Friday, 18 January 2013

Filmflam: Prometheus

Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's Alien is, in the best possible way, a textbook horror movie.  It's about seven people trapped in a confined space with a monster.  There's a sinister reason for this predicament which is revealed later, and there's a great deal we don't know about the monster, but the important thing is, they're here, the monster's dangerous, and they may not survive.  It moves at a confident pace, and there isn't an unnecessary moment in it.

Much is left to our imaginations, such as: where the alien eggs came from.   Why the alien ship crashed on LV-426.   What purpose, if any, the aliens were intended to carry out.   Did we need to know any of this to enjoy Alien?   No.   So the long gestation of Ridley Scott's prequel, Prometheus, has left me puzzled.   The aim is to fill those blanks. But how can doing so enhance a movie where the characters neither knew nor cared about the answers to those questions?

In its defence, Scott has tried to distance Prometheus from its crude "How we got to Alien" mission statement, suggesting it will spiral off into its own film series that is about entirely different things.   Time will tell on that.   But it is first, foremost, unavoidably a prequel.   And it does nothing to dispel my feeling that there may never exist a good prequel.

A theologically curious film hoping to evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey in theme, it concerns a group of scientists searching for the meaning of human existence.   Using ancient cave-drawings as a grid reference, they (and a crew of oblivious misfits) trek to an unknown world, hoping to stumble on our Creators.   On board are people who want to investigate at all costs, people who don't want to be there, and people with their own agenda... all of which can be found in Alien.  It's just a lot more complicated and a lot less interesting here.   (Theological curiosity is less gripping than answering a distress call, for starters.)

Scott's strengths have always been in design rather than characterisation, and in Alien he's on record as saying he hired seven really good character-actors and basically left them to it.   For a film where the heroine was arguably less humanitarian than the ship's robot, Alien still felt like it was about real people, bitching and sniping and wanting to go home.   Prometheus does not.   The crew is too numerous for Scott's "leave them to it" approach to work, and the dialogue is too hokey, too full of leaden banter to let them feel real.   Certain characters, like Sean Harris's bizarre mistanthropic geologist and Idris Elba's apathetic captain, feel like half an idea that goes nowhere.

As an ensemble, it's an absolute haystack of accents, clichés and the feeling of scenes and motivations gone missing.   When things are revealed about them, such as a family secret for Charlize Theron's icy executive, they're so redundant as to be downright laughable.   Similarly, letting it fall on Idris Elba to explain the plot, even though his character possesses none of the knowledge he's suddenly splurging for no reason, is sheer laugh-out-loud ineptitude.

The standout is obviously Michael Fassbender as the franchise's latest android, David.   Drawing distinctly from the pantheon of creepy cinematic robots, Fassbender appears to be the only one putting some thought into his character.   Unfortunately, while he may be the brightest spark in a very dull mix, he still must do dreadful things for no clearly established reason.   Strip away the thesping and he's as much a mess as the rest of them.   (Okay, so HAL's betrayal in 2001 didn't make a lot of sense either, but then 2001 wasn't a film designed in the first place to answer questions.   Anyway, all was revealed in the book.)

This film's Ripley, or at least its main character is Noomi Rapace as Dr Shaw.   She's a prominent scientist with a keen religious faith, driven to find answers because she can't conceive and because disease killed her father and blah, blah, blah.   Her husband, Dr Holloway, ought to be Shaw's crucial counterpoint, but the two are equally boring to be around, and he makes even less sense than she does.   (When a scientist finds evidence of alien life immediately on his first attempt to look for it, to then sulk that it's dead after 2000 years is simple churlishness.)

Holloway's eventual descent (for with a much bigger crew comes a much bigger bodycount) is one big plot-hole courtesy of David, and his eventual willingness to die for the greater good is symptomatic of one of the film's major flaws.   Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, these guys just don't try very hard to survive.   If they're utterly terrible at taking care of themselves, and quite offhand about dying to save others, why should we care when they meet their doom?   It was a very human stupidity that drove Harry Dean-Stanton to ill-fatedly look for the ship's cat in Alien; no such logic grounds Rafe Spall's decision to get within spitting distance of an alien snake.   Oh, so you want to make friends with an unknown reptile on a hostile planet, do you?   Good luck with that.

What we have is essentially a group of poorly-defined idiots doing stupid things for no reason.   The film's great mystery remains entirely obscure, and does nothing but add to the pot of unanswered questions, thereby defeating its own purpose.  We learn that the Engineers may have created mankind.   Okay.   We don't know why.   They apparently want to destroy us.  We still don't know why.  None of this explains what a spaceship full of eggs was doing on LV-426, so... what was gained by making this?

In leaving out the answers, Prometheus is not automatically rendered profound.  It is after all a lot easier to ask questions than it is to satisfactorily answer them.   The film's attempt to seem lofty and thoughtful, just by refusing to answer its own ponderings, is betrayed by the minutae of the plot making equally miniscule sense.   (And sorry, but I refuse to believe in the subtextual cleverness of a movie wherein people greet discoveries with "My God!", and desperate missions with "We've only got one shot at this!")  It's surely aiming for the kind of intense debate generated by 2001, but even setting aside its thorough ineptitude, it's far too conscious of the franchise's horror roots to operate on a higher plane.  The ghost of Alien is ever-apparent: the structure is of course very similar, but there are designs, references, character behaviours, even bits of music that remind us, paradoxically, it was Alien that brought us here.

Prometheus is visually accomplished, of course, and the music is pretty and strangely optimistic  a juxtaposition that would have pleased Jerry Goldsmith, who always felt his finished theme for Alien was too obviously sinister.  But attractive production aside, it remains that contradictory thing: a prequel, so it must nod, sequel-like to its predecessors.   There's a semi-facehugger, a faux-chestbuster, even a proto-Alien, because that's what you came here for.   But what is this a ponderous work of science fiction, or The Old Dark House In Space Part 5?   Ridley's attempt to do both will leave the deep thinker irritated, and the horror afficionado counting his diminishing returns.


  1. Ah, I remember that month well. As every day...

    You: Do you know what sucked about Prometheus?
    Me: (gasp) Prometheus sucked?!

  2. I don't have a lot to add here, except that it's really interesting to watch Prometheus and then go read up about the creation of Alien, because it really does start to look like pretty much everything in Prometheus that seems so familiar but subtly different has its roots in the unused concept art and abandoned story ideas from that earlier film. It's as if Scott is going back and grabbing all the stuff he couldn't use the first time round, and trying to make it work on a second attempt.

    As for the scientists being incompetent, well, Lindeloff did a rewrite on the original script treatment (which was in many ways far superior, and in other ways frustratingly cliched) drawing heavily on Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, at Scott's insistence. I tried to read that book, and I gave up halfway through because the pseudo-science and philosophical hedging was driving me insane, but I noticed a really strong strain of resentment from the author toward all the actual scientists who were dismissive of his ideas. So I think that's very likely intentional in Prometheus - the implication that scientists are all incompetent and their theories are all based on highly selective interpretations of evidence. Of course, Von Daniken himself was doing just what he was accusing his detractors of doing - cherry-picking evidence that could (with a bit of intellectual and perceptual twisting and turning) be used to support his own claims.

    That's all I got :)

  3. I've since heard details of the original script, and I don't know why they let Lindelhof trash it. There was evidently some promise at one point.

    Alas, I just don't think they know what's the point of the thing: to prequel, or not to prequel? But then, I hate prequels anyway.

    I'll be skipping the sequel, if they ever make one.