Over the weekend I saw Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe with his big-budget, big-idea, big-muddle-of-a-movie Prometheus. As a whole lot of viewers and reviewers have pointed out, the movie is long on design and mythology, but woefully short on psychologically rounded characters. I’ve probably never had such a good time watching such a beautiful pile of horseshit. Bottom line: if all horseshit looked this good, we would never have invented the automobile, and our streets would steam with the entrancing stuff.
Prometheus looks and feels incredibly futuristic, but the events of the film take place in 2089 - only 77 years from now. If Ridley Scott is as proficient a futurist as he is a filmmaker, here’s what we can expect before the end of the century. Spoilers ahead.
In the future:
- Archaeologists who find patterns of dots on walls in five or six different places in the world, left by cultures that could not possibly have had any contact with each other, will assume that these dots are stars, and that one of the stars must have a planet with intelligent life, and that this intelligent life must have created humanity. Not any other life form on Earth, it seems - just humanity. I can only assume that the syllabus in archaeology courses of the future includes advanced astronomy texts and an old copy of Chariots of the Gods? that some joker left lying around in the university bookstore.
- Christianity appears to have mutated into a hippy-dippy theology-free religion that lets believers make up whatever hooey that occurs to them on a given Wednesday and proclaim that it’s “what they choose to believe.” See point #1.
- Archaeologists of the future are also trained in sequencing alien DNA, making accurate guesses about the central nervous system of an extraterrestrial corpse, and generally behaving like surgeons with specialized knowledge of medical devices so rare that “only twelve were ever made.” This is a bit like using my English degree to fix a Bugatti Royale.
- Crews of scientists accept jobs that separate them from their families and everything they’ve ever known for a journey into deep space that will take a minimum of four years, under conditions that could possibly kill them (hypersleep having its risks, after all). They go without asking a single question about the job, the destination, or anything at all. Instead, they’ll wait to wake up from a medically induced coma 35 light years from home before being given even the merest scrap of information. This is totally cool.
- Also in the future, it only takes two years to travel 35 light years, which means that humanity has figured out how to hit speeds approximately 185,000% faster than light. And they will use this astounding technology to go look at some stars that look like some dots on a wall. Where, if they’re smart, they will discover their makers and say “Screw you, we cracked the light speed barrier. We are as gods, you oversized creepy ripped marzipan-looking motherfuckers.”
- In order to save time on awkward social interactions, the people of 2089 announce their core character traits in flat declarative sentences within seconds of meeting each other. “I like to minimize risk.” “I’m here to make money.” “It’s [‘it’ here being random nonsense] what I choose to believe.” Just to keep things interesting, though, they promptly act in ways that contradict their character traits, until their inexplicable behaviours get them killed. Imagine meeting someone who says “I’m Bob and I hate running through plate glass windows” and then runs headlong through a plate glass window and falls screaming to his death twenty stories below. That’s Stupid Future Bob.
- Geologists are capable of mapping structures down to the nanometer but get lost in said structures almost immediately. Also, they love rocks, okay? Geologists of the future enjoy shouting into people’s faces that they love rocks.
- Biologists are trained to investigate unbelievably lethal alien life forms by petting them. The morbidity rate of biologists in the future must be ridonk.
- Old men are only to be allowed on spaceships if they keep it a secret from the rest of the crew for a few days. But first they must appear as a hologram in which they claim to be dead. Then they show up and go about their business. This must be extremely common practice, because that’s exactly what happens on the Prometheus, and no one bats an eye or says anything at all when it happens.
- In addition to their curious conditions of transport, really old men obviously have the bodies of fit 40 year olds, but by law they must hobble around and generally pretend to infirmity. What the hell is going on with future old people? Are they just yanking everyone’s chain?
- Earth’s engineers of the future are capable of building spacecraft that violate physics but cannot detect an incoming storm the size of New York City. Fortunately, the ship’s pilots are trained to look at storms and predict exactly how long they will last, even on alien worlds. Extraterrestrial storm training can come in handy when your ship is equipped with a faster-than-light drive but not a barometer.
- Alien races of the future bioengineer an oily black MacGuffin of Doom that does whatever the hell it feels like doing from one moment to the next to whatever unfortunate bastard it encounters. They will store it away very carefully in jars that just leak all over the place whenever someone gets too close or opens a door or says “Don’t get too close to those jars.” Or anything else, really. Why store the goo in vases that leak everywhere? Are they like tubes of mutagenic toothpaste that slowly push out some of their contents? Screw those lids on a bit tighter, advanced aliens.
- Just go ahead and remove your helmets in the alien structure. See? The air’s great! Science.
- The proper response to a horrific infection by an unknown alien parasite is to pretend that you’re just fine. Let’s get suited up and go back into the alien structure with my colleagues and my lover, you think, because that place is obviously the source of the hideous pathogen that’s rapidly destroying my body. Hope things don’t go completely off the rails.
- Hey, when did that rock-loving geologist turn into a monster that briefly menaces some people and then gets killed and makes no difference to the plot whatsoever beyond getting rid of a few surplus cast members? The future, man.
- It’s no big deal when blood-covered women with fresh surgical staples from self-administered caesarians burst into your room and fall to the floor in exhausted heaps. Don’t even bother looking twice. I guess it happens all the time in 2089.
- People who look like Idris Elba and Charlize Theron want to sleep with each other. It’s nice to know that some things won’t change.
- Even though the future is not supposed to be an Alien prequel, it is an Alien prequel.*
*Yes, I am aware that the abandoned spaceship of Alien does not appear in Prometheus, and that the movies take place on different worlds. I also understand the mythological and allegorical themes of the film, and I’ve read several theories about the back story of the Engineers, some of which are unbelievably Byzantine (seriously, my hat’s off to people who can spin out such elaborate stories from the few clues that Scott and Lindelof dribble out here). None of these strengths really make up for the film’s chief problems. Design, back story, sketches, models, web sites, etc. are not the work; they are the skeleton that supports a self-sustaining body. Above all I have trouble trusting a film that purports to be about the Big Questions of Humanity but cannot produce a single coherent character.