The Profound Problem with Prometheus [SPOILERS]

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Sean Connery wearing an orange nappy in ZardozThere are a lot of things to like about Prometheus. The set design is very beautiful and feels real and physical for a film made in 2012 that is quite so reliant on CGI. Most of the performances are fine, some excellent. The world it creates is clearly much larger than the film itself, and it feels very much as if we’ve only seen a part of it. And while it does (sort of) serve as a prequel to Alien, it is similarly quite refreshing that it doesn’t tie itself too closely into lining itself up seemlessly to end where that film begins.

None of that is to say that there aren’t problems, but most of them would have been fixable if they’d taken the trouble to get a half-decent script editor to take a look at it. This is a real shame. A line of expositionary dialogue here, deleting a line of dialogue there (the attempt to over-egg Noomi Rapace’s “pregnancy” by revealing she was infertile was especially clunky), and most of the truly facepalm moments would have simply vanished. But the fundamental problem with the film was in the concept itself: “meeting God” films never work.

There are two problems with “meeting God” films. The first one is: they all end up resembling the Wizard of Oz. In the case of Zardoz, that is of course deliberate, but the trope runs the same way throughout. Essentially, the protagonists set themselves the task of meeting God, “God” turns out of have feet of clay, everyone gets upset and we have a stunning anti-climax. It wrecked Star Trek V. It fucked the Matrix franchise (thanks to my wife Alex for that one). Name me one film with this premise is loved and respected or has stood the test of time. They’re doomed to failure because the premise always promises more than any film can deliver, no matter how good the special effects. And if you don’t go for the cynical, God-ain’t-all-that, route, you will have to contend with the audience – who will either be profoundly sceptical themselves or, worse, declare you to be a heretic and decide you should be burnt at the stake. It is a dramatic dead end.

Architect from Matrix ReloadedBut this links to the other problem. Fundamentally, nobody wants to actually meet God. I mean, not physically, actually meet him (as opposed to some metaphysical, spiritual, vague, non-specific communion with God in this life or after). The problem, at its heart, is the cosmological argument. Once you’ve found “God”, the first question you have to ask yourself is “who created him/her/it?” At best all you’ve discovered is the latest in a long line of “creators”: it is literally turtles all the way down.

As a good Catholic, this argument should have been very, very familiar to Noomi Rapace’s character; yet it is never even touched upon in the film itself. The film makers are simply too in love with the idea to see past its inherent nonsense. Instead, what we get is a bunch of people spouting about Däniken theory as if it is holy scrit on the rather shaky basis that they “choose to believe it”. It is a caricature of a scientist with religious sensibilities (and what odd, blasphemous religious sensibilities to have?), that I doubt even Richard Dawkins actually believes really exists.

If we assume for a second that Däniken is right and that space astronauts came to earth and engineered the human race, that would throw up all sorts of philosophical issues for us as a species were we to find tangible proof. There’s a lot of potential for great drama there. But it wouldn’t disprove the existence of God; nor would it, as one character mentions in the film, disprove “300 years of Darwinism” (which, said in the year 2093, doesn’t even make sense on a basic arithmetic level, unless you’re talking about Erasmus). We have already moved on as a species in terms of the philosophical questions this film throws up; it is unlikely – more unlikely than being able to perform feats of athleticism hours after having your stomach split open and stapled together following a c-section – that we are suddenly going to forget all that and go back to asking questions that Aristotle wouldn’t have lost any sleep over.

Perhaps the biggest sin the makers of this film committed was to make a film which purports to be profound but merely going over ground already covered by AvP, with a heck of a lot more pretension in the process. And that brings us back to the Wizard of Oz; because the Dark and Terrible Scott is looking remarkably mortal right now. The only thing preventing me from feeling like I’ve been lead up the yellow brick garden path is that I had rather low expectations in the first place. That, post-Phantom Menace, so many people appear to have had such high expectations may be rather touchingly naive, but a lot of people seem quite peeved out there nonetheless.

I’m almost intrigued to see how this plays out in the sequel that they quite explicitly set up at the end of Prometheus. Let’s face it; I’m going to go and see it if it ever gets made, but I’d rather see the Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness which, we are to understand, this film effectively blocked. H. P. Lovecraft’s story and prose are not without problems but for all that it had the potential to serve as a basis for asking some much more interesting questions than Prometheus ends up delivering (and when you meet God in a Lovecraft story, it doesn’t disappoint even if it is the last thing his protagonists intend to go looking for), and I can’t help but feel that del Toro was the right man for the job. Now we’ll presumably never know.

UPDATE: As ever, I forgot to include a couple of rather fundamental points:

Firstly, I should have pointed out that David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, more or less undermines the whole premise of the film early on by demonstrating just how absurd it is to attach such mystery and profundity to one’s maker by pointing out that he was only created because mankind could. Yet while acknowledging the mundanity of humanity’s ability to create life, the film persists in suggesting that its own creators might have some grander plan.

Secondly, I should also have pointed out that Blade Runner itself serves as an anti-Wizard of Oz plot, in which the “wizard” is known to be all-too-mortal from the beginning and that the character arc of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) focuses on his own disillusionment with “touching the creator” and eventual redemption. In doing so, Scott managed to make a film packed with far more profundity than Prometheus came anywhere near to. On that level it is startling to think the two films were made by the same person.

EDIT: As a troll has helpfully pointed out, I inadvertently changed Guillermo del Toro’s name. Now corrected.

10 thoughts on “The Profound Problem with Prometheus [SPOILERS]

  1. Sometimes meeting your maker plots work. What about the Exodus. with Charlton Heston? Man meets the Lord, the people are saved, and then led to the promised land.

  2. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment on it. The only Charlton Heston film I know where he plays a man in communion with God is the Ten Commandments.

  3. Personally , I think showing the creation of man at the very beginning of the film takes away from your argument. We’ve seen ‘Adam’ set the evolutionary process in motion
    Prometheus isn’t a massive set up to meet god and then a massive let down.
    It’s a massive set up to as why and then evolves into the question of why they then decided to destroy the life they created and then a massive let down.

    It’s the phenomenon of modern films that set up a premise then doesn’t even bother to even attempt to answer it’s own question or give you anything of substance to walk away with.
    Filmmakers they think it’s simply profound to ask the question, to shine the light on a subject

    …but it’s not it just leaves a hollow experience.

    the closest it gets to even having something interesting to say is David’s dismissal of the desire to ask questions of your creator.

  4. I don’t think the character at the beginning of the film is “Adam” – indeed, if he was, the film would be called Adam, not Prometheus. Nor did he set the evolutionary process in motion – that planet (which may or may not be Earth – it certainly looks identical to Iceland, I mean LV-223) clearly already has life on it – after all, he can breathe.

    If, as I think you are implying, his genetic material forms the template of humanity, it’s a rather hokey concept that doesn’t make much sense (and rips off Star Trek apart from anything else). How are a few strands of DNA floating in a lake going to change the course of human evolution?

    The reason I think the film is about people attempting to meet their creators is that the characters state that is their intention. Interminably. Not much of an interpretation on my part.

    JB: I take your point about the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t really a film about “meeting God” in the sense that the other films I’ve cited are. Meeting the creator isn’t what drives the plot forward; escaping the clutches of the Egyptians is.

  5. I took it to be aliens leaving behind the ‘Adam’ who eats the gunk disolves into the water becomes the first single celled organisms on earth that then evolve into humans without ‘Adam’ there would be no life on earth. From their point of view plants evolved naturally and animal life from alien intervention

    Or maybe i’m wrong if so what’s the point of that opening scene ?

    My only point is that there isn’t a sort of curve ball where the curtain comes back and the mighty oz is just a man as that is what they were always looking for.

  6. I was confused by the opening scene and wondered, like one of the other comment writers above, if it was suggested that the man at the start had been the source of genetic material for humans on Earth.

    As well as the holes with this that you have mentioned it would leave other points unanswered. Would he be just the ancestor of homo sapiens or also Home Erectus, Neanderthals and our other “relatives” who are genetically distinct?

    This was made irrelevant to the story by the discovery later (if I understood correct) that the supermen they found on the planet were genetically “the same as us” i.e. as human as we are.

    This raise the question that went unanswered in the film as to why these other human could had certain difference to us in their appearances- being huge, heavily muscular and athletic, unpigmented skin, hairless and so on.

    I was reminded of a book I had as a kid in the 80s which was a sci-fi annual from several decades before that. It has a piece speculating how humans would look after a long time (centuries?) if we went to live on other planets where the environment was very different to Earth. It suggested we might became short, squat and strong if we lived on a planet with stronger gravity or taller and thinner if gravity was less. I don’t know if that suggestion is scientifically plausible. But presumably the type and amount of sunlight could significantly affect our skin appearance and the content of air, water and food could have a radical bodily affect too.

    If you consider how different human beings can appear as a result of environmental factors on Earth, the diversity presumably could be multiplied many times if your environmental envelope is enlarged to include all the possible situations in other planets.

    Likewise, as well as nature, we have (and no doubt could further in future) develop medicines, stimulants, implants and other technology that affect our growth, ageing and physical development in all respects.

    One recalls the premise of the Space Marines in the Warhammer 40k universe: young males not fully grown recruited and taken to other worlds where a range of genetic enhancements, training, etc, turns them into physical and mental supermen. In fact, the scene where the superman gets onto the lifeboat and is then wrestling with the octopus-like alien that impregnates him was reminiscent (to me) of 40k artwork of a marine squaring up to a tyranid. I realise that the tyranids and genestealers were perhaps heavily inspired by Alien in appearance and M.O.

    I interpret the information we were given in the film that the story is that we are human but there are humans on another planet. We are genetically the same but through some cause or another they are physically and technologically ahead of us.

    The unanswered question is: why do they want to kill us?

    Given that humans on Earth try to kill each other as often as they do it shouldn’t really be a surprise, the film-maker might say. Given the precedents from our own history should we not expect that these supermen would regard us as lesser vermin to be gotten rid of?

    The further mystery, unless it is simply a question of sadism, is why try and kill us by, presumably, dropping all this biological material on Earth that will affect us all as it did the Prometheus crew who were exposed? These supermen could presumably design their own Deathstar? The sith are avowed sadists but when it comes to destroying a planet they get on and just “make it happen”

    If the sequel is as mold-filling as you justifiably argue Prometheus is then I would hazard a guess that the sequel will reveal that the homicidal superman who want to go to Earth and kill us actually have some noble motive and will win our sympathy?

    Or the heroine who heads of the find them really impresses them. She becomes one of them or even “their queen” (notice we have only seen males). I was tempted to speculate that perhaps they for some reason don’t have females. But presumably if that was the case Prometheus would have given us some silly “Tarzan sees Jane for the first time” type moment.

  7. Catching up with Quaequam after some time… there is one film in which the protagonists meet God, and which is splendid: Time Bandits. But I take your point about the others… All the best.

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