It’s hard for me to remember that this movie didn’t come out at the same time as Avatar. In a lot of ways, Ridley Scott and James Cameron are foil directors: they’ve worked on a couple of the same movie series; they got known for their sci-fi; they’re both ambitious; Prometheus and Avatar are both their magnum opuses born of obsessions: Cameron’s ocean journeys, Ridley’s ancient astronaut reading. And in a lot of ways, this movie is Avatar’s reflection.
In terms of world building, this one has the world I get and can believe. Things are grand and numinous, but they’re also dusty and broken and lived in. Everything seems to have a purpose (well, maybe), and that purpose fits organically. Of the three movies, this movie most engages my innate transcendent imagination.
I consider Avatar a huge disappointment: half a billion dollars to say something we’ve already heard. Prometheus disappointed (it seemed) almost everyone who saw it in theaters, and that bummed me out. I never saw it in theaters (because: broke), but became sad that I’d hate it and feel let down. I’d almost decided to simply not ever see it, but then I watched this guy. Without even seeing the movie, I felt like he’d changed my mind and totally reconfigured how I was about to interpret this thing I’d not yet seen but had already judged (and felt like was judged for me).
I’m willing to put up with incoherence if I’m sure there’s a message in there somewhere.
The first time I saw it, I felt like it made near perfect sense. I was so engaged by it that I sent my friend (again, the Avatar one, who did not like this movie) a really long 2 a.m. e-mail telling him all about how I get this movie.
A few things to get out of the way first: all three of these movies have the worst most uncharismatic, unenjoyable to hear talk or see in action male protagonists. All three are the worst. Jake Sully looks like a guy that I would avoid in a club (if I could tolerate clubs); John Carter looks (and sounds) like a guy I’d avoid sitting next to on the bus; and the guy engaged to Shaw (who is an amazing character) comes off like that irritating friend of your friend who feels like he has to be the smartest, funniest, AND toughest guy in the room. When he died, I felt relief that he was leaving the movie. At no moment did I feel like he was the kind of guy who was capable of conducting thoughtful and hard won research. These three characters are indicative of studios chasing after “the type” too much.
Second: this movie does have some bad writing in it. I felt thoroughly unconvinced by their lynchpin evidence of alien visitation. Evidence which was somehow enough to pinpoint a planet 10×10^14 kilometers away… in a cave painting. There’s also the fact that the first two people to die were clearly put there to make you not feel bad about their deaths. There’s no other way to account for them being as horrible as they were. Then there’s the scene where Shaw runs from the rolling alien ship. And it’s hard to judge if the goo>worm>squid>alien transformation is confusing because this is only the first of several (2? 3?) movies, or if it’s just poorly considered.
Third: I’m amazed at how much of the movie is practical effects. I have a deep and abiding love for practical effects. Almost everything in this movie is some ratio of practical effects. And the combination of practical and CGI is a very transcendent way to make your world.
The whole movie is a tale of transcendence: Shaw wants to transcend her own personhood by connecting with the primal father; David wants to transcend his mechanical self into something more human to the extent that he’s willing to murder those that continually highlight and mock his shortcomings as a cyborg; Mr. Weyland wants to transcend death; the Prometheus transcends his society’s own mores by creating unapproved of life; the black goo constantly transcends its forms. This transcendence requires an ascent to the skies that our prehistoric ancestors worshipped so single mindedly. We fear (or despise might be a better word), no matter our place on the continuum of being, our own limitations. Perhaps the greatest terror in transcendence comes when we realize that those to whom we look to transcend are as small minded and terrible as the current condition from which we seek relief.
The Prometheus myth hangs around this movie framing its narrative impetus and resolution showing us where the movie goes and where we’ve been. Sometimes to transcend humanity we have to predate it. While watching this for the second time, it occurred to me that Satan would be Christianity’s Prometheus trading fire for forbidden fruit. I can’t help but wonder what it says about us that the dominant religion vilifies its Prometheus while the dead religion perhaps cautiously idolizes him. Like Shaw’s crew mates, perhaps the corollary to our modern deeply Protestant (though deist belief wanes) culture, this dominant belief structure encourages mistrust of people who want to break current forms to seek higher ones. Perhaps the journey to ascend requires the participation of singular vision, like wealthy investors in adventure novels of the 1900s, like Weyland, because we can’t wait for government and institution, the very same entities that tell us it’s bad when Prometheus gives us fire.
cover photo belongs to 20th Century Fox