The meaning of life. Over the years many people have tried to define what the overarching purpose of life must be. Every day we wake up, work, eat, pray, share time with loved ones, shout angrily at other drivers on the road or footballers on a screen and at the end of the day we slump into our beds to rest so that we might do it all over again. But no one wants to accept that the daily grind is all that there is to life. Therefore we ask the questions: why are we alive? How did we come to be? What happens when we die? What do we have to live for?
I cannot answer those questions for you. Maybe people have tried and you might hold to their interpretations while others point to faith and religion as the meaning of existence, and it’s ok if you want to believe that too. But whatever people believe they have always tried to answer these questions and explore the ideology behind these questions in everything they do. From art and philosophy to film and literature, these questions have been asked. But they haven’t always been answered.
And that brings us to Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s return to the science fiction film genre is rife with those types of questions. And it’s not as though the questions are just hanging in the atmosphere of the movie, at least two or three characters explicitly ask them, including the religious female lead and the dying C.E.O. of the Weyland Industries. Unfortunately this just adds to the dissatisfaction when the film never really answers them. The only question that is answered if answered fairly early on in the film and, despite some initial resistance from other scientists, the fact that humans were created by the Engineers is never properly disputed. Everyone is very quick to accept that humans came from the alien race simply because the alien race was there first. The human DNA that Elizabeth Shaw (played by Naomi Raplace) finds in the alien’s DNA is intended to reflect that they created us, rather than that particular strand of DNA being the surviving component in an planet that is described as matching Earth’s large list of environmental and astronomical prerequisites for sustaining life. The cockpit of the spaceship found at the end with actual coordinates for Earth is probably the best evidence that they have for the suggestion that the Engineers made humans but by that point it’s practically a foregone conclusion to the characters. And all it really does is introduce a new question. Why would the Engineers create humans and then decide to destroy them?
During casting, Scott admitted that the ideas in his film were ‘unique, large and provocative.’ While I would agree that the ideas behind the film were fairly massive concepts to tackle, I don’t think they’re particularly unique. Many of Prometheus’s themes were addressed in modern science fiction films such as Splice and have been addressed in science fiction since before Alien was even conceived, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clark’s short story that it was based on, The Sentinel. In fact the concept of an aliens visiting ancient civilisations and returning to destroy us is practically the plotline of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen. There is no debate about whether Scott’s execution outweighs Bay’s but story and characterisation falter when contrasted with that of Kubrick and Clark. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick makes the point of the show immediately clear. Both open with the visual of planets in space but Kubrick’s depiction of monkeys becoming more sentient and seemingly violent under the influence of the monolith directly parallels to the voyage to Jupiter where Dave goes beyond the infinite and evolves into the star-child. However, Prometheus has no such symmetry. The opening sequence of landscapes and waterfalls are certainly a delight to look at but it’s obvious by the point that the engineer appears that it is not Earth and, when the ship arrives at its destination; it becomes apparent that it is also not the planet on which most of the action of the film takes place. The alien, which looks similar to Doctor Manhattan, watches a spaceship leave the planet and then swallows a vial of black liquid which seems to rip apart his very DNA.
But, really, what is the point in Scott’s opening? Is the viewer meant to understand that this is the home planet of the engineers? But that simply poses more questions, such as why did the lone engineer kill himself once the ship had left? Perhaps we could deduce some of the answers in same way that we’re meant to accept that proposition made by the android David (played fantastically by Michael Fassbender) that the engineers made humans because they could just because humans made androids because they could. But that ignores that, in reality, man has many reasons to imagine and create. One of the best reasons to create something is so you can share it with the world; so that you can turn to someone and say, ‘look what I made, please experience and enjoy it.’ Not ‘look what I made, now let’s rip it to pieces because we can’ which seems to be the philosophy of the engineers.
Aside from the failure to integrate the large thematic ideas into the physical scenes of the movie, the viewer never really connects with the characters in Prometheus in the same way that they did with Alien. In Alien, most of the cast were identifiable and likeable. This film had seventeen crew members on board but by the end you’ll only really about seven or eight of those members and you might only like about three or four. The film attempts to tie the viewer to Raplace’s character emotionally by two separate reveals that her parents are dead and she can’t have children, but her character was actually rather annoying. She felt like she could really do no wrong which was frustrating to watch, especially when the two scientists who disagreed with her hypothesis were the first to die. It begins to feel like the world is the Scully to her Mulder. But she survives because Scott needs a surviving woman to mirror with Ripley. Honestly, I feel that Meredith Vickers (played by Charlize Theron) would have been the stronger choice of survivor, least of all because the character felt more well rounded. Vickers never wanted the alien concept to be true and wanted her father to accept his role in life by dying. Although the reveal that she was Weyland’s daughter was a bit predictable it gave her even more reason to return home and hide the nature of the voyage.
However, I should point out that I’m not truly a fan of the Alien franchise. I’ve only seen the original film, which I consider to be markedly less dramatic or scary that many laud it as, and I only saw Prometheus because I have a friend who wanted to see the film. I am, however, a fan of Damon Lindelof from my love of Lost. While I’m willing to admit that Lost had its failing by the end of the show they did answer all the questions they’d posed at the start. If the viewer still didn’t like Lost at that point then they had a problem with the answers, not the lack of. So I feel like it would be unfair to blame him for any of the problems caused by a lack of definite answers or characterisations. Especially as he noted in a recent interview that his influence may have kept the script partly on track; “I said to him, ‘We should be prepared for people to feel frustrated if we’re going to be withholding, so we have to be very careful about what we’re saving for later’, because it’s not a foregone conclusion that there are going to be sequels.” I do think that the problem possibly lies with Scott who seems to have simply when too big in his thinking for his first foray into science fiction since Blade Runner. The problem really lies in an inability to keep it simply. Had Scott kept Prometheus simple he’d have returned to the science fiction genre with a much stronger film.
By the way, I currently have a story in the 1st Science Fiction and Fantasy Contest run by Ether Apps. It’s the same story that I used in my visual novel a while back. So if you like it or you’d just like to support me, feel free to download the story from Ether App on istore. It’s a short story so it won’t take long to download and read but hopefully you’ll all still find it immensely enjoyable. For more information check out the facebook group.