...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Day 4171: Ridley Scott v Gynaecology, part deux*


(*Sorry, Mr Simon got the better title first!)

Bit put out!

We got caught sneaking in to the cinema and they just let me in! Seems someone thought I was one of the SPECIAL EFFECTS!

Baby Plush

Face Hugger

As for the movie... It's not so much "Prometheus" as "Pandora". As in "Take the money or open the box"!

What's clear is that "Prometheus" struggles to find its STORY, because PLOT keeps getting in the way.

Which is a shame because "At the Mountains of Madness" HAS a decent story, or at least it did when Lovecraft wrote it.

(Seriously: small expedition travel beyond the limits of human knowledge to discover unexpected alien citadel wherein lies the shocking secret from before the dawn of human history in the form of a race of ancient aliens and their revolting shape-shifting servitor-creations. And one of the Shoggoths has survived! It's a pity 'cos we'd probably have preferred Guillermo del Toro's version.)

Oops, I've just SPOILERED the entire film. Still, if you don't want any MORE spoilers, I'd look away now!

If you remember, "PLOT" (at least in my definition) is the sequence of events that happen in a narrative while "STORY" is the reason we should care that those events happen in that order.

In this case we actually have TWO plots: "Chariots of the Gods" and the original "Alien". It's not ENTIRELY impossible that it's supposed to be a clever pun by the filmmaker about alien DNA combining and corrupting the human "story". Or it might just be a horrible car crash.

Channel Four were kind enough – or UNKIND enough – to put on the original ALIEN later that same night for comparison.

The first thing that is obvious is how much of a debt "Prometheus" owes to "Alien", from the way the one-word-title builds up out of lines during the opening sequence to the closing monologue delivered as "the final log of the...".

We get the same little data plaque about the starship Prometheus (crew of seventeen) that we got about the Nostromo (crew of seven). And the Prometheus visually resembles the Nostromo, both inside and out. Actually, the exterior also looks a lot like the Firefly Class "Serenity" of, er, "Firefly" and, um, "Serenity". Although the advances in CGI mean that we are able to see the ship much more clearly, and in sunlight rather than the shadows of space or a storm-wracked LV 426. And, like much of the movie, Prometheus is made to look beautiful, in a way that was never entirely possible or clear for Nostromo.

But these deliberate similarities soon start to hurt the film.

When we penetrate an alien complex (part-terraformer, part-research lab, part-tomb) to discover a roomful of mysterious knee-high objects (vases rather than eggs this time) we know that they're going to open up to release something icky. (In this case – as Simon says – it turns out to be the black oil from The X-Files, which seems to be Ridley ambitiously trying to sort out someone else's confused backstory as well as his own.)

When Rafe Spall and Sean Harris are trapped in the tomb, you know just know they're going to wind up with some alien willy-analogue trying to melt their space helmets and force its way down their throats. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to have them survive their enforced night in the tomb and get back to Prometheus only to find it had been the site of a massacre? As it is, THEIR story goes nowhere. AND the story of the infected scientist/boyfriend goes nowhere.

When we find "that spaceship" we know it's only a matter of time before we end up with the Space Jockey in his chair. (Even though it makes no sense at all for the end of this film to recreate the situation we discovered at the start of "Alien" – namely crashed ship full of potential Aliens waiting to be discovered – what with it being set on a completely different planet, with a completely different weaponised Alien in the hold. The only possible conclusion is that the Makers/Space Jockeys routinely crash their horseshoe-shaped spacecraft while carrying bio-weapons of mass destruction. That's probably why they're extinct.)

Basically, repeating the "beats" from "Alien" keeps getting in the way of telling the story that "Prometheus" is trying to tell. But is that the only problem?

"Alien" is, it almost goes without saying, a much BETTER movie than "Prometheus", not just much more tightly focused and of course a damn sight more scary, but also even if you ignore all the (not-so-very) subtext about fear of penetration and vagina dentata, it's still profoundly insightful (even if it's borrowed from the MILLENNIUM Falcon!) about how the future of space won't be all gleaming starships and boldly going, but actually dirty and working class and driven by ugly, mundane concerns about the money, where the crew are expendable if it turns a profit and the face of the big corporation is literally an android. Think about how profoundly DANGEROUS space really is: fire, decompression, asphyxiation, hull failure... the tag-line "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream" is (again) literally true – you don't actually NEED a xenomorph for space to kill you very dead in any or all of these ways. The crew's lack of respect for space, for nature (except of course for Ripley who is the only one who bothers with the rules and does the checks) is what kills them as much as the big shiny penis-with-teeth. In that sense "Alien" isn't just the monster; it's everything about throwing vulnerable human bodies into this situation.

Even if you take away the deliberate use of notes from "Alien", "Prometheus" isn't saying anything nearly so interesting.

Like a teenage GOTH, the movie thinks that it is being really DEEP and asking MEANINGFUL questions like "where are we from?" and "why are we here?". These are hardly ORIGINAL questions, though. And the sub-von Däniken pseudo-answers provided are hardly less so, either.

(Seriously, again: the "god does not build in straight lines" line is straight out of his "aboriginal peoples couldn't have constructed the Nazca lines" playbook. Von Dänikenism was already laugh-and-point material by the time Doctor Who was ripping him off in the early Seventies. Which, frankly, is pre the original "Alien".)

In the story, the alien "Makers" (and taking the elephant-headed Space Jockey of "Alien" and retooling his species as just "really big humans in a Faction Paradox hats" is definitely taking something weird and awesome and making it less interesting) came to Earth and either did the Scaroth Last of the Jagaroth thing of starting life on Earth or possibly just added their own DNA to the existing mix so that humans would evolve.

At least the movie has enough sense of shame to let someone say: "but evolution doesn't work that way" (unless you're Terry Nation – so look on, Master Ridley). But then it makes nothing further of that.

Likewise, at least is it raises the ontological regress: even if WE were made by the Makers, who made THEM? But then it drops that idea too.

The entire premise of the film, of course, is that the Makers left invitations all over the Earth asking us to pop over and visit. So why do the maps not lead to their homeworld? Or at least the Space Jockey embassy on Centauri Prime? Why, of all places, a covert bioweapons development base that they'd want to keep secret? One, furthermore, where the weapons, apparently, got out of control before the Makers even had time to finish terraforming the place.

(Unfortunately, the overlooked possibility that our heroes are wrong and that the star maps are in truth a warning of the "here be monsters" doesn't make a lot of sense in this context either. It's only a place of monsters AFTER the Makers cocked up, and by that point there was no one left alive to go round posting obscure warnings in cave paintings.)

I suppose it's just about possible that (in another genre-jump to "The Matrix") "Prometheus" is trying to say that HUMANS are a BIOWEAPON developed on this planet too (and, what, that the Alien is a later model?) allowing the Makers to conquer planets by proxy. (Which reminds me, "Quatermass and the Pit" is coming soon to our local cinema. Or if you prefer one of the Doctor Who versions, "The Dæmons", then notice that the existence of the star maps – widely separated in time and geography – implies that the Makers must have kept on coming back to "check up" on Earth's progress. And while that doesn't exactly contradict anything we see, it does seem to go against the "and we'll leave you to it" spirit of what seemed to be happening in the opening disintegrating-Maker sequence.)

And how exactly does Idris Elba's captain Janek suddenly figure all this out given that (a) he's spent least time of anybody actually IN the alien complex and (b) demonstrated exactly zero interest in the archaeological mission up to this point?

There are moments when Ridley appears to be reaching for a crossover with his (other) masterpiece, "Blade Runner" – in particular the way that Mr Wayland the supposedly-dead-but-to-the-surprise-of-no-one-actually-on-board-in-a-packing-crate boss of Wayland (not-yet-Yutani) corporation clearly wants to have a word with his creator about getting some more life. This is further reflected in the way that the android David, played by Michael Fassbender, has been created by humans (like the replicants) but without a proper skill set of emotions (like the replicants). And of course, the android created by humans is a symmetry for the humans created by the Makers. Probably.

David is right: "why did you create us" deserves a better answer than "because we could", or at least that answer deserves some proper exploration. But frustratingly, once again, it is raised only to be immediately set aside.

It's almost as though the big philosophy questions are as much stumbling blocks as the plot points lifted from "Alien". Rather than linking together to drive the story, they serve to trip it up, pull it up short with an "and now think about this" moment, before returning you to your scheduled space opera.

Because a lot of this IS soap opera in space. "I can't have children" / "I'm pregnant... but how!" / "It's a squid!" This sort of thing is barely above "Dr Milburn, I thought you were dead" / "I was!" No, wait, they do that one too! Not to mention "Gasp! You're my father!"

(As subtle foreshadowing goes, "This robot is the nearest thing I'll have to a son" followed by "Oh hello Ms Vickers, do you have issues or what?" barely troubles the scorers.)

The clue to the soapyness ought to be the increased ensemble cast, but even this they do wrong. In "Alien", a crew of seven is just about right so that each character has room to BE a character, and each gets a memorably distinct death (or not in the case of Captain Dallas since his cocooning was edited out).

Seventeen is both too many faces for us to recognise and care about them as they get picked off and at the same time ridiculously too few for a mission of first contact. As an archaeological mission, playing essentially a hunch to see if there's anything out here you might, just might, send out a bunch of oddballs like this, particularly if – as it is depicted in "Alien" – spaceflight is become routine, even humdrum, so that a crew of seven "space truckers" can haul a refinery back to Earth from the deeps of space.

But "Prometheus" also wants us to believe that space is NOT humdrum, that the Prometheus mission is a big deal, that Wayland (not-yet-Yutani) have invested a lot of money and effort into this. In which case, why only one ship? You'd send two ships at least if not half a dozen, so there's always someone in orbit to rescue your ass; even the Apollo moon landings left backup in Lunar orbit! And why the loose cannon captain, brain-fried geologist and dropout botanist, why not a hundred security guards. Especially given there is not only a very senior company board member on board but, as it turns out, the CEO too. Wayland quite literally have all their (alien) eggs in one basket case.

(Actually, maybe it's the sudden loss of a trillion-dollar space mission plus two of their most senior executives that precipitates Wayland being merged/taken over by Yutani in the first place!)

But you can bet that even if such a mission went out looking for Dr Shaw's aliens, their protocols would very strictly say at the first sign of first contact you pull out and leave it to the government(s) of Earth. First contact is NOT something that the world is going to permit to happen freelance.

(Whether an obsessive like Dr Liz Shaw would then follow those protocols, or a monomaniac like Wayland would obey the government(s) of Earth is another matter, and might have contributed a plot point or two.)

That's not to say that the characters who HAVE characters aren't interesting, fun and well-acted.

Noomi Rapace's soulful Dr Elizabeth Shaw (probably not the Doctor Who companion played by Caroline John in the early Seventies, but you never know) is a credible (if occasionally credulous) replacement heroine for Warrant Office Ellen Ripley without being a retread of Sigourny Weaver's career-defining character. Idris Elba (if we overlook his sudden moment of Captain Basil Space-Exposition, described above) is terrifically laconic throughout. Charlize Theron underplays in just the right way, playing the emotionally shut-down Ms Vickers so that we just might believe she's another robot. She deserved a better exit than the perfunctory squished-by-falling-spaceship that she got. Guy Pearce... wears an awful lot of latex. (Seriously, were there supposed to be flashbacks? Did he beg to be in the movie? Was John Hurt not available this time round?)

Of all of them, Fassbender's David is the most interesting. And a movie that was much more about him and much less about whatever it was "Prometheus" was supposed to be about would have been a better watch.

(Alex noticed, incidentally, that the androids are, in sequence, Ash, Bishop, Call and now David. We look forward to Eugene in the next instalment.)

It's never entirely clear what's motivating him. Obviously, the superimposed plot of "Alien" requires him to have a secret agenda, orders from Wayland (not-Yutani) that compromise his loyalty to the crew.

And there is a sense that, like HAL from "2001", his homicidal and seemingly irrational behaviour is caused by a programming conflict.

But then at other times, he definitely appears to demonstrate self-awareness.

In what probably ought to be the most important moment of the film, he almost admits it to Dr Shaw when he asks: "Don't we all want to kill our parents?" That's a very disturbing thing to think, but also very profound when looked at on an evolutionary timescale. From a certain point of view, every successful new species must supplant its forefathers.

(Actually, that's not quite true – what happens is you inherit an evolutionary niche if your predecessor species is out-evolved by its PREDATORS. But that's a different crossover franchise.)

This then should be the engine that drives the movie's story – humans threaten to supplant Makers, androids threaten to supplant humans.

Unlike other ideas, this one isn't just touched on and dropped. It remains underdeveloped, but – like a will-o-the-wisp – pops up again in different guises throughout. Dr Shaw's inability to have children – and the implied personal failure connected with that – is then inverted when her unexpected pregnancy is a literal monster (and there's some kind of perverse maternal bond going on there when, at the end, the squid-thing saves her). Ms Vickers confronts Wayland with the bitter accusation: "The king has his reign and it ends."

(Wayland, of course, does not want to be a king. He wants to be a god.)

It all comes down to the two questions at the end, Wayland and Shaw each trying to persuade David to ask one thing of the awakened Maker they've found: "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" Oh no, hang on, that's "Babylon 5".

The questions are (I paraphrase) "How do I live forever?" and "Why do you want to kill us?"

In probably the film's most fatal flaw, Ridley choose not to let god get to answer.

It's very reminiscent of the let-down at the end of Doctor Who's "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" story (yes, "Quatermass and the Pit" AGAIN!) where the audience deserved a confrontation between the Doctor and the Devil and instead what we got was David Tennant pulling faces because the Devil had already scarpered.

Of course, the fact that only David (the android, not Tennant) speaks the Maker's language (and we the audience get no help from omnipotent subtitling either) means that we do not know which question he chooses to put. Or if he puts either question. For all we know, what he actually says is, "These people are here to kill you and by the way your mother smells of elderberries."

Perhaps reducing the Maker to a dumb beast IS some kind of "blind watchmaker" statement about "creators". Nevertheless, leaving god without a voice leaves the film without a punch-line. When it's ALL been about the WHY, you can't just miss that out, or worse declare it as "wait for the sequel". It means that even the Alien has better motivation than these gods, and all IT wants to do is eat you or mate with you. Or possibly both at once.

In the end, "Prometheus" is a "Modern Prometheus", a Frankenstein's Monster bolted together from bits of dead philosophers and the leftovers from a thirty-five-year-old better movie. And no stolen fire to animate it.

And whoever thought that finishing with a shot of the most rubbish version of the Alien yet would be a surprise "twist" wants shooting.


Tat said...

Pop to your nearest second-hand bookshop, track down 'Galactic Empires Volume 2' edited by Brian Aldiss, read 'Big Ancestor' by FL Wallace. This ought to be the final comment on that whole story, and is a necessary corrective to Star Trek: The First Spin Off doing a story called 'The Chase' that's more embarrassing than the Terry Nation romp where robo-Dracula takes on the Daleks.
Me, I'll be over here reading David Brin's 'Uplift' books (even the later ones that are like 'Chorlton and the Wheelies')

Mike Taylor said...

I've only seen Prometheus once, but my overwhelming impression was of astounding visuals, enough fascinating material to make two or three films, and no real idea how to make one film out of them. A real shame. I classify this one in the "almost brilliant, but too many fatal flaws" bin, along with the Ang Lee Hulk.