Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Symbolism or Not, 'Prometheus' Still Fails as a Compelling Story

by John Shade Vick

Considering the attention that my negative review on Forbes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has garnered, it is clear that this film – regardless of its silliness as a story – has proven worthy of heady debate on multiple levels.

In the last couple of days, another article has also gained quite a bit of attention. It is an extremely well-written, well-reasoned treatise on the symbolism contained in the film, written by a guy called Cavalorn. There’s a fair amount of pablum in it about psychically activated black goo, but beyond that he points out numerous details within the film suggesting that the story’s alien characters – the Engineers – are connected to Earth’s religious and specifically Judeo-Christian past as well as the mythical Greek Titan that lends the film his name.

Cavalorn’s theory is that the Engineers who occupied the temple discovered by the human scientists on planet LV-223 became upset with earthlings 2,000 years ago, but were prevented from cleaning our clocks when they became victims of an industrial accident involving those jars of black goo they had lying around on the floor of their ship. The ultimate assertion is that Jesus Christ himself was an Engineer, and when we killed him, we signed our own cosmic death warrant.

Despite a comment from Scott saying that actually calling it Christ would be “too on the nose” (and a 9-foot tall albino Jesus wasn’t quite what the Good Book described), I absolutely believe that this is what the filmmakers were going for. I believe it because this has become screenwriter Damon Lindelof’s shtick, whether he likes it or not (http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1687203/prometheus-sequel.jhtml).

Lindelof now seems to be shifting the blame for Prometheus in Scott’s direction, but his writing for the ABC series LOST was rife with spiritual themes and philosophical strangeness from the very beginning, and as the series went on, it became the primary reason for its continued success. Every new image, character or happening on the show sent rabid fans searching for answers in their libraries, in the hope of uncovering the One Theory that explains everything. Whole websites were constructed for the collection and dissemination of LOST-related data, every obscure detail potentially holding the key to the series, and for everything that happened, there was some guy, somewhere, who could say, “Actually, what Locke said to Jack is mirrored right here in the Talmud. See? It’s brilliant!”

Even worse was when the writers pulled in scientific theory and then blew it off. As we all know, not only were the scientific questions raised in the final seasons of LOST not dealt with, but neither was the spiritual soup made of pieces of virtually every belief system in human history. It all ended in a church with stained glass on another plane of existence. Or something.

Scott, Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are clearly intelligent people who know a lot of interesting things about a lot of interesting stuff. And, finding clues to a greater meaning in a story can be fascinating and great fun. But, for symbolism to have any real meaning, it has to make sense. It has to serve the story, and it has to come organically. The shotgun-symbolism of LOST, where countless bits of disparate philosophical ideas were blasted onto the canvas and allowed to mean everything or nothing, depending on the knowledge base of the viewer, is not storytelling. You can take the worst Eddie Murphy movie and load it with potent religious symbolism, and it’s still going to suck. Why? Because, it’s still a dumb Eddie Murphy movie injected with potent religious symbolism. The symbolism is irrelevant if there isn’t a good plot or well-drawn characters to carry the themes through.

Since the creation of language, be it visual or spoken, the core values of civilization have been passed on through storytelling. Is it any wonder that the really good stories are the ones from which we continue to take meaning? Pure storytelling, in all its forms, is the greatest information delivery system that has ever existed. A gifted storyteller can teach one person a lesson, and simply entertain another. And, it’s possible – and preferable - to do that without insulting either individual’s intelligence.

Where we get into trouble is when poor storytellers try to teach us something. As Cavalorn points out, one of the main themes in Prometheus is the concept of sacrifice. And there is really no more powerful human theme you can hit on than that. People make sacrifices, every day, on scales large and small. Soldiers die in wars. Firefighters die pulling victims out of broken skyscrapers. Parents sacrifice the things they need for the things their children need. Giving of one’s self for a greater good is the most emotionally compelling thing a human being - or any creature - can do. In a great story, it moves people in the deepest part of their beings, and can inspire others to do the same.

The very story of Christ is built on this principle. But, the reason Jesus Christ bears so much weight for the people who believe is because they’ve come to know him in the Scriptures. They know what he’s about, what he stands for, and they know both what the world loses and gains because of his sacrifice. None of the characters who sacrifice themselves in Prometheus are written well enough to exemplify true sacrifice, so the overlying theme is purely academic and doesn’t serve the story in any way.

In this summer’s The Avengers, we have an amazing example of the power of personal sacrifice in S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Agent Coulson confronts the film’s chief adversary Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an attempt to save Thor (Chris Hemsworth) from a deathtrap, and is mortally wounded by him. Agent Coulson manages to regain the upper hand, if only for a moment, and blasts him through a wall with an untested super-weapon powered by dark cosmic energy. I’ve seen the movie four times, and all four audiences gasped when Coulson was wounded, and cheered when he came back. This for a minor character in the Marvel movie universe with less than half an hour of screen time. It worked because writer/director Joss Whedon successfully does three things: he makes us love Coulson; he makes us hate Loki; and he never lets us forget what the stakes are. If Loki succeeds, our planet will be enslaved by a vicious alien horde that even Loki cannot control. And Coulson’s sacrifice becomes an important part of the story when his death serves to reenergize Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) after the team is shattered and all appears lost. Further, Coulson’s death inspires Iron Man to an act of heroism at the film’s climax that he could easily not survive. Again, I have heard multiple audiences clap and cheer when Tony Stark survives this final ordeal.

Contrast this with Prometheus. Early on, we’re introduced to ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba) and two forgettable pilot characters who clearly have no interest in discovering an alien civilization. They are stereotypical “we’re in it for the money” types. Our storytellers never spend enough time with these pilots to humanize them, and Janek’s main purpose earlier in the film is to get Vickers (Charlize Theron) into bed and find out if she’s a robot. (He succeeds, and she isn’t. Hooray for Janek.) Later in the film, when a big alien ship containing dangerous black goo – and one angry Engineer - is headed to Earth to carry out that 2,000-year-old vendetta against humanity, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) basically says, “Hey, you guys gotta stop that ship from leaving or Earth is finished!” And they basically say, “Well, we don’t have any guns, so I guess we’ll just crash into it and die!” You know, like Kirk’s dad in Star Trek, or a million other movies. And, these three characters, who have in their minimal screen time shown almost nothing but apathy, are all suddenly super-patriots, and are visibly cheerful about dying for Earth. I thought they were going to start chest-bumping and high-fiving each other as they crashed into the alien ship and vaporized. Tellingly, nobody in the audience cheered. People actually laughed (including me).

So, what is gained by threading themes of sacrifice into Prometheus if we aren’t affected by it when it happens? It is commendable to explore it as a theme, but the movie I watched was a logic-free sci-fi explode-a-thon, full of stock characters and wonky physics and ideas and set-pieces I’ve seen before, with bits of philosophical dialogue squeezed in here and there. Nobody behaves like a real human, so vital human themes are lost. The details chronicled by Cavalorn are there, but they’re really just Easter eggs for the erudite, hidden in a squall of screaming and disemboweling and stuff blowing up.

In my previous review, I spoke of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is my favorite film of all time. And I think I have a fundamental understanding of its meaning. There are questions that will never be answered. I don’t expect answers. I don’t want them. Their absence doesn’t detract from the film’s simple, elegant story. And, when I watch it, I feel it. I actually cry when the Star Child turns its neutral gaze toward our planet. Seriously. Every damned time. And I have never needed to bring anything into the experience except me. It does not require decoding to be a powerful experience, because it is so beautifully crafted.

If I have to bring in my personal knowledge of mythology and religion in order to find meaning in a story, instead of feeling the meaning, then I believe that story has failed to do what stories are meant to do.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there are throngs of people who are going to overlook all the stuff that doesn’t make sense and truly love Prometheus for the religious details running through it. Perhaps, 40 years from now, people will get misty-eyed when that slimy proto-Xenomorph explodes out of the dead Engineer who got face-raped by the giant squid and howls at the audience like a Jurassic Park T-Rex. But, from where I’m standing right now, I don’t feel it.

You can find John's Shade Vicks's original review here at Forbes


  1. I definitely had the gross feeling of being covered with a sticky black gue of disgusting religious residue when I left the theatre. Noomi Rapace is capable of so much more. Her raw performance in The Girl With a Dragon Tatoo was phenomenal. In prometheus they turned her into a woman of the flock who got back her cross and ended up being some sort of creationist driven explorer.

    Just off the top of my head it would have been cool to see Elizabeth have a nervous breakdown, lose her religion, and become platonically infatuated with David and crushed by the sheer logical weight of his atheistic philosophy. I wanted Elizabeth to end up having a Neurotic breakdown because as an actress this is Noomi Rapace's strong suit. Also, Elizabeth should have been the one to kill Weyland. The idea of an Atheist Android who is carrying out a sort of machine-driven-logical revenge on humanity would have been very fascinating (HAL 9000, 2001(c)).

    Clarke and Kubrick were strong atheists and I beleive that this is a necessary requirement to making a good alien movie. Tech/Science/Skepticism is what drives a good Alien movie. The evolution/creationist debate is over. The creationists have lost. Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick PROVED conclusively in 2001 that there ARE deeper mysteries in the Universe when no mythology is invoked for explanation. The I don't know factor is reduced when religion comes along and says 'we have the answer'.

    Religion killed this movie in the same way that it is killing this planet.

    1. I didn't like this movie and I'm not religious, but it's bizarre to read that unless a movie reflects your strident atheism, it can't be a good movie. By your reasoning, Renaissance art can't be any good either. It is a particularly narcissistic atheism that says "if you don't reflect my point of view back to me you have no value." Too many atheists simply take for granted that atheism is the end-point of human understanding. It isn't. It's the world-view that superseded mythic religion as the weaknesses of that dominant paradigm became evident. Similarly, as the limitations of scientific materialism to explain all of reality become more evident(e.g. consciousness; values; the mind-body problem; ), it too will be superseded. It's already happening. That's probably why we have a movie like Prometheus - clumsily struggling to re-integrate these themes into a post-religious culture.

    2. I agree that there were a lot of cop-outs in favor of religion in this movie, but that isn't what made it bad. Put plainly, it's just badly written with too much synthetic script to be any good.

      I agree with Michael that your criterion for good movies is very flawed. I would also like to point out that you are vainly reading into mysterious movies and pulling out atheism.

      Movies also don't prove anything conclusively.

      The first Alien movie was much better without all of these added in details that are sought after by atheists who claim to have monopolized logic. If anything this movie should be an atheistic paradise.

      Faith and determination against adversity, even when put in frightening situations is the backdrop of both Space Odyssey and Alien.

    3. First of all, thanks for an excellent account of this drivel presented as an epic sci-fi drama. It was like tranformers on steroids + a thin layer of New Age mumbo jumbo. As pointed out the mythical and religous aspects could have been interesting and fulfilling, if the sense of mystery and meaning was upheld, which it wasn't. Quite different from the absolutely magnificent and beautiful 2001: A Space Odyssey,a film which goes to the core of human existence in an infinite universe.

      thedavethpower: You are wrong about Kubrick being an atheist in anyway, he can best be described as an agnostic, with a clear inclination towards "something more" and the mystery surrounding human origins and meaning.

      Atheists tiresome rejection of everything that cant't be quantified, has reduced human life to an antlike state, with the differnce that an ant's life has a purpose and function within a whole, man has in 2012 no meaning for anybody, hardly even himself. But back to Kubrick, her are som quotes on his view on religion and myth:

      "2001 would give a little insight into my metaphysical interests... I'd be very surprised if the universe wasn't full of an intelligence of an order that to us would seem God-like. I find it very exciting to have a semi-logical belief that there's a great deal to the universe we don't understand, and that there is an intelligence of an incredible magnitude outside the Earth. It's something I've become more and more interested in. I find it a very exciting and satisfying hope."


      "I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun's energy on the planet's chemicals, it's fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It's reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans."

      If Arthur C. Clarke had gotten it his way with the manuscript, the film would have been an overexplained bore to watch, and the tales tell that he left the first screening of Kubrick's 2001 in tears.

  2. The movie was crap.

    Pseudo-intellect passing off lazy writing as "depth," and then blaming the viewer as uninformed if they just "don't get it."

    It reminds me of abstractionists pumping each other up so that they can call each other "artists" and hide how talentless and slovenly they know, in secret, they truly are.

    No amount of post-processing, or hidden explanations, can help make the movie less of a waste of time and money than it truly is. It will be relegated to the crap-pile of B and C movies, made even worse by the amount of money spent on it.

    When discussing his insane workload in editing the LOTR trilogy, Peter Jackson said (paraphrasing), "Pain is temporary, bad film is forever."

    The absurd awfulness of this movie is forever.

    I hate to say this, because I am such a Ridley Scott fan, but Mr. Scott, I want my money back. If you could figure out how to reverse time and let me un-see this movie, I'd like that, too.

  3. The thing about Sci-Fi is that even crappy Sci-Fi is an integral part of the genre. I'm always reminded of various star trek episodes which were really bad but still make for good jokes during poker games.

    And when Sci-Fi is crappy it is almost always good fuel for humour. This is part of the magic of Sci-Fi that does not seem to be as present in other genres.

    Remember when Luke Skywalker says "But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!". This was probably the worst executed line in all of Sci-Fi but it is so funny.

    I did like the spherical-mapping drones in Prometheus. They were cool, the sounds were good on them, although I don't think they were used to their full advantage by the directors to build suspense. I mean, I think the Sentry Guns in Aliens (special edition) were waaaay waaay waaay cooler but I still think the mapping drones were kinda cool. It would have been cool if they would have used the mapping drones and the 3-D film to their advantage more and had the drones zoom into the audience in surround sound--That would have sent shivers up my spine.

    I really feel sorry for people who have not seen the Aliens special edition with the sentry guns because the guns added so much to the movie.

    I would like to see rail gun technology used in the Alien-type next movie. I think there is a lot of potential with rail guns which has never been explored in Sci-Fi.

    I also think a spider explosive grenade would be cool -- fire the grenade from a launcher(or even throw it) and these mechanical spider legs spring out to latch on and dig into the the target to burry the explosive before it detonates for maximum damage. Of course it would have to have eerie spider sounds as well for maximum strangeness.

    I would have liked to see Elizabeth become addicted to drugs as well because of all the pain and shock she experienced. David could object at first but then become convinced that Elizabeth was a better person and more open minded on drugs. This movie needed more perspective stretching elements and a drug addict could have gone a long way in balancing out all the creationist BS that this movie was laced with.

  4. I have realised that Noomi's cross is pretty much treated like the bunny in Con Air -

    1. hahahahaha!!! make a move and the bunny gets it!!!!!

    2. The cross should have been melted down after an argument between her and David to fix a circuit on the tactical nuke which would later be used to blow the ship to kingdom come. This would emphasize the importance of empirical science over religion.

    3. You know what dave? why don't you just rewrite the script and watch the movie by yourself.

      Rewrite: oh wait, you know what would be cooler than that?

    4. What Zach doesn't realize is that Zach just had a wicked idea...

      why shouldn't I have my own version of every movie that I own...why shouldn't everyone.. it is totally within the scope of our technology to make this happen..

      this also leads to the tangental idea of a movie that is built from the ground up using crowd-sourcing technology...

      Zach.. you are a genius even if you said what you said because you find me annoying!!! Perhaps a little frustration can lead to creativity!!!

  5. A story is not a succession of symbols. If the audience's attention turns to symbolism, the story has failed and is pretentious. At bottom, a story's job is to trick its audience into believing that its characters are real and alive.

  6. Well, I think I'm quite versed in Mythology and Theology, and I didn't get any meaning from any of the symbols of the story. Sure, there are parallelisms, but the story wraps you up in an endless plot of human and alien stupidity. It's bad enough having to follow an empty movie full of empty characters and Alien Architects that are only characterized by their technological superiority and their violent demeanor without having to endure scene after scene of unjustified grotesqueness. Don't get me wrong, being a fan of the genre, I'm used to the occasional gory scene, visual effects aside, I just felt this was more like those bad TV zombie movies, and less like 28 Days Later(Danny Boyle).

    Besides all that has been discussed, we have the strange adolescent Alien character at the end. Do they mean to imply that the original Alien character was born out of mutated human DNA in the year 2099? That just down right sucks! I always thought of the Alien race as intergalactic parasites that suppose to be the perfect weapon. Much like fungi grows form spores that can blow lifeless in the wind for an unlimited amount of time, and suddenly find a suitable host and grow into a tiny mushroom, these Xenomorphs were timeless. They were lying there on the floor of that spaceship(and their home planet, where ever that is) long before humankind existed, and would probably outlive us just because of this capacity. Plus, the concept of the strange alien ship laying on a lifeless world in the middle of no where, with a warning message playing on a loop was a lot more interesting than these Mindless Architects.

    Having waited over two years for this film, I find it a huge disappointment. I just hope they hire James Cameron to save the day and restructure this franchise, much like with the original(Alien 3 and Resurrection aside). I love Ridley Scotts take, it's simple, horrifying and straight to the point. But, I find James Cameron's exploration of the species very interesting and highly entertaining.