Ridley Scott’s Prometheus vs Blade Runner

Chariots of the Gods I first saw when I was nine. For those unfamiliar with that documentary, Chariots of the Gods breathlessly explores signs from ancient cultures that we have had contact with extra-terrestials. While the documentary raises more questions than it answers, Chariots of the Gods had the same effect on me as it did Ridley Scott: I remain convinced we are not alone in existence (universe is place, existence is state: the universe may be as small in existence as your kitchen is in existence, just one room in one house in one city in a single country) and it is more than likely that sometime somebody has stopped by to visit, no matter how briefly.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus chooses to take up the same questions of alien visitation but in fictional form.

origin of life on earth disintegrating engineer in prometheus
origin of life on earth disintegrating engineer in prometheus

Scott would seem to be the ideal visionary director to take us to other planets and to the future. Scott’s Blade Runner has long been my favorite film, competing strangely with Rohmer and Truffaut New Wave confections but certainly uncontested in the sci-fi and epic genre. The heart rending performance of Sean Young and enigma of Harrison Ford echo through time.

No one was a caricature. Even the replicants were living beings. Rutger Hauer etched himself into our collective consciousness with his dangerous edge as an orphaned replicant seeking a life extension. Joe Turkel as Eldon Tyrell fit well into a long line of billionaire tycoons going back to Citizen Kane seeking to control lives and life with their money.

Prometheus attempts these deep waters again. The difference between man and machine. The billionaire Tycoon. The meaning of life.

Ridley Scott has lost none of his visual touch. Prometheus is a gorgeous work, carved even in 3D. Starting as an advertising director, Scott has always adopted the latest toys with a master’s touch. Scott even had the good sense to shoot as much as possible live, which means the CGI artists have a much more solid core to built out on and the human eye is convincingly tricked, which just doesn’t happen with straight CGI. Do not underestimate the mastery and generalship involved in creating an epic like Prometheus, it’s more than a year of straight work on script, art direction, shooting, editing and effects requiring thousands of artists and technicians. Scott is one of the few directors who can pull of a project like this so efficiently (it takes James Cameron or Peter Jackson about three to five times as long to finish a project of the scope of Prometheus).

Of the big themes, the one most successfully broached is the difference between man and machine: can a machine have a soul? In Prometheus, Scott’s answer is yes. Michael Fassbender as David strives to carry on existing just like any man or woman would. Indeed, the robot servant David is the most interesting character. His anodyne subservience has its model in Shakespear’s Iago, when he poisons scientist Elizabeth Shaw’s fiancĂ© with a biological weapon. Machines may smile and smile and still be villains.

On the other themes, Damon Lindenhof’s script lets us down for a hard fall. The opening sequence reveals a strange white giant astride a volcanic waterfall (Iceland if you’re wondering) who drinks a strange cocktail which kills him and disintegrates him. This is the beginning of life on earth. The suggestion falls apart scientifically. If aliens came to earth why would they poison themselves to start life and as they share the same DNS with humans what happened to the development of all the in between forms? And where on earth are the dinosaurs then?

It’s a nice image to start a film but it puts us firmly on the path of senselessness which carries on when the spacecraft arrives on the target planet after four years of space travel. Two thousand years ago, giant warriors died here while fleeing something. It turns out this planet is a giant biological weapons depot for the aliens who started life on earth. More a thought on the level of Transformers than Blade Runner.

When the remaining alien is awakened from stasis, he picks up and starts his spaceship to go and destroy life on earth. Well in that case what was he waiting for two thousand years? There is a scene where robot David addresses him in the ancient tongue (sounds something like Georgian). The alien appears to understand but kills them all immediately. Surely the alien would seek to gather some intelligence first before dispatching the intruder.

Roy Batty from Blade Runner
Roy Batty from Blade Runner

But coming up with some kind of meaningful interaction here would mean working hard on the script. Much easier to set off a huge set of fireworks and special effects instead. Returning to Blade Runner, Roy Batty tells us before his death:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

There is none of this depth in Prometheus’s script. The closest it comes is the panic the previously sterile Shaw experiences when she realises she is pregnant with an alien life form and performs a cesarian on herself with the help of an operating capsule. It’s not that the actors aren’t up for the day: there is scant little for them to work with.

Scott’s aliens are just oversized versions of the same brutes running drone actions and dropping atomic bombs on recalcitrant subject nations. Anglo-Saxons with an albino problem. This is such a weak thesis, it’s not worthy of Scott or the original Chariots of the Gods.

There is no reason to suspect that aliens would be as small-minded, petty and vengeful as ourselves. It’s a fundamentally anthropocentric view. There is no reason to think aliens would be a close physical match to ourselves. Star Trek had better science with all kinds of different alien races including some which were truly different.

Watching Prometheus is like going to bed with a beautiful hooker. Everything is perfect but there is neither love nor feeling nor sense in the motions.  Back to Blade Runner.

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