Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Prometheus


Breathable atmosphere, yes, but with significant amounts of Moronium.

The film Prometheus is a work of abjection, in regards to both its subject matter and its execution. As directed by Ridley Scott, it trades in imagery like the films in the Alien franchise that he began: of feminine power and horror, of corporeal boundaries, and identity overtaken by an “Other.” It aspires to be something much more than a prequel to or reimagining of the Alien origins, and yet it is at once so dependent on Scott’s 1979 film without earning the comparison, and so mired in its own visceral problems, that the sense of disappointment is palpable and unsettling. 


In lieu of writing an academic mini-thesis on this, because I don’t intend for this to be a normal review either, I’d like to use the power of hyperlinking to direct you to a succession of pieces all dealing with abjection, femininity, and cinematic horror, starting with Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” that begat Barbara Creed’s essay “Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection,” which in turn spawned Daniel Pimley’s “Representations of the Body in Alien.” You may view this as cribbing, or not explaining my work, but perhaps I’ve learned from a certain in-demand screenwriter.

(In all honesty, I’ve been very busy, unexpectedly so, since I saw Prometheus, and I was not able to use my laptop until tonight, because I had to buy a new power adapter. I’m so tired, as it turns midnight four days after I saw the film, that I actually think I’m clever with these few plays on words.)

To breach the film review proper, I feel that with almost a week since the release of Prometheus in the U.S., there is not much else to say, since many critics seem to feel the same way. My practice of late has been to see a film, make notes on it, develop what I’d like to get across in these amateur reviews, and then read professional critics’ reviews out of curiosity, but so that I know I’m not copying someone’s approach, either. It seems that the majority of the reviews I read found much of the same faults and benefits of the film. So, please forgive the less-than-formal approach this time around, but I wanted to hitch a ride on the reactionary bandwagon while I still could – here are some thoughts:

This was the first film that I wish I had seen in 3D. It is absolutely stunning to look at. If Prometheus was instead a silent gallery exhibition by Scott, his cinematographer Darius Wolski (The Crow, Dark City, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), and the special effects team, I would go opening night, recommend it to any social media friends in the area, and go back again and again. The imagery is so fully realized that it is easy to suspend disbelief, despite the literal out-of-this-world aspect…

… but then the characters, as they were, start saying and doing really asinine things, and you remember that somebody wrote this. This was also the first film that I felt the urge to talk back to the screen, and not just in the “don’t go in there!” way. I suppressed this, trust me, but I did hear some like-minded chattering throughout the theater on opening night about just how stupid much of the movie is. The characterizations are shoddy, and the plot details manage to be both familiar (heavily borrowing from the Alien franchise) and inexplicable (betraying all logic, whether intrinsic to the film or the audience’s common sense). Oh, and the expository dialogue is leaden.

This is the part of the review that I should try to assure you that I don’t have any agenda here. I don’t view Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, or Alien: Resurrection as sacrosanct, let alone the franchise as a whole. My strong dissatisfaction with how L O S T ended – despite its frequently intelligent, profound, hilarious, exciting, and moving earlier seasons – does not automatically carry over to whatever its co- writer/producer Damon Lindelof puts his name to after. (Hey, I really liked Star Trek.) I haven’t properly articulated my thoughts on L O S T yet, but I’m eager to do so, especially because who doesn’t love disagreeing over a show that’s been off for two years. It is difficult to separate knowledge of how I think that show went off the rails, however, with the traits that I see in place in Prometheus. Both are highly ambitious without a necessary structure, and character-centric without realistic development or behavior. (Jon Spaihts also has a writing credit on this film, but he only has The Darkest Hour to his name and it’s been made clear that Lindelof was brought in to rewrite his draft.)

Noomi Rapace, in the first film I’ve seen her in, is serviceable in the lead role as Elizabeth Shaw, the more faith-driven half of an archaeologist power couple, with Logan Marshall-Green playing the other, non-believer half, Charlie Holloway. The two were no doubt intended to represent different view points, or at least to play off each other, but their relationship seems only a plot device, used twice over. It’s not much of a spoiler (it’s spelled out in the second trailer) that Shaw and Holloway find ancient markers scattered around Earth of a particular star system, and a crew is assembled for a trillion-dollar mission to go see what’s up. Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers runs the ship in Practical Queen Bitch mode, but Idris Elba plays Captain Janek, though how he got that promotion is puzzling, as he is irresponsible and shows no clear leadership until, again, the plot calls for it. Theron and Elba are both underutilized. The standout performance is of David, played by Michael Fassbender. As upset as I was to find out well before I saw the film that David is an android, this had come only after avoiding everything about the film after the initial preview. It’s established within the first few moments with him. Fassbender takes the most interesting role in the script and truly delivers, revealing a depth below David’s facile mannerisms. There are a bunch of other characters, but they’re “red shirts,” those members of the crew that you shouldn’t get too attached to. As for the reason why the rest of the characters are even there, Holloway soon comes across as cocky, ungrateful, and easily discouraged, whereas Shaw is just unbelievable. She does whatever the script needs her to do without regard to seemingly anything. That Rapace manages to be consistent speaks to her craft, I hope she’s better served by other projects as her career takes off.

The rest of this review can be considered to have spoilers, though I will not touch on significant plot points – there are better pieces that do this*, and it would only lead to frustration all over again. Let’s take a look at the first trailer for Alien:

and then the first trailer for Prometheus:


Even if only in its marketing, it cannot be said that this 2012 film was not trying to capitalize on the 1979 film that launched a franchise. The problem is a Catch-22: if Prometheus is supposed to stand alone, it doesn’t work. If it’s part of the Alien series, it doesn’t work. It’s attempting to pay fan service and establish a new method, much like the Star Trek reboot did, but it’s just not solid enough as a film to do either. Even as a horror / sci-fi film genre exercise, it doesn’t do anything to advance the discussion of the notion of abjection, of the “Other,” etc.

As for its ambition, the questions Prometheus hopes that we ask are bold, but the other maddening plot-hole and bad characterization questions are prohibitive of that. Oh, and philosophical questions in narratives do not require answers – but they do require poetry, or thrills, or something to justify them being asked. Purposeful ambiguity cannot be used as a cop-out if the basic foundations of storytelling and entertainment aren’t there. Just as with L O S T you can’t put things on screen and expect them to take the place of meaningful commentary or insight – this isn’t symbolic imagery, it’s special effects used as a crutch. 

Prometheus is too open and expansive – it allows for incredible visuals, but at expense of plot and pacing. Alien worked so well because it was really a haunted house movie – one setting led to claustrophobia, distrust, etc. Prometheus has a binary structure, where first the characters are here, and then they’re there, and then they’re here, and then – this “dialogue” quickly gets repetitive and defeats the purpose of the film. If we’re always looking somewhere else for an answer, whether enlightening or horrifying, we’re never going to find the answer within.

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* My two favorite critical pieces – BOTH EXPLICITLY SPOILER-HEAVY – are “Sam Strange Remembers Prometheus”  a long-form recollection from the future, and this text-message exchange between the female lead and another character, that Mike D’Angelo was fortunate enough to document.

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