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*spoilers for Prometheus*
For a man who went unmolested by science-fiction for thirty years of lucrative and critically successful career, Ridley Scott was launched into the fold by the greats in the genre. Dan O’Bannon, Philip K. Dick — it’s writers and storytellers who facilitate the direction of great films, and without them, story seems lost on filmmakers. This wasn’t readily obvious until 2012, when the much anticipated Prometheus landed to positive reviews but bewildered fans. The writers behind the movie cannot be fully blamed, as a complex history and the tides of the industry crippled our great craft before it took off to realms unknown — albeit ones predictable and mostly disappointing.
As disjointed and odd a story as Prometheus is telling, its financial backbone and subsequent success (not quite Matrix trilogy but a lot for SF), alongside its critical evaluation, speak to a recent development in science-fiction film: people taking it as seriously as the filmmakers. If Sunshine were released today, it’d be a similar story, but it went largely ignored in 2007. I’m also 100% sure that our buddy Roger Ebert would’ve given AI: Artificial Intelligence a perfect score rather than a three our of four stars*. This is a post-Avatar world, and while these movies aren’t great sci-fi, I’m enthusiastic about seemingly new properties making money on nothing but quality, as was the case with District 9.
As we know, this wasn’t entirely the case with Prometheus, but thumbs up for not calling it Alien: Prometheus or Alien: The Beginning or at this stage, Alien. Yes, the big, slime-dripping elephant in the room is the Alien franchise, a sci-fi horror giant that languished in relative obscurity after the critical failures of everything after 1986. Somehow, the Alien cycle, even in the air around a movie, makes a big push, making me wonder about Blade Runner 2, and even something like the Arrested Development movie. Is there something to be said for audiences given time to grow while a franchise is on temporary hiatus? Was 2005 too early for Serenity? We’ll have to see, but I’m optimistic about both of those near-future projects.
Alien helped Prometheus find its space-legs but ultimately destroyed anything it may have been. There would be no latter without the former, but this is the story of how a space exploration horror tale can be beaten into ungainly shape by the hammers of reference and homage. This prequel is meant to setup a series, but is being pulled in so many directions. Not only does it attempt to be as mysterious as the original film while demystifying areas of the universe (effectively trying its hand at the delicate art of answering questions while asking them), it adheres to one man’s interpretation of a film that was expanded by numerous creators, and implies a new series of its own, leaving an open ending.
In an environment such as this, how does a story even survive? Not well, the bluntest answer I can offer given source material with Prometheus as its title. The plot, on the surface, is classic stuff — spaceship heads off “The Sentinel”-style to find the alien god, and bad things happen. The motivation for everything that happens however is nonsense, and the bad things that happen alternate being random and expected — bad in both ways.
It’s a new day, and as overviewed, Prometheus has a history. It isn’t something completely new, and therein lies the fallacy of prequels — the excuse of story. Well we don’t need to cook up something new, or perhaps we can’t, given constraints of the universe, and whatever we slap on the silver will be accepted, so long as we mention “corporate runs” or something during the crew meeting. The first act of the film, the setup and introduction to the characters and world, is further hurt by the fact that Alien’s setup is what’s consistently praised in that film, among other things. Whatever happened to novelty? Alien was the first (one of the first, I imagine) to have blue-collar spacefarers and talk of bonus situations rather than the fantasy trappings of humble beginnings and promise of a grand adventure. Arguably the greatest terror of the film comes about in a computer monitor readout, one mentioning in less than verbose terms that the crew is but a means of company advancement, and are expendable.
Prometheus does nothing new, and in fact becomes this year’s Terminator 3, eliciting the most excitement from me by reverse-engineering old designs. Speaking of which, the world of Prometheus may be beautifully rendered and designed, but artistically it’s analogous to what the movie is holistically. We have by the end a smooth, pointy-headed Xenomorph with two jaws and nothing sexually horrific about it, and a few miles away the H.R. Giger toilet-bowl ship. Under that haunting Space Jockey face, also designed by Giger, is a blank human face and body. Prometheus is a mixing bowl of the old and the new, the latter of which feels uninspired. The intrepid astronauts explore this new territory and everything that happens is par for the course if it’s old, or ridiculous it it’s new. But that’s the science-fiction fan talking. Prometheus is a popular film, so perhaps it has merits beyond the world and the Alien connection.
Unfortunately the characters are victims of predestination, in that they fill roles I didn’t even know still existed, and the plot gets jumpy after the first hour. With such a straightforward storyline, one wonders why so much is seemingly forgotten by the writers — and everyone else. Why does nobody seem to care that Shaw is covered in blood? Don’t those scientists she just beat up care? Aren’t they curious that she isn’t pregnant anymore? The Guy Pearce revelation can’t be that mind-numbing. And doesn’t Shaw want that alien to be dead? Of course not, because then it wouldn’t be Chekhov’s Facehugger.
There is no sound logic to the movie, but often times things like this can be excused if it’s a more cerebral experience or something emotionally satisfying. Prometheus attempts to poke questions on religion and evolution, as well as Arthur C. Clarke modes of thinking with the alien gods and seeding worlds, but this isn’t that type of story. In a sci-fi horror, we typically only know as much as the characters do, and they know nothing. They’re exploring. In Childhood’s End, the aliens would actually exposit, but all the aliens want to do in Prometheus is play Frankenstein’s Monster and throw a fit. Answers are ahead however, as the ending implies. So Prometheus is an incomplete story that hints at more than there was actual story.
It’s a lot like the video-game Gears of War 2, whose story was so laughable it’s good fortune the gameplay elevates it to triple A status. The creators got all sequel crazy as Scott and co. did, seeking to answer questions with questions. The effect that has on the story is that Delta squad is going from place to place for next to no reason. What are we doing here? Well we’re trying to answer questions with questions, so we can’t really say. Prometheus isn’t just a sequel, it’s a super awkward piece in an entertainment franchise — a quasi-prequel to one movie that spawned a series that became the identity of the franchise, which comes fifteen years after the last official release. I rewatched Strange Days recently, and I feel like Angela Basset grabbing a now Ralph Fiennes-shaped Prometheus and shouting that this is real time, Prometheus. Memories are meant to fade. That doesn’t mean Prometheus needed to replace Alien, but it didn’t need to be so submissive to it, as if whenever Ridley Scott attempted to lift the 1979 classic off this new one the tail tightened around the throat, and don’t dare cut the leg…
As bad as Prometheus is, I still enjoyed the movie, though not nearly as much as if it were merely average. I enjoy the trappings, the visuals that feel like home in this fantasy-strangled film climate, and the ideas. I don’t like it when those ideas are tainted by brainless philosophy (so this is what people see when they watch the Matrix sequels…) and reached by insultingly flat characters. There’s a moment in the movie that in any other would have me smiling from ear to ear — the supporting cast (one group of many), the pilots and Captain Janek, sacrifice themselves by flying the eponymous ship into the Giger craft, and while Janek imparts some final charisma (I liked his character), the other two crewmembers have a third act payoff in joky dialogue which is now somber in this context. A good idea, but hindered by the fact that these characters weren’t really in the movie, outside of setting up this payoff. It’s so unnatural and difficult to excuse, but it was the best moment aside from “DIE!” which was also stupid in retrospect.
*I make this crack only because the man seems to give everything four stars these days. But then you look back and you’re like — 3/4 for The Matrix? On what grounds?! Granted, Strange Days and Dark City and other important films of the time were given good grades — all the more important because nobody has ever seen those very mainstream, very American movies
Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.
On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator – but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.
Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.
I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.
Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.
But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus – and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.
Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.
So what’s to concern over?
Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory
Official trailer for Prometheus dropped yesterday. I’ve been plenty aware of Prometheus for a while now, being pretty enamored of The Sci-Fi Movie Page because I think that guy does pretty well with the news for movies of years down the line, but I guess it never occurred to me that Ridley Scott’s scifi would actually come out. To me it was similar to Metropolis, the Blade Runner sequel, or James Cameron’s Battle Angel. Too good to be true. But no, it’s actually done and here’s a trailer. I just about peed in my pants when I saw that post on The Movie Blog, and the trailer did not disappoint.
How could a trailer possibly be disappointing? Well, I don’t remember what I said about the first Avatar trailer either recently or in 2009, but that first trailer was pretty underwhelming. It was the art design that didn’t jibe, but because HR Giger’s on board for Prometheus — and it shows — Prometheus was immediately stunning. The cast is also amazing. I had known ahead of time, but Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron are in this; that’s great, and really speaks to not only Ridley Scott, but where we are right now in terms of science-fiction film.
These are all incredibly talented actors, and they take this space romp totally seriously. I think that’s one of the good things that Avatar did for our perceptions of the genre in film. I remember seeing one picture from Avatar of Col. Quarritch holding a futuristic looking gun and thinking, man — that could be from anything. That could be a still from Saturn 3… or Virus (note that there was only sky for background). How far we’ve come, that movies like Avatar share the lifeblood of its shameful forerunners, and garner mainstream and critical attention.
2012 is shaping up to be a good year for scifi movies. You got this, you got John Carter, there’s Total Recall… well not much else after that but hey even one is good. Just like this year, and better than last year. But. Prometheus worries me for several reasons. Even though the trailer is undoubtedly Alien-tastic (it’s now very easy to decipher all that marketing speak about having “Alien DNA”) and super wow, this has Avatar written all over it. There’s a reason why I brought that partic title up twice before — not just because it festers in my mind minute-to-minute — this is the return of a great director to a genre he started in.
When Avatar was coming out late 2009, it was James Cameron’s first scifi movie since his best, Terminator 2. It had been over sixteen years, and I know because I was born shortly after T2. That’s a long freaking time, man, but Ridley’s been out of the game for exactly thirty, by the time Prometheus will be released, unless you count that classic Superbowl ad. True, he never took any extended breaks from making feature films, but I have yet to see a movie of his after Gladiator that approached passable. I hated Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, and Body of Lies — they were just mystifying to me. It got to the point where my roommate and I were literally contemplating who was the better director, him or Tony Scott?*
We went with Ridley, because even though Tony’s got… Domino, Ridley does have a holy three that are some of my all time favorites. But it’s been so long. Scott followed Alien, one of the most important movies in science-fiction, and the powder-keg that led to everything from The Thing and Aliens to Event Horizon and Dead Space, with Blade Runner, which is the most important movie in science-fiction, and the powder-keg to everything. Blade Runner is so goddamn good it’s hideous. It did have a source material though, and I wonder now if that’ll help Prometheus…
From where I’m standing Prometheus will be a prequel, but in a weird way. It’ll be like the Alien movies are spin-offs of a much larger property that just so happened to come out ten years later. This is fine, but the Alien movies were very quiet in terms of their mythology. You know, like why robots? What’s Weyland-Yutani all about? And of course that immortal question that inspired this movie — what the hell is that dude in the Alien ship? There’s something poetic going on here, and I like that every filmmaker involved in the Alien series proper handled the world-building the same way, which isn’t to say they didn’t. The universe is in the details, and nobody’s going around talking about FTL and Xenomorph morphology.
Not only would they logically just not be thinking about those things or even know them, the film is a medium quite unlike the novel. In a scifi novel, world-building is key, and sometimes king. Movies only have 90 minutes, not hours of your time. The vaginal and phallic designs on the walls and in the creatures — that’s the world-building. In time, we may have explanations to everything, and it isn’t so much I don’t want to know these things, but the impact this movie will have on the Alien series is yet to be known. Those four movies are very important to me, so c’mon Ridley. Don’t fuck up. Don’t make me wait for the action sequel, Prometheuses…
I’m just kidding. Prometheus looks great, I heart hard for it. And the last time I concerned over a movie, it was The Thing ’11, and that one turned out excellent. Of course, there were low expectations going in…
*I actually do like some of his stuff