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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Prometheus: Proof that epic sci-fi doesn't belong in the Alien franchise.

Previously: Disturbing viral marketing for Prometheus: Happy birthday David, from Weyland Industries.

My feelings about Prometheus are very mixed. As a grown-up sci-fi blockbuster movie, it was excellent, albeit a little cumbersome at times, but as a prequel to Alien it really didn't seem to know what it was doing. The pre-movie marketing included a lot of extra information on the extended universe -- a timeline of Weyland Industries' technological developments; background on Michael Fassbender's android character David; an in-character TED lecture from the fictional billionaire Peter Weyland -- but the film itself included very little of that worldbuilding, and not in the sparsely-written, isolated sense of Alien. Compared to the fast-paced thriller tone of the film as a whole, the reoccuring themes of religious belief and creationism seemed clumsy and out-of-place.
I feel like Prometheus must be a very different film to people who have no previous experience of the Alien franchise. Aside from the handful of lines that were objectively clunky, my main problem with this film lies in the way it relates to the Alien franchise, particularly Alien itself. Each of the Alien movies is different: The first is a slow-build horror movie, the second is a military adventure story, the third (in addition to being a total mess) is an action thriller set in a prison, and Alien Resurrection is a sci-fi blockbuster. The one theme that all four of these movies share is that shadowy, distant corporations control the characters' lives without them knowing it, and are happy to kill the worker ants in the name of profit. They tried to include this theme in Prometheus, but in terms of internal consistency within the premise of the mission (to explore an alien moon for signs of life) it didn't make a hell of a lot of sense.

Given that Peter Weyland is one of the richest and most powerful people in existence and that the Prometheus' journey to LV-223 is a trillion-dollar investment, I assumed that this was a well-publicised exploratory mission, albeit one where the religious undertones of their research were being kept under wraps. Taking this into consideration, one would think that the crew of the Prometheus must be the best of the best: Shaw and Holloway as the leaders, and the other scientists coming along to help with on-planet survival and any research that isn't directly connected to the Engineers and/or "finding God". However, when the crew is first introduced, we learn that they don't even know why they're there. Why not? Why did they sign up to go on a deep-space exploratory mission if they didn't know what they were doing or even who they were going to be working with? One of them wonders if they're going to be working on terraforming (which makes sense if you know the Weyland slogan: "Building Better Worlds"), and the rest are just there to provide backup, loose cannons every one. Seeing as Weyland is rich enough to build his own spaceship to fly off on a vanity mission to find god, and Vickers (Charlize Theron) is obsessed with "minimizing risk", this seems like an extraordinarily impractical recruitment strategy.
In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo are working stiffs and have very little personal stake in the work they do for Weyland-Yutani. Likewise in the sequels, most of the primary characters are low on the corporate food-chain and are unaware that they're being screwed over by their bosses. But while the Nostromo is a mining ship crewed by the famous "truckers in space", the Prometheus is more like the Starship Enterprise, crewed by academics, idealists, and explorers. It would have made far more sense for the crew to begin the film with a sense of well-organised confidence, and then have the first signs of conflict appear as they discover that their well-planned mission is not what it seems, that they've unknowingly been providing cover for a religious megalomaniac all along.
The basic problem is that Prometheus tries to occupy an impossible hinterland between the world of sci-fi epics and the world of the Alien franchise. Star Wars is a myth about rebellion and heroism, Star Trek is about a crew of peacekeepers and scientists exploring the wonders of the galaxy, and the Alien franchise is a series of horror stories set within a cynical universe where no one cares if our beloved protagonist lives or dies. Prometheus, on the other hand, is a story about a scientist's search for God, an aging trillionaire's search for immortality, and the dangers of hubris when it comes to creating life in "unnatural" ways. These are all common sci-fi themes, but they don't really gel with the Alien universe. Up until now, the Alien franchise has dealt with amoral corporate lackies, tired blue-collar workers, violent convicts, and incompetent soldiers. It's difficult for Prometheus to exist within the context of a series where most characters are far more interested a steady paycheck than in the meaning of life.
Maybe it would've been possible to successfully tell an epic story about God and creation within the Alien extended universe, but not without removing most of the references to Alien itself. It didn't help that every scene that took place outside the spaceship was purposefully designed to provoke a feeling of awe and wonder. It seems strange to be complaining about the design and visuals of a film being too good, but I found that it muddied the waters to have to concentrate on individual human fears and the sense of "Oh, wow, we're on an alien planet full of untold wonders," at the same time.
 
There were several aspects of the film that failed to live up to the marketing, but Peter Weyland's casting was, to me, the most confusing. Guy Pearce performed the TED Talk used in the film's viral marketing campaign, and his name was in the credits of the movie, so many viewers would be aware before the film even started that Guy Pearce would be appearing at some point. This meant that his old man prosthetics were extremely distracting, because all the way through I knew that Guy Pearce was lurking underneath, and why the hell would they hire a young actor to play an old man? I spent the entire time waiting for him to be magically de-aged by some alien technology. Did they cast Guy Pearce just so he could do the viral marketing campaign?? Wouldn't it have been more effective to hire an unknown actor to play the young Peter Weyland, and someone like Peter O'Toole to play the older version in the film itself? To make matters more confusing, another Weyland video was released after the film came out.
screencap from here.
While I do believe that Prometheus failed as a prequel to the Alien franchise (and, more simply, that God should stay out of sci-fi unless you go for the full-on cheesy Chariots Of The Gods schtick, as seen in Stargate), there were some Alien quadrilogy nods that I did enjoy. David playing basketball was a fun reference to Alien Resurrection, and the production design (which I'll tackle in a separate post) was full of little details that harked back to the aesthetic of the other Alien movies. And, criticism aside, it was nailbiting thriller. The action scenes were frightening and avoided the kind of obviously unrealistically cliches one often sees in movies of this size, and the moments of visceral horror were incredibly well-executed.


Next: Costume design and the crew of the Prometheus

Links
My previous posts on the Alien franchise
Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About. This review focuses on the religious aspects of the film, including Ridley Scott's original (horrible) idea to include a Jesus-like figure among the Engineers.
Featurette on the visual effects of Prometheus.
Five ways to improve Prometheus.
Reddit: The Secrets of Prometheus: Explained.

19 comments:

  1. The more I think about this movie, the angrier I get. /o\ Really, besides the bizarrely ethnocentric faux-Christian (sub)text, my biggest WTF was the blithe incompetence of all the human characters. It felt like every calamity (with the one obvious exception being David infecting Holloway) that befell the crew was self-inflicted due to their extreme cases of too-dumb-to-live and I couldn't tell if it was on purpose! Were they meant to come across as bumbling fools?

    It was really gorgeous, though, and David was very compelling as a character, and whenever I wasn't yelling WTF at the screen, I was pretty entertained.

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  2. ughhhh, once i'd read that post about the christian backstory of the movie re: ridley scott's baffling jesus plans i was just like, WHAT. ARE. YOU DOING. this is making me so concerned about the blade runner sequel. AND the apparent PROMETHEUS SEQUEL? called Paradise?? oh mannnn.

    i'm gonna be writing about the characters later, but i think that the incompetence was by mistake?? honestly it felt like a story that had been written well and then rewritten badly. like, if the crew had been told they were going on a scientific exploratory mission and then landed on the planet only to discover that a) weyland was onboard, and b) that they now had to look for "god", then it would've made sense because all of their (presumed) plans would've had to have been rewritten on the spur of the moment, somewhat like how in Sunshine the characters have a very specific and well-prepared mission in mind, but circumstances force them to think on their feet. so the first conflict would be "peter weyland's here and he's your boss so now you have to look for Alien God!!" and the second conflict would be, you know, "holy shit, we're being chased by aliens!"

    Vickers was the most sensible character. she was meant to be the antagonist but she was basically just being a more extreme version of ripley in the first alien movie -- ie, almost genre-savvy in the sense that she's trying to keep safe, keep contamination off the ship, etc.

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  3. you forgot the most obvious throwback, aka Naomi Rapace RUNNING AROUND IN HER WHITE UNDERWEAR sfkal;jlkads.

    That said, I think this movie's aesthetic and overall....artsiness....make so much more sense to me if I read it as Ridley Scott's take on Terence Malik's Tree of Life. sadfklj;adsf. Seriously.

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  4. well, to be fair to the spirit of the franchise, that's exactly what the first 2 Alien films are all about, isn't it? Everyone else besides Ripley making critical errors in judgment, failing to listen to her advice, just like they fail to listen to Naomi Rapace's advice in the end. Though I appreciated that the badassery was sort of shared between Charlize Theron and NR's character; I wasn't actually sure in the end that I sympathized with NR that much, unfortunately. Maybe making one of the world's greatest scientist a kooky scientologist wasn't exactly the right path for this story to take.

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  5. THAT'S GONNA BE IN THE COSTUMES AND CHARACTERS POST, OBVS, tch, honestly.

    i haven't seen tree of life so i can't comment on that one, but if you mean artsiness, do you mean the ~wondrous scope~ of the visuals? or the god stuff? because IMO the god stuff was kinda childish and simplistic.

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  6. both. Tree of Life is simultaneously all about the ~wondrous scope~ of the universe/evolution/life on earth and anviliciously Godstuff-y.

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  7. i don't think anyone liked noomi rapace's character. it was weird because i was SUPER LOOKING FORWARD to her because a) space archaelogist, and b) noomi rapace, but she was just... weirdly unlikeable? idk. but "unlikeable" was seriously an adjective i heard from several of my friends, separately, regarding her character.

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  8. just chiming in that I thought Vickers was meant to be read exactly as we both read her--not an antagonist, just an equally tough female character like Ripley, forced to do the same things Ripley had to do in the first film, aka spending lots of time having to exert authority over people who didn't want to listen to her, attempting to keep contaminated crew members from coming aboard the ship, etc etc.

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  9. i actually think that vickers was meant to be an antagonist? like, we weren't really meant to like her. partly because she was the corporate/controlling character, which would've been an immediate sign of evil in the other alien movies. plus she was way less humane and compassionate than ripley.

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  10. i watched the film as someone not realising the Alien connection until about ten minutes in (NO, I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW I MANAGED THAT EITHER) - and i've not actually /seen/ any of the Alien films, anyway. so i think i saw a different film to most people. structurally, it was all over the shop and i wasn't really sure who the protagonist was (DAVID PLS) until Suddenly Noomi Rapace And God.

    the viral stuff didn't really help - i was definately expecting a different film to the one i saw, though i was certainly entertained! but there was a much stronger film in there, somewhere, that i'm assuming got lost in edits/rewrites but, as is, it looks like no one really got what they wanted/expected from Prometheus.

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  11. I came across your insightful posts on the costuming in Alien(s) whilst on a space suit research project. Besides falling in love at first sight with your blog, I was deeply curious how you'd receive Prometheus. Disappointment at lost potential seems to be the feeling of the day; Gavin Rothery's (production designer for "Moon") analysis resonates with this emotion as well: http://www.gavinrothery.com/my-blog/2012/6/11/so-what-was-wrong-with-prometheus.html

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  12. Man, this. They were are so *very stupid* - let's take our helmets off! Let's coo at weird alien worm-cobra-vagina thingies as if they were small puppies! Sheesh.

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  13. I so wanted to like this movie but man, i just did not. Your review is very interesting, points out a lot of my issues as well as a couple things i missed and...bleh. At least I'll always have Alien, heh. But movies whose underpinnings are all about 'god' and our 'place' in the universe and 'where did we come from' type stuff is so incredibly boring to me. The more they prattled on about faith the more i wanted facehuggers to spring from the walls and eat them.

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  14. "...it didn't make a hell of a lot of sense."
    Really, this could have been the whole review. Just saw it earlier today myself and was underwhelmed. They had some good actors, special effects and production designs, but the plot was inexplicable. It felt like a bunch of scripts had been mashed together, leaving a series of random events with no logic or meaning to them. None of the characters had comprehensible motivations. I'd be surprised if even the writers had any idea what was going on.

    Comparing the taut simplicity of the original Alien with this confused mess just makes me sad. They can spend that much on a movie, but they can't afford a decent script? Screw you, Hollywood!

    (And I know, people like me let them get away with it, by going to see this one purely based on the previous strength of the franchise and a pretty trailer... I'm just as annoyed with myself for being taken in by it.)

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  15. I thought I read somewhere about how Scott had been planning on making Prometheus as an entirely-unrelated-to-Alien movie, but studio interference happened? (like: 'Heyyy, guy. Sounds great, now shoehorn in some Alien-related shit cuz that's an ESTABLISHED big-draw, kthxbye') I haven't seen it yet, but from what I've heard the story being hastily repurposed might be one of the causes of problems?
    Awesome review, btw. Looking forward to the costuming one - you make me *care* about clothes, which is pretty impressive (she says from the huddle of $10 flannelette shirt and track pants)
    -meh_guh

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  16. i'm not totally up-to-date on the whole Prometheus script process or anything, but i'm fairly sure that the whole, "i't snot connected to alien!" thing isn't something that was revised mid-way through production -- it was something ridley scott was saying because he's a troll. because he was saying that pretty much until the trailer came out, ie at which point they had clearly, written, filmed and mostly finished with post-production on the whole thing. i'm fairly certain that he set out to create another alien movie, and that he has a whole horrifying george lucas plan in place where there are two other pre-Alien stories to tell after Prometheus . he's already started takling about a sequel called Paradise, which may or may not contain more awful Space Jesus. LIKE, THEY EVEN FILMED SOME SPACE JESUS SCENES THAT WERE LATER CUT FROM PROMETHEUS!! a;sdklj no.

    the hollywood script revision process is a mystery, though. AFAIK, the more money a film has behind it, the less likely the final version will remain close to the original script because you end up with a whole bunch of demographic consultants attempting to open up the movie to wider markets, and/or marketing people butting in to explain that audiences are stupid and don't want to watch a movie that has a carefully-thought-out plot because Transformers was totes successful.

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  17. My conclusion while watching this movie was that Vickers was deliberately sabotaging her father's mission by hiring incompetent personnel, which was why she was so obsessed with minimizing her own risk: she knows just how useless everyone else would be in a crisis. It's definitely not what the director was going for, but it is the only thing that makes sense.

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