There seems to be a thing going around where people are trying to fix up Prometheus to make it more coherent. This seems like an interesting exercise, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. Needless to say, this will contain major movie spoilers.
To make things a challenge, presumably the goal should be to do so with the minimum number of changes. So here’s my attempt at Fixing Prometheus In N Easy Steps:
Actually, before I get started, let me clarify a couple of things. First, “coherent” can mean thematic coherency or plot coherency, and plot coherency can mean in-scene, cross-scene, or cross-movie coherency. I don’t think Prometheus has any issues with thematic coherency, at least in the sense that it has plenty of stuff in there about “Parents and Children, Fightin’ All The Time”. Similarly, the in-scene coherency is fine: it’s generally clear what is going on and why people are doing what they’re doing, at least if you look at the movie in five-minute chunks. The main issue with the movie that people have focused on is the cross-scene coherency, things like “why is character X doing Y given what we know about them from earlier?” So that’s what I’m going to focus on (and I haven’t seen any of the Alien movies, so I’m not going to talk about cross-movie coherency much).
Then, changes: I am sure somebody out there has already suggested “1) Discard entire movie, replace with first Alien movie”. I’m thinking scene- or subscene-level changes here — anything larger than that counts as multiple changes. Also, in Real Movie-Making Life some changes, like filming new scenes, are much more expensive than strategic cutting or adding a voice-over, but I’m going to ignore that and just focus on number of changes.
So let’s get to it, with the first question some people are going to ask:
Why did Weyland spend a trillion dollars on a mission based off a few cave paintings found by some scientists who don’t appear particularly bright or talented (“lucky” seems more apropos)?
We can answer this if it turns out Weyland’s found other evidence of these Engineers in the past (not surprising if we posit they’ve visited earth multiple times), but hasn’t found a location until now, so this discovery is just the last in a series. We know he developed David, so it makes sense to say he’s been working on projects involving life extension/creation for a while, and it’s not much of a leap to say he was investigating the origins of the human race and came upon stuff about the Engineers. Put in a scene that establishes that Weyland knew about the Engineers already and that David and Vickers are both things he made as part of a larger project and both are failures (or, more charitably, just steps along the way) because Weyland actually wants to extend his own life, not create new life. It’s tempting given this to make Vickers a clone, as another kind of life-creating attempt, but probably not necessary. A good way to bring her back in the sequel, though.
Why do Engineers look so similar to humans? Why do Engineers have “100% identical!” DNA to humans? Why is Engineer language so close to human language?
This isn’t actually a big deal, but it seems like a big deal because the movie bobbles it, having one of the scientists ask “so what about evolution, is that all wrong?” and Shaw give a faith-based response. Clearly one of two things must have happened: 1) Engineers seeded all life on Earth, having picked a planet that was similar to theirs, and done some kind of directed evolution thing, so stuff still evolved but branches that diverged too much from theirs got pruned. Seems difficult but not out of the question for a group that we know can create new life forms or 2) some other group of aliens pulled proto-humans off Earth at an early stage of human evolution, and those proto-humans became Engineers. In either case, we know that Engineers visited Earth at intervals in the early days (which supports theory #1 a bit); it seems likely that Earth-human language was taught to us by the Engineers, and then evolved on its own. So there really isn’t much to do here, just make it clear that the characters don’t know what the answer is and are aware it’s a question and save it for the sequel.
What is the Engineer base for? Why did the Engineers leave maps for how to find their weapon stash? Did the Engineers want humans to come here or not?
Other points I talk about in this post are things where you could reasonably claim that the director or the writers intended what I said, and it just didn’t get spelled out. But with this issue, I don’t think there is a simple explanation that covers all of what we know in a sensible way. That said, I think it’s possible to make some explanation that mostly works. To start with, we can discard Janek’s theory that the place is a military base or research lab or biological weapons testing facility, because it doesn’t look like any of those: it’s got a bunch of tunnels and a lot of artwork and not much else. It’s clearly more like a memorial or a temple. That said, something weird happened in it, since we know a from the holograms that a bunch of Engineers ran around in a panic and then through a blast door as it was shutting, leading to the one guy getting decapitated.
So here’s a theory: four thousand years ago, this was Engineer HQ, a lush and verdant planet etc. They’ve seeded Earth, humans are finally getting kind of civilized, and they decide to leave them alone for a while, so they drop off some “come see us when you’re more developed!” maps and split. Then they have some kind of war. Either intra-Engineer or Engineers vs some other group, but one of the results is this planet gets blasted and all life gets erased. Another result is they develop some biological weapons which are their equivalent of nuclear weapons. The Engineers win the war, and they decide to set up a memorial on the old home planet; nobody can live here any more, but they’ll come occasionally to visit, so they do some mild re-terraforming, repurpose one of the buried old spaceships, put in some religious art, and put in a bunch of funeral urns with victims of the biological weapons (I assume they’re intended to look like canopic jars, anyway). They get it all installed, and then one of them starts coughing or gets a snake in the eyeball or whatever, and they suddenly realize that some of the urns aren’t properly sealed and the area’s still infectious. Cue mass panic and fleeing to the escape pods in the control room (except for one group that sickens and dies together in a pile), and one poor dude getting his head chopped off by a closing door. So yeah, that’s my theory: art installation gone terribly wrong.
But regardless of the explanation, it’s too long and too complicated to go in the movie. So this is another place where you just put in a scene where the characters say they don’t know and speculate a bit and leave it at that (though I suppose you could have something on the computers which David finds and translates if you don’t mind twenty minutes of exposition).
What is David’s deal? Is he just a jerk? Why does he infect Holloway, why does he poke and prod at things and open doors without worrying about the safety of the crew?
In general androids in movies can be assumed to be Three-Laws-compliant unless specified otherwise, and people certainly treat David as though that’s the case: they order him around, they’re mean to him, and clearly he could rip their head off but just gives them a little sassy back-talk. But despite this apparent prohibition on harming humans, he’s able to engage in a lot of behavior that puts humans at risk (though in the most direct case of harm, infecting Holloway, the movie establishes that he gets Holloway’s unwitting permission first). The easiest way to reconcile this is to say David has an overriding directive from Weyland to gather alien samples and get them back to Earth for more research. Weyland comes along on the mission because there’s a chance there might be a live Engineer he can negotiate with directly, but it’s only a chance; if it fails, they can at least still gather information and bring it back to Earth for more study*. Given that, it makes perfect sense that David would try to put the alien baby into Shaw and then stick her in coldsleep for the trip back to Earth, and given that David hates the humans but is bound by his programming, it makes perfect sense that he would charge ahead and open doors and release specimens, and if that gets everyone on the mission except him killed, oops, what a sad accident. So all we need here is a scene in which Weyland tells David that finding an alien to talk to is priority one and getting some samples for study on Earth is priority two and the safety of the crew is priority three.
*Weyland makes a big deal about not having a lot of time left, but this setting has coldsleep technology, so he has plenty of time to wait for research on Earth to happen, and just wake up once a year or so to see how things are going. If you want to get super-meta, you could claim the coldsleep or his prototype rejuvenation work is why he looks like he’s played by a young actor in bad old-age makeup, but that is probably too much.
What is up with the ending? Why does Weyland go into the Engineer base in person? Why is the Engineer mad when it wakes up? Why does it try to fly to Earth to kill everyone?
Given what we’ve said earlier, it’s pretty clear that David hates the humans but is unable to harm them directly (and that goes double for Weyland). So maybe the reason that Weyland goes into the base is because David talks him into it, knowing there’d be trouble. If you buy the earlier theory about a war among the Engineers, then maybe David even knows that the guy in the stasis pod is somebody from that war and will be crazy or angry or paranoid when he wakes up. Under this interpretation, maybe we should add subtitles to what David says to the Engineer, where he’s like “surrender! we’re here to kill you!” just to provoke the guy. As to why the Engineer was trying to fly to Earth to kill everyone there, I don’t think there is any reason to think that’s the case — he’s probably just trying to get off this crappy planet … and then is understandably angry at humans when they bring down his ship. Or maybe the Engineer heads to Vickers’ escape ship once it crashes because it seems possible that can be flown off the planet too. I think what we need here is a scene with David to establish the Engineer’s identity and motives at the end; probably this means David accessing the computer bank holograms again.
Finally, what is up with those two guys getting lost in the base despite one of them being the one in charge of the map?
Obviously they didn’t actually get lost, they wandered off to find some alien stuff to hide and bring back to earth, where they would sell it and make zillions. This also explains why they head back to alien-goo central despite claiming to be scared of aliens. Just add a scene where they explain their plot and it’s fine.
Ok, not too bad! Six scenes! Oh, and one bonus theory: engineers are actually exactly identical in appearance to humans, and the tall doughy look is due to later bio-engineering and/or alien infestation, which makes them act crazy.