Saturday, 16 June 2012

Lurking in the Shadows - My Thoughts on Prometheus

Before going to see 'Prometheus' last weekend, I did what seemed appropriate and revisited Ridley Scott's 1979 classic 'Alien'.

It still holds up!

It's a film I've revisited many times since I first saw it in the early 1980s. At first I just enjoyed the horror and suspense aspects of the film, but subsequent viewings have made me appreciate how groundbreaking it was to have a female lead, the gender-reversing shock of seeing a man 'raped' by an alien, HR Giger's masterful bio-mechanical set and creature design and the deliberate but operatic pacing of the film.

Perhaps the thing that has kept the film in the public consciousness and made it a cut above the average 'slasher' film is the fact that there are some intriguing questions set up that are left unanswered. Who was The Space Jockey piloting the ship which carried the alien cargo? What is the faceless Weyland-Yutani corporation? What is the extent of their knowledge of the Xenomorph? Is it a bio-weapon? The sequels to Alien wisely stayed away from answering most of these questions. I think this is largely because the fans wouldn't want to see these ideas tackled by anyone else but Ridley Scott (or perhaps James Cameron).

Prequels, reboots and sequels to beloved genre-films are a dime a dozen these days and I'm generally not a fan. The Star Wars prequels are the perfect example of why they don't work and I can explain why in one sentence - No amount of money or CGI wizardry can compete with a 10 year-old's imagination when it comes to envisioning 'The Clone Wars'. Alec Guinness' passing mention of it at the beginning of Star Wars was enough. Save yourself the time and money, Hollywood. At best prequels seem to disappoint and at worst they damage your opinion of the existing films (and your childhood memories)

If you don't believe me, then maybe Simon Pegg can convince you:

I went to see Prometheus with fairly low expectations, but I admittedly had been inspired by the viral videos (especially Michael Fassbender's 'David' video) and the trailers. Almost a week after seeing it, I begrudgingly like it. On the most basic level I enjoyed it and it delivered enough visceral shocks to warrant being included in the 'Alien' canon. I appreciate the fact that Scott seemed to be aware of the trappings of making prequels and avoided making the film a 'direct' prequel (although it is undeniably an Alien film). 

I think his willingness to mess with audience preconceptions has led to both the greatest successes and the greatest criticisms concerning the film. A lot of reviews complain of 'plot holes', especially when it comes to two key scenes. One involves scientists coming into contact with a clearly hostile alien species, showing no fear and joking around with the life-form. It doesn't end well. The other scene involves scientists taking off their helmets after detecting a breathable atmosphere (what about air-borne pathogens?) To be fair, these weren't plot holes, merely actions that were incongruous to the characters. I'll give Scott credit for trying at least to be darkly funny, but it was disconcerting to hear the audience laugh during a 'horror' sequence. The greatest success (at least in the scare department) was a clever take on the original chest-burster scene from Alien involving some impromptu abdominal surgery. Mwahahahaha!

Ridley Scott isn't a young man these days. His reasons for making Alien are different to the reasons he made Prometheus. It really feels like he has something to prove in Alien (especially if you watch the excellent bonus features on the Alien special edition) and he wrings every ounce of effort into creating something unique. Perhaps the amount of opposition he encountered actually helped him make a great film. Endless re-writes of the script helped hone the core of what the film was about before they even shot a frame. Budgetary constraints made them rely more on their imaginations about hidden threats rather than exposition. I'm not saying it was easy to make Prometheus, but with Scott's track record, perhaps he didn't encounter as much opposition on the 'artistic' side.

The thing that I love about Ridley Scott is that he can use an image to cut to the core of a subject. In Blade Runner the image of the unicorn represented 'memory' and the difference between what is real or implanted. The chest burster scene in Alien is an iconic 'body horror' image. I can't think of any single shot in Prometheus that sums up the film.

I think Prometheus could have done with being a bit 'leaner'. For a start there were too many characters. I know you need a fair amount of monster-fodder in these sorts of films, but there were a lot of people that seemed to sit around doing nothing for most of the time (including Charlize Theron's character). The properties of the 'black goo' that our heroes encounter seems to be rather random and confusing as well.

Ultimately, the theme of Prometheus seems to be 'faith versus science'. It's a fair enough theme to explore, but it is handled rather clunkily in Prometheus and I'm not sure that a trumped-up horror franchise such as Alien is really the correct forum to explore such lofty ideas.

The reason Alien worked so well is that it connected with primordial fears. What is lurking just beyond your flashlight as you're lying in bed? Am I giving birth to a monster? Who is ultimately running everything? Prometheus aims to be a bit more cerebral and ultimately spawn new themes such as the origins of mankind (and a new franchise), but it is unclear at this stage where they ultimately seem to be heading.

Prometheus was written by Damon Lindelof who wrote the tv show 'Lost'. I've never seen it, but I know it is famous for asking a lot of questions that ultimately are red herrings. Prometheus asks a lot of questions too and it is disturbing to think that they may just be threads leading nowhere. Maybe another scriptwriter with a more 'singular' vision would have made things flow better?

Prometheus goes a long way to explaining the subtext in the original Alien. The problem with this is, if you are going to explain subtext, then you have to replace it with something equally as compelling. To me, Prometheus is a worthy attempt. Maybe after a few decades of re-watching it the pieces will start to fall into place, but at the moment it just seems a bit of a mess. It's probably the best 'prequel' film I've seen, but that is a dubious honour. After seeing 'Attack of the Clones' I was disappointed that Darth Vader ended up being Hayden Christiansen. I was also disappointed that Peter Weyland ended up being Guy Pearce in Prometheus, but not as much - I like Guy Pearce! 


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