Sunday, June 10, 2012

Firestarter: A Few Thoughts On PROMETHEUS

Ridley Scott's freshly released Science Fiction feature PROMETHEUS is, though a decent Science Fiction and action/horror film, a terrible prequel. Having this site all to myself and feeling twitchy about my latest experience at the cinema, I'm going to abuse my position and rant like a crazy person with everything that I felt was wrong about it. Just so we're clear, I am going to spoil the everliving SHIT out this brand new movie. I don't usually do that, but I've got some things to try to work out in my skull and I can't think of a better place to do it than here, so... yeah. If you haven't seen it, just do what everyone else is doing and exploit an loophole to get a free ticket. All the cool kids are doing it, which, of course means I was a sucker and paid out of pocket.

So, let's get the good news out of the way first; it's a great looking movie, one oddity aside. Scott has always had a visual flair, and the reverse-engineered creatures that inhabit LV-233, such as the anus-worms and the squid-fetus, are pretty goddamn cool. The Prometheus ship itself is a sight to behold, and the technology - though hilariously out of place in what's supposed to take place before Alien, which has CRT monitors on a mother fucking intergalactic 18 figurative wheeler - all has a sleek, hip look that'll be kind of cool for about 10 years, and then look hilariously awkward thereafter. Yes I know, Scott's own Blade Runner still looks good 30 years later, but... well, let's just say that I'm doubting lightning will strike a third time in the man's career for a timeless, iconic, and perhaps even perfect science fiction film.

It doesn't pull any punches, either; everyone who was worried about a watered down PG-13 film had very little to fear. It's not exactly a non-stop gorefest, but the "abortion" scene alone is the sort of thing we, as a culture, will never let preteens in to see without a written note, and the grotesque explosion of the re-animated Engineer is a scene literally pulled from Scanners. It didn't sacrifice its aims for a PG-13, and in a world where franchises like Terminator and Die Hard and even that first deplorable "Alien Versus Predator" film have done just that, it's nice to see a film earn its rating without explicitly going out of its way to offend the viewer with blunt force.

Noomi Rapace is fantastic as Ripley 2.0, as I figured she would be, even if her native Sweedish accent comes and goes whenever it wants to. I'm actually a bit surprised how adorable Salander is under all that mohawk, and thought she was perfectly fine in a role that saw her broken down, piece by piece, until she was just crawling forward step by step towards survival. Michael Fasbender plays his role as the creepy android to the hilt, using stilted and awkward mannerisms to craft a character that's immediately recognizable as not quite human, but his weird boner for Peter O' Toole and gallows humor that neither Ash nor Bishop possessed are... confusing, to say the least. It's a great performance unto itself, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of an Alien film. (Scott has suggested that this takes place in the same universe as Blade Runner which MIGHT help any further arguments, slightly, but let's... let's just not even go there.)

That's sort of the problem though; the screenplay for this film - likely one stitched together from three or four earlier drafts with completely different aims - is all sorts of fucked up. The IDEAS behind it, tying ancient aliens to the existence of God, are actually pretty cool, but... the dialog is sloppy and the characters are mostly dumb canon fodder. Rapace gets the most depth, but we literally learn about her because Fasbender is recording her dreams. It's as dumb as it is creepy, but whatever, I can deal with it. She's also supposedly sterile, but it's only mentioned in passing and never really explained; this is supposed to lead to a big TWEEST, of course, but the twist doesn't work because we don't know what's actually wrong with her. The biology of the Xenomorph has never been especially well defined, but this flick just makes shit up as it goes along.

Speaking of which? The Space Jockey. Did you ever look at H.R. Giger's masterful sculpture of a fallen alien and think, "Wow, I really hope that bio-organic monstrosity that's part Elephant Man and part La-Z-Boy turns out to be a dude in a skin-tight flight suit?" Baby, are you in luck! So yeah, not only is the Space Jockey smaller than we remember him, but he's actually "The Engineer", one of an ancient race of pre-humans who gave birth to us by sacrificing one of his brethrin on Planet Earth. I'm okay with the idea of mankind being, essentially, the cast-off bastard spawn of a race of giant, buff supermen, and while the design is kind of goofy unto itself, the strong, Kinski-esque facial features, bulging muscules and sterling white skin do, intentionally I think, recall the image of Greco-Roman sculpture as we know it today, stripped of its layers of gaudy paint and seen as antiquity. It's actually a cool idea... it just has nothing to do with Alien. Not only was the Space Jockey bigger and shaped completely differently from these assholes, but his mask connected to his chest. The "armor" may be a semi-organic construct in Prometheus - it does seem to literally grow out of his throat, like scales - but for fuck's sake, there's no way Giger's Space Jockey was just a really tall dude in a costume. I mean, just look at the two of them!

Oh yes, it also says in no uncertain terms that the Engineer DNA and Human DNA are EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Hey, Science Bitch? I hate to break it to you, but a 10 foot tall race of albino hairless aliens are going to be at least a little bit different in terms of its DNA. I mean, hell, different people have different DNA, they just share the same number of chromosomes... unless they're born malformed. That's what we call down syndrome. So, yes, children born with unfortunate birth defects are different at their DNA level, yet somehow these Space Supermen are exactly the same as us? For fuck's sake... if the line were "The genomes have a striking level of similarity", I'd nod and say, okay, sure. But this? Come on, Scott. We're not braindead 12 year olds, but the film sure seems to assume we are sometimes. Case in point; the entire crew of the Prometheus seems in on the conspiracy to let Rapace get torn apart by her alien-baby, but when she gets it removed... nobody cares. It's obvious that Walyand and David are in on everything together, so I guess it makes sense that they don't react with shock when she shows up with a fresh Cesarean scar, but nobody else gives a curious "Wow, you okay?" line. They just kind of completely ignore the fact that she's covered in blood and a giant fresh surgery gash and go on with the next scene like it's no big thing.

Worse yet, it doesn't tell us some super-important stuff like... what does the black "life goo" actually do? Seriously, I don't have a fucking clue other than "it's bad". When an Engineer takes it, he becomes a life bomb and becomes the first Man; when a man takes it, it just makes him spew parasitic worms through his balls. When worms take it, they become proto-facehuggers that either kill or infect their victims with Rage Power; they aren't especially clear if the geologist* was throat-raped or just kinda fell face first in a puddle of that shit, so I honestly can't tell. (Also, the biologist nerd was throat-raped to death? The hell?!) That's the kind of gross, symbolic nonsense I'd expect from Zulawski, but here it's just... I mean, wouldn't the spores infect Rapace herself, not just her eggs? This notion that it turns males into alien inseminators is just a head-scratcher in a franchise built on bio-mechanical rape imagery.

*Am I the only one who thought the mohawked, sneering, "I'm gonna tote a machine gun with me?" dude might as well have had WEYLAND INDUSTRIES MERCENARY tattooed on his face instead of runes? An obvious idea that gets dropped by the wayside when the film figures he just isn't that important.

Also, what the hell killed off all of The Engineers to start with? We have holograms of them running away, even getting killed off in their escape of SOMETHING, but nothing's ever made especially clear. Did Xenomorphs already exist two-thousand years ago? Is that why there's green spooge all over the buttons built into the walls? If so, where the hell did THEY go?

I'm semi-okay with the biologist guy patting the Anus Cobra, and the other guy taking his helmet off once it's confirmed the air is breathable. Is it stupid? Yes, incredibly so. But the actors have described their characters as "X-Games Scientists" in interviews, so we just have to accept that they weren't taking this shit very seriously. At the end of the day it's still a pulp inspired Sci-Fi movie made for the masses, and there's plenty of throw-away moments in Alien that aren't that much smarter. For the record, the fact that over half the crew is basically nameless canon fodder kind of makes me shrug and cease to care; everyone was well defined in Alien, sure, but it had a considerably smaller cast. Developing 17 characters effectively when most of your runtime is dedicated to alien stuff is hard,so focusing on the two or three most interesting characters and treating everyone else as disposable when you already know they're pretty much going to die is hardly a poor use of your resources.

Also, why would said Protohugger give birth to a Protomorph that looks like a pointy, half-formed version of the Alien we all know and love? If this is a prequel to Alien that means whatever was on LV-426 burst out of a (giant?) Engineer, and if the Engineers are literally us, wouldn't it just, like... give birth to a regular goddamn Xenomorph? If Scott wants to ignore the notion of the "Queen" and everything that followed, okay fine, but that doesn't mean any of this makes a lick of sense - at best we're left with the "Original" alien that laid the eggs, but with zero explanation as to how it got off of LV-233, or why it happens to inhabit a crashed Engineer ship seemingly identical to the one it was born next to. Worse yet, there's no literal explanation for why the Xenomproh-creating goo exists; the captain calls it a "Weapon of Mass Destruction" as a passing insult to the whole shebag, but we don't actually know if that's what it is or not. I suppose that's fair - after all, Alien had its fair share of unanswered questions - but why craft a prequel only to raise further questions?

Oh, right, because Scott wanted to direct a big budget genre franchise. Guess only time will tell if that happens or not...

The only thing that "works" in my mind is the notion that LV-223 and LV-426 were completely separate testing facilities, and that the events on LV-223 are meant to give is just enough context to fill in the gaps ourselves as to what was really going on in Alien - that the eggs were a separate and unrelated experiment, and that the Engineers were the ones behind it. This would imply that the black goo created the Xenomorph from "something", which infected the Space Jockey, and then bam, Alien. This works less knowing that the Space Jockey is just an asshole in a permanent costume, since the mythology of the Alien has evolved in such a way that the parasite takes on genetic cues from its host; clearly Scott isn't going that direction, but if the Xenomorph's prototype doesn't have the Giger-esque level of exoskeletal armor and he didn't get it from The Engineers, where the fuck did it even come from? For a concept that claims to un-do Darwinism, removing "evolution" as an obvious factor only makes these muddy waters closer to syrup. And am I the only one that thinks the final shot screams of last-minute reshoots to satisfy producers who were promised an Alien prequel and felt they didn't get it? This is the only scene that kind of looks like crap; the rest of the special effects all have a level of finesse and polish worthy of a big-budget 3D experience, but the birth of the Protomorph is just... it looks like a cut scene from a middle of the road videogame. Is it emotionally satisfying to see it after 2 hours as someone who was too young to have seen the glory days of this franchise on their original release? You bet. But the more I think about that sticky, malformed little bastard, the more questions it raises, and the more frustrated I become for it.

I suppose all of this is rage under the bridge, though; at the end of the day it's a tense, exciting, and visually stunning Science Fiction/Horror hybrid which - much like Splice, come to think of it - a fascinating thrill ride that asks a lot of important questions about what it really means to be human, but it's just too convoluted to be any sort of masterpiece. Without being unfair, I had a lot of fun watching the icky mysteries of man unfold, I just think it was a bad idea to not separate it from Alien completely and treat Prometheus as a completely new entity. Like I said, it's a pretty good movie... it just fails miserably as a prequel. Scott has already said that we're "about two movies away from ALIEN", so at least he's perfectly aware of how much bullshit he's introduced without settling old business in the process - and perhaps he did that on purpose? I guess I should be satisfied that he knows what he did, but the fact that we're so far away from Alien after 2 hours is kind of ridiculous.

I must stress one more time: The film Scott actually did make isn't bad at all. It's a thrilling, fascinating look that casts a "what if?" light on both evolution and religion, and does it with a cast that's capable, even if most of them are given too little to do. If it were possible for me to stop cuddling my plushie Face Hugger and discount 20 years of fascinating with Scott and Giger's creation I'd probably think this was a very good (if only a bit clumsy) film all unto itself, and as such, if you're a bit less obsessed with the "Prequel" status than I was and Outer Space Horror is, kind of your bag, I think you'll be in for a treat. Scott has admitted that he requested a re-write to downplay the Alien connections, and I think that was a mistake; he either needed to embrace this as the sole stepping-stone between Prometheus and Alien, or cut the two from one another forever. Anyone saying we can't judge it by the same standard as Alien is lying to themselves; we can, we should, and as a spiritual successor, it does more harm than good. But that doesn't mean the film we actually got was a waste of 2 hours or some intense horror imagery, so while I totally understand why the long time fans of Alien are pissed and ready to call this worse than Alien 3 and Resurrection... I simply don't agree. It's by far the best part of the franchise in 25 years, and if that isn't something to celebrate, I'm not sure what is.

Fun Final Thought: Could the always lovely Charlize Theron have been a dude the whole time? Clearly that "male-calibrated" medical pod was there for daddy, not her, but that could have made the scene where she tells the captain to come to her room in 10 minutes pretty goddamn hilarious none the less.


Gurotaku said...

You didn't really discuss the religious aspects and implications of the film, so I'm extremely curious what you make of this dude's take:

I'm not ready to buy every single thing he proposes but I'm buying enough of it to think that the film may indeed be closer to some kind of Jodorowsky/Zulawski insanity than to anything Scott has done before.

Anonymous said...

Loved Theron, Fassbender, Rapace, and the visuals. Everything else fucking sucked. Seriously, did someone actually get paid for writing this crap? If Michael Bay or Uwe Boll directed the same thing, they would get universally hammered, but since it's Sir Ridley...

Kentai 拳態 said...

Gurotaku: While I think the reading of the film as a grand reinterpretation of world religion might be a potentially valid one, it's one I'd have to give myself a pretty major refresher on the religions I found less interesting than Greek Mythology (ie: pretty much all Christianity outside of Dante) before agreeing to one way or another. For me, the religious angle was kind of clumsy and not all that important at a glance; Rapace chooses to be a Christian because her father was one, and that seems to be about as far as it goes.

Greek and Christian mythology ABSOLUTELY propells the narative, but the tentuous connections it makes to the characters themselves was so half-baked I wanted to give it some time before trying to decide how I felt about it... like I said, if this were something from Zulawski or El Jodo I'd be somehow more okay with it, but for Scott to pull such a ballsy transition from "Straightforward SF/Horror" to "Religious Reinterpretation in Space" might be more than I and the majority of fans interested in it might be able to bear.

Not to get all extended universe about it, but Scott has already said one of the ideas he was toying with was that Christ was an Engineer, and that would actually explain why they set up whatever this laboratory was 2,000 years prior. What's awesome is Mrs. Kentai actually pieced that theory together an hour after watching it, and all she knew about this film going in was that "It's Alien 0 and I have a giant fucking erection, now let's go!"

Anon: I'm more or less convinced that Scott's request for a re-write is where things started to go South; the film's shift from ALIEN to territory to something completely new are both rampant and obvious, and I wouldn't be surprised if Scott (or the screenwriter he hired) wound up taking the best scenes of both and didn't take the time to properly combine those elements back together in a way that made sense.

I also wouldn't be surprised if there's about an hour missing from the 124 minute version we've all seen. The pacing is just too rushed and lurches from one point to another without proper explanations for that to not be something that happened... I'm almost reminded of Lynch's Dune, which could have been a great film if it were given an extra 30 minutes to breathe and realize its big ideas.