Prometheus: Reasons to be Cautious opinion

Contain yourself. There are only a few more weeks left to wait.

The last time I was anticipating a film as eagerly as I’m anticipating Prometheus was 13 years ago. Uncle George, the good, the great, the creative genius Uncle George, the Uncle George that would never, never, never ever, could never ever disappoint his adoring acolytes, was preparing to deliver what would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be a masterpiece, a wonder to behold, a groundbreaking pivotal moment in cinema history that we would forever recall with special fondness, compelling us to stand from our mobility hover-scooters to salute our heroic uncle and proudly tell our grandchildren where we were when we were first lucky enough to witness such a magnificent, supreme work of art.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. What a turd that turned out to be.

13 years later another creative genius, the director of two of the greatest science fiction films ever made - Alien and Blade Runner - has gathered renowned talent, including a phenomenal cast, conjured an intriguing, mysterious premise somehow related to the Alien universe, and the clearly confident 20th Century Fox has backed it all up with an elaborate marketing campaign complete with a handful of heart-racing, jaw-dropping trailers.

The excitement is almost tangible. The filmmakers want it, the fanboys know it, even the slightly less aware general public is starting to feel it - Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is on an unstoppable march towards a sizable plot in the realm of modern cinema classics. Of that there is no doubt. None at all. Not one bit.

OK. A little bit.

Ridley Scott hasn’t made a great film in a long time

Scott, 74, is a living legend, deservedly widely recognised as one of the all-time great film directors. He consistently makes films that are, at the very least, of above average quality. But this isn’t a question about whether Prometheus will be good or not - we’re well beyond that - we want, expect, even (and that’s the problem), Prometheus to be great. A modern classic. A game changer. Whatever that means. But, arguably, Scott’s last great film was Gladiator, which came our way in 2000. As for his sci-fi classics, Alien burst onto the scene in 1979, Blade Runner in 1982. That’s 30 years ago (for the arithmetically challenged).

Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof are relatively untried

The sole produced screenplay of Jon Spaihts, who wrote the fist draft of the script that would become Prometheus, is that for The Darkest Hour, a film that was nigh-on universally derided. Screenwriting duties were, however, handed over to hot new talent Damon Lindelof, who has since been hoisted onto a prominent creative throne alongside Ridley Scott. The way the two royals have talked about the story of Prometheus is the most intriguing aspect of the film, more captivating than the effects we can already see are amazing from the trailer, more exciting than the acting performances from three of the finest film actors of the moment, and their approach appears to be intelligent, inventive, and uncompromising.

However, it might be worth keeping in mind that not only is Lindelof also relatively untried as a feature film scribe, he is also responsible for, if you remember TV series Lost and dedicated 100 hours of your life to it, the single most frustrating, unsatisfying, kick-in-the-balls conclusions in the history of storytelling. Even if Prometheus is beautifully skipping along by the 120th minute of its 124-minute length, I won’t be counting my face huggers before they’re hatched.

Science fiction?

On the subject of the story, there are signs that the very foundations of Prometheus could tip the fantastical tale into a somewhat preposterous one.

Perfectly understandably, a lot of people don’t care one jot about how realistic a film is, especially a big-budget, mass-appeal, screams-and-explosions spectacle like Prometheus - films can be a wonderful vehicle for sheer escapist thrills, after all. Very few people responded to The Avengers with “Ooo, that’d never happen” or “My, isn’t Loki posh? Was the Norse god educated in an English public school?” No, of course they didn’t, and it wasn’t just because they were busy laughing at Captain America’s dayglo gimp costume.

But this is science fiction and, as wild and fantastic as they are, most great works of the genre, including Alien and Blade Runner, have a firm grounding in rationality. So how will Prometheus, with its tagline “The search for our beginning could lead to our end”, measure up on the grounds of credibility?

We don’t need to search for the beginning of the human species because we already know how it came about - we evolved. The trunk of the tree of life sprouted animals from which mammals, primates, apes, and then man branched. The filmmakers should be credited with enough sanity to assume that they wouldn’t even contemplate a plot involving humans being zapped into existence, complete with a plethora of vestigial characteristics, alongside all of God’s creatures. But what if their intention is grander - to suggest the beginnings of life or even the universe? Artificially creating life is well within the realms of science and as long as the film doesn’t insinuate some kind of morphologically human-like alien has planted a seed that lead to the evolution of a being in his image (because not only did we evolve, we evolved by adapting to our environment - natural evolution doesn’t have a direction), creating an almightily deterministic slant with unavoidable parallels to ignorant creationist rhetoric - the antithesis of science and a preposterous, plot-hole-tastic premise on which to base a film - we’ll be fine and dandy. What’s that you say? The trailer shows some king of morphologically human-like alien that apparently, at least, communicated with humans in ancient times?

Now, “our beginning” could refer to the emergence of civilisation or of humanity in the sense of human nature, not too dissimilar from the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This would fit in nicely with the Prometheus myth, telling of a powerful being stealing fire from the gods to give to already-existing man, and allow for evolution by natural selection or, hell, even traditional creationism if you insist - at least the story’s fiction itself would then be more firmly grounded in science.

One step further, of course, is that a search for something doesn’t necessarily mean that certain something exists or will be found - a search for God could just turn up some pesky crazed aliens, for example. But Ridley Scott hasn’t helped matters with dubious, ill-informed comments about the age of the Earth and the probable likelihood of civilisations existing on this planet before humans popped along, pre-human hominid civilisations, at that - a categorical impossibility. Maybe he meant humanoid civilisations, although it is difficult to see how that is relevant unless there is a stuff-science, natural-selection-rejecting god-created-man-in-his-image belief behind it.

“What’s really great about this particular screenplay [is that] so much of it is based not on speculation but on walking around the truth…” Scott has proclaimed, which would be just lovely if he hadn’t also said “This particular screenplay is about who made us”. So there’s actually a whole lotta room for a big fundamental chunk of the screenplay to be based on rather unfounded, irrational speculation.

“We were so wrong”

There are very encouraging signs pointing to Prometheus being a strong film. But in a (possibly vain) attempt not to get carried away in a blinding intoxicating haze of excitement it is wise and healthy to temper any mad enthusiasm, just in case. The one thing we definitely don’t ever want to experience is a repeat of that dark grief-ridden day 13 years ago and we must, at the very least, hope that Uncle Ridley hasn’t jarjarbinksed this one up.

18th May 2012

TA Wittering


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