Monday, June 18, 2012

Prometheus

There are a lot of things I like about online fandom, but one of its traits that gives me pause is the speed with which it forms an overwhelming, inescapable consensus about certain pop culture artifacts.  Not to keep beating a much-too-lively horse, but this strikes me as a much bigger problem than the dreaded spoiler.  It's one thing to know what's going to happen in a movie, but quite another to know how you're expected to react to those events--to know that The Avengers has been judged the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that Prometheus, Ridley Scott's prequel-but-not-really-but-actually-yes to Alien, is generally reviled.  Which is not to say that I disagree with the fannish consensus about Prometheus, which is indeed a terrible, terrible film.  But I am a bit troubled by the fact that when I settled into my seat at the movie theater on Saturday, a mere week after Prometheus's release and without having gone to great lengths to take the temperature of fandom regarding it, I already had no expectation of enjoying it.  Instead, the question foremost in my mind was, what could possibly be so bad about this movie to justify not just disappointment or negativity, but the palpable sense of outrage that has tinged the conversation surrounding the film? 

Having watched the film, I'm not sure I'm much closer to an answer.  Again, I think Prometheus is a terrible, terrible film--messily plotted, peopled with unpleasant characters whose decisions one can only explain through a catastrophic combination of idiocy, lack of professionalism, and sociopathic tendencies, and littered with half a dozen themes, character arcs, and throughlines, none of which come to any sort of fruition, and most of which work at cross-purposes to one another.  Plus, there are hardly any scary bits, and no action scenes to speak of.  I'm just not sure that it's quite so terrible as to justify the opprobrium that has been heaped upon it, to the extent that I'm wondering if there isn't a reverse Avengers affect in play.  I liked The Avengers, but couldn't quite understand why it aroused such extreme love in large portions of fandom, and by the same token I'm having trouble understanding why Prometheus, terrible as it is, is the subject of so much outrage.  Were people expecting great things from Ridley Scott?  The man hasn't directed a truly excellent film since Blade Runner.  Are fans upset at the damage that Prometheus does to the Alien franchise?  You'd think that a fandom that has managed to reason away of existence both of the Alien vs. Predator movies, Alien: Resurrection, and, in the case of certain purists, Alien3, would have no trouble doing the same to this movie.  I can see how science fiction fans, in particular, would be upset at Prometheus's anti-science, anti-evolution bent--the titular ship embarks on its ill-fated journey to the alien moon LV-223 because our heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), believes it to be the home of aliens whom she has dubbed The Engineers, who created the human race.  When it's pointed out to her that she hasn't got a shred of scientific proof for this theory, Shaw simply replies that it's what she chooses to believe.  Not a very compelling audience identification figure for science fiction fans, then, especially as in her zeal to prove her theory--which is explicitly likened, on several occasions, to religious fervor, not least in the way that several characters restate Shaw's mission as the quest to meet her makers--Shaw smugly ignores every common-sense safety precaution and research protocol, and plays a substantial part in bringing about the disaster that kills almost all of the Prometheus's crew (in fairness, Shaw is matched for recklessness and lack of professionalism by pretty much every other character in the movie, but she's the one we're meant to identify with).

On the other hand, science fiction film and TV have been moving away from scientific rationalism and towards a vague sort of deism for the better part of a decade, and Prometheus's writer, Damon Lindelof, was one of the standard bearers of that movement in his work on Lost, so it can hardly come as a surprise that Prometheus continues that trend, especially as the film's trailers all but laid out its Von Däniken-inspired plot.  So while I can see how fans might be disappointed by the film's anti-science stance--which is anyway somewhat ameliorated by the revelation that though Shaw is right about the Engineers, they are far from benevolent parents, and in fact created the organism that would go on to evolve into the original films' Alien in order to unleash it on Earth and destroy their creations--I'm not sure that it on its own justifies the vehemence of the negative reaction the film has received. 

But that, I think, is a clue to the answer I'm looking for.  Taken on their own, none of Prometheus's flaws, serious as they are, justify the revulsion it's elicited, but taken together?  Just about the only thing that works in the film are its visuals, which combine H.R. Giger's by-now iconic and still wonderfully creepy designs for the alien ship with CGI and some clever interface design, creating an environment that is both lived-in and foreign, and culminating in one of the film's two truly successful scenes, in which the android David (Michael Fassbender), activates the control room on the alien ship that Prometheus finds, and becomes the focal point of a symphony of holographic astronavigation information.  If you take just about any other approach to the film, though, you'll fall flat.  Want to learn where the Aliens came from?  Prometheus does contain answers, some silly--the elephant-like head of the alien in the control chair in the original film turns out to have been a helmet concealing a humanoid face, which no one on the Nostromo noticed--and some interesting--after four films in which the Weyland-Yutani Corporation repeatedly tries to get its hands on the Aliens in order to use them as weapons, it's darkly funny to discover that the Engineers created them for precisely the same reason (and it's somewhat to the film's credit that we don't find out the Engineers' reason for wanting us dead is that humanity is just so awful, an infuriatingly supercilious conclusion that too many science fiction stories are happy to plump for--though it seems that Scott's original vision may have included this wrinkle, and that the film can still be read as saying this)--but there's a gap between the film's ending and Alien's beginning that seems hard to bridge, and also unnecessary.  Want to find the answer to Shaw's questions about the origin of the human race?  The film leaves them, and her subsequent desire to know why the Engineers decided to destroy humanity, completely unresolved.  (There's a strong sense that Prometheus's ending is intended to tease a sequel, but given the film's catastrophic box office results that is now mercifully unlikely.)

The film's themes fare no better.  Want to find out more about David, whose nature the film repeatedly puzzles over even as it shows him alternately saving the crew's lives and endangering them, for no reason in either case?  These contradictory actions, and David's own expressions of mingled fascination and revulsion towards humanity, never cohere into a comprehensible character, and David's motivations, sanity, and personality remain opaque all the way to the credits, in no small part because after playing a major, plot-advancing role in the film's first two acts, he is unceremoniously sidelined for its denouement.  Want some more development of the previous films' themes of gender and sex?  For the most part, Prometheus leaves this aspect of the franchise alone.  The Engineers are all male, but nothing is made of this, and though the film's mid-segment seems suddenly to remember that pregnancy, motherhood, and the appropriation of both by a masculine power structure are important themes in the franchise, its handling of them is at once over the top and perfunctory--no sooner have we learned that Shaw is infertile than she turns out to be pregnant with a proto-alien and is sedated by David (who was creepily sort-of lusting after her in the film's early scenes), then breaks free and seeks her own solution to the problem.  This leads to the film's other truly successful scene, in which a naked Shaw locks herself in an auto-surgery unit and watches, fully conscious, as she is cut open and the proto-alien is removed from her body, and then must escape from the unit as it hisses, spits, and tries to capture her.  As effective as this scene is, however, it's also terribly broad, taking an already not very subtle theme and intensifying it to the point that it seems almost like self-parody (the same is true of a later scene in which the last surviving Engineer is vanquished by Shaw's now fully-grown "baby"--his death is so blatantly meant to recall sex, or rape, that the power of the correlation is complete denuded).  More importantly, it's an interlude that seems almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film, to the extent that when a bloody and traumatized Shaw wanders into an inhabited part of the ship, she's met only with puzzled stares, because everyone else has been going about their business and hadn't even realized that something bad was happening to her.

In other words, pretty much everyone who watches Prometheus will find something about it that they dislike intensely, to the point that it ruins the film for them, and when those individual dislikes are fed into each other in fandom's crucible, the result is a critical mass of hate.  For me, Prometheus's core flaw is the way that the film's self-conscious and over-obvious attempts to recall Alien keep running up--and even playing up--Lindelof's obvious incomprehension of what made Alien work.  Prometheus opens on the image of a ship in space, and with an opening crawl that introduces that ship and its complement, and ends with the recorded message of that ship's sole survivor, an almost word-for-word recreation of Ripley's final message from Alien.  It has a female lead, and a menacing android character.  There is a scene in which a character refuses to let crewmembers aboard the ship because one of them is infected with an alien pathogen, and a false bottom ending in which our heroine arrives at the seeming safety of an escape pod only to find an Alien waiting there for her.  But everything is backwards, reversing what was interesting and appealing about the original film.  Shaw, as I've already said, is an unappealing character, absorbed with her quest to the exclusion of almost all other considerations until the awfulness of what she's discovered become inescapable (in other words, until it kills her boyfriend and impregnates her).  She seems more like Aliens's Burke than a Ripley.  The character who tries to stop the infected person from coming aboard is actually the one signposted throughout most of the film as a villain--Weyland Corporation's on-board representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).  Despite which, she is the closest the film comes to a Riply character, being the only member of the crew to reject the fool's errand that her company has embarked upon, and hoping--as Ripley does in Aliens--that the expedition will be for naught.  Vickers is no heroine--she's infected with the same stupidity as the rest of the cast, and is in addition selfish and craven, lacking Ripley's compassion and moral authority (for those traits, we turn to Idris Elba's Captain Janek, who would be a shoe-in for the film's Ripley if he weren't even stupider than Shaw, massively underserved by the plot, and also a man)--but she's the only one with enough common sense to keep the infection off the ship (later, when she's off the bridge, Janek simply lets an infected--and, as he should well know, long dead--crewman on board, which dooms most of the crew) and the only one who distrusts David from the start, which makes her the easiest character in the film to sympathize with.  Unfortunately, the film ends by dropping a house--or rather a spaceship--on Vickers's head, as if to make it clear which of its final girls we're meant to root for.

Perhaps what's most annoying about the way that Prometheus misapprehends Alien is the use it makes of the Weyland Corporation.  In the Alien films, Weyland-Yutani was more of a villain than the Alien.  As Genevieve Valentine explains in her recent, excellent essay, the franchise begins because the corporation has embedded, deep within the computers of all its ships, a directive that declares its employees expendable in the face of the opportunity to capture an Alien specimen.  The fact that she is expendable is what dogs and dooms Ripley--and her crewmates, and the colonists of LV-426, and the marines who accompany Ripley there, and the prisoners on Fiorina 161--not the Alien, and even more than it, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is faceless, inhuman, and ultimately unbeatable (there will always be more corporate officers, after all--you feed a Burke to the Alien, and a Bishop turns up to replace him).  In Prometheus, Weyland's impersonal, coldly calculating nature is replaced with a boatload of daddy issues.  The mission to LV-223 is a spiritual quest that the fiscal-minded Vickers considers a waste of time and manpower, and as we discover around the film's midpoint, its actual purpose is to bring the dying Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of old age makeup) to beg for immortality from the Engineers.  Vickers, who turns out to be Weyland's daughter, and David, who calls Weyland "father," are both desperate for his approval and for the freedom that his death will grant them, which echoes in both the film's title and the discovery that humanity's parents have turned upon it and must be murdered lest they murder us.  As overheated as this theme is, what makes it even worse is how completely it defangs the franchise's most terrifying villain.

The story we've been told about Prometheus's inception is that it was originally envisioned as a prequel to Alien, then spun off into its own story, and then brought back to the franchise, but to me it feels that the truth must be the other way around--that the film was first an original story, and only then folded, rather inexpertly, into the Alien franchise, the joints and fittings still showing quite clearly.  Maybe that's why, despite its too-obvious echoing of the original film, Prometheus feels less like an homage to Alien, and more like a dark retelling of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The imagery of the film's opening scene--a shot of the Earth illuminated from behind by the sun--recalls 2001 so strongly that it is almost unnecessary to go on and see an Engineer kill himself--and possibly jump-start human evolution--at some distant point in our past.  David even makes more sense as HAL in android form--unlike Alien's Ash he, after all, has no directive to cause mayhem, but does so for his own inscrutable, perhaps insane reasons.  And, of course, the film's preoccupation with meeting aliens who uplifted humanity and learning their purpose for us echos with 2001 and 2010.  Unfortunately, reading Prometheus as a twisted retelling of 2001 is just as unsatisfying an approach as any other we might take towards the film.  The revelation that our alien parents are villains is trite, and tritely handled, and despite a few exceptions like David's scene in the control room (and despite the soundtrack breaking out the classical music at the slightest provocation) Prometheus doesn't even approach 2001's immersive audio-visual majesty.  Prometheus may not be the worst movie ever, and may not deserve the intensity of the scorn heaped upon it by fandom, but it is a waste--of money, talent, and not one but two iconic science fiction film franchises.  That, maybe, is something worth getting worked up over.

25 comments:

confluence said...

My impression of the fandom consensus, if there is such a thing, is that the movie is both very good and very bad, for different reasons.

I *both* enjoyed watching it at the cinema (although the most egregious plot holes annoyed me even as I was watching it) *and* enjoyed reading all the rant-filled spoiler reviews afterwards. Almost everyone I know in person had much the same reaction, and that's also the vibe I get from all the reviews and discussions.

The movies and books I complain the most about are the ones I liked the most despite their flaws, because those are the one I find the most disappointing, and find the most enjoyment in dissecting. If I absolutely hate something, I just say that it sucks and move on -- I don't keep checking back for more reviews and discussions for weeks afterwards, the way I'm doing right now with Prometheus.

I suspect that this is why the discussion is still alive -- people both loved it and hated it. They're disappointed. They know it could have been much better, and want to talk about it. If it were completely, unambiguously terrible, the way the AVPs were, the internet would have dismissed and forgotten it already.

Kaffee Beast said...

The anger at "Prometheus" reminds me of the anger fans had at the Bioware game "Mass Effect 3". The finale of the game, culminating a trilogy, was truly horrendous. Such a level of fan outrage was only possible, though, because the series had deserved so much love before this last moment. We hate because we care, you could say.

I think you're right to put an emphasis on the fan consensus aspect. In both of these cases, the uproar online was extreme. Bioware will release a "clarifying" DLC in order to placate their fans. After hemming and hawing about artistic license, the game developers realized that their brand was damaged and that future sales were dependent on some kind of answer to the fans.

The internet has given us a power no consumer has ever experienced. We could always vote with our feet or our wallets, but that still left us feeling unheard. Now the artists hear the direct opinions of their fans and can respond, if they so choose. I like the empowerment.

everythingisnice said...

Just about the only thing that works in the film are its visuals, which combine H.R. Giger's by-now iconic and still wonderfully creepy designs for the alien ship with CGI and some clever interface design, creating an environment that is both lived-in and foreign.

One area I felt this fell down was the creature design. The original design is both superb and limited to a relatively believable life cycle. In Alien you have facehugger to chest burst to alien and in Aliens this is cleverly extended to the queen who creates the facehuggers in the first place. In Prometheus, everything is excess. There is no lifecycle, the black goo seems to manifest itself randomly to fit the needs of the scene: snakes, zombies, starfish, etc, etc. As for the design itself, it picks on the phallo-gyno aspect of Giger's art and just hammers it flat so that you have, for example, cock-cobras with vaginas for mouths. I'd never usually think of Giger as restrained but this shows that he was. Nice little fresco of the alien notwithstanding, I can't seem much of a context between this film and the original alien films - I cannot fathom why they tried to shoehorn one into the other.

Foxessa said...

Besides Thelma and Louise, which I haven't seen in a very long time so have no idea how it holds up, I'd give Scott American Gangster, which I have seen again recently.

This Prometheus franchise reminds one of the same pseudo-religious malarky that was the Matrix frachise. The dashing and stylishly slick photography distracted from the many sins of even the first installment, but had less and less success doing so as it continued. Or so it seems; I never saw more than the first one, since even the exciting (then) on screen style wasn't enough to distract me from going -- What?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

confluence:

It's certainly true that the conversation about Prometheus is much louder and more resilient than the one that surrounded AVP. That may have something to do with the fact that Scott's involvement gives the film a cachet that the trashier AVP didn't have, but I think you're also right that this is a film that people are enjoying tearing into. Unlike recent films like The Hunger Games and even The Avengers, there isn't a terribly interesting conversation surrounding the film - even the infamous "Jesus was a Space Jockey" theory is unconvincing and, if you think about it for too long, pretty offensive - but people sure are having fun coming up with lots of different and creative ways to say that the film sucks. Some of this comes down to the observation I made that there are so many things wrong with Prometheus, so you can criticize it on the grounds of biology, archeology, racism, sexism, or just its million and one plotholes, and still have more to complain about when you're done. Truly, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

Kaffee Beast:

The crucial difference between Prometheus and ME3, however, is that a software company can respond to this kind of fan criticism in a relatively cost-effective (and maybe even profitable) way, through DLCs. I wouldn't like to go on record saying that the Alien franchise is over, since you'd have thought that the AVP films, or even Alien: Resurrection, would have been enough to kill it and yet it returned, but I would be surprised if after Prometheus's failure Lindelof, or even Scott, will be allowed to get their hands on the franchise again and address the fans' complaints - even if I trusted either one of them to have the ability to put their egos aside and listen to those complaints.

Martin:

The "biology" link above points out how ridiculous the so-called lifecycle of Prometheus's alien is. You're certainly right that, much like the film's handling of the rape/forced pregnancy themes of the original films, the approach to the genital-like nature of the aliens was to pound it into the viewers' skulls. What's worse about this, to me, is that along the way we seem to have lost the Alien's personality, if that's the right word, the sense that there is an entity that our heroes are fleeing rather than an ill-defined bioweapon. The deliberately human-like, and yet entirely bland, Engineers can't fill that void, and the Alien is in such flux - to the extent that for most of the film it isn't really present - that it has no opportunity to.

Foxessa:

Thelma and Louise is probably the closest that Scott has come, in his post-Blade Runner career, to producing another masterpiece, but I can't quite get around how disturbing the film's message is. I haven't seen American Gangster, but I did enjoy Matchstick Men, which is slight but amusing.

There is certainly a similarity between Prometheus's pseudo-profundity and The Matrix's, though for me the latter's slick, well made action plot was enough to distract from the silliness of its so-called philosophy. Prometheus isn't nearly well made or exciting enough to do the same.

Jack Rodgers said...

Corporate corruption has been a fascinating theme running throughout the Alien/Prometheus franchise, but am I the only one who thinks that Weyland-Yutani’s motives are completely nonsensical? For all of the effort they’ve put into capturing the xenomorph, it wouldn’t be effective as a bioweapon at all. It’s not like you could deploy it to infect only a designated area – it would spread and likely wipe out entire continents (if not planets). Plus, the infected area would be completely unlivable afterwards. Not to mention the possibility of accidents happening and killing off whoever’s deploying/storing the aliens. Surely there must be more reliable weapons in the future than this.

However, I believe the idea of the company using the alien as a bioweapon is an invention of Cameron’s; the first movie, if I’m remembering correctly, never says what they plan to do with it. Since Ash describes it as a “perfect organism,” I thought he was implying that they intend to study its biology for medical and scientific breakthroughs, which makes more sense. Regardless, the idea that Weyland-Yutani would endanger so many lives to obtain a hugely unstable bioweapon just seems cartoonishly evil to me, and not really an accurate reflection of the sort of arrogance, mendacity and corruption that corporations routinely engage in in the real world.

Also, I’m not sure you could characterize Prometheus’ box-office results as “catastrophic.” They’re certainly not great, and I might be biased here because most of the U.S. media made a big deal out of its opening weekend ($50 million) being on the upper end of expectations. But it’s made about $220 million globally so far, and hitting $300 million when all is said and done is probably within reach. For an R-rated science-fiction film with no major stars and mixed reviews, that’s not bad at all. (Granted, I have no idea if that means that Prometheus has earned back its budget – which hasn’t been officially disclosed – but it’s possible if nobody had the sort of “$20 million plus a percentage of the gross” deals that make blockbusters so expensive.)

Edward Limerick said...

A lot of people have likened Prometheus to 2001: A Space Odyssey but I think that it’s more similar to a typical horror film like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Evil Dead – the sort of horror film that was so excellently mocked and deconstructed by Cabin in the Woods earlier this year. Like those films, Prometheus focuses on gruesome spectacle instead of on its characters or atmosphere. Dan O'Bannon, the writer of the first Alien, mentioned in an interview that the film’s great title flows from the fact that the world “alien” is both a noun and an adjective and I think that this has a lot to do with why Alien is so much more successful than many of the other horror films that preceded and followed it. Scott and his creative team worked hard to create the sense that the characters were encountering a force that was truly alien: the face rape, chest-buster, the alien’s phallic head and androgynous features, even the design of the space jockey as both pilot and starship reinforced the bizarre otherness of the creature the crew was dealing with.

By contrast, Prometheus is more concerned with disgusting set pieces like Shaw’s alien abortion and killing off its characters in memorable ways. The threat isn’t alien. It’s just weird and malevolent. Likewise, Prometheus’s crew doesn’t act in a believable way either. The treat their interstellar journey like the hedonistic kids in Cabin in the Woods, the first thing they do is get loaded and starting trying to have sex with each other. In fact, it’s possible to identify several of the archetypes discussed in Cabin in the Woods – the Fool: The pothead geologist. The Scholar: biologist/Charlie/David. The athlete: Janek. To Prometheus’s it plays with its female archetypes a bit. Shaw and Vickers combine traits of the whore and the virgin and both make it to the end. I would argue that as high-budget, atypical schlock horror Prometheus is very entertaining. Its connection to Alien, however, is evidentially making that difficult for a lot of viewers and I’m not surprised. The movie highlights its flaws by constantly reminding its audience of its vastly superior predecessor. Alien broke the horror mold while Prometheus is content to fit within it.

Edward Limerick said...

Jack,

I agree. The corporation's motives make no sense when examined closely, especially after the first movie. In Alien at least they had no idea what they were dealing - an unstoppable killing machine - with but by Aliens they did. The possibility of studying an alien orgamism would be irresistible to any scientist on Earth, but I seriously doubt they'd keep trying to capture one once they realized how unbelievably dangerous it was.

Shawn Edrei said...

To fully understand the fandom reaction to "Avengers", I think you need to consider the genre as a whole. There was a very long period of time when superhero movies couldn't muster basic competence, let alone actual quality. Bat-nipples, Richard Pryor skiing down a building, Shaquille O'Neal as a Superman stand-in... truly dark times. "Avengers" has its flaws, but it's a solid narrative that makes the effort to develop as many characters as possible. To be blunt, this achievement exceeds the most optimistic projections of people who had to suffer through Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl.

As for "Prometheus", it's basically the same phenomenon in reverse, more akin to the slack-jawed bug-eyed horror of "The Phantom Menace": prequels tend to be unnecessary as a rule, but when they fall drastically short of their 25-year-old predecessors...

Unknown said...

It's been a couple of weeks since I saw Prometheus, but it contains at least one other 2001 parallel/homage. After Weyland is awakened, we see a shot of him sitting on the edge of his bed in an immaculate room aboard the ship. It seems to harken directly back to the scenes of Dave Bowman at the end of 2001 as an old man (in which case the terrible old-age makeup on Guy Pearce acts as another 2001 homage). In some ways, you could say Prometheus can't even manage a dark retelling of 2001. It goes at the task at one remove: it's more like a dark retelling of Mission to Mars, complete with a sandstorm.

Really, though, to echo one of your points, Abigail, it's just a particularly bad, overly-devoted retelling of Alien. While some plot points are shuffled around and rejiggered, the whole time I was watching it, I kept thinking, "I've seen most of this played out before (and far more compellingly)." In that sense, it's reminiscent of what they did with the prequel to The Thing last year: make a film that's far too slavish to the original plot, yet simultaneously pretend it's somehow different. Whatever else it is, watching Prometheus is one bizarre movie-going experience. I'm highly disappointed in the film, but I'm not at all disappointed that I saw it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jack:

Even after Aliens, I always assumed that when Weyland-Yutani says that it wants the Alien for weapons research, what's meant is studying its capabilities in order to graft and develop them into more controllable weapons, not simply dropping it on populated areas, which as you say would only work if you're willing, as the engineers apparently were, to render the planet uninhabitable. The failure here is less in W-Y's business plan than in its conviction that it can control the Alien once it has one in custody. Which is an irrational belief, but I'm not sure it's a flaw that W-Y is an irrational exaggeration of corporate greed and arrogance. After all, the Alien is an irrational exaggeration of feral nature, a creature that only makes sense if its sole purpose is to be monster (even the explanation offered by Prometheus, that the Alien originates from a bioweapon, doesn't sweep away all of its inherent irrationality). It makes sense for the series's other villain to be just as irrational and monstrous.

Edward:

An interesting comparison between the scientists on Prometheus and the canon fodder in shlocky horror films (a mild quibble, however: one of the ways that Cabin in the Woods subverts the expectations of its genre is that its young protagonists are actually pleasant, studious, intelligent people who are very nice and respectful towards one another; it's only once they're drugged by the scenario operators that they begin to behave in stereotypically hedonistic and unappealing ways), but I think an important difference is that unlike those films, the reason that the audience starts rooting for the crew to die in Prometheus isn't that they drink or screw, but that they're all so bad at their jobs. It's far more infuriating that people who have come so far from home to study the unknown demonstrate such a total lack of scientific curiosity, and possess so little common sense or awareness of basic safety protocols.

Shawn:

While I see your point about the comparison between Prometheus and The Phantom Menace, I'm not sure the Avengers explanation works as well. After all, it's been twelve years since X-Men, the first truly successful and critically lauded superhero film, and in the interim the bar was even further raised by the Spiderman films, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight. It's been a long time since anyone thought of Silverstone's Batgirl when thinking about superhero movies.

Shawn Edrei said...

Quite right, but what sets "Avengers" apart from these projects - including "X-Men", which was indeed a successful ensemble piece until Ratner - is that it specifically set out to do something no superhero film had ever achieved, even at the height of the Nolan/Singer renaissance: namely, to create a "Shared Universe" film which explicitly draws pre-established characters into the same narrative space. It's been a staple of the genre for so long that we tend to take it for granted, but post-credits cameos aside, you wouldn't necessarily guess that "Thor" and "Iron Man" are meant to share the same ontological structure. Putting them all together had the potential for utter catastrophe (ie: the horrific live-action "Justice League of America" from 1997), and yet Whedon pulled it off - the plot may have its warts, but the film never drops the ball in terms of making the audience believe that these disparate, trans-generic characters intersect within a specific fictional world.

deangrr said...

This film was effective - I walked away pretty disturbed by the response of the living Engineer, the destruction on the planet and the effects of the black serum. The first half of the film was majestic and exciting, but my expectations torched the 2nd half. The scientists were far from seasoned and competent, and the living Engineer went off the deep end.

I'm a pretty forgiving reviewer, and after reading comments from others, I was able to enjoy the film a lot more. For example, I missed the mural of the Engineer's sacrifice and the xenomorph, so they knew the black serum can have different effects. Perhaps selfishness leads to xenomorphs, and selflessness to Gaia. Please see: http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584135.html

There could also be different factions of engineers (Creators vs Destroyers), with one group wanting to start evolution, and the other to prevent it. Please see: http://www.prometheus-movie.com/community/forums/topic/7658

Yeah, I know, this can be thinking in contortions to make a badly written 2nd half work, but to be fair, I love scifi and want to give Ridley's film the benefit of the doubt.

From your review ...

[i]"the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is faceless, inhuman, and ultimately unbeatable"[/i] Yeah, this is almost as horrific, and more chilling, than attacking xenomorphs from Aliens: at least for them, it's instinct.

[i]"Vickers, who turns out to be Weyland's daughter, and David, who calls Weyland "father," are both desperate for his approval and for the freedom that his death will grant them, which echoes in both the film's title and the discovery that humanity's parents have turned upon it and must be murdered lest they murder us"[/i] I thought this was a cool idea you presented, though you don't seem to think so. David stood his ground in the film, and seemed to have a soul and a purpose for himself, beyond the dismissal that Holloway and Weyland showed him.

Regards, Dean

deangrr said...

May I add that the themes and certain scenes in Prometheus are a lot of fun to think about:

*David and his "soul": David has an intellectual understanding of emotion, empathy of thought if not feeling. Robotics and androids are to scifi now, what the Ipad is to Star Trek's data pads. Isn't it fun to speculate?

*Ancient civilizations gone wrong, terribly wrong: if I lived in a black, skeletal cave-ship, I'd probably go nuts, too. The idea of god-like powers that technology confers, but absent enlightenment, are relevant. Can we be responsible with genetic engineering? Can we go wrong, terribly wrong?

p.s. what did the Engineers do for fun? What kind of life could they have had aboard their ships? ;)

greyfoot said...

Fans react, or "overreact," as you say, Abigail, to this film because that's what "fans" do. As fickle as a blind ideology, a fan will eviscerate anything that doesn't conform to the "standards" that his/her chosen guild has etched into stone for him/her, sometimes even when it actually DOES conform to them. Fans reactions are as jejune as most of pop culture. That sounds simplistically cynical, I know, but it's the truth.

As for the film itself, I concur with your review almost verbatim. I'd add that Prometheus's mildly successful visuals lacked the elegance of Scott's previous science fiction (or even fantastical) forays. Indeed, the downfall of the film was due to an overzealous attempt to copy the original film, but not make it too obvious--in other words, to appear as original as possible, which, let's face it, is really what brought us (and the aforementioned canonical fans) to the theater in the first place. We were hoping that this would actually BE an interesting retelling, and done in Scott's much-praised exotic way. Alas, that didn't happen. As you said, too many unfulfilled subplots, too many unnecessary characters, and a staggering lack of common sense. I like your point about unorthodox religion pervading the genre of late; but my two cents about it is that I've no problems with ANY piece of fiction struggling with metaphysics, no matter the impetus or conclusion of the writer. The problem with Prometheus though, is that even in addition to that theme being so pedantically rendered, it didn't go anywhere.

One thing about the writers Lindelof and Spaihts; we should keep in mind that those are the only names associated with the script that we SAW. It could very well have just been the two of them, but there could also have been ten to twenty other scab writers who'd worked on the script that were uncredited, which MIGHT account for the lack of focus in the story. This is the way Hollywood works.

Oh, and you were also right that Scott hasn't made a thoroughly decent film since Blade Runner (though, as one commenter said, Thelma and Louise WAS an excellent try). I guess we've to take solace in Scott's first four films, visual masterpieces that they are. Prometheus indeed was not the worst movie in the world, but it did in fact fail. It happens. Better luck next time.

Sincerely,

greyfoot

deangrr said...

There's a lot of human nature(s) at work here in the comments section. I think it's important to say that if people derive pleasure, joy, meaning in a film, let it be. Analysis and cynicism can suck the joy out of living if you allow, ;). - Dean

Alison said...

I have seen more positive comments about the film than you have, I think. I get the impression that people who are not too invested in the original Alien experience feel pretty OK about the new one.

I think we react to competent art which has a gap in it; our thoughts are sucked into that gap. Terrific art includes that gap artfully - it is made to call our thoughts. Work like Prometheus has accidentally got a gap - actually a great big flaw - running through it, and it makes us want to poke and poke like a hole in a tooth. If it was utter garbage and nothing but, we wouldn't care.

And in this case I think that pondering about what is wrong with Prometheus makes us think hard about what makes good horror narrative (as your review and comments). So ultimately I think it's going to have a good effect.

Even - it's possible - the sequel might show there has been reflection on what is wrong with Prometheus, and it might be much better. Keep the cast, keep the visuals, hire a new script writer. Walter Hill, for example.

greyfoot said...

As Alison is suggesting, Dean, the role of the critic, which can and does literally fall to ANY reader or viewer, is to evaluate a piece of literature or film based on a cultural standard. Abigail's initial quibble was about how fickle and often illogical such standards can be with an identified clique. I don't think that she was trying to tell anyone to change their opinion, so we shouldn't instruct her to "let them be." People are free to express their opinions, which, again, is the whole point of being a critic, but this doesn't mean we should suspend honest judgment for the sake of hurt feelings.

Alison, there a some people I know who WORSHIP the original Alien, and who didn't think the film was that bad. I really think that, because of the nature of the film, it really IS judged based on its own merits (or, according to people like me, a lack of them). I'm sure there are some people for whom what you say is true--particularly younger generations--but I do think critics (viewers) were mostly being fair.

One correction I'd like to make from my first post: Blade Runner wasn't the last good Scott film, Legend was. That film, as over-the-top glitter fantastical as it was, was very effective for what it was trying to do.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dean:

The reason that I'm underwhelmed by Prometheus's handling of its myriad daddy issues is that gesturing at a potentially interesting theme doesn't actually make for an interesting execution. You have to actually do something interesting with it, especially when you're going to a well that so much of father-obsessed Western pop culture has gone to. This goes doubly for Damon Lindelof, who has surely maxed out on his lifetime's supply of daddy issues after six seasons of Lost, which essentially reduced every character's storyline to a conflict with their father. Prometheus's handling of this them is, as I say in this review, shallow and trite, which only serves to highlight its hoariness.

Also, can I say that I find statements like this

if people derive pleasure, joy, meaning in a film, let it be. Analysis and cynicism can suck the joy out of living if you allow

extremely annoying, for the reasons that greyfoot cites but also because it seems completely irrelevant to this discussion. How can you talk about sucking joy out of life with too much analysis when it's obvious from my review, and the ones I linked to, that a lot of people took no joy at all in the film? And on the flip side, how can you look at the hilarious takedowns that the film has inspired and conclude that the people who are criticizing it derive no joy from doing so?

greyfoot:

The story I heard about Prometheus's script is that Spaihts wrote a draft, which was essentially thrown out by Lindelof except for a basic concept. There may, as you say, have been other writers, but the film shares so many of Lost's flaws and preoccupations that it makes more sense to me to assume that it is for the most part Lindelof's work.

It's been a long time since I saw Legend (and even then I think I only saw part of the film) but I don't remember being terribly impressed with it, certainly not the same degree as Blade Runner or Alien.

Alison:

I'm not convinced that the reaction to Prometheus is rooted in Alien fannishness. If you look at the reviews I've linked to, none of them cite love of the original film as their core problem, and even my issue is more that the film references Alien shallowly than that it reflects badly on it. As I said, this is a pretty resilient fandom, which has been happy to ignore between 50% and 60% of its canon. One more film wouldn't have caused such a problem if there weren't so many other things wrong with it.

Alison said...

I don't think the existence of Prometheus will harm anyone's devotion to Alien, but I think it might be easier to enjoy P if you underplay the franchise. I am trying to imagine watching it as a film without antecedents. A baggy but innovative concept. big spectacle and peculiar biology. but in context... pants.

deangrr said...

Can you win an argument based on logic, if the other person will not accept your logic? I feel this review and many comments take a more "glass is half full" approach: seeing the negative, rather than positive in a film. Do you disagree?

I've enjoyed the parodies and "Prometheus in 15 min" myself. Perhaps I'll take my own advice, and just enjoy the review and comments here, without being too cynical or analytical about them, ;). - Dean

deangrr said...

"Glass is half full or empty": And what was I saying about logic? ;) Ah, well, go gently please ... ;) - Dean

deangrr said...

Abigail,

Prometheus is not the only place I could post this, but the comments have settled so it feels safe to do so :

I've commented on a few of your articles and I apologize if I come across as trying to stifle conversation ("annoying" as you mentioned). I may be clumsy with blog social norms, because it feels like a conversation with the author, but it's a bit like a gallery of ideas, and I'm just a visitor. You don't know my motives in writing (to be fair, sometimes I don't fully understand), and for me that's important.

I've just read your article on "Treme" from 2010, and really enjoyed reading about the motives behind the show, that music is a metaphor for healing, and as the title says, people are laughing to keep from crying. This feels partly like denial to me (rebuilding in such a flood vulnerable zone puzzles me), but the exuberance and relish for life is something enviable.

And I guess that`s my view of storytelling, that it displays heroes that we could emulate and inspires us through adversity: a bit like the hope that George Lucas has for Star Wars, that its mythology can organically pass on values like friendship, honor and sacrifice. Storytelling can also be enjoyed for its own sake, as entertainment, or an intellectual exercise (i.e. reviews), and if this is all we do with our stories, it`s sad.

Having said this, any conversation can sometimes be a contest of ideas, and in the end, the reader decides. I don`t comment with the intent that my ideas are the only ones, or the right ones, but I can still strongly disagree. I guess for me even a badly produced film or book, if written with healthy intentions, can still have some great scenes or good value. It keeps coming back to the eye of the beholder ...

Dean Gross
Vancouver, BC

Anonymous said...

prometheus was a great film, you're just too dense to get it. go try and think at Ridley Scott's level for a day and your brain would probably melt.

Dragonchild said...

Actually, I did find a way to thoroughly enjoy Prometheus. . . I realized that it's not some philosophical masturbation by Ridley Scott; it's the character viewpoint retelling of a science fiction role-playing game session where a particularly hexed set of dice result in the players critically failing all their knowledge and skill checks.

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