Monday, June 11, 2012

Things We Learned from Prometheus (and Some Other Reactions)

  I never thought I'd write the sentence "I'd rather be writing a review for Men in Black 3 right now" but you can't throw a virtual rock anywhere in the internet right now without it hitting something about Prometheus. And, at least in my experience, 90% of it has been negative. The hostility that the Ridley Scott / John Spaihts / Damon Lindelof prequel to Alien but not exactly movie has been deafening since Friday night, and while I don't argue with the reasons why commenters and reviewers and discussion board posters have been tearing Prometheus apart, I'm astonished at their ferocity.

 There are a few different points of attack, but many of them fall along the following lines: a) Ridley Scott hasn't made a good movie in years and this falls far from a "return to form" that we (the internet) were promised, b) The script is laughably bad, with one or two developed characters and a bunch of people that only do what the narrative needs them to do regardless of their "role" in the story, c) It isn't scary, d) It embarrasses the Alien series more than Resurrection (okay, I laughed out loud at that one*), or e) The movie lacks an ending and instead resembles Lindelof's strategy on the show Lost of "we'll save this for the next one" raising answers and plotlines they have no intention of addressing in Prometheus.

 With that in mind, I'm going to look a a few things to take away from Prometheus, some of which are tied to the criticisms listed above, and some tied to last week's post about Alien and Prometheus. Until the echo chamber of negativity dies down, I don't think I'm actually going to review Prometheus, even though I enjoyed it more than seemingly most of the chatterverse online. It's funny, because I liked it and my friends liked it and everybody I've spoken to that I know has seen it liked it, but if I start looking around online, Prometheus is the "WORST MOVIE EVAR ALL CAPS!!1!!!11!!"

 So let's get into it, starting with the indefensible:

 1. The Writing in Prometheus is a Mess - One of the most cited problems with Prometheus, even in positive reviews, is that the writing is anywhere from half baked to terrible. And you know what? It's true. I can't even begin to argue this, and no amount of thematic "Big Ideas" can overcome basic story problems (speaking of "Big Ideas," if you're looking for an interesting breakdown of the religious / philosophical / mythical references in the film, I suggest reading this post). They fall into two categories, one of which I'm not sure who is responsible and the other seems to follow the M.O. of Lindelof, but let's deal with the first part, the one where characters do things that don't make any sense.

 The primary offender here is Charlie Holloway, who along with Elizabeth Shaw is responsible for the Prometheus being there in the first place. It's unclear in the film itself whether both of them are scientists or if Holloway is the scientist and Shaw is the believer that pushes him forward (I've seen this idea floated out there in a few reviews). I'm inclined to believe that both of them have some interest in ancient civilizations, but Shaw is also apparently capable of overseeing a dissection / genetic analysis of one of the Engineers (Space Jockey) without question by the other scientists aboard the Prometheus. This is kind of a side note, but other than Janek (Captain), Chance (Pilot), Ravel (Pilot), Milburn (Biologist), and Fifield (Geologist), it's not clear what the other "scientists" / non-Weyland personnel do. Does anybody have an idea what Ford does? She's in the pyramid, is involved in the genetic analysis, and delivers exposition about how toxic the air is on LV-223. That's all we know.

 Anyway, I got off track. So the premise is that Holloway and Shaw convinced Peter Weyland to pay a trillion dollars to design a state-of-the-art research ship (hence the holographic displays and fancy equipment that, let's be honest, you aren't going to see on the mining ship Nostromo or the war ship Sulaco) and send 17 people two years into space to follow a space map. They arrive, find a pyramid with a skull on the top, David activates a holographic projection of Space Jockeys / Engineers running from something that ends with one of them being decapitated. They open a room with a giant head, murals, a sculpture that looks like a xenomorph, and jars filled with a black liquid that reacts to the change in temperature. They're forced to leave the room because of the reaction, but the body of the decapitated Engineer is roughly 2000 years old. They leave the pyramid structure because a storm is coming in, but Holloway and David are both lingering. David wants one of the jars, and Holloway dismissively declares "this is just another tomb."

 From this point forward, after being in the pyramid once (after he insisted they go in immediately after landing), Holloway becomes a drunken cynic, convinced everybody is dead and that he'll never be able to "talk" to the Engineers. After being in the pyramid once. Having explored one room, a few hallways, and being forced to leave because of external circumstance, Holloway gives up and starts drinking. His inexplicably newfound fragile mental state allows David to slip him some black liquid and let it do... whatever it does. Decode DNA? Recode it to create new life? Guarantee miraculous births? Look, I don't have any quarrel with the ambiguity of the opening of the film, whether it takes place on Earth or not (Scott says it doesn't matter where it is), and I'm even okay with the obvious horror movie setup of leaving Milburn and Fifield behind (in fact, it plays into two of the most known horror tropes paying off: smoking pot and having sex, the former in the pyramid and the latter preventing Janek from knowing they were in trouble).

 That said, Holloway's turn is arbitrary and only really seems to exist so that he can drunkenly insult Shaw and then get them together in bed so we can get to the "medical pod" scene in the film. It's a perfunctory character shift that doesn't make sense in the story, either as a scientist or as a "believer" - Holloway simply doesn't have enough evidence to leap to the conclusion he does, and since Weyland clearly pushes David to "try harder," it's not hard to see that Charlie giving up gets him out of the way midway through the film. It's logistical, not organic, and I can't get past that.

 The other problem, the "Lost" issue, is part of this notion that everything should be "sequel-ized" for continued franchise use. I fully admit this is nothing new and that complaining about it is like Clint Eastwood chasing hoodlums off his lawn in Gran Torino, but Damon Lindelof seems to be approaching Prometheus like it's a guaranteed ongoing series (and hell, it probably is, it's tied to the Alien franchise that 20th Century Fox has been desperate to reboot), and like he did with Lost, Prometheus raises lots of questions with no intention of answering them. In this film. That's the distinction between Alien and Prometheus. Yes, Alien never explains who the Space Jockey is or how the alien life cycle works in specificity (Aliens does, kinda) or how the derelict got there or a number of other questions, but Alien wasn't made with Aliens in mind.

 Prometheus doesn't even really have a beginning, middle, or end: it has an ambiguous opening shot, an earthbound introductory sequence, and jumps forward to the ship at the end of its voyage. Again, I don't have much of a problem there because the logistics aren't that important. I'm cool with the ambiguity about David's motives (actually, I love that and the tiny ways Scott ties how Shaw and Holloway treat David to the way Replicants are regarded in Blade Runner), the quick way the scientists are introduced and the plan Shaw and Holloway have, but once they land on LV-223, the narrative collapses. We're continually introduced to mysteries, one after the other, as characters are shuttled back and forth from the Prometheus to the pyramid, and instead of addressing these problems we get perfunctory explanations from the strangest sources. Yes, Janek is right that the Engineers are developing weapons in a pyramid with a skull on top in the middle of nowhere (how do I know this, read the previous piece where Scott repeatedly asserts in the Alien commentary what his reading on the derelict is), but is he the only person who realized this? Vickers is content to stick around under Weyland dies, even though she figures out pretty quickly how badly things are going to end.

 Okay, let's take a step back. What do we know about the Space Jockey / Engineers at the end of Prometheus that we didn't know in Alien? Okay, they engineered us for reasons we don't know (but are constantly reminded by characters in the film is VERY IMPORTANT), they were planning on wiping us out with biologically engineered weapons of mass destruction (including creatures that will evolve into the facehuggers and Xenomorphs we recognize from Alien) for reasons we don't know (but again, Shaw finds this VERY IMPORTANT) and that they're incompetent. How are they incompetent? Well, taking what we know from Alien and what we learn in Prometheus, they have no idea how to contain the weapons they create and as a result their WMDs end up killing them.

 That's it. We're given the carrot that Shaw and David aren't going back to Earth, but will instead fly one of the "bombers" to the Engineers' home planet (which isn't LV-223) to get answers that Lindelof, Spaihts, and Scott have NO intention of addressing in the film. We get lots of puzzle pieces, a promise that the story will pick up in the next movie, and a final shot introducing us to a proto-Xenomorph to give the audience something to be excited about when they leave realizing that Prometheus didn't actually end so much as throw up a "to be concluded..." ala Back to the Future Part 2.

 Side Note: I only call it a bomber because there's a distinction between the ship at the beginning of the film and the U-shaped, Giger designed spacecrafts, so let's assume that if several ships that look like that are stationed at a weapons facility that they're designed to haul volatile cargo to targets.

 Okay, so I watched six seasons of Lost that continually pushed the "we'll address this next year" only to get to an ending that failed miserably. But that's not my quarrel with the "sequel-izing" of movies. It's more fundamental than that. A movie with sequels can still have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if it's designed to be part of a larger story. For example, while I don't know why you would do it, you could watch The Empire Strikes Back without seeing A New Hope or Return of the Jedi and feel like you've seen a narrative arc for every character in the film. It still raises questions, it leaves one character frozen in Carbonite, but it's still satisfying as it's own film.

 Movies that intentionally set themselves up with sequels in mind can fail. Case in Point: The Golden Compass. The writers decided they'd leave a bunch of open ended plot threads for the future installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and in the process forgot to make a satisfying film for audiences. As a result, the other two films were never made. They probably never will be. The same goes for Push, Jumper, and I Am Number Four. Prometheus will almost certainly get its sequel, but if Lindelof, Spaihts, Scott, and anyone else involved in future entries into this franchise don't tighten up the films so that people can enjoy them on their own (again, that's WHY people argue about whether Alien or Aliens is better, because they work in tandem but also as their own distinct experiences), I don't know that I want to be dragged along for two more hours.

 2. Other Things from the Last Post - Well, I think I've covered that LV-223 is not LV-426 and any speculation about where they are in relationship to each other is still up in the air (depending on which wiki site you visit, it seems to vary, but Google LV-426 and LV-223 and go to any link other than this to keep looking). Speaking of which, a friend asked me what the LV stood for, and even after digging around, I'm still not certain. If you know, please leave a comment for other readers and I'll also try to incorporate it into this section. I would gather it's the classification for planets discovered in the Alien universe, but the the "L" and "V" mean, I'm not sure.

 Since the mission of the Prometheus ends with Peter Weyland, his daughter Meredith Vickers, and the rest of the crew dead (at least as far as Earth is concerned), one can see how Yutani moved in to merge with Weyland Corporation in the absence of the family who ran the "Company." We can probably guess that Weyland-Yutani took the information David gathered about the "weapon" and that leads us into their obsession with bringing a Xenomorph back for research.

 It may sound silly to say this, but Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, just not in the way people expected. This is possibly why expectations are met with such vicious reactions, because other than the mid-section, Prometheus isn't really strictly trying to be a horror film. It's a film more fascinated with the origin of humanity, even if it has very little to offer other than more questions. Where it becomes an explicit prequel is a little white lie that Ridley Scott told about there being "No Xenomorphs" in Prometheus.

 Let's say it's safe to say that if you're still reading this after I broke down most of the major plot points (the Prometheus crashing into the Space Jockey's ship is in the trailer, but since I haven't mentioned it yet, there you go), so it's not going to bother you to mention the last scene in the film. After an obvious homage to Alien - Shaw recording voice-over explaining what happened to the crew playing over a ship leaving - we cut back to the last surviving Space Jockey, last seen on the losing end of a fight with an oversized facehugger. Its body begins shaking, and instead of a chestburster, a scrawny version of what we recognize to be a Xenomorph emerges, stands up, and screams (with second mouth). It's not "technically" a Xenomorph, just like the big tentacled thing wasn't "technically" a facehugger (although if it's anything like the tiny one in the pyramid, it has acid for blood). Therefore, Scott was only kind-of lying.

 What I'm a little curious about is that if the Alien wiki sites say about the chronology of the films (Prometheus taking place thereabouts 30 years before Alien). What we see at the end of Prometheus is are creatures that will evolve into facehuggers and Xenomorphs, but with only thirty years for the species to evolve to that point? Well, they're aliens, so I guess we should just ignore that. Also, I hope that this particular facehugger / Xenomorph combination don't have anything to do with what the Nostromo eventually encounters. Seriously.

 Just think about that: the "alien" in Alien is descended from Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw, with some tinkering from David, a Weyland Corporation android. It makes it a little less "Alien," doesn't it?

 I don't want to end things on a sour note, because despite the story problems I have with Prometheus, I completely disagree that it's not a good movie. I think Ridley Scott did a fantastic job with the 3D, bringing LV-223 to life, and in generating the tension when Prometheus moves into horrific territory. The medical pod scene is pretty disturbing, as is what happens to Milburn and Fifield in the pyramid (less so the Sunshine-esque reappearance of Fifield later in the film. And it's Fifield, not Holloway - I've seen that mistake made in a few reviews). I really enjoyed watching Prometheus, and would like to see it again. It's true that there's a lot going on in the film that would benefit from another viewing, but I'm not enough to cover story elements that don't make sense. So it's a very good film, but not a perfect one. It's certainly not the travesty or failure that I keep seeing online, but that's just my take. I'm happy to hear your thoughts.

* So I liked Alien Resurrection as a strange, heightened take on the Alien films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but I'm in the minority. You have to REALLY be able to get past how wildly uneven the film is, how the combination of Jeunet's direction and Joss Whedon's screenplay - and I could probably write another entry just about the script - drains any sense of tension and replaces it with overacting and incongruous jokes. That, and the hybrid. I can't defend the hybrid. Anyway, it is not better than Prometheus**. What's next? Are the AvP defenders going to see their opening and go after Prometheus?

** Why yes, I put a post-script in a post-script, but where else should this go? I do think it's funny that various comments and forum posts insisted that only Alien and Aliens were now "canon" for the series and that Prometheus would assure that. Why is it funny? Because one of the things we see David doing while he's waiting for the crew of the Prometheus to wake up is wandering around with a basketball and eventually doing trick shots on a bicycle. Rather than this being an arbitrary decision, I choose to believe Scott made a conscious decision to pay homage to the silliest moment in Alien Resurrection, thus validating its existence in series "canon."

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