Finally, Ridley Scott returns to what he does best, science fiction. And Prometheus is the best looking and visually imaginative example of the genre since his Blade Runner. The writing is hackneyed, however, existing only as a cheap frame to support the spectacle. The film begins with a staple of classic SF, the extraterrestrial explanation of abiogenesis (borrowed from The Chariot of the Gods), which doesn't make a lick of sense, and ends with a cosmic duel to the death between the unstoppable penis and the unmovable vagina, which is about all I could ask of a movie. Going with the idea that literary SF is the "literature of cognitive estrangement," the "critical genre par excellence," Carl Freedman has expressed skepticism that -- with few exceptions that prove the rule (e.g., 2001) -- the cinematographic version will ever rival its written counterpart because of "an aesthetic hegemony of special effects that is fundamentally antithetical to the conceptual core of science fiction itself." However, if Prometheus says anything interesting, and I believe it does, it's mostly as an effects-laden spectacle, which I'll get to in my next post. For now, I'm going to focus on trying to make sense out the story, or, more accurately, question the nonsense. (I assume anyone reading this has already seen the movie, or doesn't care about spoilers.)
The origin of life -- or, at least, humanity as we know it -- in the prologue involves a hairless, bluish-white humanoid bodybuilder drinking some black goo, which causes his body to dissolve into a waterfall some time in Earth's distant past. The desolate, inorganic landscapes during the credits suggest a primordial world, but I'm not sure whether this scene is actually supposed to be the origin of all life (3.5 billion years ago), or if it's what gave the great apes the evolutionary advantage some 14 million years ago, or if it's what resulted in the modern human 200,000 years ago. Regardless, the genetic jumpstart occurred at least 200,000 years ago. This leads to a lot of problems in the script that shouldn't have been all that difficult to rectify had anyone in this $130 million dollar project bothered checking Wikipedia:
(1) When there's a DNA comparison later on in the film between humans and Engineers (as the father species comes to be called), it turns out to be a perfect match, even though there appears to be about as much difference between us and them as between us and apes. Surely merging the Engineer's DNA with the black goo and our ancestral gene pool would've developed some genomic differences, which would've led to the phenotypical differences on display in the film (e.g., they're completely hairless, have super-strength, are at least 2 feet taller, and their eyes are completely black). This becomes an even bigger problem if the evolutionary martyrdom sparked all of life, since we'd be about as genetically close to the Engineers as to the first single-cell organism.
(2) Speaking of which, why would this goo that transforms living creatures into larger, more complex living creatures turn the sacrificed Engineer into a bunch of single cell or smaller organisms? If his DNA was so close to our own, wouldn't he have transformed into an even stronger monster version of himself just like the contaminated geologist, Fifield, does later in the film? Also, the goo clearly doesn't have an effect on inorganic matter as demonstrated by David's handling of it on his finger. Thus, it couldn't be a true abiogenetic agent, turning the inorganic into the organic, meaning that the prologue takes place sometime after life began.
(3) In the film, the android David studies all the oldest languages in order to communicate with the Engineers, just in case our linguistic systems developed from theirs and their language hasn't changed any sense the dawn of man (a reasonable hypothesis, since language hasn't developed much on Earth in that time). Since the development of modern language in homo sapiens is estimated to have occurred somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, that leaves a lot of lag time where the Engineers had to hang out on Earth waiting for us to develop to the point of handling their advanced syntax. Were they building all those advance Gigerian monuments that they leave on all the other planets? No, they were painting crude pictures on cave walls, or teaching our ancestors how to do it. Which leads me to the next problem:
(4) In order to have influenced these 35,000 year old cave paintings that the two lead scientists, Charlie and Elisabeth, discover are maps of a constellation that can only be seen with the advanced technology in the year 2093 AD, the Engineers must have been on our planet even more recently. Where are are all the technological remnants? They had space ships back in the prologue! They quite obviously build stations on every planet they colonize or terraform. They couldn't have raised the first ancestor of Giger in a hut somewhere to build an elaborate phallic monument? They obviously weren't hiding their existence, since they taught us humans where they came from (or, at least, where they keep their weapons) in order to paint it on cave walls all over the planet.
(5) They did teach us the technology of writing, since not only is David able to talk to the Engineer he meets, but he's also able to read all their symbols and use these symbols to control their spaceships based on a combination of ancient Sumerian and Egyptian scripts (because all that it takes to fly an American airplane is to know English orthography). And, now, we have the Engineers hanging out on Earth until around 3200 BC, because that's about the time writing began.
(6) Why did the black goo make such minor and gradual genetic changes resulting in homo sapiens? It's shown to create 3 feet long, face-fucking alien cobra snakes from itsy-bitsy meal worms and capable of impregnating an infertile woman with a squid creature that grows to room-sized proportions in a couple days' time! Shouldn't we have been able to pick up language, advanced technological skills, etc. in relatively short order? That is, if we're the Engineers' phylogenetic twins after the gooey transformation, why did it take so long to develop space travel when they were with us, presumedly teaching us stuff (like art, language and where they came from) for at least 150,000 years? On our own (as in not on the History Channel, but in the real world without any alien manipulation), we went from developing a writing system to the moon landing in around 5,000 years. If I were to ask the Engineers anything, it would be, "why does your educational system suck so bad?"
Along with the poorly thought out scientific ideas, there are just so many sloppy plot contrivances: There's the problematic tendency for characters to act in ways that don't fit who they are (e.g., although he's an archaeologist, Charlie goes on a depressive bender after finding proof for his theories in the nonliving remains of a superior species that brought humans into existence, because he wanted to talk to them -- this serves no purpose other than to set up a discussion between him and David about meeting one's creator); and characters mysteriously figure out needed information (e.g., the Prometheus' captain is sure they're on a WMD site for the Engineers, David somehow discovers that the Engineers were planning on destroying the Earth because he's seen their map, and Elizabeth is evidently a medical expert even though she's an archaeologist); or how about everyone always being right where they need to be for the plot to continue (e.g., Elizabeth just turning up at the room where old man Weyland is, or her immediately finding David's decapitated head in an alien ship that's been crashed landed and turned over); and the baffling failure or inconsistent use of technology (e.g., the advanced medical machine is only capable of operating on a man's body, despite the well-integrated work force on these ships, and Fifield and Milburn get lost so they can be first victims, even though they're in radio contact with people on the ship who are capable of pinpointing all movement within the alien terrain). ... Aargh, I must stop thinking about this.
[Poster by Janée Meadows.]