by Gar Anthony Haywood

Actually, it’s way too late for a rewrite.  Prometheus is in the can and already raking in millions at theaters across the globe (though nowhere near as many millions as its producers had no doubt hoped, for some of the reasons I’m about to go into below).

I know, I know: We don’t normally do movie reviews here at Murderati.  And technically, I’m not about to post one now.  But this is Wildcard Tuesday, damnit — the day we ‘Ratis on the masthead get to do pretty much anything we damn well please — so what I am going to do is offer a broad-strokes, spoiler-free outline of all the missteps I think screenwriter Damon Lindelof — with the ostensible blessings of director Ridley Scott — made on his way to producing the final draft of the film’s script.

Understand that this is all coming from a huge fan of the first two films in 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise (1979’s Alien and its 1986 sequel, Aliens).  In fact, I think James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the greatest action films ever made, and its precursor, Scott’s Alien, is a horror movie masterpiece that, when I first saw it, had me seriously considering fleeing the theater only halfway through its full running time, or to be precise about it, right after this now classic scene:

The Alien sequels that followed Cameron’s were all shoddy disappointments that just seemed to get worse and worse, and the ensuing Fox films that paired the eponymous Alien creature with the extraterrestrial bounty hunter first seen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller Predator (Alien vs. Predator [2004], Alien vs. Predator: Requiem [2007]) were a travesty made strictly to suck the last drop of box-office from both franchises.  So reasons for me to be encouraged earlier this year by the news that Prometheus was yet another film based on the Alien legend were few and far between.

Still, Prometheus was reportedly a prequel to Alien, and the director behind it was the man who’d gotten the franchise off to such a fantastic start: Ridley Scott.  So how bad could Prometheus possibly be?

Well, let me just put it this way: There’s no such thing as a rule book for screenwriters and directors to go by in making sci-fi blockbuster sequels/prequels like Prometheus, but if there were, the following are all the rules in it Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott would have blatantly broken:

1. Don’t commit to doing a sequel if you don’t really want to do a sequel.

It’s been reported that Scott didn’t sign up to do Prometheus with the idea of making just another entry in the Alien film franchise, and if this is true, boy, does that reluctance ever show in the final product.  Everything in Prometheus that’s reminiscent of Scott’s Alien seems completely out of place, and that’s because Scott (and screenwriter Lindelof) clearly intended for Prometheus to be a much loftier, more thought-provoking film.  Which is unfortunate, because the only thought Alien provoked in most viewers was “That’s it — I’m closing my eyes until the lights come back up!”  Alien was a horror film, as I mentioned earlier, and there’s nothing organic to Prometheus‘s basic storyline to suggest that Scott had any interest this time around in scaring anybody.  My opinion?

What Scott and Lindelof were hoping to make instead of a horror film, under the guise of an Alien “prequel,” was their own answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In other words, a deep, complex science fiction classic that would force viewers to ask serious questions about life, death, and mankind’s place in the universe.

Does that sound like an ideal foundation for an Alien prequel to you?

2. Pay attention to the science in science fiction.

My friend Doselle Young, who writes science fiction and horror with equal aplomb, is something of a science geek, and the list of factual absurdities he found in Prometheus is longer than the guest list to a Kardashian wedding.  Most of the things he mentioned when he and I compared notes on the film were just beyond the intellectual grasp of this former C+ high school science student, but many were basic enough that, once they were pointed out to me, even I understood how ridiculous they were.  For example, consider this question: Over a span of millions of years, would you expect a life form — any life form — to physically evolve in some noticeable way, or remain completely unchanged?

Apparently, Lindelof and Scott think it’s the latter.

Also, timing is a critical element in any piece of fiction — making things happen in a way that is compatible with both logic and what is possible — and Prometheus fails this test over and over again.  Hint to Lindelof: The next time you take on a project of this kind, study up on the exact distance of a light year, and how long it would probably take a man-made spacecraft, no matter how technologically advanced, to cover one.

3. Give all your characters an actual reason to be in your script.

I won’t say much about this one except: Idris Elba, whom I greatly admire, is a member of the Prometheus cast, but I’ll be damned if I know why, other than so that his character — and I use the word “character” here loosely — can occasionally strike a dynamic pose at the ship’s helm.  Who was this person and what was the point of his existence?  The role he played in terms of the plot’s development was . . . what, exactly?

I don’t have a clue, and I doubt Lindelof does, either.

4. Give your characters a reason to do the things they do.

As opposed to just having them do things because, well, wouldn’t it be cool if they did?  Who cares why?

In the film’s most egregious example of random-shit-happening-for-no-good-reason, Lindelof has one character deliberately screw over another simply because he and Scott needed the resultant horrific death to occur, come hell or high water.  Nevermind that the offending character had no discernible motive for the act.

Why did Lindelof and Scott “need” this pointless death to be in the script so desperately, you ask?  Please see Rule #5 below.

5. Don’t populate your sequel with scenes you’ve literally cut-and-pasted from the original.

Remember that, according to my theory, Scott and Lindelof were secretly trying to make a film altogether different from the one Fox was paying them to make.  Doing Alien 5 was not in their plans.  Unfortunately, it was in their contracts, so the dynamic duo behind Prometheus took care to sprinkle their script with just enough blatantly obvious connections to Alien to keep the Fox execs dumb and happy.

Malevolent android possibly working for the Company?

Check.  Snarling Alien embryo emerging from a live human’s bloody abdominal cavity?

Check.  Overly-curious crew member gets a space-helmet facial from an Alien in a chamber full of creepy egg pods?

Check.  And so it goes.  Watching Prometheus, you can actually see where these scenes were artificially grafted on, square pegs jammed into round holes that bring the film to a screeching halt every time they crop up, so incongruent are they to what happens before and after.  This is screenwriting-by-checklist, and I’m sorry, but it blows.

6. Don’t give your character a brain in one scene only to have him behave like a blithering idiot in another.

When a character exhibits the common sense of most mature adults by fleeing from a dangerous situation, that’s good.

When that same character turns around fifteen minutes later and rushes headlong toward the identical dangerous situation — not because they’ve found the courage to do so, but simply because they’ve apparently lost their fucking minds — that’s bad.

In fiction, when a character behaves with such dumb disregard for his/her own safety that readers are forced to conclude they deserve to die, we call them TSTL: Too Stupid To Live.  With Prometheus, Lindelof and Scott have created a brand new, and far more maddening malady for fictional characters to suffer from: SOOTSTLS.

Sudden Onset Of TSTL Syndrome.

SOOTSTLS can strike any character at any time, no matter how rational and intelligent they may have appeared to be previously.  This is especially true when a screenwriter needs something to happen that shouldn’t really be in the script he’s writing at all (see Rule #5 above).

7. Avoid assigning the task of explaining something to your audience to a character who has no reason to understand things any better than your audience does.

When I said earlier that I had no idea what role Idris Elba’s character was supposed to play in Prometheus (Rule #3 above), that wasn’t exactly true.  Because near the end of the film, this character answers a Key Question the female lead — and every member of the audience — has been wondering about for almost two hours.  Or, I should say, he tries to answer it.  What he says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s not the substance of his answer that’s the problem, however.  The problem is that it’s coming from a character who a) should be as ignorant of the subject in conversation as everyone else; and b) has demonstrated, prior to this moment, absolutely no curiosity whatsoever regarding the deep, philosophical mysteries our female protag has been struggling with since Fade In.  This is the guy who understands it all?  The one who’s done little more than exude soul brother cool, scene after scene, while everyone else around him has been ripping their hair out, trying to comprehend what the hell is going on here?

Gimme a break.

Well, I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  You get the idea.  Prometheus sucked, and it didn’t have to.  Given a script equal to its mouthwatering CGI, it could have been terrific.  But its script, instead, was a slapdash affair full of holes and jaw-dropping miscues.  For fans of Alien and Aliens like me, Prometheus represents a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.

That and, on a more personal level, fifteen dollars down the drain.

22 thoughts on “GET ME REWRITE!

  1. Martyn Waites

    Thanks for that, Gar. I still haven't seen it and was in two minds about going but you've just decided it for me. I'll wait till it shows up on TV. But thank you for introducing me to the concept of TSTL Syndrome. I'm going to use the hell out of that!

  2. Dana Cameron

    Gar, I got chills of excitement seeing the trailer for "Prometheus," but because I loved the first two movies so much, I hesitated to see it. And then the reviews came, and…oh, dear. It's not just seeing a script fail; it's the pain of knowing how good it might have been.

    This isn't just a movie review: it's a primer for any writing. Good one!

  3. David DeLee

    Gar, story telling is story telling, so for me there's no need to apologize for examining the story elements of movies. I think we prose writers can learn a lot from them, as your post so aptly demonstrates. Thanks.
    For me the summer action movie that hit on all cylinders was THE AVENGERS. it had all the action and CGI elements one expects, but the script and performances had a surprising amount of heart ( and trademark Joss Whedon humor) as it examined issues of loyalty, trust, selflessness and the isolationism of people who are different and the struggles they face to come together to work as a team. And not to mention packing in so much that no character outshined the others, nor was left out. A heck of a juggling act consideting the characters involved.
    Great storytelling in my opinion.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm sure almost every woman reading this could tell you why Idris Elba is in the movie. You're just not used to a man being used the way women are used all the time in movies. But using him JUST for that is a terrible waste of a wonderful actor.

    Great review! Thanks for the warning – I have zero desire to see a bad pastische of one of my favorite films of all time (the first. The second, not so much.)

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    All my film maker friends are telling me to see this film, just so I can be part of the on-going dialogue about whether it sucks or not. But I just can't seem to plunk down the dollars to have such a no-good, painful experience. I go to the movies to be blown-away – at least that's what I'd like to do. I want the experience I had when I saw "Apocalypse Now" or "The Godfather" or a dozen other truly classic films. Hell, I'll take "Jerry Maguire," which was a great film of a different sort. Or, geez, when will we see the next "Bladerunner?" And I'm not talking about the "sequel." The original. I can't see Prometheus because I'll be pissed off for months, for all the reasons you cited above. I'm still pissed off from seeing "Rock of Ages" – I considered writing my own stinking review about that film on Murderati – why do people like this film? It's two hours of cliche, pure and simple. Why did it attract such talent? And, frankly, the music sucks.
    Tell me, are there any good films in the theater at the moment?
    By the way – did you photoshop those "screenwriting" bullet points onto that chalkboard? I'm thinking you typed them yourself and placed them there. Because we all know you're a photoshop genius.
    Thanks for the warning about "Prometheus."

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – I totally agree with you about "The Avengers" – a fantastic film, with great character development.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm sorry – there was one other film I saw recently that was quite good – "Snow White and the Huntsman." Everything was done right. Absolutely worth seeing.

  8. David Corbett

    Boy, Gar, you sure got Stephen wound up.

    Great tutorial, and I'm in accord with the others, I think I'd far more enjoy your post than the film, so I think I'll pass on the latter. Haven't seen The Avengers yet, plan on doing so today or tomorrow, if I can fit it in.

    The movie I saw recently that I enjoyed: Searching for a Friend for the End of the World. But I'll say no more, until my post next week.

    One quibble: Who came up with the word "protag"? Is it really so onerous or labor-intensive to pronounce or spell the additional "onist"? I've never understood this. If anyone has an explanation, please share.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Davie-baby – you simply need a shot of hipness. I'd say "protag" had to be invented by The Daily Variety, which prides itself on reducing every word to its fewest syllables. Because it's so damn hip, you see. I can't help it, Gar got me so wound up.

  10. David Corbett

    But but but but but Stevie, Dude, My Man …

    My guess is I need a LOT more than a shot of hipness.

    More like a shop of hitness.

    Getting back to protag: I'm all for brevity. But really. It sounds like a diet supplement: Have you had your Protag today?

    Have no clue why but the word is just fingernails on the blackboard for me.

  11. Gordon Harries

    I've avoided this on the grounds that I don't like Aliens or Blade Runner.

    I'm told that's some kind of moral failing on my part, but… honestly, I don't see what the fuss is about.

  12. Gar Haywood

    David DeLee – I totally agree with you about THE AVENGERS. That movie rocked, and I think the main reason it did so was that Whedon totally understood — and was at peace with — the kind of movie he was making. He didn't overreach. A movie based on a superhero comic should never be anything more than a smart, entertaining thrill ride. Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT Batman trilogy comes as close to intellectual stimulation as such movies ever need to get, and those films work because they don't cross the line into unwarranted navel-gazing.

    Alex – I don't need a woman to tell me why Elba's in Prometheus. He's screen candy, exactly as you point out. And you're right — we see it all the time with female actors but not so much with men. So now that you mention it, I guess the only thing missing from Elba's work in the movie was a gratuitously unnecessary nude shot. Maybe in the inevitable Director's Cut?

    Stephen – Nope, I didn't Photoshop that classroom image. It's apparently an actual photo of a real life screenwriting class somewhere. You think I could make that stuff up?

    Mr. Corbett – I'm working on a deadline here. I don't have time to spell every goddamn word in my posts in full. You may wish that the person who came up with the shorthand "protag" for "protagonist" burns in eternal hell someday, but me, I would like to thank him (or her) for making the writing life just that much easier for slackers like myself.

  13. Gar Haywood

    Gordon: That's nothing to worry about on moral grounds, but you might want to consult a doctor about it. Sounds like a definite medical condition to me.

  14. kevin lewis

    I thought you should check out this article that was written about the film as well, maybe people love it/hate it but at least they are talking about it, which I can't say the same for the rest of the movies Hollywood is churning out..

    Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About
    This blogpost contains many and frequent spoilers for Prometheus, so if you're planning on seeing it, I recommend you don't spoil yourself.

    Prometheus contains such a huge amount of mythic resonance that it effectively obscures a more conventional plot. I'd like to draw your attention to the use of motifs and callbacks in the film that not only enrich it, but offer possible hints as to what was going on in otherwise confusing scenes.

    Let's begin with the eponymous titan himself, Prometheus. He was a wise and benevolent entity who created mankind in the first place, forming the first humans from clay. The Gods were more or less okay with that, until Prometheus gave them fire. This was a big no-no, as fire was supposed to be the exclusive property of the Gods. As punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock and condemned to have his liver ripped out and eaten every day by an eagle. (His liver magically grew back, in case you were wondering.)

    Fix that image in your mind, please: the giver of life, with his abdomen torn open. We'll be coming back to it many times in the course of this article.

    The ethos of the titan Prometheus is one of willing and necessary sacrifice for life's sake. That's a pattern we see replicated throughout the ancient world. J G Frazer wrote his lengthy anthropological study, The Golden Bough, around the idea of the Dying God – a lifegiver who voluntarily dies for the sake of the people. It was incumbent upon the King to die at the right and proper time, because that was what heaven demanded, and fertility would not ensue if he did not do his royal duty of dying.

    Now, consider the opening sequence of Prometheus. We fly over a spectacular vista, which may or may not be primordial Earth. According to Ridley Scott, it doesn't matter. A lone Engineer at the top of a waterfall goes through a strange ritual, drinking from a cup of black goo that causes his body to disintegrate into the building blocks of life. We see the fragments of his body falling into the river, twirling and spiralling into DNA helices.

    Ridley Scott has this to say about the scene: 'That could be a planet anywhere. All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space. And the plant life, in fact, is the disintegration of himself. If you parallel that idea with other sacrificial elements in history – which are clearly illustrated with the Mayans and the Incas – he would live for one year as a prince, and at the end of that year, he would be taken and donated to the gods in hopes of improving what might happen next year, be it with crops or weather, etcetera.'

    Can we find a God in human history who creates plant life through his own death, and who is associated with a river? It's not difficult to find several, but the most obvious candidate is Osiris, the epitome of all the Frazerian 'Dying Gods'.

    And we wouldn't be amiss in seeing the first of the movie's many Christian allegories in this scene, either. The Engineer removes his cloak before the ceremony, and hesitates before drinking the cupful of genetic solvent; he may well have been thinking 'If it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me.'

    So, we know something about the Engineers, a founding principle laid down in the very first scene: acceptance of death, up to and including self-sacrifice, is right and proper in the creation of life. Prometheus, Osiris, John Barleycorn, and of course the Jesus of Christianity are all supposed to embody this same principle. It is held up as one of the most enduring human concepts of what it means to be 'good'.

    Seen in this light, the perplexing obscurity of the rest of the film yields to an examination of the interwoven themes of sacrifice, creation, and preservation of life. We also discover, through hints, exactly what the nature of the clash between the Engineers and humanity entailed.

    The crew of the Prometheus discover an ancient chamber, presided over by a brooding solemn face, in which urns of the same black substance are kept. A mural on the wall presents an image which, if you did as I asked earlier on, you will recognise instantly: the lifegiver with his abdomen torn open. Go and look at it here to refresh your memory. Note the serenity on the Engineer's face here.

    And there's another mural there, one which shows a familiar xenomorph-like figure. This is the Destroyer who mirrors the Creator, I think – the avatar of supremely selfish life, devouring and destroying others purely to preserve itself. As Ash puts it: 'a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.'

    Through Shaw and Holloway's investigations, we learn that the Engineers not only created human life, they supervised our development. (How else are we to explain the numerous images of Engineers in primitive art, complete with star diagram showing us the way to find them?) We have to assume, then, that for a good few hundred thousand years, they were pretty happy with us. They could have destroyed us at any time, but instead, they effectively invited us over; the big pointy finger seems to be saying 'Hey, guys, when you're grown up enough to develop space travel, come see us.' Until something changed, something which not only messed up our relationship with them but caused their installation on LV-223 to be almost entirely wiped out.

    From the Engineers' perspective, so long as humans retained that notion of self-sacrifice as central, we weren't entirely beyond redemption. But we went and screwed it all up, and the film hints at when, if not why: the Engineers at the base died two thousand years ago. That suggests that the event that turned them against us and led to the huge piles of dead Engineers lying about was one and the same event. We did something very, very bad, and somehow the consequences of that dreadful act accompanied the Engineers back to LV-223 and massacred them.

    If you have uneasy suspicions about what 'a bad thing approximately 2,000 years ago' might be, then let me reassure you that you are right. An astonishing excerpt from the interview with Ridley Scott: We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?

    Ridley Scott: We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, "Let's send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it." Guess what? They crucified him.

    Yeah. The reason the Engineers don't like us any more is that they made us a Space Jesus, and we broke him. Reader, that's not me pulling wild ideas out of my arse. That's RIDLEY SCOTT.

    So, imagine poor crucified Jesus, a fresh spear wound in his side. Oh, hey, there's the 'lifegiver with his abdomen torn open' motif again. That's three times now: Prometheus, Engineer mural, Jesus Christ. And I don't think I have to mention the 'sacrifice in the interest of giving life' bit again, do I? Everyone on the same page? Good.

    So how did our (in the context of the film) terrible murderous act of crucifixion end up wiping out all but one of the Engineers back on LV-223? Pr
    esumably through the black slime, which evidently models its behaviour on the user's mental state. Create unselfishly, accepting self-destruction as the cost, and the black stuff engenders fertile life. But expose the potent black slimy stuff to the thoughts and emotions of flawed humanity, and 'the sleep of reason produces monsters'. We never see the threat that the Engineers were fleeing from, we never see them killed other than accidentally (decapitation by door), and we see no remaining trace of whatever killed them. Either it left a long time ago, or it reverted to inert black slime, waiting for a human mind to reactivate it.

    The black slime reacts to the nature and intent of the being that wields it, and the humans in the film didn't even know that they WERE wielding it. That's why it remained completely inert in David's presence, and why he needed a human proxy in order to use the stuff to create anything. The black goo could read no emotion or intent from him, because he was an android.

    Shaw's comment when the urn chamber is entered – 'we've changed the atmosphere in the room' – is deceptively informative. The psychic atmosphere has changed, because humans – tainted, Space Jesus-killing humans – are present. The slime begins to engender new life, drawing not from a self-sacrificing Engineer but from human hunger for knowledge, for more life, for more everything. Little wonder, then, that it takes serpent-like form. The symbolism of a corrupting serpent, turning men into beasts, is pretty unmistakeable.

    Refusal to accept death is anathema to the Engineers. Right from the first scene, we learned their code of willing self-sacrifice in accord with a greater purpose. When the severed Engineer head is temporarily brought back to life, its expression registers horror and disgust. Cinemagoers are confused when the head explodes, because it's not clear why it should have done so. Perhaps the Engineer wanted to die again, to undo the tainted human agenda of new life without sacrifice.

    But some humans do act in ways the Engineers might have grudgingly admired. Take Holloway, Shaw's lover, who impregnates her barren womb with his black slime riddled semen before realising he is being transformed into something Other. Unlike the hapless geologist and botanist left behind in the chamber, who only want to stay alive, Holloway willingly embraces death. He all but invites Meredith Vickers to kill him, and it's surely significant that she does so using fire, the other gift Prometheus gave to man besides his life.

    The 'Caesarean' scene is central to the film's themes of creation, sacrifice, and giving life. Shaw has discovered she's pregnant with something non-human and sets the autodoc to slice it out of her. She lies there screaming, a gaping wound in her stomach, while her tentacled alien child thrashes and squeals in the clamp above her and OH HEY IT'S THE LIFEGIVER WITH HER ABDOMEN TORN OPEN. How many times has that image come up now? Four, I make it. (We're not done yet.)

    And she doesn't kill it. And she calls the procedure a 'caesarean' instead of an 'abortion'.

    (I'm not even going to begin to explore the pro-choice versus forced birth implications of that scene. I don't think they're clear, and I'm not entirely comfortable doing so. Let's just say that her unwanted offspring turning out to be her salvation is possibly problematic from a feminist standpoint and leave it there for now.)

    Here's where the Christian allegories really come through. The day of this strange birth just happens to be Christmas Day. And this is a 'virgin birth' of sorts, although a dark and twisted one, because Shaw couldn't possibly be pregnant. And Shaw's the crucifix-wearing Christian of the crew. We may well ask, echoing Yeats: what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards LV-223 to be born?

    Consider the scene where David tells Shaw that she's pregnant, and tell me that's not a riff on the Annunciation. The calm, graciously angelic android delivering the news, the pious mother who insists she can't possibly be pregnant, the wry declaration that it's no ordinary child… yeah, we've seen this before.

    'And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.'

    A barren woman called Elizabeth, made pregnant by 'God'? Subtle, Ridley.

    Anyway. If it weren't already clear enough that the central theme of the film is 'I suffer and die so that others may live' versus 'you suffer and die so that I may live' writ extremely large, Meredith Vickers helpfully spells it out:

    'A king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable.'

    Vickers is not just speaking out of personal frustration here, though that's obviously one level of it. She wants her father out of the way, so she can finally come in to her inheritance. It's insult enough that Weyland describes the android David as 'the closest thing I have to a son', as if only a male heir was of any worth; his obstinate refusal to accept death is a slap in her face.

    Weyland, preserved by his wealth and the technology it can buy, has lived far, far longer than his rightful time. A ghoulish, wizened creature who looks neither old nor young, he reminds me of Slough Feg, the decaying tyrant from the Slaine series in British comic 2000AD. In Slaine, an ancient (and by now familiar to you, dear reader, or so I would hope) Celtic law decrees that the King has to be ritually and willingly sacrificed at the end of his appointed time, for the good of the land and the people. Slough Feg refused to die, and became a rotting horror, the embodiment of evil.

    The image of the sorcerer who refuses to accept rightful death is fundamental: it even forms a part of some occult philosophy. In Crowley's system, the magician who refuses to accept the bitter cup of Babalon and undergo dissolution of his individual ego in the Great Sea (remember that opening scene?) becomes an ossified, corrupted entity called a 'Black Brother' who can create no new life, and lives on as a sterile, emasculated husk.

    With all this in mind, we can better understand the climactic scene in which the withered Weyland confronts the last surviving Engineer. See it from the Engineer's perspective. Two thousand years ago, humanity not only murdered the Engineers' emissary, it infected the Engineers' life-creating fluid with its own tainted selfish nature, creating monsters. And now, after so long, here humanity is, presumptuously accepting a long-overdue invitation, and even reawakening (and corrupting all over again) the life fluid.

    And who has humanity chosen to represent them? A self-centred, self-satisfied narcissist who revels in his own artificially extended life, who speaks through the medium of a merely mechanical offspring. Humanity couldn't have chosen a worse ambassador.

    It's hardly surprising that the Engineer reacts with contempt and disgust, ripping David's head off and battering Weyland to death with it. The subtext is bitter and ironic: you caused us to die at the hands of our own creation, so I am going to kill you with YOUR own creation, albeit in a crude and bludgeoning way.

    The only way to save humanity is through self-sacrifice, and this is exactly what the captain (and his two oddly complacent co-pilots) opt to do. They crash the Prometheus into the Engineer's ship, giving up their lives in order to save others. Their willing self-sacrifice stands alongside Holloway's and the Engineer's from the op
    ening sequence; by now, the film has racked up no less than five self-sacrificing gestures (six if we consider the exploding Engineer head).

    Meredith Vickers, of course, has no interest in self-sacrifice. Like her father, she wants to keep herself alive, and so she ejects and lands on the planet's surface. With the surviving cast now down to Vickers and Shaw, we witness Vickers's rather silly death as the Engineer ship rolls over and crushes her, due to a sudden inability on her part to run sideways. Perhaps that's the point; perhaps the film is saying her view is blinkered, and ultimately that kills her. But I doubt it. Sometimes a daft death is just a daft death.

    Finally, in the squidgy ending scenes of the film, the wrathful Engineer conveniently meets its death at the tentacles of Shaw's alien child, now somehow grown huge. But it's not just a death; there's obscene life being created here, too. The (in the Engineers' eyes) horrific human impulse to sacrifice others in order to survive has taken on flesh. The Engineer's body bursts open – blah blah lifegiver blah blah abdomen ripped apart hey we're up to five now – and the proto-Alien that emerges is the very image of the creature from the mural.

    On the face of it, it seems absurd to suggest that the genesis of the Alien xenomorph ultimately lies in the grotesque human act of crucifying the Space Jockeys' emissary to Israel in four B.C., but that's what Ridley Scott proposes. It seems equally insane to propose that Prometheus is fundamentally about the clash between acceptance of death as a condition of creating/sustaining life versus clinging on to life at the expense of others, but the repeated, insistent use of motifs and themes bears this out.

    As a closing point, let me draw your attention to a very different strand of symbolism that runs through Prometheus: the British science fiction show Doctor Who. In the 1970s episode 'The Daemons', an ancient mound is opened up, leading to an encounter with a gigantic being who proves to be an alien responsible for having guided mankind's development, and who now views mankind as a failed experiment that must be destroyed. The Engineers are seen tootling on flutes, in exactly the same way that the second Doctor does. The Third Doctor had an companion whose name was Liz Shaw, the same name as the protagonist of Prometheus. As with anything else in the film, it could all be coincidental; but knowing Ridley Scott, it doesn't seem very likely.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    —-So now that you mention it, I guess the only thing missing from Elba's work in the movie was a gratuitously unnecessary nude shot.—–

    That would get me into the theater.

  16. Gordon Harries

    Gar: I just think that the reputation of each film far exceeds it's worth. Both are well made and I appreciate them on that level, but there's not a lot there for me beyond appreciation. They're just not films I respond to. (Plus Blade Runner in particular is futuristic take on the north of England. I grew up there, I already know that it's dystopic.)

    That said, I'm not a great one for Sci-fi. so….

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Kevin – I was trying to figure out how to post a link to that review, but you beat me to it. I definitely wanted Gar to check it out.

  18. Jake Nantz

    And this is why I'll wait until it's free on Amazon Prime. There's no way I'll let it change or detract from my love of the first two (second more than the first, but both in my top 10 all-time). It just isn't worth spending money on what I knew, without exception, would be a disaster the moment I heard there was hemming and hawwing over whether it was a prequel/sequel to Alien or not. When they can't even agree how to portray it to people BEFORE it comes out, how in the world can they get it straight for themselves while SHOOTING it?

  19. Gar Haywood

    Kevin: Thanks for the article. It's fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, there are two problems with all of it:

    1. None of it actually translates in the film as presently cut, and I do mean NONE of it.

    But far more importantly:

    2. Even if it did translate, none of it would BELONG in the movie Scott was supposed to be making: the fifth entry in the ALIEN film franchise. As I pointed out in my post, PROMETHEUS is a convoluted, incomprehensible mess not because people don't understand what Scott (and his screenwriter Damon Lindelof) was trying to say, but because it's a Frankenstein's monster of incompatible parts. The original framework of ALIEN was never meant to support the ponderous weight of the Meaning-of-Life manifesto Scott has attempted to attach to it. Starting with the story of the Three Little Pigs, could you write a sequel in which the pigs are modern-day German Jews and the Big Bad Wolf is Hitler re-incarnated? Of course you could. But why would that be a good idea?

  20. PD Martin

    Hi all. Yeah, I've heard bad things about Prometheus, too. Not on my list. Upcoming blockbusters that are on my list are the new Spiderman and Batman installments, but I'm worried I'll be disappointed!

  21. Reine

    Not going to see Prometheus. Thank you for solidifying that for me, Gar.

    "5. Don't populate your sequel with scenes you've literally cut-and-pasted from the original." Yesterday I started reading a book, written by a much-favored author, who has done this. I can't continue with it. What makes a good writer do this? Do writers who do this think we don't notice? We don't care? They're going for new readers who haven't read their earlier books? What?

  22. Kevin Lewis

    Gar, a post-modern three little pigs is exactly
    what Hollywood needs! Let's pitch it to
    the town!!!

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