Tuesday, June 26, 2012


I'm not sure what I was expecting when I ponied up for my ticket for Prometheus (2012, directed by Ridley Scott). I'd seen some of the criticism and disappointment online. Too many of my friends had embroiled themselves in that for me to avoid it. I tried to keep it all out of my preconceptions, but you know how that goes sometimes, I'm sure. I'd seen the trailer, too, which was full of tantalizing images. I was expecting something ambitious and heady, I think. What I got was schlock. I mean that with a fair amount of affection. It's more than that, though. There's a weird sense in Prometheus of watching the history of sci fi filmmaking being distilled into this one big, glorious/stupid production, as if it's a summation of science fiction filmmaking pre-cyberpunk. Or maybe more to the point, there's a sense of sci fi cinema devouring itself.

Prometheus takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies. Some time before the Nostromo's fatal encounter with the alien, the Weyland Corporation mounted another expedition into the void, this time looking for the origins of life itself. They follow the findings of one Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and her partner, Dr. Charlie Holloway, who have found clues pointing to a particular spot in the sky among the relics of dead civilizations. These signposts, she surmises, point to the origin of life on earth, to the creators of life. To god, maybe. The Weyland Corporation, and it's CEO, Peter Weyland, have a different motivation, and equip the android, David, with a secret agenda. Also along for the ride is Meredith Vickers, an executive charged with keeping the expedition on-mission. The ship, Prometheus, finds a planet and a moon where the signs say they will, and they set down, where they discover the remnants of an ancient race of aliens, the "Engineers," they call them, and as they investigate them, they discover horrifying truths behind their tinkering with life. Meanwhile, David implements his secret agenda, and horrors ensue...

I was writing a few weeks ago about the disconnect between the level of craft in writing screenplays and the level of craft in production values. If ever there were a living avatar of that disconnect, it's Prometheus. Prometheus is gorgeous. Regardless of what one thinks of the story--and there's a LOT to think, mostly negative, about the story--the images on the screen are ravishing. This is a movie with epic visuals. I can't imagine watching this on a television, actually, though that might be because my television is tiny compared to the current state of the art. Prometheus is like a 1970s prog-rock album cover come to life, it's like a first-generation Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant story staged with unlimited resources (Ridley Scott, it should be noted, is one of the first filmmakers to embrace Metal Hurlant's artists, having pilfered H. R. Giger and Moebius to design Alien). It's like some kind of post-modern meta-catalog of references to science fiction of the past, whether it's the Bava-ish space suits, the 2001-ish mad robot overseer, the Star Trek-ish search for god through science, or the Forbidden Planet-style lost civilization with a horrible secret. This is all communicated best through the film's visuals, which have an austere majesty to them, even relatively quiet scenes like David occupying himself as the crew of the ship sleeps with basketball or rewatches of Lawrence of Arabia.

The screenplay, on the other hand, reminds me of an interview Sam Arkoff once gave, in which the interviewer asked him about the wonderful method performance Michael Moriarty delivered amid the schlock of Q: The Winged Serpent. Arkoff quipped: "The schlock was my idea." The screenplay attempts to repeat Alien's depiction of space travelers as working joes, which is wrong for this movie. The Nostromo was crewed by the equivalent of space truckers. The Prometheus is crewed by scientists. They should know better than to take off their helmets even if the atmosphere reads normal, but take them off they do. They do other stupid things, too, to move the plot along, whether it's the inexplicable way they wander off when they're pissed off, or the way they approach alien life forms as if they're some kind of pet (and pay the price for it). The most inexplicable plot mechanism is David's deliberate actions to infect crew members with the dark fluid he finds in an alien canister. This serves no purpose, even if David knows what that fluid will do (and if he does, how does he know?). The things the characters do in this movie remind me more of what the characters in a Roger Corman Alien rip-off would do, actually, and that's appropriate. This movie feels like an Alien rip-off, which is another way it catalogues the sci fi of the past. This is particularly metatextual, because Alien was a rip-off of the kinds of movies Corman made, Corman ripped off Alien for movies like Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World, and this movie rips off the rip-offs. World without end. The snake devours its tail.

If Alien was the ne plus ultra in reproductive horror back in 1979, then this movie is an amplification of that echoing across the years. The plot of Prometheus contrives to impregnate its heroine, Elizabeth Shaw, with some kind of alien beastie, precipitating a horror set-piece even nastier than the chest burster scene in the original film, in which Shaw undergoes a C-section to remove the be-tentacled monster. This movie is drenched in the horror aesthetic of hentai tentacle porn, which becomes something profoundly nasty when made in live-action with a quarter billion dollar budget. This scene also recalls and trumps Humanoids from the Deep's rip-off of Alien's chestburster, so this is all of a piece with the whole Alien rip-off thrust of the movie. There's a sly critique of contemporary sexist politics in this scene, too, in so far as the med pod in which this is performed is only programmed for men's health; women's reproductive health isn't even an after thought. In keeping with the mess one finds in the rest of the screenplay, Shaw's ability to perform as the film's heroine immediately after this scene strains the credibility. Still, this is a recognizably feminist scene in a feminist movie, just as the original was, in so far as it rails against the reproductive control men seek to exert over women, even in horrific circumstances, and it grants its heroine the stones to overcome it.

I wish the filmmakers had been able to see their way through to viewing Vickers in a similar light. Vickers is an awkward character, ostensibly a villain, but one who never does anything villainous. When it becomes clear that Holloway is infected with some horrible alien pathogen, she re-enacts Ripley's refusal to violate quarantine in Alien, but in this film, this act isn't seen as sensible or virtuous, and Vickers is painted as a bitch for it. This strikes me as wrong-headed and retrograde. I wish the film would have found a more interesting ending for Vickers, if only because I would have liked to see Charlize Theron create a more three-dimensional character. Vickers suffers from the film's intense focus on Shaw and David. There are good actors at all levels of this film, but one of the things Prometheus gets absolutely dead on right is the casting of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender in these roles. Rapace burnishes her cred as a the inheritor of the badass feminist heroine. Shaw is about as far away from Lisabeth Salander as I can imagine, but she shares with her the steel of her personality. Fassbender, for his part, gets the android's coldness and calculation just right. He's like a walking, talking incarnation of Douglass Rain's voice, filtered through the solicitous persona of a British major domo. He's studied Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence and imposed that personality on his presentation. It's a fine bit of screen acting.

I think the real poison in the well with this movie is the nature of its big idea. Prometheus proposes that life on Earth originated through panspermia, salted with a vague hint of intelligent design. The Engineers may not be gods, but they are certainly "The Creators" in every other respect. The trouble with this element of the film is that it has no idea that there are whole libraries of evidence that contradict what this film is striving to examine, and even if this film's thesis were plausible, it doesn't understand the mechanisms of life or evolution. Given the way the Engineers introduce life on Earth, there's no way that human DNA would match the DNA of the Engineers. Random chance and mutation over time would ensure a drastic level of divergence. This movie does NOT suggest a directed version of evolution. Quite the opposite. The accelerated evolution of The Engineers biological bombs is shown in this movie as a chaos of tentacles and claws. As faux cinematic profundities go, this film's version of panspermia is downright laughable, as is Shaw's grasping of it as the meaning of life. Shaw's religiosity doesn't sit well with the character. I mean, there are plenty of religious scientists, but there are very few scientists who are so blinkered by their belief systems that they think and reason so poorly. It's hard for me to take seriously; I take science very seriously and I hate seeing it abused by woo.

Finally, the movie insists on connecting the dots between itself and Alien at the end. This seems like a mistake to me, because the way it does this creates a disconnect between the two. If this movie leaves things as the Nostromo finds them, then the geography is all wrong. This isn't the first film to attempt this. The recent remake of The Thing is more successful in reverse-engineering its ending, I think, but you can see an obvious care and reverence toward its predecessor. The engineering in Prometheus is, as we have already seen, kind of slapdash.

If all of this seems like I didn't like Prometheus, well....that's not, strictly speaking, true. I had a great time watching it. If there's one thing at which Ridley Scott excels. it's putting ravishing visuals on screen. This is an absolutely gorgeous film to watch and I don't dismiss this. Science fiction is replete with films like this, dating all the way back to Metropolis. Don't get me wrong, I fervently wish this film had a coherent screenplay and a more interesting big central idea, but I'll settle for eye-drugging vistas and state of the art production designs. There's a great deal of wit in the visuals. The alien in the original Alien, for example, was derived from Giger's Necronomicon. This movie goes that one further and takes the whole damned book and puts it on screen inside the bowels of its alien space ship. That tickles me. One of the films that indirectly influenced Alien was Bava's Planet of the Vampires, and this movie pays that film explicit homage in the design of its space suits. This tickles me, too.

Bava's Planet of the Vampires

Note the similarity.

In any event, it's been two weeks since I saw Prometheus, and I haven't been able to shake some of the imagery. It's a movie that sticks in the imagination in spite of its dramatic deficiencies. That persistence of memory has some kind of meaning, though I'd be hard pressed to say what that meaning is. It's a dream fugue of a movie, a nightmare of sorts, and dreams and nightmares follow their own logic.


Deborah said...

"Faux cinematic profundities." Oh, Chris, I do love you.

I am totally posting this on Facebook.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Sweet! I mentioned that this movie looks like a prog rock album cover (totally Brain Salad Surgery, of course), but I'm reminded that those covers often had pot seeds in the fold and this movie's intellectual insight seems like the kind of thing that results from passing around a bong.

Anonymous said...

"I was expecting something ambitious and heady, I think. What I got was schlock."
My feelings exactly. Only I don't have affection for shlock. After decades of great looking crappy science fiction I wanted this to be a game changer, but I turns out to be more of the same. Brilliant visual execution, embarassingly bad writing.

Dan O. said...

The promotion for this film made it look freakin’ awesome but also, a lot like Alien and I think that’s the big problem with the film. It’s pretty much the same formula used over again and even though Scott tries his hardest to get our heads past that, it’s too obvious, too quick. Good review Vulnavia.

crow said...

I went and seen the movie today, Christianne. You nail it. I wish I could have articulated its flaws so splendidly. I wrote a little about it on my blog, without prior knowledge that you had also dropped a marvelous piece on it. I couldn't understand David's lack of hesitation during the cavernous scenes as he went headlong into pressing buttons, opening doors to the ship; it baffled me. I know you love her, Chris, but I'm just tired of Theron. She seems to play nothing but cold characters to me. The bitch is a constant in her resume. It is frustrating because I would like just one performance from her I can embrace emotionally. I have seen the dvd of that new movie with Theron, the screenplay written by Diablo Cody around; I wouldn't even know about the movie, but your review brought it to my attention. I may try that, but it seems like another polarizing character who will leave me cold.

Barry P. said...

Fantastic review! I think you did a wonderful job of pointing out Prometheus' (many) flaws, as well as its assets (the visuals).

It's been a month since I've watched it, and I still feel really ambivalent about Prometheus - Beautiful to look at, but intellectually vacant.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Barry. Welcome. I think most people are ambivalent about Prometheus. It's not a film you can really love. I suppose you could hate it for the level of bait and switch involved, but to my mind, it's too much fun to watch.