Prometheus (2012) -vs- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Prometheus (2012) -vs- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

www.moviesmackdown.comThe Smackdown

Strange artifacts are left here on Earth beckoning inhabitants to come visit superior beings and/or ancient visitors, requiring a massive undertaking to build and dispatch a mighty state-of-the-art spacecraft on a long, dangerous journey with an AI on board to take care of its human crew. Director Stanley Kubrick swung for the fences with this set-up over four decades ago and now it’s Ridley Scott’s turn.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now — 2001: A Space Odyssey is a true film classic. It deserves its praise, and it deserves to be seen in any good film school program. If you haven’t seen it, you should. But it doesn’t have a lock on this decision. Much has changed since its creation: in the world, in filmmaking techniques, in the reality of spaceflight. To the right challenger, it could lose.

PrometheusThe Challenger

We could easily have smacked Prometheus with its predecessor Alien, Ridley Scott’s classic foray into space, but it’s clear from the pre-pub and the statements of the filmmakers that Scott was aiming to take down not just himself but also the champion of all-time by making a film that laid out humanity’s relationship with life in the universe and even God. He picked the fight and, here at the Smack, he will get it.

Prometheus is the film that all those seasons of Ancient Aliens are the set-up for. Researchers on Earth have discovered similar art work from pre-history, all pointing to a particular star system. Together they are, as the characters say, an “invitation.” Naturally, a group of scientists are recruited to meet up with the advanced intelligence that created human life on Earth, aliens called The Engineers.

The star-ship they go in, the Prometheus, is state-of-the-art all the way, so advanced they’ve even figured out how to give it gravity so the crew can walk about in flip-flops once they wake up from a two-year hibernation. They waste no time once they’ve had coffee in getting to the planet’s surface which happens to have a vast artificial structure which they race off like school kids to see, driving very cool-looking buses and rovers. Once inside, they find a lot of set-design inspired by Scott’s Alien film. Naturally, things are more than they seem and not in a good way. Mayhem ensues. We are not alone. Regrettably.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe Defending Champion

If you’re old enough to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in theaters, you remember how it simply blew you away. Nothing like it had ever happened before in a movie theater. If you’ve seen it only as a piece of film curiosity, not all that different from, say, watching The Wizard of Oz these days, then you probably cannot relate to the extreme emotional connection it made with the vast majority of its audience. I did not see it when it first came out but when I did a few years later I was blown away.

Turning away from that aspect, however, the story is simple. A giant, “intelligently designed” monolith has been found on the moon. It is emitting a signal straight to Jupiter. A massive ship is constructed, crewed by two pilots, and sent to investigate. Along the way, these two men (who so underplay their roles you have to see it to believe it) begin to believe that somehow, the computer, an AI named “HAL,” is behaving strangely. Hal kills one of the pilots, and the other is forced to kill Hal in return. Then, in the last half-hour, ships, computers, and everything that came before goes out the space portal, and we enter into the “odyssey” part of the film that audiences have been debating now for four decades. I’m not sure I could entirely explain it now if I tried, but I sure as hell liked it and not just because the theater was full of smoke.

The Scorecard

Forget those now multiple generations of stoned truth-seekers who have had their minds expanded by a late-night screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reputation only goes so far when a champion enters the ring with an opponent. Once the leather starts flying, even a champ can take a fall.

In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey wowed many by virtue of its special effects alone. Based on models and sets and not CGI, it created a world where space was cool, elegant, mysterious and a place where humankind was apt to get more than we bargained for. 44 years later, Prometheus is chock-full of modern-day special effects of its own but, as the Fox publicity proudly points out, the production consumed vast sound-stages of real sets of spacecraft and alien hideaways.

When 2001 was made in 1968 it looked like 2001 which means it still holds up nicely in the visual effects department. Not perfect, but certainly classic and wonderful. Scott’s direction of Prometheus is a mastery of design and probably does eclipse the champ in that area. It looks like the trillion bucks that the ship cost.

The characters of 2001 were as cool and detached as the space scenes were removed and insanely mind-blowing. The characters in Prometheus are as not cool and detached from each other at all. They get in each other’s faces, use bad language, and clearly whoever put this mission together at Weyland Industries made no effort whatsoever to do even a basic psychological profile to see how they might mesh as a team. The idea of other life in the universe, particularly one that may have created us, ought to bring people together in a sense of awe and wonder and curiosity. But these people have none of that. The robot, David, played by Michael Fassbender is probably the only one you really can warm up to and he’s an android. On the bright side, Ridley Scott has used the tools available to him to make a film that looks great. Sometimes exceptionally so.

The last director to aim for dethroning 2001 was Danny Boyle with his 2007 film Sunshine. It lost that Smackdown, but it was even on points, until the final rounds when Sunshine lost its way. In this match, Prometheus shows promise of having the goods, particularly when David is alone for two years and has to find a way from going android-shit crazy, something he accomplishes with basketball and repeat viewings of Lawrence of Arabia.

An unexpectedly large part of this Smack is the comparison of HAL versus David. Back in 1968, the idea of an AI going quietly insane and killing its crew was delicious and HAL was the best bad guy you could imagine. But he was a red light and a soft voice from a machine while David is simply a machine that looks human but knows he isn’t quite one and probably thinks that’s just fine, given the way these humans he’s been assigned to watch act around him. But he also seems to have an agenda that, like HAL’s, the human crew has not been made aware of. And,finally, there’s the obvious point that both HAL and David seem likely to be gay, if computers and androids can be.

There is absolutely no doubt that Prometheus looks beautiful at the beginning when it’s all 2089: A Space Odyssey and its space scenes are a match for those in 2001 (which — as we say — still stand up nicely). Ridley Scott always nails it. He has an eye and clearly demands perfection from the people who work for him and the studio that finances him. His goods always end up on the screen.

But these characters… that’s a cutting edge.

The Decision

I know Ridley Scott fans will disagree, and probably strongly, but I just can’t get over this. The way the underlying structure of the mission is explained in Prometheus is lame. And it could tip the Smackdown.

Anyone who would spend a trillion dollars on a hot-shot spacecraft like Prometheus and send it out on the most important mission ever conceived with a crew of morons like this one, well, it just boggles the mind. People in this film simply do not behave rationally — not toward each other, not toward the mission, not at all. Most films can be forgiven a time or two when the characters veer off wrongly in order to accomplish a plot point, but the problem in Prometheus is chronic.

They arrive, wake up and instantly land without time to even scan the surface for a good landing zone. Once on the ground, even with daylight going and storms approaching, most of the crew races off without a plan in their space buggies, without even a bare moment of awe. One of them gets infected, tells no one and endangers everyone. They have no quarantine procedures in place at all. I could go on and on.

In the original Alien, you could forgive the squabbling because half of the crew was blue-collar working types forced to investigate this strange planet. In Prometheus, all of these people signed on willingly so the idea that they would be grousing complainers arguing with each other from the moment they re-gain consciousness after waking from suspended animation seems like the cliche choice of a bad action film. These are the best Earth has to offer? Nope. These are the now stock “at-odds, emotionally unstable” characters who spar while on the mission. That may work for the criminals of Ocean’s 11 fame, but this is a make-or-break mission beyond our solar system where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Hell, this crew makes the oil drillers in Armageddon seem like such a better team for the job. And I’m clearly not arguing the characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey are all that satisfying, cold and tight-lipped as they are. However, everyone in 2001 more or less acts the way somebody in their position given the givens might act. You just can’t say the same of Prometheus.

There must be an untold story about why a film of this magnitude got made without fixing this. The crew mission demands group cohesion and these people have none. Zippo. Why? What went wrong in the process that this was relegated so far down the list of priorities?

So, despite its incredible promise and how pumped-up I was just to go to an early screening, Prometheus turns out to be the most disappointing film I’ve seen in years. I am so terribly awfully let down by what could have been the artistic reach of what it teased and has been squandered. To create a film where aliens can be brought to screen so realistically and to have them kill humans you don’t give a goddamn about because they act like idiots is a complete and total tragedy.

2001: A Space Odyssey may be an aging champion, one that is destined to lose sooner or later. But not today. And not to the bickering crew of Prometheus.

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About Bryce Zabel

Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.
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19 Responses to Prometheus (2012) -vs- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  1. StuNyc says:

    Bryce you are right on the money with this one. If the goal was to create a compelling vision of the future, this film can’t compare to Blade Runner, let alone 2001. My heart sank halfway through the film and I was slightly embarrassed that I had dragged my wife to the theatre. After all the hub bub, we end up with a schlocky horror fest seasoned with some x-files derivatives. Ridley seemed more concerned with the origins of Geiger’s creation than any real musings on the origins of species, which he definitely promised in his interviews. Ah well, maybe Wes Craven will take a shot.

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      I appreciate the support. There are lots of Prometheus boosters out there who feel differently!

  2. theat001 says:

    I didn’t hear much about Prometheus aside from that my friends wanted to see it. They loved it, but I was pretty disappointed in the lack of studying basic evolution before knocking it. As well as the fact that these things have been removed from humans since their existence, but had the same exact DNA…(please)…

    But it’s not hard scifi. It looks like hard scifi, but it’s not. So suspending disbelief trying to enjoy the movie as it was, I still found myself disappointed… for the reasons you mentioned. The characters acted stupidly. It was clearly an homage to Alien that just…wasn’t necessary…

  3. Scott says:

    I liked the homage to 2001 in Prometheus with Weyland, old and withered, just like Dave at the end of Space Odyssey on the bed.

    • Billy Bobbo says:

      Yep, that’s what he looked like. Although Dave looked like a better make-up job, I thought.

  4. clay visentine says:

    The critic’s job could not fit me, as no matter how objective one’s attempts at putting forth a balanced & fair evaluation, it still puts me in mind of the strong scene from “Dead Poets Society”, where at the semester’s outset Mr. Keating forces his students to rip out the essay explaining how to appreciate poetry. Excerpt below:

    To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions:

    1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and

    2) How important is that objective?

    Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

    If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

    –Mr. Zabel, yours is a valid point about the composition of the crew of this most important mission. I found myself wondering the same thing while still being completely entranced during the film. The answer I speculate lies in the super-secret stowaway aboard Prometheus himself. What we do not have explained to any degree in the film is the extent of space travel in the late 21st century to get a grasp of the scale of economy that trillion dollar ship represents. ($42 million in adjusted dollars for the Nostromo aside) To what do we compare a trillion 2093 dollars? Perhaps Weyland does not pull together the best humanity has to offer intentionally in order to avoid attention to this mission, which is so obviously personal for him. Would the Rubik’s Cube Cinema presentation to the newly awakened crew about where they are and why have been necessary otherwise, if not simply as a plot device? I doubt a handpicked ensemble of Earth’s best & brightest would have needed that slideshow, or Meredith Vickers.

    HR Giger’s artwork and designs have an immeasurably ancient feel to them. I friend had a book of his work in high school 25 yrs ago we used to look at during art class, claiming we were trolling for inspiration, and I wondered often what that man drew on from within to produce what he does. The Engineers are so remote and enigmatic that they are believable as being impossibly ancient, even if they do appear human. I have read several dozen books that chronicle the anomolous evidence of high technology and achievement from ages gone and have to agree with the proposition in Ancient Aliens–someone has been here before and meddled with us as a species and stewarded us along various milestones for purposes unknown. One has to view the records with a broad, unattached viewpoint (or at least religiously unaffiliated viewpoint) but evidence is sufficient for those who care to evaluate it & not simply cling to whatever superstitions they may have been brought up on. In the sense that any species capable of the staying power necessary to seed a planet, or at least a new sentient race, and be around to shepherd it along at different stages would be strange and unapproachable in the extreme to our thinking if we met them, I have to say Ridley Scott has succeeded in putting flesh onto the bones of the gods. To use Jack’s imagery, I am very eager to see how the Engineers react when Shaw and David slap them in the face with their own crescent shaped dildo.

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      Thanks, Clay, for that thoughtful response. I thought the same thing during that “Briefing.” Nobody in it would have needed it, therefore, it existed only to do film exposition. If I’d written that into a first draft, I’d have had that note made in the first five minutes of the meeting.

  5. ~C4Chaos says:

    i want to disagree with Bryce Zabel’s EPIC take down of Prometheus but i can’t. his review was spot on! i was thinking about the same thing (character cohesion on a trillion dollar mission) the first time the characters woke up from suspended animation and started acting like jerks. *you gotta be kidding me?!* but i suspended my inner critic and just enjoyed the film for what it is — an awesome production and cinematic effects. but Bryce is right — “I am so terribly awfully let down by what could have been and has been squandered. To create a film where aliens can be brought to screen so realistically and to have them kill humans you don’t give a goddamn about because they act like idiots is a complete and total tragedy.” good thing i didn’t read any reviews before i watched the movie, otherwise, i could’ve been thinking to myself the whole time i was watching, *damn you Bryce for being so right!* (btw, me and my wife still enjoyed the movie. it was our anniversary date. and no aliens or bad characters could spoil our night.)

  6. Jack Witek says:

    Sometimes, with films, as you know well, two people can be on totally different poles – on totally different planetary bodies. So right off, I will say I do not seek to change your mind, because you feel strongly about this film. But I will write a little about conceptual frameworks that we each seem to have bought to the viewing of Prometheus that the other did not. Bryce, I admire your visionary artistic talent, (forgive me if this phrasing seems cliched, but it is true), your sincere passion for Disclosure, and how you and Richard Dolan have redefined the ‘genre’ within the ‘alt. research community’. But in a word, from reading your review, it seems you have bought that mindset, those hopes and fears and expertise, to the wrong show with Prometheus. The film, I’ll say straight off, is not about Disclosure – not in the sense you write about. As has been said, with A.D. After Disclosure, you and Richard put on the hat of a Rand think tank, looking at all angles in a rational, logical way. You did not sort out to write a comic book (or indeed a TV show, though fingers crossed Dark Skies does get rebooted), as you might have done. You staked your reputation (though I get the impression Hollywood is very liberal minded when it comes to UFOs) on a crank subject, and you bought to it reason and passion and a humbled awe in the face of one of the greatest living mysteries of our time, if not the greatest, for its implications are so far reaching. But back to Prometheus. When you criticise the characters for being morons, I can’t help but feel that you may be projecting your own expectations for how a crew ‘boldy going forth to seek out new worlds’ and Disclosure, should act. Because after all, Weyland-Yutani is synonymous, in the geek sci-fi vocabulary, with corporatism, bureaucracy, greed, ambition, and industry.

    ‘In the original Alien, you could forgive the squabbling because half of the crew was blue-collar working types forced to investigate this strange planet. In Prometheus, all of these people signed on willingly so the idea that they would be grousing complainers arguing with each other constantly seems like the choice of a bad action film going for stock characters.’

    The choice of the word ‘grousing’ is apt I think, but the emphasis you place on the importance of that dynamic of the group is overplayed I think. They don’t grouse like they do in Alien, they don’t bicker about paychecks and god forsaken rocks. But yes, they are not a hand-picked crew in the sense of it you mean. But put yourself in Peter Weyland’s shoes. What does he want out of this mission? It is a secret mission, as evinced by the coded Rubik’s cube with the star coordinates. No one in the universe apart from a skeleton crew of Weyland employees know that Peter is aboard the ship. That is exactly the kind of behaviour one would expect from what you and richard refer to in your UFO work as a ‘breakaway’ group, and that is exactly how Peter sees himself. And what does Peter want? If he wanted what you want, worldwide (and by 2080-whatever, Mars and Moon wide) Disclosure, then your criticisms would be justified. No. He’s is acting on behalf of no one but himself. His daughter, Vickers, refers to him as a king. His castle is Prometheus, Weyland-Yutani his kingdom, his Crusade, to speak with God himself, on LV-223. The crew, I would say, are almost entirely expendable. Why not send out robot drones, like for example the Israelis do on a daily basis, every time there’s suspicious lunch box left in the street. Good question, but wrong premise. David, the robot, is in this instance Weyland’s right hand man, and the crew are the drones sent out to stumble and bumble their way to the prize, to test the ground. The crew of the Nostromo in Alien were expendable after all. Weyland is obviously obsessed with genetics. As a failed transhuman, on death’s doorstep, he, with the aid of the linguistic and mytho-historical work of David, has determined ahead of time that these Engineers that they are racing to meet are no doubt the gods of old. David goes out of his way to test this thesis by contaminating the crew. The logic seems to be, ‘because we could’.

    Prometheus. It’s the old question of Satan. If God made us, and made all, then he also made Satan, that is to say, made evil. That these two ‘magisteria’ do indeed overlap. Well, obviously Lucifer was an angel, the Light Bearer. An what is the answer to the match trick? ‘Not minding it hurts’. The Engineer’s are the shining ones of old, the giants, the Nephilim that they talk about on Ancient Astronauts each week, clearly. But the film doesn’t blow its load on surface level mysteries, doesn’t presume in arrogance to boil down the mysteries of the universe to some actors in rubber suits – much in the way that Aliens vs. Predator films did with their own ancient alien themes). Shaw is the pivot on which the religious awe and terror of the film works. She and her partner are both Christians. And during the film, one of the characters asks, but if they created us, who created them? And the finale, of Prometheus crashing into the Engineer ship, is symbolic of the two worlds smashing together. Of them creating us. This is a gnostic theme, a Philip K Dick theme, and to me, the crew of the ship are entirely out of a Philip K Dick novel, and as Ridley is perhaps the only director to ever do Dick justice on film with Blade Runner, this is entirely appropriate. It has been a hot topic in alt.research for decades now, of the nature and origin of evil and what relationship it has with the aliens who some believe engineered us. Of course it would be, for that has been one of the prime questions of religious affect and symbology forever. And as Ridley points out in interviews and makes clear in the film, science, as it stands now, cannot answer that question. But by the end of the film, with the ‘head and the heart, Noomi/shaw and David, racing off to the Engineer’s homeworld, this is representative of that gnostic yearning for answers. You mention that David is the only likeable one in the film, and again, I think this is entirely in-theme with the chicken and egg, Russian doll nature of the film and the questions it is tackling with. Why did we create David? ‘Because we could’. And out of that post-biological, transhuman, evolutionary leap from the chaotic functions of Wall Street and corporations and science and genius, out of this ‘soup’ of primordial chaos that is human civilisation, comes this avatar, David. This is the mystery of life. And Weyland is on a mission to crack open with a fucking hammer the mystery of death while he still can. He is focused, selfish, dedicated, a trillionaire, and ultimately humbled in the face of his maker. He is a colonial pioneer like the ones out of the film that he and David admire so much, of old English stock. So in that sense, the film is a meditation of corporate power, private power, and such questions are at the heart of Disclosure and Majestic and so on, after all. And surely, we all know that corporations are not responsible. Look at BP. DOW Chemical. Foxconn. Need I go on?

    Also, some of my friends have criticised the film for stripping the grandeur and mystery of Aliens and the Disc Jockeys, the Engineers, by showing us who they are and all that. Indeed, literally the mask is ripped off the suit in the film by David. But note it is David who does that, the android. He is himself a mystery, wearing a mask of humanity, and whatever genetic alchemy led to the alien of Alien still remains mysterious. ‘If they created us, who created them?’

    You want Kubrick-esque subtly from these characters in the face of a living mystery, and are disappointed when what we get is corporate technicians from a PKD novel. But they still come from the same plastic fantastic universe that 2001 operated in, it’s just that one is operating from the values and aesthetic of the 60’s, and the other from the current age of contractors and corporatocracy.

    Put another way, in a time when Ancient Aliens is a popula show, and we’re all feeling warm and optimistic about Kepler and SETI and seeking answers, Prometheus smacks us up the face with a Giger designed dildo and reminds

    I love Prometheus. It was and was not what I was expecting. I am going to see it again and enjoy it in ways which you sadly cannot. Maybe my review of your review is off-base. Maybe I’m being very presumptuous in trying to second guess you. But all I can do is try to justify, in a hopefully logical way, why I loved the film in such a way that you utterly did not.

    ‘Prometheus is the most disappointing film I’ve seen in years. I am so terribly awfully let down by what could have been and has been squandered. To create a film where aliens can be brought to screen so realistically and to have them kill humans you don’t give a goddamn about because they act like idiots is a complete and total tragedy.’

    *puts on David personality’ Oh pish dear. It wasn’t as bad as all that, surely? Here, have some hot chocolate. (high five to whoever gets this film reference)

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      That is, without question, the single most lucid, detailed comment we have ever had on the Movie Smackdown site.

      One thing should be obvious about reviewing. When you’re trying to get people to pay attention to a new site, you have to state your opinions about 180% of volume to be heard. Maybe that’s what I’ve done.

      I do know that probably a lot more people are probably likely to agree with your take, Jack, and I thank you for taking the time to make your argument on our site!

      • Jack Witek says:

        Thank Bryce. Nothing personal, I just loved the film, could lose myself in it, and you could not, and so I’m trying to figure out what works about the film. And that’s why we have cool sites like this! *ding ding, round two…*

  7. Pingback: » Movie Review – Prometheus Fernby Films

  8. rick orzel says:

    I am sorry I wasted my time reading this awful review. The world is and always has been filled with critics whose opinions like leeches suck at the lifeblood of creative genius. Alien was panned when it came out, as was Bladerunner, along with countless other classic works or art. Nobody remembers or cares to remember the critic. They are the parasites that forever will swim in the shadowy depths, far below the light of imagination.

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      So you’re saying you didn’t like the review, then?

      Seriously, I think Alien is one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. It’s damn near perfect in every way. And Bladerunner is fantastic as well, also near perfection.

      But… the characters in Alien behave exactly as you would expect them to in the situation, as do the characters in Blade Runner (including the Replicants). The characters in Prometheus do not behave rationally toward their mission, toward each other and especially toward the situation they find on the ground.

      But Prometheus looks absolutely stunning, I’ll give it that.

  9. Bob says:

    So, basically a garden variety shoot em up in space?

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      Not that that is bad, but the hype promised a lot more.

  10. Rodney says:

    That’s the first time I’ve seen you use the term “OMFG” in a review, Bryce. Prometheus must be bad, I take it. 😉

    • Bryce Zabel says:

      It is not “bad” in the sense of being a completely across-the-board failure, and we see our share of those, don’t we?

      It is a disappointment, however, given the money spent and the pedigree of the team, and the absolute astonishing potential they had with those assets to replace 2001 as the most mind-blowing film in a generation. That, it is not.


  11. Ouch! Hi Bryce, I can’t, in all honesty, disagree with any of the criticisms you level at Prometheus. Its script left a lot to be desired, with thinly-sketched, unsympathetic characters who act like morons throughout. Despite this fundamental failing, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Scott’s visuals are, as ever, stunning, and his craftsmanship faultless.

    Fifteen or twenty minutes in to Prometheus I abandoned all hope that it might offer a cerebral challenge and accepted that this was simply an exercise in spectacle and body-horror. On those terms I felt it succeeded (one scene in particular involving Noomi Rapace and some hasty self-surgery arguably is up there with the most intense that Scott has ever directed – classic stuff).

    So yes, the script is a big letdown, but Scott’s masterful direction, astonishing visuals and CGI, as well as a stirring score, go a long way towards making up for it.

    And SmackDown-wise, it goes without saying that 2001: A Space Odyssey clobbers Prometheus, just as it does every other sci-fi ever made.

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