Monday, 4 June 2012

Prometheus: the Greek god of pants?

33 years ago, Ridley Scott released Alien. The following two decades saw three sequels - one superlative, two not so much - all independent of Scott. But the film series still managed to carve itself a place in cinema history, and is the touchstone for science fiction / horror crossover. Now Scott has returned to the wellspring, bringing with him understandably high expectations from the fans who've followed the series over four decades (that'll be me then). Can the "Master" bring his winning touch back to the franchise and rejuvenate it for past and present generations of cinema-goers?

The one word answer is: no. The slightly longer answer is: abso-fucking-lutely not - what the hell was he thinking with this gibberish? The film, Prometheus, was always going to be something of a high-wire act - a long-established film series with a legion of fans and a mountain of expectation - but it's still pretty staggering just how misplaced Scott's return is. In constructing this folly, he's certainly brought his full director-as-god weight down on branding the franchise as his - for good or ill - and I think that he's possibly even managed to poison it for good.

Spoilers ahead - not that anything I say could possibly spoil this!

To be fair, the film does have a smattering of good points. Much to its credit, it at least tries to something different. The film series has steadily become swamped in its own history and in particular themes and tropes, and while Prometheus apes some of these, it certainly charts some new (if wholly misconstrued) directions. Given that we live in an era of weapons of mass destruction (most likely phantom ones), I did actually quite like its presentation of the Alien as a biotechnological WMD. For just a moment there it felt like something interesting was being said. Just a moment though. The film even manages to steer surprisingly wide of the actual Alien part of the franchise. Of course, it can't resist a closing nod to the fanboys, but it doesn't rely on the familiar figure of the Alien for almost its whole length. And, finally, the film almost does something interesting and novel with its (requisite) android character. David is quite different from the corporate traitor Ash, the ambiguous-but-good Bishop and the conflicted Call. His kill-your-maker sentiments are much more interesting than the film gives them credit for, and it ultimately leaves exploration of them at skin deep level - Scott showing his hand as a hack who simply can't spot good subplots.

Documenting the bad points of Prometheus is hampered from the get-go: where to start? There are just so many missteps, unfinished thoughts and broken promises. Leaving aside the plot stupidities and holes - which I will touch on shortly - top of the heap is that the film makes the exact same mistake concerning its characters that the franchise's lesser sequels - Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection - make. Namely, a suite of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs given about two lines apiece to establish themselves before characterisation is firmly transferred to the back-burner. And where character in the film is actually suggested by more than a thin stereotype - basically David and (Ripley stand-in) Elizabeth Shaw - Scott still manages to sabotage things. David's hinted plot arc is largely aborted, while Shaw is an unbelievable and unsympathetic scientist that Scott tries to bludgeon into human shape by giving her a dead dad and an inability to have children (until ... well, until the film needs an unconvincing jolt of body-horror). Given that Scott's original film managed to convey (as much as a science fiction film can) a suite of intellectually and emotionally different characters, one is left with the feeling that this must have all been in the script then, since there's nothing on show here to suggest that he understood what he was doing back in 1979.

Regarding specific stupid points, the most ridiculous - and telling - for me was how the film dispatches Vickers. A large narrow object is collapsing towards you - do you run along the direction of collapse, or turn 90 degrees and run away from it? Is this seriously the best that the writers could do? Actually, that's pretty rhetorical - it seems an entirely fitting response from the writers of this film. Another awful misstep was an Alien birth (by caesarian!) that's a shameless gorefest (and from which the character recovers remarkably quickly). It makes even less sense, both dramatically and scientifically, than that in Alien Resurrection - at least that served the theme of motherhood pretty well, and nicely brought the franchise around full circle. And while making things superficially interesting, Prometheus' alterations to the Alien lifecycle (a "crime" for which Alien 3 was attacked at the time) arguably make it completely incoherent. Gone are the classic anthropomorphic horrors, now replaced by more plastic - but much less iconic - rejects from The Thing. At times, it's almost as if Scott wants to reinvent the whole series again from scratch, dashing even his own contribution from 33 years ago as he goes.

There are also gaping credibility issues like the space jockeys having a "perfect match" with human DNA but looking more like marble gods (Titans, perhaps?) than humans - plus the convenient failure by the writers to remember that humans have a whole slew of inconveniently closely related animal cousins back on Earth. The film also offers only the scantiest of scant hints about what the space jockeys were up to, including what turns out to be a pretty inexplicable opening sequence that seems portentous but winds up pointless. Given that we have a living, breathing space jockey at one point, and given that the film isn't in the least reluctant to spoon-feed the audience exposition from the lips of its characters, this could have been easily rectified. The film makers might well claim that leaving viewers confused preserves some mystery, but I suspect that it instead preserves the illusion that the writers had the first clue what they were doing - this is all straight Chariots of the Gods stuff.

Finally, I can't let pass Prometheus' shameless teeing up of a sequel at the end. Its precursor films always ended fairly definitively, usually accompanied by a sigh of relief from the surviving characters. Sequels weren't precluded (except by Alien 3 - and look how that worked out), but a roadmap to them wasn't sketched out before the credits roll. Here, the film ends with characters heading off with a definite purpose (albeit a misguided one), patently angling for a future cash-injection. Scott has come a long way since the cold and bleak ending of Alien.

Overall, Prometheus further cements my long-standing opinion of Scott as a hack who got lucky. Good scripts occasionally drift over his desk, and he has done a good job in the past of turning some of these into perfectly creditable films (although, as I've noted before, sometimes only with the first cut). This film also cements my annoyance with the equating of the success of a film as a piece of art (high-brow or otherwise) with the director rather than with the writer. To wit, Prometheus - it's got Ridley Scott at the helm, who cares about the writer - what could possibly go wrong? Again and again, all credit for a successful film is delivered with great fanfare at the door of its director, with nary a scrap left for the creator that first breathed life into it. Yes, it's still the case that a good director is needed to turn a great script into a great film, but character and plot are gifts from the writer that a director gives form and shape to. Given this film, as well as some of his earlier efforts, Scott would appear not to know a good script if it jumped out of someone's chest and bit him.

I might be being too harsh here. I might soften in my views as time passes and focus on the places where the film slightly lives up to expectations. But I hope not. It's a wretched film really - largely because of its conception rather than execution. Unfortunately, it will make money, most likely a lot of money, so I fear for another return - but it will be difficult to clear up the mess left by this film regardless of how good the script is. Much as the space jockeys were hoping to do in the film's mythology, perhaps Scott has finally "salted the Earth" on the franchise?

A few curious points also occurred to me about the film.
  • The aged Weyland bears more than a passing resemblance, physically and ethically, to Rupert Murdoch. Coincidence?
  • While Ripley knows to do the right thing in Alien (don't let Kane back onboard the Nostromo) and survives, Vickers does the same but dies.
  • In Alien the space jockey ship carried a warning about its contents, but here it's strongly implied (though we don't know for sure because they never get to tell us) that the space jockeys were up to no good. Which is it Ridley?
  • Much as with other science fiction prequels, the technology on display in this film seems much more advanced (touchscreens, 3D holograms) than that in the earlier films (CRTs, big buttons) that purport to be occurring later. Haven't the continuity supervisors spotted this yet?


Deditos said...

Oh good, I'm glad someone else has said it; I've made similar (but more restrained) comments to friends and just got back from them please-don't-spoil-our-fun looks. It's disappointing that it's just another piece of bland, off the shelf action sci-fi with, like you say, cookie cutter characters and expository dialogue. And that's before you start to question how much of it actually makes sense. What happened to the thoughtful tangent away from the Aliens franchise that I was expecting?

Last night I re-viewed Alien and, sadly, the stream of parodies over the years (Red Dwarf, French and Saunders) has stripped it of much of its power. The thing that stood out though was that the conversations all felt real, whether it's dinner table banter or work place tensions. When one character tells another to "shut up and eff off" you really believe that they mean it. They mumble, they moan and they don't get on. Compare that with the pretty and noble crew of the Prometheus and... well just don't, it'll depress you.

Flat dialogue isn't a problem that's unique to Prometheus though. The multi-author screenplay revisions and test screenings that bookend big budget film making iron out any real authorship that may creep into the process, despite what it may say at the top of the poster. Incidentally, in your writer versus director comments you miss out another important player: the editor. They are also unsung, but just as important in creating plot and character as they are in maintaining the creations of the writer and director. I wouldn't separate the latter two without also separating the former.

Plumbago said...

Glad to hear that I'm not alone too. We caught Mark Kermode on the film last Friday, and he was pretty positive. Not without criticism, but overall he gave it more than enough praise to persuade me that I had little to worry about and even something to look forwards to. D'oh!

I've actually not seen Alien in quite a long time, so I'm not sure if it stands up as well in the flesh as it does in my memory. However, we did catch Aliens late last year (over here), and I thought that it stood the test of time admirably. Though I do say that as a shameless fanboy.

Yes, I did miss out editors, but I'd completely agree with you. I think that many backroom staff in the film industry get a pretty raw deal from critics and journalists - and even the industry itself. It's all about the director, no-one else seems to matter - hence my rant. (Actually, on this precise point, who did write The Player? I know who directed it ...)

Changing the subject completely, while Prometheus was a fiasco, I did quite enjoy Moonrise Kingdom. Not Anderson's best, but its failings seem positively miniscule now! And on screens now!

Anonymous said...

Agree with all of the above, but I enjoyed it because of the way it looked nice and stupid characters died in amusing ways. Oh, and perhaps because I don't have any great expectation of Mr Scott. Plus I am very, very shallow.

Alien was on t.v. over the weekend and it's still much, much better than Prometheus...

Dr Lovell

Plumbago said...

Actually, I think I'm more shallow for making such a mountain out of this (multi-million dollar) molehill! I think it's my intolerance of frauds - I wonder where that comes from? ;-)

Anyway, thanks for stopping by Strange News. I think you might even find your fair visage brightening up the scenery somewhere below this article. :-)

In passing, why anonymous? Are you not - courtesy of your Android phone - one of the Googlista, with a Gmail account and everything? Or is it just MS that insists on linking a phone and an e-mail account?

Anonymous said...

I do have a google account, which is required for my phone, but never use it when not on my phone (I'm using my very old fashioned laptop to write this). Why would I...? I'm old fashioned as well as shallow.

I enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom too. I'm a fan of Wesley Wales Mortimer "Wes" Anderson, but as each film comes out they all seem to confirm that, like Burton, he's something of a one trick pony. Still, it's a pretty good trick, and as long as you sit back and just enjoy the ride, it's a nice way to spend 90 mins or so.

Plumbago said...

Re: Google, I was thinking, of course, of posterity. In centuries to come, future digital archaeologists brushing virtual dust from the cracked facade of this abandoned blog might be left wondering just who this "Anonymous" was from whom such words of timeless wisdom issued. That was all. Of course, I do say this from the position as someone hiding behind a nom de guerre here.

Re: Wes Anderson, I'd kind-of agree. The comparison with Burton is a pretty good one, since both have a well-defined style and aesthetic that they rarely depart from (Burton's Planet of the Apes is one instance where he does, disastrously, do this). I think Anderson is a little more human in his concerns than Burton, who tends to the fantastic, but both are pretty whimsical at the best of times. I think Anderson does deviate a little from his "one trick" in Fantastic Mr. Fox - though I suppose only really in style.

Anyway, as you say, both Anderson and Burton are - usually - an excellent way to expend 90 minutes. And, reflecting on this, I'm now just all angry about Prometheus again ...

Deditos said...

I'd forgotten that Anderson did Mr Fox. I was thinking that his last one was (the slightly disappointing) Darjeeling Limited. But even at his worst Anderson is still watchable.

Burton at his worst is, well, Alice In Wonderland. Now there's a film that incites the Promethean anger in me.

But on a positive note, I watched and enjoyed Chronicle this week. Shallow, funny, well made and recommended.

Plumbago said...

Yes, Darjeeling Limited was a bit disappointing. I'm not quite sure what Anderson was trying to say with it, so its collision of western naval-gazing with developing-world poverty didn't quite come off for me. But I still enjoyed it.

Alice in Wonderland passed me by. I've been a little shy of Burton since Planet of the Apes (which looks even worse after Rise ...) so it hasn't even graced our DVD list. Sounds like it should stay that way.

I'll keep an eye out for Chronicle - I don't think that I've heard about it before now. Thanks for the tip.

Graham said...

Wow! A bit harsh, no? I've finally got round to watching it and thoroughly enjoyed it...

Plumbago said...

Not nearly harsh enough! ;-) To be fair, I'm really evaluating it against the other Alien films and not against films in general. It's not a terrible film period [*], but it is a terrible Alien film period. Much of my bile (apologies!) stems from my overall perception of Ridley Scott returning to a favourite film franchise - and one he kicked off - only to befoul it. Bad hack-director, bad!

[*] But it is pretty dumb and cliché-ridden.

Graham said...

At least it's no AVP 2 :)

Interestingly enough, I came across this today

Although it doesn't really count as it's not Mr Scott directing it.

Plumbago said...

Fortunately, I've yet to sample the delights of the cinematic AvP2 - the first AvP film was a good advert for avoiding subsequent entries in the series (unlike the corresponding videogame series). As such, extrapolating from what I've seen, I can believe it that Prometheus leaves with some dignity.

I've only ever seen Alien 3 the once, and while I wasn't impressed at the time, perhaps it does require a period of maturing before entering a balanced appraisal? To be fair, it was part of a double-bill at a fleapit cinema in Eagle Rock, so I probably wasn't seeing it under optimum conditions ...