Building Better Worlds: Thoughts on Prometheus

I grew up thirty miles from the closest town with a movie theater, a venue with one screen and a hundred and three seats, run by the same family that owned the drive-in (one of the only drive-ins still running in South Dakota, now owned by kids I went to high school with). They ran stuff like Goonies and Mannequin and Grease II. I remember the summer Gremlins came out — it was the only film they played at the theater or the drive-in for three months, because it brought in enough people every weekend that the owners never saw any point in ordering something else.

I was only eight when Alien released, so I’d be guessing, but I think it’s safe to say it didn’t feature on the marquee in my home town. Ditto Aliens.

My first encounter with a xenomorph didn’t come until the summer of 1990. I was sub-letting a room in the town where I attended college during fall and spring semesters, paying a hundred twenty bucks a month for full access to a rambling old house, which meant a place to crash, some room in the fridge, and abrupt conversations with my summer housemate, a bronzed college track star who worked the same CNA job I did at the local hospital and told me two or three times a day that my heart rate was too high. I spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings and most of Saturday afternoon practicing T’ai Chi in the park, and the rest of the time I was on my own.

I rented a lot of movies.

One of them was, inevitably, Alien.

I remember my first viewing very clearly. It was Friday night, the start of a weekend where I wasn’t working any shifts at the hospital. My housemate was out of town, the lights in the house were all off, and I padded around the place, trusting my spatial memory to protect my toes (a habit I’ve kept, to my family’s dismay). Alone in a big, rambling, half-familiar house in the center of the simmering crockpot that is Vermillion, South Dakota in the summer, I popped the tape in the VCR, planning (since I’m really not that big of a horror movie fan) to take breaks from the viewing whenever the creepiness got too high.

I think I finished watching it Sunday afternoon. Maybe Monday.

As my housemate was fond of pointing out, my heart rate was too high.

Still, I loved it, immediately moved on to Aliens, and revisited both of them many times in the years the followed. Time passed, and I fell into reciprocal orbits with a number of other gamers at school. Our gather points varied, but one of the constants was the fact that there was usually a movie playing in the background — something that someone actually owned and which we all knew so well it was more of a white noise generator than entertainment. Empire Strikes Back was a favorite, but Aliens was there as well. We could have whole conversations that were nothing but movie quote ping pong.

And god we loved to talk about them.

We’d theorize, argue about canon interpretations of certain scenes, play what-ifs with prequels or sequels (like those would ever happen), and just generally do what members of our tribe are known to do to pass the time.

Obviously, Star Wars talk was huge, of course, but the Alien/Aliens setting — the Weyland-Yutaniverse?┬áThat was always rich ground for a good geek argument.

And the reason for it was one of the things that made it one of my favorite sci-fi movie series (still true with the inclusion of Alien3, Alien Resurrection and yes: even AvP) — there was so much of the setting that wasn’t spelled out. Whole swaths of background, history, and politics were sketched in or vaguely implied with a throwaway line here, a stage-dressing spray-painted logo there.

Consider: in Aliens, Ripley gets called on the corporate carpet for the loss of her old ship. Later, she’s sent along to investigate missing transmissions from a Weyland-Yutani colony. But… there are military forces going alone? Weyland-Yutani is important enough the government sends in troops to investigate their colonies? Wow, they must be powerful. Except when push comes to shove, even a lowly sergeant can decide to nuke the place, over the protests of the nearest executive. Is that okay, or only technically okay, and there will be a huge political fallout later? Who’s really got the power in that situation, long term? Who can say?

I’ll tell you who: we could say, and we did. Hours, days… entire semesters would revolve around some debate or another about the flow of political power in a network of colonized worlds we never got to see, the efficiency and mechanical design of caseless projectile weapons, the legality of Hicks’s old shotgun, and a hundred other things, big and small.

Why?

To quote one of the “scientists” in Prometheus, we did it because we could. It was a vast, rich, dystopian scifi setting where so much was left open to interpretation. Even when more was added to the ‘canon’ of the setting by later movies and books, all it did was expand the square footage of the space, rather than constrain it.

What a playground.

Could You Get to the Part About Prometheus?

I told Kate this morning that if it weren’t for select portions of the internet kind of… exploding over this movie, it simply wouldn’t have occurred to me to write a post about. I saw it, I enjoyed it, it did what I hoped it would do. Satisfied customer, the end. Heck, given the difficulty with getting my six year old to really invest in a Ridley Scott movie, I probably might have even ended up missing it in theaters and watching it at home.

Kate saw it before me, though, and sent me off last night to see it solo, because “I have questions, and you know the Aliens movies much better.”

So I went, came back, and fielded Kate’s questions. With one exception (Yeah… why were all the ancient star maps pointed where they were? That’s… odd.), I found I had answers readily available.

Kate… didn’t seem entirely satisfied.

But I understand why. In most of those cases, my answers came from the same place all my answers come from when it comes to this collection of movies — me, interpreting what I saw and inferring a hell of a lot from what was implied. I gave Kate answers, but as often as not they were my answers — my personal take on the explanation — rather than a specific line or scene I could point at and say “this is why.”

To me, that makes Prometheus right at home with all the rest of it kin. It’s one of the main reasons I like ’em so much.

I’ll watch pretty much any movie (even if I deeply regret it later, 2012), but my favorites will always be movies (and, come to that, books) that don’t explain it all; that don’t paint in all the numbers and answer all the questions — the ones that make offhand comments that imply worlds’ worth of background that could be interpreted a hundred different ways, and then fail to explain themselves thoroughly. Prometheus does that, leaving me turning over a small mountain of potential ideas and what-ifs, and I like it for that reason.

I also like it for a lot of other reasons (not least because it’s basically Alien, reskinned, and Alien was pretty good), and all the stuff I like lets me overlook the (relatively small) list of things I didn’t.

Should you see it?

I’d say yes. It is (I’ve gathered) a polarizing movie — you’ll probably either love it or hate it, but really, there’s only one way to know, and it’s not by reading someone else’s review.

Especially mine.