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Prometheus (USA, 2012)

Mostly awful.


More? Okay. Here’s what I put on Facebook and Twitter:

Prometheus: I really liked it! Except for whenever any character said or did anything.
Or when the film explained anything at all,
Or when it linked to or referenced any other movie.
Apart from that it was great!

(The visual experience was wonderful, and that is best experienced in the cinema. I sort of do recommend it, in a bizarre way. It’s a deeply incoherent film. And it is trying to do something, which is more than 95% of big films ever do. I dunno man. It’s a weird, weird movie.)


Still here? Ooookay. Let’s go.

BALD RIPLEY
Cinefantastique June 1992
Twenty years ago, round about now, I bought the June 1992 edition of Cinefantastique. It was the first solid information I would get on the sequel to my absolute favourite film, Aliens. I’d seen an early trailer on Entertainment Tonight but apart from that, I knew nothing.

The coverage was a revelation. Cinefantastique was not a puff-piece magazine, and it did not pull its punches.[1] As it recounted the bizarre story of the production of Alien3, I was forced to accept some uncomfortable truths. Principally, this: the loyal soldier and the brave girl saved by Ripley’s heroism? They die in the opening credits of the new film. Get over it.

Cut to: sitting in the movie theatre with my buddies. The lights go down. The film begins. And those opening credits that heartlessly destroy the loved characters from a previous film? I love those credits. I still think it stacks up as one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen. All around me, though, the reception is not as positive. Right there and then, everyone else finding out that the guy and the little girl are dead. The movie doesn’t care. It just kept going at them. No wonder they start to hate it.

The hatred didn’t last. About a decade later, it started to pick up some respectability, and while it’s still little-loved, it’s also rarely hated any more. But it took a long time for that first rush of thwarted expectations to even out. I often wonder if that magazine was the only thing that spared me from the same initial response. Expectations matter. More than that: expectations are part of the film experience.

Expectations have been a big part of Prometheus, too. Is it an Alien prequel or is it not? What will Ridley Scott have to say this time? What is that big human-looking face? Does the trailer really give away 98% of the film?

So what were we expecting?

LES COUSINS DANGEREUX

Let’s get this right out of the way, then: Prometheus is not an Alien film. And that’s fine.

“Star Beast” was into development when the word “Alien” was noticed just sitting there in the script, waiting.
It’s a great name, both an adjective and a noun, and it completely captures the theme of the film, that…
waitasecond, I’ve already written about this. Let me quote myself.

[In the 1979 film] there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

Ridley Scott has done something completely different here. In fact, what he’s done here is the direct opposite of what he did in Alien. In Prometheus, it is announced in the opening scenes that humanity does matter. We are being invited to visit these mysterious aliens, who have shepherded us throughout our history, and who maybe created us.

There are no aliens in Prometheus. There are only cousins.

Ridley here portrays an intergalactic order in which human existence is comprehensible, and part of a grand plan. We have a place in the plan, we just don’t know exactly what it is. This idea is thematically incompatible with Alien.

This makes it somewhat distracting that the film-makers, over and over again, draw links between the two. Places, scenes, moments, from the 1979 film are repeated in the 2012 film. These quotes are all shallow and surface material. The new film is tone-deaf to the content and mission of the old. It reimagines these surface elements to address entirely different, incompatible, concerns.

Prometheus isn’t an Alien movie. It’s an Alien remix.[2]

THE CHERRY ORCHARD

Among the many memorable characters created by Monty Python, my favourites have always been the Gumbys. The Gumbys are shouting, staggering, inept, thuggish, helpless morons. Perpetually bewildered, they break everything around them while bellowing obvious, tragic expressions of their discomfort and failure. On the Monty Python album that a friend dubbed on to tape for me in early high school, the Gumbys appear in an amazing sketch: an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s two minutes, give it a listen if you never have:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a fair representation of the human action in Prometheus. Prometheus would in fact be a more coherent and satisfying experience if every line of dialogue was overdubbed with Gumbys saying “Sorry” “I’ve broken it” and “My brain hurts”.

I really feel like this can’t be emphasised enough. The dialogue and behaviour of every single character defies understanding. It is hard to think of any action by any character that even faintly resembles real human behaviour. This is not an exaggeration. Every line, every action. Every character. Every single scene. All of them. For an entire film. Beginning to end. ALL OF IT.

(Well, I can think of two exceptions, both involving Idris Elba’s space captain: (1) when he puts up a christmas tree, and (2) when he asks another character if they are a robot. That’s it. Maaaaaybe when Noomi Rapace’s space archaeologist puts herself on a medical chair, too. Maaaybe.)

Hey, that Cinefantastique issue was the first I ever heard of James Blish’s idiot plot: “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot”. I thought it a bit harsh as a description of Alien3, but it is a perfect description of what’s going on in Prometheus. Everyone is an idiot. The things they do aren’t just stupid, they are nonsensical in a way that almost loops around into coherence again, like a Lewis Carroll poem, where all the inexplicable ridiculousness becomes mutually reinforcing and disguises the fact that none of it makes any sense at all.

I can’t think of another film that is so completely front-to-end inane. It’s indefensible. Nothing but wall-to-wall Mr Gumby, start to finish. My brain hurts! I dropped it! Run away Mr Gumby!

What were we expecting? The characters in Alien don’t make great decisions but they sure aren’t idiots. But this isn’t an Alien movie! Okay then. Consider, um, Blade Runner. Or Lawrence of Arabia. Or pretty much any other film ever made.

TOMB OF HORRORS

Prometheus doesn’t have a plot, it has a location.

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, you’d buy adventure modules to play with your friends. These were always pretty much the same: a detailed description of a dungeon or other dangerous environment, filled with traps, treasure, and monsters, and usually with some underlying logic that could be uncovered through careful investigation. Every group that sat down to play would have a different story unfold as they entered and explored this dungeon. Character was important, sure, but the organising principle of the experience was the dungeon map, and the key that explained it. Everything in the game arose out of the location.

Prometheus takes this same approach to its story. There is no story except characters exploring, and reacting to, the environment. It may be the closest we’re ever going to get to a filmic representation of the Tomb of Horrors experience.

As a result, the film pays a lot of attention to its sense of place. It carefully and clearly establishes its external geography, showing how everything fits together in the physical space. It then purposely upends this in the twisting interior, echoing the way in which the characters get swiftly disoriented in the labyrinth. And then, perversely, it underlines the lack of clarity about the internal physical space by repeatedly showing a very detailed map of the interior.

Prometheus succeeds magnificently as an exploration of space. The visuals in the film are stunning. The environment is realised in a completely credible, deeply fascinating, fully atmospheric way. It is lit and shot and computer-enhanced with great skill. This is a visual effects triumph, [3] and a sign of Ridley Scott’s mastery of this aspect of filmmaking.

Did we expect anything less?

HORSESHOES OF THE GODS

Reading that magazine helped me set my expectations right for Alien 3. Prometheus presents a similar challenge. If you go in expecting Alien The Prequelling, you will be disappointed. To his credit, Ridley Scott did a good job of trying to shift expectations. What I was expecting – hoping for, really – was a film that would make me think.

And this is what we want film-makers to do, isn’t it? To stretch themselves, to try and make a big statement, to do something that will give us some meat. To his further credit, Ridley Scott has done this here, he’s gone in boots and all and tried to do something huge.

The problem is that the ideas Scott is pursuing are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Go read Cavalorn’s LJ post [4] on the symbolism (major spoilers!) – I believe he’s identified what Ridley Scott was consciously putting into play for this film. And it’s just not pretty reading. Scott has left a lot of ambiguity around the answers to many of his questions, mistaking provocation for depth. The questions are provocative, sure, but there’s nowhere for any of them to go. They don’t mean anything. If the answer was given, you wouldn’t feel any different. It’s dead content, questions designed just to be questions. [5]

So don’t expect the love to grow for Prometheus, like it did for Alien 3. This is a movie that will shrink on reflection, and away from the immersive environment of a darkened movie theatre. Those expectations are going to be corrosive, because it’s a movie that can’t live up to them. The more it is considered, the faster it will disintegrate. (And not in a lifegiving way.)

It’s a failure. A huge, engrossing, foolish, stunning, disastrous waste of talent and skill that pushes you away faster than it can pull you in, that alienates you faster than it can speak to you. It’s a folly and all of its many flaws come down to the writing, on every level: the concept, the structure, the execution, the dialogue. The writing, of course; the simplest thing. A man with a pen and paper. The hardest thing, too.

Watch it, or don’t.


[1] Though I’ve long lost the actual copy, I remember so many of the details from that incredible set of articles. I believe that this was the origin of the phrase “development hell” as a way to refer to moviemaking by the hard road. Also memorable: interview with Lance Henriksen where he said “this David Fincher kid they pulled in to salvage this movie, he’s a talent. This film does not show what he can do. watch for him.” Henriksen called that one right.

[2] Yes, Ridley Scott would disagree, but why should we listen to him?

[3] Bias alert: I’m mates with a few people who worked on these visual effects, including the guy in charge of all the bits Weta worked on. So I am predisposed to kindness. I don’t think this is just bias, though – most reviewers seem to agree on this bit, while disagreeing on almost everything else.

[4] And how nice to see Adrian Bott’s essay being circulated all over the place. I was introduced to him in passing in 2005, but never said a word to him beyond hello. Mutual friends indicate he’s a very nice chap though.

[5] *cough cough* Damon Lindelof *cough* Lost *cough*

{ 11 } Comments

  1. ObjectiveReality | June 14, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    A Fiasco, perhaps?
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-eliza,15577/

  2. Scott A | June 14, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Haven’t yet seen Prometheus, so won’t comment on that, but I do need to say that I do feel that your love of the Alien movie might mean you’re reading into it more than there actually is.

    In particular, the theme you’re drawing about the first third of the film, maybe it’s more the happy outcome of inspired low-budget art design and the need to pad-out a thin haunted-house-in-space script than any intentional meta-narrative from Scott?

    Certainly, the film can be read the way you read it, but I’ve never been convinced that it was with intended fore-thought from the makers.

  3. Alasdair Sinclair | June 14, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    When I watched it, I had many of these thoughts. I began putting together something like this, and then I realized that I wasn’t even sufficiently engaged to point out the flaws. You’ve gone a bit beyond that – prompted I think, more by your Alien-love than by the film. If you’d seen this film by itself, I think you couldn’t do better than Liz’s one-word review “meh”.

    Nevertheless, in some small way, I think it was worth watching the film to read the review. 🙂

  4. morgue | June 14, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    ObjectiveReality: yeah! in fact that My Year Of Flops rating system did pop into my head while writing (but then I forgot about it again).

    Scott: You’ve got a point there, sure. There’s more to talk about there in fact – the original name of the screenplay treatment was “Memory” which hints at a whole different set of thematics – but for the moment, I’ll happily concede that (my reading of) Alien’s theme never arose from Scott’s intention and is indeed largely a result of inspired design. But I think that’s what it *is*, regardless of what anyone meant for it to be. Maybe that’s a thin basis on which to argue…

    Alasdair: yeah, no question that my relationship with the Alien films is the only reason I’ve put this much energy into Prometheus. And – aw, that’s a nice thing to say 🙂

  5. Andrew | June 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been trying to avoid expectations for the movie but too many people with an understanding of film beyond “stuff blow up me like” are not being kind. I’ll reserve judgement until tomorrow when I finally get to the theatre.

    But I totally get writing a lot about something you didn’t like or ended up really being that interested in (as in anything I had to say about Doctor Who in 2011).

  6. David | June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Neither here nor there, but New York magazine used “Development Hell” in a description of Oliver Stone’s adaptation of “Talk Radio” in a December 1988 edition (thanks, Google Ngrams). It’s a quote of Stone’s own words.

  7. morgue | June 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Ah hah! Thanks for that bit of research. Don’t know how I came by my misapprehension – I read it somewhere I guess.

    Oliver Stone – it even sounds like him.

  8. Tim Denee | June 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    As someone who enjoyed the film (seemingly one of about five people in the world), I’ve been trying to figure out why I really enjoyed it and so many hated it. I can only conclude it helps to have low expectations, to be thoroughly spoiled beforehand, to realize beforehand that David is the most interesting part of the film (so you only really pay attention to him), to be prepared for a lack of answers before hand, and to have no particular attachment to the Alien franchise as it existed before.

    Phew.

    Luckily, that was all true for me, and I did enjoy it!

  9. Andrew S | June 14, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I thought it was terrible, but enjoyed it in the balance. It looked great, yeah, but also just went crazy from the surgery scene on. Honestly, I was waiting 5 minutes for that to be a dream. I like that from that point the film almost completely dissociates itself from good sense. Sure, up to that point it’s full of idiocy (the two guys needlessly trapped in the structure during the storm being the worst offence), bit after that point it goes kind of insane, and I admired – or at least was entertained – by that.

  10. Chuck | June 14, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Waking up Tuesday with a huge hangover is a sure sign that my fond memories of the film are probably based on actually getting to the movies, seeing it with good friends, and using both of those things as an excuse to drink heavily on a school night! The film was incidental.
    That said, you should track down a review from Chris, the aforementioned good friend, cause his take on it will offer more positive than yours. I think I’ll tell him to comment here…

  11. The Alligator | June 15, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I waited to read this AFTER watching the movie. Which I just did.

    I was SO EXCITED by the opening credits. Amazing.

    And then, the highlight for me was the tightness of Charlize Theron’s outfit. Maybe.

    All the mysteries? Dumb. All the “reveals?” Saw them coming from a mile away.
    Whatever. I am truly sorry a movie you had such high hopes for was such a turd. Now let’s see how I review “Moonrise Kingdom.” I love me some Wes Anderson…..

{ 1 } Trackback

  1. […] Morgue is similarly steeped in relevant lore – the Alien series generally. He had an equal or stronger reaction towards the opposite conclusion. I suppose I’m more sympathetic to many of his points, but as I’m sure he would be willing to acknowledge, in some ways his close affinity to the other material in this general vein, he might be the wrong person to look objectively at it. I had a feeling when reading his first post that Prometheus would have a hard time getting into his good books. […]

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