the established rules of an existing story, writers are constricted and the results tend to suck (which is why I prefer reboots like 2005’s Batman Begins, 2009’s Star Trek, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead of prequels).
The same issue comes up in my clinical work. People often ask, “what happened in my childhood that caused me to feel this way?”. We try to find explanations for our current struggles based upon our early experiences. Psychology is complex, therefore the cause of almost every problem is a combination of genetics (and epigenetics), environment, learning, and stressors. People have a hard time hearing that and prefer more mythical explanations rooted in the past.
Why is this the case? Old ideas about psychology continue to thrive in our culture. These theories claim by simply understanding early causes of problems you will change. Psychotherapy is not archeology - understanding the origin of one's struggles is always a beginning in therapy, never an end. Real, long-term behavior change is a process that requires sustained motivation in learning new ways of approaching your life.
It seems like Paradise, Prometheus’s sequel, might delve deeper into exploring the origin of humans, primarily because it will depart from the shackles of the Alien mythology. I wish Ridley Scott made that film instead of falling into the trap of a prequel. While Prometheus is decent science fiction, it pales in comparison to the director’s prior work and doesn't measure up to the current standard-bearers (Children of Men, Moon, Inception, and Looper).