Sunday, 31 March 2013

5 Weird Misconceptions about Prometheus

I'm currently searching for a new film podcast to listen to at work. A lot of audio libraries like SoundCloud and Libsyn were recently blocked, so I can no longer access the Empire and SlashFilm podcasts that I normally use to avoid Jeremy Vine's radio show.
In searching for a replacement, I've begun to use Prometheus as a kind of litmus test. Prometheus is, if nothing else, incredibly interesting, and generates a high level of discussion in a podcast. It's a good indicator of what a show is generally like - bringing out everyone's personalities and ideas and causing fun arguments.
But I've been noticing some recurring ideas about Prometheus that are just plain wrong. Obviously, stupidly wrong. I've listed a few common ones below, and hopefully debunked them. In this case "common" means that the same mistake appeared on at least two different professional podcasts, and is dumb enough that it shouldn't have.

Spoilers follow.

(As a random aside, the other outcome of my podcast binge, and of Prometheus' infamous caesarian scene, is that I've now sat through several surreal experiences of Americans talking about abortion. It's not helped by the fact that these podcasts are all predominantly male, but the country's attitude as a whole makes the subject feel very odd anyway. They don't just seem afraid to talk about it, they seem afraid of the process itself - even the "pro-choice" guys - and hearing them treading on eggshells around the "issues" is weird and uncomfortable. But I digress.)


1: This is a New Idea

"At the dawn of time, life on our planet was seeded by aliens and now, aeons later, they are returning to destroy us."
That's a plot summary of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Or it's a summary of the comics, at least - I've mostly forgotten the film.
The point is that we don't even have to mention Arthur C. Clarke to find examples of aliens dabbling in Earth evolution. Chariots of the Gods is neither recent nor particularly original. Science fiction is full of this stuff, and scientology even preaches it as fact!
So, when one podcaster loudly proclaimed that Ridley Scott will be revered as a visionary if it turns out aliens did have a hand in human evolution, he was loudly being stupid, and he was loudly being wrong.


2: The Beginning is Interesting

Some people don't understand what is happening in the first scene of the movie. In this scene an alien (an Engineer) is beside a river on a primitive planet, with a spaceship hovering over him. He drinks some mercury-like gunk, starts spasming, and then his body dissolves into the stream. We see his DNA breaking apart in the water, shrivelling and dying - but then it begins to link together, reforming into new shapes.
Now ok, fine, maybe that seems abstract and confusing. Except that two scenes later some humans explain that aliens long ago seeded our planet with DNA. The connection isn't hard to make.
But, even allowing for that still being confusing somehow, it doesn't explain how some people seem to have their mind blown when this is explained to them. "Oh my God," said one, "that's amazing!" and he upped his rating from 3-out-of-5 to 4.
Why? What exactly has changed? This scene offers no information that isn't already spelled out in the rest of the movie. Realising that you saw something that you knew happened but didn't know you'd seen is an "Oh, right!" moment, but it's hardly a revelation. And it's certainly not worth an extra star.
Also not revelatory is making that first scene artificially interesting by asking irrelevant questions. Does he dissolve himself on purpose? Sure looks like it. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No. Is this Earth? Almost definitely. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No. Why is there a spaceship? That's probably how he got there. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No.
Maybe these questions are interesting in regards to the scene itself, but in regards to the rest of Prometheus they mean absolutely nothing.


3: Charlize Theron is an Android

At the beginning of the film, Peter Weyland introduces android David as "the closest thing I'll ever have to a son". Later on Theron's character Vickers, who pretty clearly despises both David and Weyland, calls Weyland "Father".
This gives us two options. Either the film is making a point of how Weyland values his boy robot over his lady robot, even though the lady robot is so much more advanced than the boy robot that it can easily pass as human and even has fully working sex organs... or it's making a point of how Weyland values his robot son over his actual flesh-and-blood daughter. Even in a film as confused as this one, which seems more likely?
There is a moment that Vickers arguably displays more strength than a human should have (she slams David into a wall) - but, don't forget, there's also a moment where someone longjumps, sprints and abseils ten minutes after crippling surgery. Realistic portrayal of human strength is not this movie's strong point.


4: "But Who Made Them?" is a Compelling Theological Argument

"Well," says a christian on three different podcasts, "at least they put in an argument for God."
They're referring to the moment that Holloway asks why Shaw still wears her cross now that they've found humanity's creators. Shaw's answer, which the film itself and believers watching it seem to think supports her, is, "And who made them?"
Are you kidding? Really? That question is the oldest, simplest, and most convincing argument in history against the existence of gods. "Who created the creator?" is a self-defeating paradox for people who don't believe life can spring from nothing. If your worldview requires complex organisms to have been designed by something alive and complex, where did that something come from? Either it sprang from nothing (i.e. your worldview is wrong) or it was designed by something else. If the latter, where did that designer come from? Rinse and repeat...
If the film was doing something clever - if it was subverting the question somehow - this would be fine. But to just stick this line in the script and intend it to mean the opposite of what it actually means is not subversion; it's just dumb.
In this case the fault lies with the film, not with the viewer, but it's on this list because it just kept getting brought up. That and it really bugs me.


5: Sci-Fi Doesn't Need to Make Sense

This is the big one. Bigger than Prometheus; bigger than any one film; bigger than Film itself. I've witnessed it on Facebook, on forums, in real life and, again, on several podcasts that ought to know better. Unlike the rest of my petty whinings, this one actually matters.
The thinking goes like this: in sci-fi you can go faster than light, or make solid holograms - things which are impossible and make no sense - so it is foolish to then be bothered by other things that make no sense, and doing so makes you a hypocrite. This is usually accompanied by the words "suspension of disbelief".
This is a complete fallacy for a number of reasons. I could talk about consistent world-building, rules of the universe, or about the difference between hard and soft science fiction, but the fundamental point is that there's a reason we call it suspension of disbelief and not, say, destruction of disbelief, or abandonment of disbelief. The amount of nonsense we're willing to believe is lifted, raised and, yes, suspended, but it's still not infinite. The line has moved, but it is not gone - it will take more than usual, but a sufficient amount of nonsense will still be able to cross it.
We accept that the good ship Prometheus can travel faster than light (but not that much faster, because they still need stasis pods) and we accept the magic hat that lets you watch people's dreams. We accept that David learns an alien language just by learning some other languages, that everyone signed up for this with no knowledge of what "this" actually was, and that Weyland funded it all based on the flimsiest of non-evidence. We even accept the aforementioned post-surgery acrobatics. This nonsense is all on the right side of the line - we accept it and believe it despite its silliness. But if the Engineer they eventually wake up had started singing and dancing (SpaceBalls style), or had spoken English with a thick southern drawl, would it be hypocritical to claim that that made no sense? If the awful Geologist had developed superpowers and called himself I-Love-Rocks-Man? If Vickers had sprouted wings and revealed she was an angel all along? The fact that we suspend our disbelief does not mean we should accept anything the film then throws at us. There is always something that can go too far.
When Holloway and Shaw point at what looks like a constellation of six stars and call it a "galactic configuration", which is not just inaccurate but totally meaningless, that is an acceptable level of nonsense; but when they then say that the galactic configuration contains "a star" (meaning that this is a configuration of six what, exactly?) they have crossed over into absurdity. To claim that the Engineers have "human DNA" would have been acceptable; but to specify a 100% match turns it into utter nonsense. The fact that we accept the dream-hat does not make this any less true.
The idea that fantasy and sci-fi get a free pass to do whatever, just because we accept a base-level of nonsense as part of the concept, is not just wrong but actually dangerous. Giant transforming robots don't really make sense, but does that mean all the other things that don't make sense in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen should be ignored? Of course it doesn't (though some people honestly think it does)! That film has awful problems and they deserve to be pointed out. If they don't get pointed out - if we just say, "It's sci-fi so none of this matters," - then the industry will continue to make films of that quality. By which I mean bad films.
If we let sci-fi and fantasy off when they are badly written and badly thought out, then why should anyone bother to write them well in the first place? This "hypocrite" line of thinking essentially removes all quality-control from these movies. That's a very unhealthy direction to go in. To hear this particular misconception being thrown around as much as it is, by actual film journalists in some cases, is a disturbing trend. And, regardless of suspension of disbelief, it makes no sense.