11 June, 2012

Too Many Words About Prometheus

I'll try my best to avoid spoilers (those are mostly at the back-end of this article, past the obligatory Mark Kermode video), though I feel that's kind of silly. By now I figure you've already seen it or decided not to see it, though, so, I don't know: Here we are.

I'll get the big spoiler out of the way: I liked this movie quite a bit. Once you get past the hype what you have is a film experience that's worth having and it's worth having with as little input from other people-- the media, your friends, those dicks on the internet, or even me-- as possible. It benefits from the mystery, which, is also something of a strike against it. Without the shock and the glamor Prometheus isn't a brilliant movie, but it is a pretty good one.

There's a lot of talk about this movie being stacked up alongside The Phantom Menace, which is neither fair to Sir Ridley Scott nor Mr. Plinkett's apt review. What you have in the form of Prometheus is a big, bold piece of populist science fiction that wants to be both entertaining and intruding, but doesn't quite succeed on either count.

If you want to talk about disappointment we could always talk about Alien Versus Predator. Or Alien Versus Predator: Requiem for that matter and Prometheus is, thankfully, a far better movie than most of the Alien sequels and more than a few other high-budget science fiction movies.

Alright, folks, this is a long and rambling one. . . 

 Instead of going on and on about how this is Fassbender's show (which everyone else on Earth seems to think, so I'll not waste my breath), I want to talk about Charlize Theron, because she is my favorite character in the film (I mean, besides Fassbender).

She's the kind of cold, heartless bitch you would expect "the Company" would send, though instead of just being this1980's-style go-getter (like Burke or maybe Ellis from Die Hard) what you have is an ambitious woman that somehow ends up being more cold than the android David and seemingly more vulnerable than Dr. Shaw. She's a scared little girl that can't show her fear and who thinks that being human is some sort of weakness. That's kind of amazing to see in a six-something Academy Award winning Amazon. It's a shame she is so good and her character has so much going on behind the curtains because in the end, she's wasted like so many of the other characters.

I also think the reveal with her character could have been more intelligently executed than it was. The second that scene began I know what it was about and didn't need the kind of awkward telegraphing that we got. That's more or less the entire problem of the film. Instead of subtext we get statements and instead of characters we get set pieces quite literally coming down on them. It's like watching a great gymnastic set where somebody flubs the landing.

Noomi Rapace also deserves a commendation for the energy she put into the role, even if her character wasn't particularly interesting. Then again, we all knew she could pull off "intensity," right?

A problem in the movie-- and it is a fundamental problem-- is that Prometheus doesn't really present a coherent theme like Alien or a coherent narrative like Alien, but to be fair Alien is just a haunted house movie in space. It doesn't hold together as a uniform piece of work neither in theme nor in the characters or in anything else that would have turned this into a great film.

It's unfair for me to raise this comparison having seen Alien twenty or so times and studied it and written about it and having only seen Prometheus the once. This fact remains that Alien was about subtext and small things adding up to something much bigger and much more clever than space truckers fighting the It Came From Outer Space. Prometheus wears its themes on its sleeves and it doesn't benefit from this. It doesn't come off as bold, it comes off as clunky (that is if it wasn't so confused about what it was).

This movie satisfies in all of the ways that a movie like this should, though. It's chock full of gore and Gigerian-style horrors, yet it doesn't feel as raw as Alien or as intense as Aliens (though it does feel more whole than Alien 3 and less silly than Alien: Resurrection). I wanted more out of this movie and I get the feeling a lot of the most virulently disappointed thought so as well, but that doesn't mean that what's there isn't exciting and worth seeing. And it is, damnit!

In a way the people behind Prometheus kind of set itself up for a fall. How can you make a prequel that isn't a prequel and sell a movie connected to a known franchise and at the same time tell people that it has nothing to do with it? The confused sales pitch is strangely endemic of the final product itself.

I'm a sucker for the sort of massive world that Prometheus presents. I mean, I liked Avatar for fuck's sake. I like the idea of a science fiction film trying to do something big and audacious and at great cost. It's one thing to make a (find a low budget sci-fi film), but its another thing to make a movie about blue Indians for half of a billion dollars, especially when that film isn't necessarily a slam-bang action picture like Prometheus is. That takes a kind of combination of balls and madness that I appreciate. Avatar, is also a film that clearly put a lot of thought into building a world, even if almost none of the R and D ended up in the story. That is cool to watch.
And to further compromise my opinion, I actually enjoy Alien 3 (and Alien: Resurrection which, for my money, is Joss Whedon's greatest contribution to the craft of writing). And I enjoy it for some of the same basic reasons as I enjoyed Avatar, which is that it has enough crazy and interesting things in it to make it work despite all of its many, many flaws (also, despite popular opinion neither film is as colossally terrible as everyone says they are). A less creative director, I think, would have been satisfied with just making another version of Alien, but set in, I don't know, an airport, or just add even more aliens and assume that was going to work (hey, it did the first time!).

Instead they set the movie on a prison planet. With Double-Y chromosome offenders. And they're in an apocalyptic cult. And Ripley is pregnant.And bald. And there's Tywin Lannister.And they don't have a finished script. And everyone else died somehow! It might not be a great film (it isn't), but if you're going to fail at making a movie at least make it as batshit insane as humanly possible. At least no one can fault you for lacking creativity. (Sorry, William Gibson, but it just wasn't meant to be!)

Prometheus is better than either of these movies because it isn't just setting and it isn't just design, there is an actual film with actual ideas behind it. There are interesting things going on and even when it does swerve into the territory of the modern sci-fi/action movie, it does so in an equally weird and visually interesting way.

Just knowing that a movie as thunderously simple as Avatar exist and sequels as malformed as Alien 3 also exist that makes me feel that Prometheus is by comparison that much better of a film. Now there's a qualifying statement!

What is important to me is that Prometheus could present a modern starting point for popular science fiction. Soft science fiction and actiony pulp like The Avengers or Men in Black III already exist in droves, but this kind of bizarre and exploratory science fiction we haven't really had since the 1980's. I mean, again, I like Avatar, but that's the biggest sci-fi epic of our time? Come on! That's pathetic! We're a better people than that! (We're also a better people than to fall for gimmicks like 3D, but that's neither here nor there). Genres like science-fiction are more than set-ups for big fat explosions (not that I mind a big fat explosion every once and a while).

Dr. deGrasse Tyson is right, space is an exciting place, damnit! There's no reason it shouldn't be. New worlds, in whatever form they may be is something worth seeing in films. Instead of adapting comic books (oops) or rebooting franchises nobody remembers or cares about or making toys people hate into film or just generally trying to find new ways to get blood from a stone, let's go explore! And while Prometheus isn't a perfect film, it perfectly encapsulates the kind of benevolent insanity that makes film such a powerful medium.

I realize that independent films have been making clever science fiction movies for years (Primer, Time Crimes, Moon immediately pop to mind). There's no reason that should be and the sad reality is that film making has become so safe and so willfully stillborn that it's slowly started to eat itself. Iron Man 2 made six-hundred million dollars so of course they're going to make more Iron Man movies and more movies like it even if it wasn't any good. Popular films deserve to be smarter than they are, because if we relegate cleverness to the indy circuits we're going to end up with more Transformers and more Pirates of the Caribbean and we'll be fucked and we'd have deserved it and the terrorists will have won.

People aren't afraid of clever things. Inception proved this and Avatar proved that people want science fiction and Wall-E probed that people also want clever science fiction. If you give audiences the chance to see something smart or even something weird they will bite. People aren't dumb. They want to see amazing things and maybe Prometheus can be one more proof of that idea. Maybe it can prove that normal people to experience some goddamn art that is slightly unusual!

It's crazy enough that it just might work!

(And before you bring it up, don't even get me started about John Carter nee Of Mars. It's like Disney wanted that film to fail.)

Mark Kermode was right in using the word "temerity" in regards to this film. The fact that it was made is almost pleasing enough to give it a pass. I don't need to though, because there is much more to like and ponder over in this movie besides the aesthetics. For all of its ambition, though, Prometheus doesn't hang together.

I love the Alien series about as much as I can love a franchise. My closet is packed with action figures and my bookshelves have at least three different aliens protecting them.It's not enough, though, so say that the sequel (fingers-crossed) will fix all or the extended cut will give us further insight (it worked for Kingdom of Heaven!). The movie is quite good and the real shame isn't that it's an Alien film that is quite good, it's that it's a massively budgeted sci-fi film with a perfect cast and director that is only "quite good."

Then again, if every mistep in film were more like Prometheus cinema would be in a much healtheir place.

Anyways, I don't completely agree with the good doctor (or his correspondents). Here's his review, though, because, hey, what's wrong with a second opinion?At least he seems to know what the hell he's talking about.

(Actually, before we get to that I pretty much agree with the guys at Half in the Bag, even if I am slightly more enthusiastic about the movie than they are.)

Also: I am going to endeavor to find my award winning essay on gender and sexuality in the movie Alien. If not for you then for my inevitably compromised grad school application.

So, here come the Spoilers. Fuck off if it's not July 2013 if you don't want that sort of thing.

*Where did all of the medical professionals go? I think one of them got killed by the Engineer, right? Where did everyone else go? Also, Lisbeth Salander had to cut that thing out of her and she was supposedly quarantined, right? Then why the hell were they letting her loose if she was infectious? They torched one guy over the exact same thing, but they let her run around in fucking ace bandages, covered in blood and monster crud? Come on. You're a better movie than that. Also did her doctors just evaporate? Or did the captain accidentally incinerate them too?

*I really am not alright with the amount of mysteries that were solved in this movie. Does the conclusion just mean that the eponymous alien was a bio-weapon? I guess it means that it might be and it might mean that it was itself taken from an alien world. Overall the mystery of the movie Alien and the Alien series was an integral part of the whole thing. To dispel it-- however successfully it may or may not have done so-- is fairly off-putting. I'd say it was blasphemy if I was any more entitled. . . Actually thinking back on it I've found people complaining about the exact opposite problem-- Not enough was explained. There were too many mysteries. It seems you can't please everyone.

*When I ask stupid nerd questions what I am really hoping for is this lengthy response to fan mail by James Cameron regarding Aliens. It's not as interesting as an article as it is as a thing that exists. Can you imagine him pulling that for Avatar? Or anyone? For anything?

*Needs more Giger.

*I kind of want to see it in 3D now. You know, for research purposes.

*Here's a list of questions about the black goo. I have no answers for this. This is frustrating. Also I'm linking to the Huffington Post and I hate that site.

*The whole beginning reminds me of The Cave of Forgotten Dreams mostly because several of the paintings were taken verbatim from the Chauvet caves. That isn't over-education, that's just memory. What's more is that cave painting rarely ever included people (as I understand it), so the juxtaposition of the key paintings of people and paintings of horses taken from a cave and an era that had no paintings of people is an odd thought to have, I realize.

Mostly I thought "Oh, jeese! You better seal off the entrance or you're going to expose those paintings to decay!" There are hostile aliens romping around and the whole premise of the movie revolves around technology that doesn't exist, yet, there I was sitting next to my dad wondering how they were going to preserve those paintings.

*This movie has a border terrier in it! I have a border terrier! My puppy is in Prometheus! And on Mars!

*Wait, so does this mean that AvP is in continuity? Could it not be? Please?

*Regarding David's Fate: Did we need one more android being decapitated? I get the reference. Most people probably get the reference, but that's the third android in five films to be specifically decapitated. (UPDATE: My friend Sef has corrected me that Bishop still had a few of his upper bits left in Alien 3. I will concede the point. . . but still!).

*Fritz Coleman was at the theater with me. This is irrelevant to the overall experience, but I just wanted to put that out there: Weatherman Fritz fuckin' Coleman.

*Lisbeth Salander's whole birth scene kind of got undercut with my knowledge of the fact that The Fly exists. . . I guess that might be true of the snake V. arm scene, as well.

*Watching David watch Lawrence of Arabia means that there must be a massive catalog of films on the Prometheus. I mean, it's 2093, you could probably fit the entire catalog of America film onto a thumb drive and still have room left-over for some mission critical pornography. In the two years on board he must have watched a lot of films. Does that mean he watched Blade Runner? I'm reminded of zombie movies where none of the survivors seem to exist in a world without zombie films. I'm not asking for metatext here, I'm just wondering if David ever got around to watching Metropolis. Or Isaac Asimov for that matter?

*Was David's head exactly where it was. . . left or did it actually shift around afterwards? I'll have to double check this, because it'll bug me either way.

*I was going to mention this earlier, but even I realized I was getting too rambly. What I wanted to say was that for some reason Sunshine didn't pop to mind except when I saw one of the actors and I thought, "Is that the other Asian guy in Sunshine?" Maybe! Only Ridley Scott can know for sure! Now if there's a perfect example of two-thirds of a great film, I don't know what is.

*Also, for the record, Alien 3 has a xenomorph in it, which might just compromise my stance on this entire swathe of artistic expression. I also like Terminator 4 mostly because it did speak to the action figure collector inside of me. Or maybe it all just stems from my inborn weakness for James Cameron? By the way, where is my Abyss sequel? Come on, Hollywood, get with it!

*I should buy the BFI book on Alien. Does that exist? I should find out.

*Regarding the crew's hyper-sleep: That scene has to be there because it ties the film back into the mythology of Alien, which always has a waking up scene of some variety. My question is that because David is left to his own devices to maintain the ship (and presumably deal with any emergencies that may arise) then why was Bishop also put into deep freeze? I understand why this was done at the end of Aliens, but why in the beginning? I guess so that we can have the reveal that he's a "goddamn robot," but isn't that an inconsistency or am I just being anal? I feel like that is the most minor of problems in the whole course of this film.

*Oh, shit, I just remembered how Ash fit into all of this. Man. That's a whole other thing I've got to worry about now, isn't it?

*I say this with all of the affection in the world, but Prometheus reminded me of a two hour long Fallout Vault mission. It's all there. It's a self-contained, mysterious structure that is crammed full of occult science crap. There's mad science, there's conflicting interests, and there's a bunch of memorable set pieces. I think coming at it from this direction this movie is a lot more pleasing because instead of big answers you get a lot of questions and this weird, singular slice of this bigger and more malevolent world. But maybe that's just making excuses? My big point is that this movie does fit rather well into the tradition of a one-off sci-fi tale.

*The fact that I've spouted on for 3,000 words means that it's good, right? It has to.