It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Alien zero


Prometheus – for a film which is not a prequel to the Alien franchise no honest well okay maybe it is – appropriately asks a ton of questions. Sadly, it either ignores them or gives dumb answers that don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Having said that, as a film, it looks great. Pretty pictures, after all, trump everything.

The movie opens on a verdant planet beside a waterfall. There is a giant hairless humanoid standing on the shore, and a giant flying saucer hovering in the sky nearby. The giant opens a small container and eats its contents. It kills him. He falls into the water and his body dissolves down to its constituent DNA. This, we are supposed to believe, is an alien seeding human life on Earth.

But wait.

Did the giant humanoid mean to dissolve into primordial goop? Was it suicide? Or a really badly planned delivery method for planetary seeding, in which someone has to commit suicide? Maybe it was murder, maybe that was humankind’s original sin. But if we’re descended from them, why did we evolve to be so short and so hairy?

Cut to the Isle of Skye, later this century. Two palaeontologists have discovered 35,000-year-old cave paintings in a, er, cave. These paintings depict a giant pointing to a pattern of five circles. If it’s the same giants from the flying saucer, then they must have returned to Earth. Why? So they could prompt Upper Paleolithic humans to paint their picture? (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the oldest settlement so far discovered on Skye is younger than these cave paintings by about 30,000 years.)

This painting of a giant pointing the way to a pattern of five circles is apparently not unique to Skye. In fact, variations on it appear on artefacts from a wide variety of ancient civilisations, not all from the same time period – suggesting a number of visits, or a stay of a couple of millennia. This, apparently, is sufficient evidence for the two palaeontologists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), to persuade zillionaire Weyland to fund a mission to the “galactic configuration” represented by the five circles. “Galactic configuration”? What’s that then? A planetary system? Or a constellation of five stars? As seen from Earth? Thirty-five thousand years ago? Stars move, you know. Planets move too. Over time, their positions change – and so too does our viewpoint, as the Earth itself moves.

No matter. Movie logic says there’s something in the heavens which can lead our intrepid palaeontologists to a specific planet. Well, actually a moon of a gas giant. We’ll ignore the vast amounts of radiation the gas giant is likely producing, or its magnetosphere has trapped – this is a movie, after all. Weyland’s spaceship – called the Prometheus – lands on the moon, LV-223 (the first two Alien films took place on LV-426).

All this is handily explained in a briefing given by Shaw and Holloway to the members of the mission aboard Prometheus. However, rather than hire competent scientists for this trip, Weyland appears to have chosen to use rejects from Central Casting. It’s bad enough that the two leaders, Shaw and Holloway, believe in some von Däniken-type rubbish about gods from outer space creating humanity, but the rest of the team are no better. One tells another to fuck off when he introduces himself. Right. You’re zillions of kilometres from Earth – not “half a billion miles,” as one character later says; that would put you about twice as far from Earth as the Moon. Anyway, you’re light-years from Earth, in a spaceship with a small group of people, en route to an alien world. It is not a good time or place to act like an arsehole.

So there’s the scientific mission, the crew of Prometheus, the representative from Weyland, named Vickers, and an android, David. Vickers lives in a “lifeboat”, which is like a luxury flat stuck on the back of the spaceship. This lifeboat also contains a “medpod” – like the original Alien‘s “autodoc”, I imagine – but this one only works on human males. Er, right…

Prometheus lands on LV-223, and discovers a row of strange giant buildings. They’re like giant weathered pyramid-things, inside circular walls. Shaw and the others explore the nearest one. It contains lots of tunnels… and a room with a giant humanoid head. Also jars, lots of jars. Which start to ooze black gunk once the room is breached. Later, they determine the pyramid is a tomb.

Except most tombs don’t have spaceships buried under them. And these are the Giger boney boomerang spaceship from Alien… and the space jockey proves to be one of the giant hairless humanoids wearing a spacesuit. Which does make you wonder why they turned up to Earth in a giant flying saucer.

The boomerang spaceship also contains lots of jars, which the scientific team realise are a weapon. But a very strange weapon. It has different effects on different people. It made the giant at the beginning of the film turn into gunk, and so seeded the Earth. It makes the preserved head of a giant they find in the tomb explode. It turns one of scientific team into a super-strong diseased madman. It allows Holloway to impregnate Shaw with a tentacled monster. (She later uses the medpod to extract it – clearly it has been programmed to deal with pregnant males.)

When they find a surviving giant humanoid, and David manages to speak to him because he’s studied comparative linguistics and can somehow cobble together a working patois of the alien language from that… well, you don’t need that alien gunk to make your head explode. (Oh wait, maybe human languages are genetic too… Not.) But by this point in the film, the plot has already imploded into a black hole of illogic and nonsense and implausibility, so you only have yourself to blame. Prometheus is not a film to watch with your brain engaged. Just admire the pretty visuals. It makes for a much more entertaining 124 minutes.

Yes, Michael Fassbender pwns the film as the android David. Noomi Rapace’s character makes little sense, not least because religion has been fisted into a story it doesn’t fit. The rest of the cast might as well have worn red shirts. Vickers (Charlize Theron) tries to do a robot-or-not thing, but in the end proves she’s human the only way a woman in a movie possibly could: she fucks the captain (Idris Elba). At one point, Shaw is referred to as Holloway’s “zealot girlfriend”. Shaw and Vickers, incidentally, are the only two women in the film. So by 2093, we’ll have cool interstellar spaceships, but no gender equality. Plus ça change…

I saw Prometheus on IMAX 3D. It cost me £13. It was not worth it. I should have waited for the DVD and rented it. I also saw John Carter on IMAX 3D. That film was worth it. John Carter was a much better film. It also flopped. It’s unlikely Prometheus will flop – in fact, it’s probable the sequel implied by the ending will be made.

If you want to see a good sf film with giant spaceships and scary thrills, watch Cargo.


19 thoughts on “Alien zero

  1. There was Kate Dickie as well, playing some kind of medic/other biologist.

    I agree that it was a spectacular film that made very little sense. I thought that the humanoid at the beginning was being some kind of ceremonial sacrifice, but what that had to do with the Giger alien in the mural behind the giant stone humanoid head beats me. Maybe they worshipped their own weapons? Or agreed with Ash and Bishop that the xenos were perfect? Or their sacrament got out of hand and started killing them?

    Also, what was an autodoc which was programmed ‘only for men’, doing in a multibillion-dollar lifeboat owned by a woman?

    I saw Monsters the same day, which was also beautifully shot, and had a coherent theme, a coherent plot, decent characterisation and subtext. By me it was the better film, for all that the sfx were done on the director’s laptop.

  2. I think you’ll know, Ian, from my twitter feed that I share your opinions on Prometheus. In fact, you’ve spotted some things I missed which only emphasise what a disaster Prometheus is. But what’s starting to seriously confuse me are the otherwise intelligent people who did in fact apparently enjoy a movie which appears to me to have no redeeming features whatsoever. That’s what I find truly exasperating.

  3. I have to ask a question: why 3D? It adds nothing and distracts from the film itself…

    And the premium for IMAX is too much (despite the fact I like the format).


    Having seen Prometheus, I can say that I like it it WITH caveats. Topx example being the points where characters should be speaking about something … but didn’t (I’m avoiding spoilers but I am sure you know the two main points I am on about). And an inexplicable character decision at the denoument. Clearly Ridley’s aimed for the inevitable sequel and (as is usual with him) there are clear points where “stuff” was cut out.

    Having said that, recommending Cargo over it is just being contrarian. It really doesn’t do your argument any justice.

    I still haven’t seen JC – which is a shame. It just was in the cinema at a time when I didn’t have any opportunity to see it. Even though I desperately did.

    • *… desperately want to see it.

      Hit send too early there.

    • Why? Cargo is an excellent film. It does right what a lot of Hollywood sf movies have done wrong in the past decade or so. The fact that it’s in German is irrelevant.

      (Recommending Żuławski’s Na Srebrnym Globie instead, otoh, would be contrarian…)

      • I disagree. I’ve seen Cargo. It opens with an excellent space shot and has some occasional moments that are genuinely interesting. However the overall concept is a bit dated, the acting poor and the dialogue clunky. Towards the end it descends into several (cinema) Science Fiction cliches.

        If you’re suggesting it as a straight-to-DVD alternative [as a rhetorical trap] then fair enough. If you’re suggesting it on the basis that “I like it therefore it’s good.” we must disagree.

        But don’t get me wrong: I got some enjoyment from Cargo as a fan of the genre but even *I* struggled with about half of it as it became increasingly boring. To deliver a fuller review I would need to spend the time watching it again and then doing a lot of research.

        The problem with Prometheus isn’t style (it’s extremely interesting to look at) or even ideas (though I would say that the space astronaut storyline is a bit hackneyed), but a combination of fumbled characterisation (outside of David and a couple of others it’s shaky…) and what feels like a rushed edit.

        I’ll need to dive into my own SF film collection and have a think about what I would recommend over Prometheus. Cargo wouldn’t be anywhere near my first choice.

        PS; You brought up the language not me. 😀

        PPS: Kudos to Elaine for name-checking Monsters. I was lucky to be there at its debut at the Edinburgh film festival. I thought it an excellent film.

        • Ach – I’ve done it again. When I say “space astronaut” I meant “ancient astronaut”. I think I am way too hungover for typing blog responses right now…

          … which bodes badly for me hitting my fiction word word count today. ugh.

        • We’ll have to disagree on Cargo, then. I thought it an excellent film – perhaps not entirely original – but then what sf film is? – but it made good use of its melding of ideas. I’m suggesting it as an alternative on the basis that “I thought it was a good film”. I certainly didn’t spend its entire length picking holes in its plot or background, which is what I end up doing with most Hollywood films.

          What Prometheus ideas? Nothing in the film makes sense. The giants made the aliens as a weapon… so why is there a big carving of one behind the giant stone head? If the pyramids are tombs, why did they store the jars in them? Or put a spaceship under them? If it’s a military installation… surely it would need a bit more than lots of tunnels and a room with a giant head in it?

          • For those worrying – I will put a spoilers below here so don’t read on.

            The guy who said “This is just a tomb.” Was, I believe, speaking out of his intense disappointment at finding everything apparently dead. At that point no one knew that anything was alive so his supposing it’s just a tomb (tomb of that species as a whole) is understandable. Janek’s exposition that it was a military installation and the space jockeys knew not to build it near anything valuable is the best explanation.
            This is a species that has a type of tech (bio-nano-tech – synth-bio? Who knows) that grows whatever they want. So why did they put the big stone head in there and why were there murals on the wall? Who knows. They wouldn’t be he first species we know of who painted and needlessly decorated engines of war for aesthetic or quasi-religious reasons.

            The problem isn’t this stuff – I think – but certain other plot points.

            David, refuses to remove the “foetus” from Shaw. She manages to escape and uses the robo-med bed to excise it. She barely escapes and has pumped her body full of anaesthetic… she doesn’t sleep through the operation (actively joins in at one point … gross), then gets up and more-or-less runs through the ship. Here she confronts the baddies and no one bothers to ask “What the hell happened to you?” They don’t remark on her bleeding wound. They don’t acknowledge that a cesarean is a major operation. We know she was just stapled together (no fancy tissue regeneration for you young lady!) and yet here she is running around like a mad thing. No one asks David why he thought it was necessary to put her in cryo stasis or even what he thought he was doing. So you’ve got at least two major plot strands coming together and no making any sense. This 10-15 minute section was the one I had the most problem with.

            I’m coming through to Glasgow for the next session – this needs to be thrashed out over beer!

            • Shaw running around after undergoing major surgery – which used one of those seaside grabclaws things – is just so dumb I didn’t think it needed commenting on 🙂

              There are other things – efforts at quarantine are blithely broken for no good reason; if David is an android and spends two years on his own, why does he need to eat? the road the Prometheus landed on, where did it go? Shaw had to abseil out of crashed spaceship, but how did she get inside it? if the winds really were as severe as the one that struck while they were there, there’d be nothing left of those pyramids after 2000 years…

  4. I was initially intrigued by “Prometheus”, hoping it might be that rare thing, a SF film with intelligence and integrity. But then I see Charlize Theron, a pretty fine actress, spends much of the film stuffed into an outfit so tight, as one film critic put it, you can see her last meal.

    Is this the way intelligent scientists/crewmembers of the future dress? I don’t recall seeing footage of women aboard the space station with their tits hanging out, etc.

    Nope, won’t be seeing this film at the theater, won’t give Ridley Scott any of my hard-earned shekels. I’ll wait for it at the library, get it for nuthin’…which is about what it’s worth. All the suckers and SF geeks will go see it and come away gushing. Gamers and morons.

    “Cargo” isn’t perfect but it’s a pretty decent SF film at about 1/10th of the budget. Well worth the investment of time and money.

    Unlike “Prometheus”…

  5. How dare you imply that Scottish cavemen couldn’t tunnel down through two miles of ice to get to a cave in Skye! Anyway, here’s another review: I haven’t seen it myself yet, but I think I should wait until I’m really hammered.

  6. is an analysis in terms of religious symbology, supported by some comments from the director, that seems to fill in most of the background plot holes that it left for me and is consonant with the ritual sacrifice that I was talking about. It has one massive hole itself, but there’s a lot of the discussion of symbolism that works and could give hints about what Scott thought he was doing.

    In light of that, I’m not convinced that the film is SF at all, so if you read it with a mundane SF interpretation it isn’t going to make any kind of sense. Which is depressing. I’m anti-religious at the best of times and seeing hundreds of millions of pounds blown on turning a good SF concept into a poorly done religious allegory makes me sad. At least Narnia was upfront about the source of its mythology.

  7. I’m not going to see this movie, apart from anything else much of the appeal of alien was that it was so, well, alien. Now that we know that the space-jockey was actually a giant human in a suit, it’s a lot less interesting. We have been placed front-and-center in the cosmos once more, as we are the descendants of the star-gods, and the original xenomorph of ‘alien’ is relegated to a side-story.

    You said this was the ‘Phantom Menace’ of the alien franchise, and I suspect you’re right. I’d rather not see it to have the suspicion confirmed.


  8. Pingback: Prometheus and Bad Science « Logic is my Virgin Sacrifice to Reality

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