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November 15, 2012

A Brief 1,700 Word Point About Prometheus

There was so much about this movie I didn't like it takes a long post to explain it all. (There's a lot I liked, in the beginning, too; but I guess everyone says that.)

Let me just make a general observation.

Space travel in fiction has two major tropes in its depiction. I'm calling these the Institutional Phase, and the Commercial Phase.

The beginning of space travel -- and this is the same for any previous mode of difficult transportation -- is the Institutional Phase. This is the period in which only rich governments or the sci-fi standby of the Large Evil Corporation Which Has Some Governmental-Like Powers and Attributes can build and launch a spacecraft.

The Commercial Phase comes later in science fiction, as it has in the past, and as it would actually unfold in the future. The Commercial Phase comes when the technology has matured enough to make it practical for small private owners. In the Commercial Phase, space travel is relatively common, almost mundane. It might be a bit expensive, but you can still cross a good part of the galaxy in exchange for a down payment equal to the cost of an old, beat-up Landspeeder. It's not cheap, but you generally expect that if you have a few thousand credits you can hire yourself a flight to almost anywhere.

The Institutional Phase is Star Trek; the Commercial Phase is Star Wars.

In terms of the look of each -- the Institutional Phase likes the color white, for both exteriors and interiors. It is marked by the NASA aesthetic -- stuff sort of looks like NASA designs stuff, because the Institutional Phase is nearer-future, so we expect it to look more like the designs we see in the present. It's clean -- often pristine -- because any government rich enough to afford a spaceship is also rich enough to hire on some janitors or, more likely, janitorial robots (though we usually do not see these things in space travel movies-- we see them more in near-future earthbound movies).

The Commercial Phase's dominant color is gray, naked metal, because painting ships white is an unnecessary expense. Sure, governments have money to burn and so paint them in the Institutional Phase, but the Commercial Phase is filled with private owners who are often short of cash and can barely afford parts and fuel, nevermind pretty white paint. The look is dirty and worn -- the "worn future" look I think Lucas called it -- for the same reason your typical Old West stagecoach was probably dirty and worn. Because the owner doesn't have a lot of money, and the coach itself is probably 10 years old, bought well into its obsolesence curve, probably from a richer company or a government office at auction.

Note that in the Commercial Phase you see plenty of Institutional Phase stuff -- the Galactic Empire has nicely painted hallways, and their ships are obviously much younger than the Millennium Falcon. The Alliance ships in Firefly are very pretty indeed. But of course that's just because Institutions continue to exist, well into the Commercial Phase.

That's the look. But more importantly is the type of characters you'd expect to see. This is important: In the Institutional Phase, you're going to have a lot of military types, and they are going to be highly competent and very well psychologically balanced. The reason is simple: if you only have one or two spacehips, but a population of billions, you can afford to rigidly screen your staff to make sure they're detail-oriented go-getter who Play Well With Others and who have proven in the past they can function well in a rigid military heirarchy (as a ship must be -- especially if it's an experimental sort of ship where Protocols Must Be Followed because people have barely any experience at all with this sort of thing).

Only in the Commercial Phase are you going to start seeing the kinds of people who would never get a job on a spaceship -- not even as janitor -- as the staff on a ship in the Institutional Phase. Han Solo, for example, is not only a career criminal, but he also yells a lot, trusts his instincts (and his instincts aren't especially sound), hits on his passengers, and gets into pointless arguments with androids.

Han Solo is a damned good pilot but he'd never have a chance to demonstrate that in the Institutional Phase. His background check would turn up all his previous Imperial Entanglements, and his psychological profile would tag him as a selfish, grandiose hothead who's liable to shoot at a door without first making sure its magnetic seal isn't engaged, thus causing a comical ricochet around the walls of a trash compactor.

Now, the Commercial Phase permits a wide range of personality and occupational types. The setting permits hotheads, mercenaries, goons, and Space Hookers. But in the Institutional Phase, you're going to have a much less diversity: Most people are going to be ex-military, most people are going to have advanced degrees (including the military people), and virtually everyone is going to be of a pretty well-balanced, controlled, cool-tempered personality type.

No government or corporation spends $10 trillion building a ship and then says, "Hey, let's put the Loose-Canon Rebel Who Plays By His Own Rules in command."

The Institutional Phase story doesn't really suggest a lot of personality conflicts, then. For this reason, if you're trying to be somewhat realistic about it, you're going to be missing something fun in drama, which is people yelling at each other and undermining each other's authority and making lots of wisecracks in dangerous situations where you really should be pretty quiet and awaiting your next order.

A lot of science fiction movies -- especially the horror-themed science fiction of Alien, Aliens, and all of its many imitators -- gets around this problem by killing the captain early, thus giving a plausible reason why the Chain of Command is somewhat in flux and people are backtalking their superior officers. Suddenly orders are open to debate and argument and outright subversion. Which is more interesting, dramatically.

Though not ideal, as a matter of shipboard governance. The sort of spaceship that makes for a dramatically lively movie is exactly the opposite of the ship you'd actually want to be on. When your ship is being buffeted by asteroids, you wouldn't want to hear, through your cabin door, that Han and the Princess are having yet another spat, and that even the android has grown so insubordinate over the crazy decisions the captain is making that he's had to be deactivated.

Anyway, bringing this around to Prometheus: This is an Institution Phase film. They establish that the Great Big Evil Corporation has put an awful lot of money into this vessel, and while it's not the first starfaring vessel, you get the sense that there haven't been many more than ten such ships.

And yet, who's on this ship? You have an extremely surly Punk Rock Geologist Rebel for some reason. This guy passed the psychological exam? First guy who tries to make friendly, post-hypersleep conversation with him gets a gruff answer and is immediately told "I'm only in this for the money."

Only in it for the money? You had a planetary population of ten billion (let's say) to choose from and you couldn't find a Geologist who was actually interested in achieving the goals of the mission? You just grabbed up the guy who had no professional or scientific motivation, but just wanted a hundred thousand bucks?

Were the all the other Geologists unavailable?

Even assuming this guy was "The Best In His Field" -- I don't think they say that, but let's pretend he's a Rock Star of Geology (see what I did there?) -- "The Best" is a silly sort of claim. The guys at the top of the field are usually pretty close together in terms of qualification. Who "The Best" is is usually a pretty debatable proposition.

Here's what I would have looked for in a Geologist on this ten trillion dollar spacecraft making a first-of-its-kind flight to a distant planet:

1. No mowhak, no facial piercings, and no facial or neck tattoos. Sorry to be all lookist, but this guy is broadcasting his philosophical adherence to the Cult of Noncomformity, and I think on this flight, I'll choose the conformist. Give me the guy with the Tom Cruise haircut, please. That guy would be signalling his comfort in an orderly, rules-based environment, in which following the chain of command is of capital importance. Which, hey! It turns out that's what this flight is.

2. A motivation greater than money. Money equals comfort -- future comfort, yes, but it is the currency of comfort. A dangerous spaceflight, cramped conditions, boredom, and an even more dangerous landing on an alien world are inherently uncomfortable things. So I'd choose the guy who Really Wants To Be On This Mission, because only that sort of person would have the internal fortitude and resolve to handle all the many dangers and discomforts of the mission.

And the thing is, given that this is a spaceflight to an uncharted alien world which will provide years of material for research -- I think I could manage to find a Geologist who actually was sort of intrigued by the whole Adventure and Furtherance of Science thing.

3. A guy who can actually get along with other human beings. A spaceship is no bigger than, say, a suite of offices at a corporate office park. You're going to have to see these people a lot. You're going to have to work with them a lot. You are going to have to be in their company almost every waking minute for the next year or two.

I'm going to go with the guy who's first words out of hypersleep, to a man who just greeted him and introduced himself, aren't a variation on "F*** you, I'm eating cereal."

4. A guy who doesn't shit himself and go stir crazy at the first hint of... I don't even know if "danger" is the right word What he went crazy over was the first hint of... a 2000 year old dead body. He saw a 2000 year old dead body and immediately said, "F*** this insanity, I'm going to go running off on my own down an unexplored cave, where I imagine it will be safer."

Okay, I'm belaboring this point, but you get what I'm saying. How did this guy pass a psych test? What the hell is he even doing here? I don't know if this guy would actually even be on board a spaceship in the Commercial Phase, let alone the Institutional Phase.

This guy is especially egregious, but half the characters on that ship should not have been there. Charlize Theron seems, at first, like the sort of controlled personality type you'd have on board but then you quickly figure out she's a brittle personality type -- her outward iciness masking treacherously cold water churning underneath -- and she has sex with the Captain like six days into the mission. I would expect she could hold out longer than that.

The Captain is quirky -- I guess you can have a quirky person on board -- but he's also a lunatic. He plays a snatch of Steven Stills' Love The One You're With and then is shocked that Charlize Theron doesn't know who Steven Stills is.

In 2095, Steven Stills is still a thing? People didn't know who he was in nineteen ninety-five, dude. Why the hell would you expect her to know Steven Stills, and chuckle over her ignorance? Did you also expect her to know who Kajagoogoo is?

The only people who seem to belong on the ship are the crewmembers who never say a word, because at least those guys do not betray their utter lack of psychological unfitness for the mission.

So, what I think Scott did was this: He wanted quirkiness. He wanted People Motivated By Money. He wanted dirty people on board the ship. He wanted Tensions In The Chain of Command.

Essentially he wanted to remake Alien, then. But those things all seemed to work in Alien because Alien was set, pretty damn explicitly, in the Commerical Phase. Alien was about, as everyone calls them, Space Truckers. Makes sense that Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton would only be in it for the money. Space Truckers don't get into Space Trucking for Love of Space Trucking. It's a job. They want to get paid.

Prometheus is set hundreds of years earlier in the Institutional Phase. There shouldn't be any Space Truckers, there shouldn't be any surly cowardly mohawked mercenary geologists on board ("Why did I get into Exoplanetary Geology? For the money, of course. You can really make a killing in Exoplanetary Geology"), and the Chief Corporate Officer should not be some strange mix of Ice Princess and Space Whore.

This was a really bad movie overall. I kind of hated it, hated everything past the first forty minutes. I hated it for a lot of reasons. I didn't really hate it for this reason, the plausibility of Commercial Phase character types in an Institutional Phase mission. This would be a nitpick I'd ignore if the movie weren't so awful.

But it is awful, and I think this is a halfway interesting point, so I'm just writing about this thing.

But all the rest of it was bad too.

Except the beginning parts.

It's very sad that even someone like Ridley Scott just remakes a movie -- Prometheus is just a very dumb remake of Alien with better special effects but far less impact. It's just sad that he thought he had to stay so close to Alien, down the the Space Trucker idea, even though it made no sense whatsoever in the movie's story.

Here's What I Mean: I forgot about this example.

So, they just landed on the planet. Literally, they landed on an alien, unexplored world not ten minutes ago.

It's almost dark, and the Captain -- the Captain -- says "It's getting dark, we'll make camp for the night, and go out to the ruins at dawn."

And the Scientist says, "No, I've been waiting for this for five years, I'm going now!" He literally says that, or something very close to that.

And then everyone goes now.


This is what happens on a spaceship? A captain gives an order about safety, and securing the ship and the landing area, and when he will permit people to venture out, and then a passenger/specialist with no rank whatsoever gives a contrary order based on Enthusiasm and Devil May Care Excitement and everyone says, "Hey, let's listen to the stubble-bearded scientist guy, the captain's all wet"?

This is what happens on interstellar spaceflights to unknown alien worlds which are strongly suspected to be inhabited? (That's the whole point, they think there's life on the planet.)

People just sort of make up their own minds about whether the Captain has authority to give orders, or the stubble-bearded, over-emotional drunk of a scientist does?

I could see this happening in Star Wars. Han gives an order, and Leia, being Leia, decides to be Her Bratty Worshipfulness and just blows him off and runs outside. (Except it would be Leia urging caution, and Han ignoring her, but it could happen the other way. Leia likes defying Han.)

Star Wars is commercial phase, and also comical. They're funny movies. They have a comedic spirit. (The originals, I mean.)

But in a "realistic, serious" movie about an Institutional Phase first exploration of an inhabited alien world? The Captain gives an order, and the crew -- who, incidentally, he could literally kill with a pistol for being insubordinate and risking the safety of the ship; he has that power as captain, presumably, as a captain has now-- just decides "The hell with Captain Poo Poo Pants, he's a big fuddy-duddy; a rigid military heirarchy is a green light to do whatever you want and make all of your dreams come true!" ?

Really? That's serious and realistic?

digg this
posted by Ace at 02:43 PM

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