Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Gods Want Their Fire Back - why Prometheus really isn't very good

In space no one can hear you plot… but they sure can hear the marketing department muttering to themselves.

One day I'll get around to writing a huge piece about the failure of science fiction in the early 21st century: the way that for a brief moment at the end of the 20th century it seemed - like everything else that was new, young, bold and full of possibility - sci fi could be the new narrative medium to truly reflect, critique and analyse the psyche of homo postmodernus. Truth is, the state of sci fi in literature IS fairly healthy. But apart from me and 20 other people, who reads that stuff any more? The battlefront of modern culture long since moved onto different platforms. But for some reason speculative fiction in cinema seems to have been relegated to the box marked 'unchallenging summer blockbuster' and left there to rot. An expensive corpse, but a corpse nonetheless.

And Ridley Scott's Prometheus is the worst offender. Promising all the visceral thrills and doomy, grainy space vérité of his earlier classics, it swaps actors for cyphers (the most engaging character supposedly has no emotion), horror for gratuitous laughs and poetry for spectacle. Maybe it's the final sign that cinema is redundant as a useful cultural thermometer. As an old friend once rightly stated - to tell the big stories in proper detail you need the massive story arc of a TV series, several seasons long. That's why, in many ways Babylon 5 was the best Lord Of The Rings adaptation possible, and Battlestar Galactic was the keenest commentary on the state of US contemporary politics that you could ask for. Mind you, TV really ballsed up Dune, didn't it? But maybe we can all agree that since Jodorowsky abandoned his first attempt in 1975, it's an unfilmable book, best left on the page.

More importantly - how did we get to the stage where a 200 million dollar movie, scripted by supposedly one of the brightest minds in speculative screenwriting (along with two others), doesn't make much (if any) narrative sense. While I fully understand the pressure that studios and distributors put on even the most respected of auteur's work it still seems astounding that Prometheus is so, well, silly. And while the original Alien allowed for a sequel, Prometheus seems only geared for that one outcome - extending the franchise to infinity and beyond. If it ever happens it'll need someone with cojones the size of Gore Verbinski's to paper over the cracks.

If we discount the truly avant garde and non-linear we have to accept that Scott's in the business of making stories come to life with that fabulous OCD-adman-level attention to detail. To play devil's advocate for a second, maybe this film that seems to be approaching the condition of swiss (space) cheese in its logic while looking undeniably incredible, has come about because Scott wanted to play with all the latest digital toys that his best mate Jim Cameron has whipped out in recent years, and just caved in to a marketing dept's craven wishes? That, in itself, is a travesty, but when you also think about clunky details such as Guy Pearce's laughable prosthetic make-up even THAT argument falls down.

Apparently, in the nauseating 'viral' online videos that preceded the opening we see Pearce as a young man, which is why in the film he looks like Peter Gabriel onstage in about 1972. This is the studio desperately chasing 'cutting edge' methods of 'story-telling across new and emerging platforms'. Well, that's what they'll be telling themselves. It is, of course, bullshit. Just because some 30-something idiot with ironic facial hair tells you that your 'product' needs such gewgaws to make a younger audience relate to it, it ain't necessarily so. Maybe, just maybe, if you have a respected director who's a known safe pair of hands and a record of delivering classy, yet box office, fare, maybe concentrating on the film itself - giving the characters depth or at least motivation would have been a good idea? Maybe people would have ben excited enough to go and see it?? Like George Lucas' travesties in prequel-land, demographic chasing has wrought a universe that looks cool but where we care little for characters or chain of events.

The first third of the film is rushed exposition as dumbly obvious as just littering the set with signs saying 'look, this will become important later'. This, in turn, fails to build the requisite amount of tension before the body horror onslaught we all paid to see. A useless bums-on-seats rating means that no film required to recoup vast amounts was ever going to give us a real shock. When the first two victims succumb to generic nastiness it's an actual relief. The main 'good' characters are too irritating to be objects of sympathy or empathy. Logan Marshall-Green as Noomi Rapace's boyfriend/co-evangelist is so irksome that you feel cheated by the almost merciful death in flames. So we have a film that has us rooting for the bad guys to do something quick to wake us up (the two most compelling performances are from Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron). This is a trope of the worst of horror movies these days - that we only end up lusting for more gruesomely inventive ways to see the innocents dispatched. It's both voyeuristic and deeply unhealthy, and leads to awful stuff like Saw.

Visual élan is high on the agenda, and it's a genuine thrill to see that H.R.Giger has returned to the designer's chair. A brief glimpse of his murals (see above) just tantalises, although the knowing nod to his designs for the aforementioned Dune are a sweet touch (see below). It's soon back to a lot of sets that looked like Apple designed them - all gleaming white surfaces, scrubbed and ready for the blood that's waiting to be sprayed across them. How on earth are we supposed to believe that such advancement was ignored on the Nostromo - the grimy transport ship that was so believable (this is why Duncan Jones' Moon worked so well).

By the final act you just have to hold up your hands and give in. Is Michael Fassbender good or bad? What the hell was that 'engineer' doing in the waterfall at the beginning of the film? Is a self-inflicted caesarian really that easy to get over? And was Stephen Stills' accordion REALLY only there to allow Idris Elba to sing 'Love The One You're With'? The questions go on and on, and not in a 2001-like 'woah, that blew my mind' way. But that's what you get for hiring a man who lead us through six seasons of mumbo jumbo to just hang us all out to dry.

Having said all this, it wasn't an unenjoyable experience overall, and most of these glaring questions have been answered by this canny blog post from the excellent Den Of Geek, yet amazingly what made the paucity of the deal more evident was the surprising fact that Barry Sonnenfeld's return to the Men In Black franchise turns out to be a reasonably tightly-plotted, enjoyable romp. Yes, that's right, I preferred it to Prometheus! The nifty time-travel paradoxes were flagged and dispatched with admirable attention to detail, the main characters turned in enthusiastic and engagingly comic performances and at no point did the CGI overtake the essential premises on offer - that of the deepening relationship between Will Smith and his farther figure partner Tommy Lee Jones. Josh Brolin expertly impersonates Tommy Lee as his younger self, there's a great series of knowing jokes that simultaneously pointed at the awful injustices of late '60s American culture while still managing to be affectionately nostalgic. The Andy Warhol jokes are particularly amusing. A surprise, then, that the script was by the same team that gave us Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull - a sequel that seemed like one long computer game. Maybe the producers realised that the fans of the originals may have, after all, grown up and got themselves educated and don't necessarily need to be patronised or coerced so bluntly. Blimey. It may not be such a mystery as to why hardly anyone watches anything European made between 1950 and 1980 anymore, but it would be nice to think that we could return to an art that doesn't treat us all as idiots.


Peter said...

Very well put, to say the least. I had all the same questions, except I think the bloke at the start was possibly seeding life on another planet. Maybe even Earth. You'd think they could manage a less unpleasant way of doing it though. I wondered exactly the same thing about the accordion. A Symbol shaped guitar and "If I was Your Girlfriend" would have seemed more fitting. Guy Pearce reminded me of Dave at the end of 2001 (oh look, he's Theron's dad! Who'd have thunk it!). But I could have forgiven all that if the nice effects had some plot to with them. Actually, no plot at all would have been fine, rather than the limp stream of cliches we got. Just a few trips round a planet with rings, nice descent through the clouds and a few explosions would have done it for me. I did like Fassbender though.

blah blip said...

A ridiculous film.

They make a big deal about the mapping-bots building up a 3-d hologram of the inside of the alien structure (nice effect, believable tech), but when people are lost don't refer to it - they've got a map which gives the location of the lost people RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM! Surely someone should of realised this inconsistency when they were making the film?

And as for Charlize and Stringer Bell, she plays it cool for about 30 seconds and then goes 'Okay then, see you in five for a shag'. Some Ice Maiden.

Sci-fi pantomime.

Nigel Smith said...

Listen to this. You'll enjoy it >>

Slate Spoiler Special

Chris Jones said...

Thanks Nigel! Most entertaining... love the notion that Fassbender essentially rescues any bad film (I, too, found Shame ultimately ridiculous)
I think the one thing that annoys me the more I think about it is that, despite Scott's dogged insistence in all interviews that this is more about the 'engineers' and our origins than the idea of the film as an Alien prequel per se, the film is littered with mis-cues that constantly remind you of the original fim. The canisters with black goo look like the Alien eggs. The hapless lost pair make references to things having burst out of the engineers dead bodies. In essence he's been utterly disingenuous. otherwise, why get the useless appearance of the xenomorph at the end?
And finally: if all the cave paintings pointed to that star system, why would the engineers WANT us to visit their WMD complex, and not their actual home world?
gah... it goes round and round.
Pete, I agree: just the eye candy and Fassbender would have sufficed.