Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie and want to, both due to spoilers and because this movie $&@! suuuuuuucked. No two ways about it, I’m afraid.
First the good: This movie is pretty. It’s very pretty. It’s the prettiest Sci-Fi movie made since Blade Runner (well, since The Fountain, really, but definitely the prettiest one to feature traditional spaceships instead of bubbles with trees in them). I have no problem saying that. See it in IMAX 3D and you will have redeemed the price of your ticket. Or better, watch a trailer, preferably in IMAX 3D. I’m going to give you a little image gallery here, so again, if you want to be left with happy thoughts about Prometheus, stop here.
But for those of you who expect something more from your Sci-Fi, (or heck, from movies in general) this is going to be the most disappointing movie you’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a film squander so much potential.
Prometheus is not unique among modern attempts at revisiting the grandeur of the good old days of big budget Sci-Fi. They’re all colorful toyboxes of ideas, some recycled and some new, that can’t quite coalesce into a coherent whole, and finally end up revealing that there may not have been anything particularly novel in them to begin with. It’s as if they simply started on the wrong side of the bed. The most obvious comparison is the Star Wars prequels. Super 8 was a flat nostalgia trip that didn’t ever evoke wonder or fear. John Carter was similarly frustrating. Terminator: Salvation was baffling. Avatar was a decent film that overplayed its attempts at gravitas just enough to be forgettable. Star Trek was good, but could just as easily have fallen into the abyss of its convoluted plot.
But Prometheus may be the most irksome of the lot. It achieved in me, a special status of disappointment that I previously only reserved for the Star Wars prequels. Like those films, Prometheus evokes an Alice in Wonderland-esque frustration that goes beyond logical explanation. It’s more than what’s in the film (a beautiful mess of astronauts, monsters and religious symbolism) or whether or not it made sense (it didn’t). It has to do with the displeasing rhythm of the picture. Badly-crafted characters are compelled by indecipherable motivations to pursue ill-defined goals through strangely disjointed set pieces toward a whimpering conclusion that satisfies no one and even has the gall to shake its finger at your hope for a satisfactory conclusion. Peppered throughout are scenes which appear to have been designed to lend emotional weight or thematic meaning to the story, but are curiously devoid of content that would suggest such a reaction, like swelling music over a puppet show. If it wasn’t so deadpan and over-serious it could be re-aired on Adult Swim as comic absurdity along the lines of 3 oz. Mouse or Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The result is a movie that doesn’t quite feel like a movie.
Prometheus is indeed influenced by Alien, but it is far from harmonious. It’s more like a Girl Talk remix of Alien’s tropes than variations on a theme. The original artist behind the original monster’s hellish design, H.R. Giger, finds his set dressing well replicated but his characters, the nightmare creatures themselves and their god-like father figures, changed forever and for the worse. Giger’s metaphorical landscape, Freudian psycho-sexuality, is translated into the most horrible blunt-ended picture language. The phallic curves of the Necronomicon are boiled down to the grossest imaginable mash-up of the two sexual organs:
Sigh. Yes, that’s what-you-think-it-is stuck onto a you-know-what. So much film these days confuses poetry with fetish, and Prometheus is evidence that we’ve crossed over completely from the former to the latter. We no longer expect images to be artfully framed. They’re just images now which, through the ‘magic’ of special effects (which is now, simply a byword for post-production), are expected to speak for themselves, with no auteur to guide them.
It’s hard to know where to lay blame. Most are laying it at the door of the script’s re-writer Damon Lindelof, co-writer of LOST, lead writer on Star Trek and a host of other kind-of-good Sci-Fi projects. I personally am loathe to blame him solely for this hack-job of a movie, particularly because I’ve always been fond of his work, particularly on LOST, and also because I’m completely uninterested in the mindless debates that tend to revolve around his work: that of ‘ambiguity’ and whether or not modern American audiences are comfortable with it. Ambiguity is nothing to me. It doesn’t make a film good, it doesn’t make a film bad. It’s nil. It’s not a thing that you consciously inject into a film, nor is it an erudite baton to wave at critics who pan your work for not satisfying them. A story may or may not be ambiguous, and both sorts of films, whether easily comprehensible or not, have an equal shot at being good or bad depending upon how the story elements are presented. I am going to end this blaming Lindelof for one thing, but for now I think discussion is best focused on what nobody’s talking about: the visuals.
I said earlier that this film is pretty. That’s obvious. It is not, however, effective or convincing on a visceral level. I’m not simply talking about the quality or fidelity of the images, but everything involved with the visuals: the cuts, the camerawork, the pans the zooms, holds, the movement. As a whole, the atmosphere of Prometheus fails, not because it does not look like a convincing alien planet with archaeological alien remains, but because the camera never drinks it in.
Scott, the visual-obsessed commercial director who stunned the world with Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, has fallen prey to a force that has felled all the great visual directors in recent years from Spielberg to Lucas: that of efficiency overwhelming atmosphere. My largest complaint: shorter cuts. I do not mind the look of computer generated special effects. I often enjoy watching them. I grew up in the days of Jurassic Park and Pixar and enjoyed every minute of it. My quarrel is not with the look of CG effects, it’s the camerawork it often produces: namely, many quick shots cobbled together to create a whole scene, rather than longer, slower takes that establish atmosphere and character headspace. I don’t really know how to express what I mean completely. The best I can do is to challenge you to count the seconds between each cut. With modern effects tech, it doesn’t take more than two, maybe three seconds per shot to establish what you’re seeing. The result is not that the images are any less convincing, it’s just that we’re never given very much time with them. Moreover, the actors are never given enough time with them. Much has been said of the tangibility of sets versus green-screen and CGI overlays, but Prometheus, which used physical sets for the majority of its environments, has convinced me that it’s not entirely the tangibility of the effects but the time and care spent establishing them that comes up lacking.
Consider the Nostromo landing sequence from Alien. It’s a series of takes involving the cast literally bobbling in their chairs as the set jiggles around them. Quick cuts to primitive computer readouts enhance the experience through virtualized imagery that often doesn’t really make sense, but certainly seems to. The sound effects swell to a roar. Overall it’s a 4+ minute scene that feels harrowing even if the miniatures aren’t in themselves convincing. I realize that the length of those sorts of takes were due to necessity, but it’s a necessity that lent much needed gravity and atmosphere to the film.
These bland, truncated edits also sap characters of their gravitas. Noomi Rapace, the film’s protagonist is given no time to be a good character, and she consistently comes off as blank-faced and dull. A bear with very little brain. The best character in the film, David, an android played to a T by Michael Fassbender, is given a little solo romp through the empty spacecraft Prometheus in the opening scenes of the film. On paper, the scene is novel, and in reality, it could have been beautiful. Instead, it is simply nice to look at and ‘works’ in a way that makes you look back on it later and say ‘ah, I see what that was about’. The scene has the double-purpose of introducing us to the spaceship environment (though, as it turns out, the introduction will serve no purpose), and to introduce us to the character of David and subtly suggests that he has developed quite a vivacious inner life separate from his creators (though nothing in the film can give us any sort of coherent idea of what his motivations are. David is the best acted character in the movie, but he is also the poorest written, because he just does things for no reason. He’s the guy that screws people and helps people whenever the plot needs him to). The scene is necessary and visually captivating. Then why is it so fruitless? It’s too. dang. short. The scene flies by our eyes, still adjusting to the magnificent 3D images, with the cool rhythm of a television commercial, fitting as Scott was a commercial director before he was in the movie business. The photographic skill learned in television marketing informed his heroic success in making the Nostromo in Alien the beautiful, industrial temple of fear that it was. But now, things have come full circle and today’s slick marketing has infected the form of the picture as well. It’s just a bit too perfect, too silky to be a window into a twenty-first century spacecraft.
Contrast this with the full minute of completely silent shots of The Nostromo’s interior before the computers wink to life, the alien transmission is received and the story begins. We are thoroughly haunted forty-five minutes before the alien even appears. Don’t get me wrong, Prometheus’s sets are sumptuous, David’s actions are properly intriguing, but they just don’t last long enough to be weighty. An environment onscreen for 3-4 seconds is an establishing shot. It says “okay, here you are” before moving on. Leave it there for 5-6 seconds and things get tense. 7-8 seconds and you’re wondering what it means that you’re there, and just before you’re allowed to think to much, you cut away. I kept wanting the camera to linger as he rode around the empty gymnasium on a bicycle, steering with one hand, aimlessly shooting hoops with the other. I wanted the camera to push and pull lovingly as we give Fassbender a chance to act in intervals longer than 3-4 seconds apiece. But no, we must move on, cut down that runtime so that we can get on to the important things: worms, goo, storms and blunt-ended big questions.
If Ridley Scott really wanted us to think about the big questions while watching Prometheus, then he would have given us the time to do so. The human mind can imagine so much if only given the time and space. It is true that the length of these establishing shots were mostly due to the lack of technology available. It simply took a lot more work to make you believe that you were on a spaceship, in an alien ruin or on a distant planet. It’s not as difficult anymore since computer modeling can give us an exact picture of what we’re supposed to see, but the transition has come at the expense of mood. Even the trademark Ridley Scott smoke permeating the atmosphere had to be cleaned up to make the 3D effects work. The alien ship is no longer a misty moor but an air-conditioned hallway. We trust our computers to imagine for us and move the film along with an ADD clip. Non-linear editing software allows us to so fine-tune these scenes that we can actually clip of fractions of seconds from many scenes, evening the frames out into a slick, crisp flow of images that fails to haunt, shock or mystify.
But Prometheus isn’t really about the big questions in life, as much as it may pretend to be. It’s about leaving grandeur behind and being content with what we’ve got. According to the script, we aren’t supposed to ask those questions anyway, or hope to see something brilliant, something mystifying, something transcendent, because apparently that would be silly for creatures like us. The thematic content of Prometheus boils down to something like a mushy sermon the likes of which one might be likely to hear from an English pulpit these days. It’s okay to wonder about these things, God, creation and all the rest, but don’t expect satisfaction from the universe, or you’ll become a fanatic, turn on your friends and get slimed in the process.
Besides, there’s a good chance God (or gods in this case) doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing either and he probably doesn’t even like you. It’s just too clear that the creators of Prometheus have fashioned the Engineers in their own image: they’re just as dumb as the dull scientists investigating them. They run around helplessly, get overwhelmed by their own evil devices without a single hint at a coherent motivation. ‘The gods are not so different from us’ is an age-old theme, and one that could be (and has been) expressed interestingly, but deconstructing the transcendent Good in the universe without giving us an alternative, only serves to build another one to transcendent Evil. There’s even something in the alien ruins that appears to be an an altar to the alien Xenomorph, the satanic antagonist that first visited us in 1979 in Scott’s Alien.
In a dramatic sense, we can no longer count on God to excite us, but we can sure count on Satan. This works well in a movie like Alien which only hints at a broader mythology for a single scene before terrorizing us with a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse that pits humanity against pure evil. In Prometheus, Evil (capital E) a crutch. In lieu of developing any sort of original vision of meaning or purpose in the world of the film or in the story, we can always count on a nice, slithery creeper to worm its way into somebody’s ovaries and give us a good, concise scare, before heading back out into the wasteland of the film’s actual plot. But the devaluation of Good also leads to the devaluation of Evil. There is no precious life to lose, just a dark and lonely one that just kind of sucks in general. Slimy, slithery death has no sting when the whole world is just sort of disappointing in general, and thus the squid delivered by C-section from Shaw’s stomach is not malicious like the one that attached itself to Kane’s face. Instead it’s just gross. Suffice it to say that the former has not yet shown up in my dreams and the other one does regularly, precisely because there is meaning attached to one and not to the other. The long scenes spent with the being clutching John Hurt’s face weren’t unnecessary. They suggested the thing had some evil purpose in its activity, even though what it was had yet to be revealed. Disruption of skin is gross. Disruption of Good is scary.
Butt Scott and Lindelof have truly given us a secular alternative to both the Gospel of Christ and liberal humanism in one stroke: “Life in general is dull, boring and has no purpose. Therefore death by tentacle is not too bad.” It is anti-drama. An exchange between the android David and one of the film’s many boring characters:
David: “Are you disappointed?”
Boring guy: “Of course. I was hoping one of them would be alive so that I could talk to it. Ask it questions. Why did they create us? What is our purpose?”
David: “Why did your people make me? Did you create me for a purpose?”
Boring guy: “No. We made you because we could.”
David: “Wouldn’t it be just as disappointing to hear that from your own maker?”
Reading this exchange out of context may even give you the erroneous idea that this film even has events that merit such introspective commentary. It doesn’t. You’re just meant to sit blank-brained and take it all in, and as soon as your mind revolts and you start to, maybe think like a human being–“Hey wait a minute, why is that guy going in there? Where did that monster thing come from? What’s the point of showing us that if there’s no follow up?”–you’re chided by the script, and advised to sit back down, drink your sugar water, eat your popcorn and don’t wonder about anything beyond the what you’re seeing because the movie knows better than you. Just be now. Don’t think too hard about it like that bad guy is.
This is the absolute antithesis of Science Fiction. How can one go Beyond the Infinite if we aren’t supposed to think beyond the immediate? How can ambiguity be intriguing if there’s no promise of coherence behind its veil? Telling a riddle is intriguing because you know it means something, even if it’s hard to figure out. Saying nonsense sounds is just absurd and silly even if it’s immediately real. You need to have confidence that there’s something behind it all if it’s even worth following up on in the first place. This sort of confidence is germinated by the script and flowered by the intangibles of photography and atmosphere. Blade Runner was an obtuse script, but it had enough atmosphere and knowing looks to suggest meaning and allow the audience to piece things together for themselves. Passionate filmmaking creates the illusion of meaning, not a script that deliberately obfuscates it.
This, in the end, is my problem with Prometheus, not to mention a great deal of modern high-concept cinema. It is passionless, both in theme and visuals. A phallic vagina-snake eating its own tail, circling a void that saps it of all drama, purpose and fun. A photographic paint-by-numbers exercise that is seen and heard, but not felt. It’s not the first time a universe has been brought this low (Star Wars). Notable exceptions to this trend have come from smaller directors: Duncan Jones’ Moon, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Shane Caruth’s Primer. True to form, they are the ones whose works are most celebrated and persecuted. The Fountain was meant to be a three-hour epic before it was scrapped down to a 90-minute feature consigned to the art-house. Shane Caruth’s follow up to the cult hit Primer (widely considered to be the best time-travel film ever made) is titled A Topiary, with a finished script, a capable director and no one to finance it. Moon was a lovingly original and well-received tribute to Alien, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his follow up script, Mute a similarly thoughtful, city-based vision of the future in the style of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, was rejected flatly for the simple reason that no studio is willing to spend special effects money on an introspective Sci-Fi film. It is now being developed as a comic book. Guillermo Del Toro’s strong adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness was led on by executives, had Tom Cruise attached to star and was then put to death at the 11th hour for reasons of budget and Del Toro’s unwillingness to assure a PG-13 rating. Del Toro has later said publicly that Prometheus’ script and concepts are too similar to Lovecraft’s story for his film to be relevant. In a perfect world, the fortunes would have reversed, but where daring filmmaking once was difficult it has now become damn near impossible. Scott, Lucas, Cameron, Carpenter and Spielberg had a tough time creating their various opuses. Now the gulags they built with their success have completely shut out the new kids.
Every filmmaker doing Science Fiction filmmaking in the ‘good old days’ of high concept pictures all had one obstacle in common: to get away from what had been the standard in the past. Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and James Cameron all shared the same drive to get away from the Roger Corman B-picture mold that had defined Sci-Fi cinema up to that point. Today’s young filmmakers face a similar challenge: to get away from the comfortable norm established by once-great directors now in decline. To do so, they must remove themselves from the familiar and delve into the new; to push not just imagery but atmosphere and mood to new and creative heights and restore the soul of Science Fiction. But to do that, you have to get comfortable with the idea of God, and that’s just where Prometheus got squeamish. Worlds and stories are created, they don’t just happen. You must be a god to your creation, because that’s the only way it will ever mean something beyond the sum of its parts.