Saturday, 7 July 2012

'PROMETHEUS' AND ITS DISCONTENTS

Not at all a proper review of 'Prometheus', but something of a follow-up to this


Prior to 'Prometheus', Ridley Scott showed little interest in expanding on films already in the can. Most famously, his director's cut of 'Blade Runner' did actually cut - it took more stuff out than it added, and came in at a shorter running time. For his “director's cut” of 'Alien' (an ironic term considering the idea was all but forced on him) he added sequences fans had clamoured to see, but insisted on balancing them out by removing other scenes. He has shown little interest in creating a credible origin story of, or even life cycle for, the Alien. The 'cocoon' scene, which went some way towards establishing that, was something he'd originally unceremoniously cut.

Me, I'd have done the same. If I wanted to put back a cut scene, I'd have included the confrontation between Lambert and Ripley. The 'quarantine' scene seems a little consequence-less without it. More about the Alien? It's a killer monster in an enclosed space. That's enough, isn't it? It should stay unknown. Isn't that more scary?

Then one day he upped and said “what no one's done is simply gone back to re-visit 'what was it?' No one's ever said 'who's the space jockey?' He wasn't an Alien. What was that battleship? Is it a battleship? Is it an aircraft carrier? Is it a bio-mechanoid weapon carrier?...Why did it land? Did it crash-land, or did it settle there because it had engine trouble?...And how long ago?“

...questions people weren't asking because anyone who cared thought they already knew, because it was in O'Bannon and Shusett's original script. That ship was just a prior victim to the Nostromo, who landed or crashed on the planet to be overrun by Aliens. They're basically there to have a dead figure at a giant gun, showing even such advanced weapons couldn't protect them. They're incidental characters, one big warning sign. It was cut out of the final version, most likely to keep up the pace but also because no-one was likely to care where they came from. A skeleton that falls out of a closet, that doesn't need its autobiography written. (The real unanswered question might be how the Company knew about all the Alien in advance, if all this was happening out in deep space. But that one seems to be staying unasked.)

But the question gets asked anyway. Then sidelined. For a film fixated on mutation shows sign of mutation itself. Things shift around so much we even shift planet. We encounter a different derelict spaceship, with a different Space Jockey at the helm.


'Prometheus' is always referencing 'Alien', recycling its furniture. Yet (as we've seen) 'Alien' was significant chiefly for its look. And that so-copied look is so changed here it's like a yang has been built to accompany its yin. Spaceships are now big, white and gleaming clean, the alien planet is mostly seen in daylight. It looks, it cannot be denied, absolutely fantastic. While everyone else has been copying 'Alien', Scott comes up with something new. But it's also like one of those disconcerting dreams, where triggers are telling you that you're back in your old primary school, but everything actually looks entirely different.

And it's not just the look that gets yanged. Unlike 'Alien', the crew are a team of experts carefully assembled for this mission. (Pretty useless experts who make an even worse fist of it than the working stiffs of earlier, but never mind that.) Shaw, unlike Ripley, is a heroine on a quest. The film is full of the 'cosmic wonder' that made up the other half of Seventies SF, such as '2001' - the stuff that 'Alien' seemed in such opposition to. In fact it's Shaw's shadow, the mission director Meredith Vickers who's most Ripley-like. (Seemingly deliberately, for there's an echo of the originals' quarantine scene.) The difference is there, bold as brass, in the names of the ships. Nostromo, from Conrad, is existential, suggesting hearts of darkness. Prometheus, from Greek mythology, suggests at cosmic knowledge. (Albeit coming at something of a price.)


Many people have commented that this film sets out to answer a question no-one really asked, then gets sidetracked by a new set of questions, then fails to answer them either. In the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton called it “prone to shallow ponderousness.”

But, counter to this rather damning verdict, Cavalorn has come up with an interpretation. It's imaginative and worth reading of itself, so I'll give it the barest summary here. It's basically the Von Daniken thing of grafting cosmic causes onto Earth mythology. Just like the King should symbolically die for the perpetuation of his people, so these Engineers have a cult of self-sacrifice and have sacrificed themselves (you know, a bit) to give us life. They're the antithesis of the bestial Aliens, who kill to survive.

(Which actually makes the plot line strangely similar to 'Aliens vs. Predator', just with Engineers substituted for Predators and another planet for Antarctica. One film awaited by fans, as the master director finally returns to his creation. The other damned by fans, seen as a sequel too far, as franchises got cross-bred to produce bastards. But never mind that...)

Clearly we have done something quite transgressive to get our elders and betters so all riled up. Well it could be pretty much any of the things we've done, take your pick. We've held parties while they were out, fought wars, screwed the ozone layer, litter-louted our way across the planet. Except this theory goes in for something specific. We killed Jesus. Jesus was their emissary, their supply teacher sent to bring order. And we killed him.

We know this is true because Ridley Scott said so. (Scott was asked if he'd considered making any direct references to Jesus and said he thought that “too on the nose.”)

All clear? Jesus was a spaceman. We're all very naughty boys and girls.

Except there's an alternate theory which works just as well. This superior race, why would we be anything more to them than an experiment? Anger? We'd be lucky to rouse anything more than mild disappointment? We're just something to set up and observe, then when you're finished rinse out the petri dish and start again.

And we know this to be true because... you guessed it... because Ridley Scott said so:

“Maybe there was something half a billion years ago which was a civilisation equal to ours? ...could we have existed before and if we did, who or what destroyed it? But also, who created us and who kicked it all off again?”

In other words, this isn't the first time the petri dish has been rinsed out. It's just the first time it's happened to us.

...which puts an interesting spin on things. Vickers says at one point “a king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable.” The film's villain, Peter Weyland, this time's face of the faceless Company, plots to resist this and of course fails. All things have their time, whether individuals or species. Maybe the Engineers, while seeing themselves as keepers of our time, imagine themselves as above and immune. Yet they find themselves susceptible to their own rules, and come to the same fate. On what is technically known as 'an irony', their own creations in their weapons lab rise up to finish them off. (The Space Jesusers, meanwhile, don't have much of an explanation for what actually bumps off the cosmically superior, all-wise Engineers.)

It's a generalisation, but still a helpful one, to claim American SF tends to the optimistic and British SF to the pessimistic. In for example 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951) the alien visitor is essentially Jesus, accompanied by a robot Archangel. While in for example 'Quatermass and the Pit', (1958) the aliens are quite explicitly devils. (Or more accurately our folk devils are a kind of race memory of aliens. Same difference.) Out of the Alien sequels, 'Alien 3' was dubbed “nihilistic” and fared badly in the US, but was more popular abroad. (Yet let's not make this too schematic. This video rant suggests the opposition is all down to Atlantic differences. But in his bio Cavalorn mentions owning a bookshop in Manchester...)


An American movie with a British director, that could maybe go either way. Last time round it took the pessimistic route, so maybe now that'll get yanged. Or, more interestingly, perhaps it'll take both ways at once. Perhaps what's intended is some SF version of 'The Innocents', like one of those drawings which makes up a face whichever way up you hold it. Which would be a cool idea. Ambiguity, after all, is what keeps art alive, while certainty damns it into being done with.

Unfortunately then, it actually can't be read either way. It's not two drawings in one, it's no drawings in one. Whichever direction you choose, you soon run into walls. Let's go through just a couple...

Of course it's something of a category error to fault movies for employing movie logic. In movie job interviews you pass by telling the interviewer imploringly “I need this”, not by spelling things right on your CV. You win movie wars by getting very cross and running shouting into a hail of bullets, never mind that training. If you take an instant dislike to a new movie co-worker, you will end up shagging them within the next thirty minutes. It's a different country. They do things differently there.

So maybe we should cut movie DNA some slack. If it in no way conforms to the rules of our-world DNA, then just imagine a subliminal disclaimer coming up on the screen, explaining that it differs from our DNA in any way favoured by the script.

But a movie Jesus? Okay they're talking about the mythologised Jesus of Jungian archetypes and bad New Age self-help books, and that “all-myths-correlate” claptrap the likes of Christian Vogler likes to come out with. But they're still talking about Jesus, they still want that cultural weight the Christian Jesus has.

And while I'm not the most knowledgeable person about Christianity, I still remember my school hymns. One of which went “he died to save us all.” Jesus comes here knowing he has to die. When his disciples resist his arrest, he tells them to stand down. He sacrifices himself to atone for our sins. It says so on the page. Crucifixion isn't even part of the plan, it is the fershluggin' plan! So how come Jesus' space buddies get so all-fired cross over a plan that worked?

It's like Kurt Vonnegut's take on the Bible, that poor plot construction led to its actual message being “before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected.” If you don't believe in it, fair enough. Neither do I. But don't then try to bend its cultural weight. Why not have a kick-ass gun-totin' Jesus? Or a corporate-head plotting-Earth-acquisition Jesus?

And besides, even if you can buy Space Jesus as Movie Jesus, isn't the whole schtick of the Engineers supposed to be self-sacrifice? Wouldn't laying yourself down seem a noble mission? And, with their vast superiority over us, wouldn't they at least guess it might be coming?

Meanwhile, in a more narrative problem, the Space Jesus theorists have a hard time explaining the star maps. Described in the film as “an invitation”, they seem planted to draw us into visiting the planet. Why bother with all that, especially when its not even the Engineers' home planet, if their plan is for them to visit us and bump us off? Isn't that like having an air drop of escape routes before you bomb a town?

Whereas the petri dish theory explains this quite well. In figuring out the star maps and developing the technology to take us there, we're like the mouse in the maze triggering the electric shock. We effectively press our own delete key. We're signalling the experiment's developed to its conclusion, and the petri dish can be rinsed out again.

It just has trouble explaining so much other stuff, that's all. The film starts with an Engineer, seemingly sacrificing himself to seed life on Earth. Later, the Space Jockey seems angered by our presence. Neither of which seems the reactions of white coated guys, wondering how the mice got out of their cage, hoping clearing this up doesn't delay lunch. More like a Dad whose found out the teens borrowed the car without asking, then crashed it into the cop shop.

(The Space Jesus theory does, however, have the advantage of explaining why the film is so elliptical and incomplete. Obviously the core of it has been cut out to avoid controversy, and allow the film to play in mid America!)

Moreover, both these explanations rely not on extrapolation rather than imagination. There is more making up of stuff than there is watching the film. Take that black goo, where's that at? First it creates human life, then later it mutates it into something else? Begetter or killer, where is it at? Cavalorn has an answer, it's judgement goo:

“the black slime... evidently models its behaviour on the user's mental state. Create unselfishly, accepting self-destruction as the cost, and the black stuff engenders fertile life. But expose the potent black slimy stuff to the thoughts and emotions of flawed humanity, and 'the sleep of reason produces monsters'... The black slime reacts to the nature and intent of the being that wields it.”

Which is an imaginative and intriguing idea. It's just a shame it wasn't included in the film 'Prometheus'. It might have fitted quite nicely there. As it is, the black goo of the film is just magic pixie dust, obliging the script with whatever is required of it.

What to do when nothing fits? The two most likely answers are i) argue about it over blog posts like this, without getting anywhere, or ii) wait for the sequel. For in the final minutes we're tipped off there may be a sequel which may even explain some of this.

As said previously, what in many ways made 'Alien' such a great film was that it reflected its era. And 'Prometheus' does the same thing, only in a slightly different way.

Once upon a time films were things that were shown in cinemas, at fixed times advertised in the local press. They were enclosed events. You'd see them, maybe talk about them in the pub afterwards and go home. Seeing a film now is never a done task.

This film, for example, is not an event in itself but one more step in an ongoing marketing campaign. Yes it came after the teasers, the trailers and the viral ads. But it comes before the commentaries, the director's cut, the multi-DVD release and the inevitable sequel. In fact, once we've paid our ticket money what's then shown to us virtually is a teaser for the sequel. Which, if made, will in itself become a teaser for the next sequel, and so on.

In 'Alien' there's an alien on a spaceship. The crew have to get rid of it before it does them in. Which they finally manage, and then the credits roll. In 'Prometheus'... well, what did bloody happen? It's not allusive or creatively ambiguous, it's frustratingly incomplete. And we still don't even know the answer to very question which brought us here, how that Space Jockey, the first one, got there, Maybe they're saving that up for the third instalment.

But then what did you ever expect?

The more you think about this film, the less you find in it. I suspect writing about it here has lowered it in my estimations. You're really just supposed to go “whoo... far out space stuff,” and any other response is a category error. You're better off treating it like a pop star interview in the music press, lots of sharp-sounding stuff thrown out, which is actually just froth and sound-bites. It can't stand up to any examination but, you know, it has great cheekbones.

5 comments:

  1. Hmm. I was going to say that seems over-harsh, but now that I come to justify that statement, I really can't. I don't disagree with anything you say, only with your conclusion. I'm reminded (as I so often am) of Andrew Rilstone's brilliant summary of Hulk: "The whole thing doesn't quite work, but it's the sort of failure one would like to see rather more of." That's my reaction to Prometheus, too. Visually, it's a feast -- rich in detail as well as in concept. It bothers me that basically none of the characters are competent to do their jobs.

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  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't care, really, where the Space Jockey in Alien came from, just that he was a little moment of wonder, quickly passed over, and therefore made all the more a wonder.

    Of course, the Engineer they wake in Prometheus needn't be an enlightened or entirely informed member of his race. He could be just one of the crew, a hick GI who signed up because he liked the fact you got to destroy planets before you terraformed them, or whatever. Why did Peter Weyland assume creators are necessarily gods? That's like assuming all people who have babies must be enlightened parents. As a failed parent himself, Weyland must have been able to work that one out.

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  3. ”Visually, it's a feast -- rich in detail as well as in concept. “

    Well visually it's a feast, certainly.

    The big difference between 'Prometheus' and 'Alien', it seems to me, is scope. One is immediate, it relies upon you feeling as trapped on the spaceship as the crew. The other is grand and cosmogenic. Which makes it pretty ironic that 'Alien' has more to say! I may of course simply be seeing things that aren't there when I talk about the end of corporatism, or whatever. But I don't need that to be there to make sense of the film, it's a plug-in. Whereas 'Prometheus' needs you to do most of the work for it, if its to make any sense at all.

    I could live with 'Prometheus' throwing out grand questions without answering them. I could live with it leaving plot lines open for a possible sequel. But that combination kind of galls me. “The meaning of life? Tune in next time! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

    ”he could be just one of the crew”

    I like that idea!

    “What is the meaning of life? Where do we come from? Why are we here?”

    “Ah well, you should really ask the guvnor that sort of thing, squire. I just do the terraforming, me.”

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  4. I go with the 'great cheekbones' explanation. I enjoyed Prometheus, excepting the idea of a spaceship full of experts but one of them doesn't want to be there, and he's the guy who's sat in the briefing puffing away on a ciggie and looking pissed off, because that would really happen; my theory is that Ridley Scott is basically a fucking idiot and anything good he's ever done has occurred more or less by accident. I base this on him making a film of a Philip K. Dick book saying the exact opposite of what the book was about, and "Ridley Scott's Pioneers of Science-Fiction" which is an eight (?) part series on Netflix or one of those, and is hilarious. Apparently Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a prediction of genetic engineering. It comes pretty close to being "David Beckham's Pioneers of Science-Fiction" in places.

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  5. Not seen that. I can only get Channel 5 when the wind's in a south-easterly direction, so Netflix is a thing apart. I mean you see it on the telly but... hang on, that doesn't work at all.

    I think Scott is a great director but in the strict sense of the word, without all of that auteurist stuff. Give him a good script to work from and he's away. Give him a mediocre script and you just get pretty pictures. I liked 'The Martian', even!

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