Monday, June 11, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Prometheus (2012)

Look, this thing is full of spoilers, so don't bother unless you've seen the movie.

Seeing James Cameron's Aliens was one of several sci-fi formative experiences of my youth, but it was also the first movie I watched over and over.  I watched the movie 32 times in one year.  I saw it almost as many times the next year.  I could recite all the dialog by heart by the end of 8th grade.

I was nerd enough to own a shirt with an alien on the front that read "Vote LV-426 for WorldCon in '86".  I, of course, was meeting tons of girls that way.

I didn't actually see Alien until years later.  Honestly, I don't know if I've seen Alien more than 2 or 3 times, but I like it, certainly.  Or I did the last time I watched it maybe a decade ago.  And I like some Ridley Scott.  I think my feelings about Blade Runner are pretty well documented, and I'll actually argue you about Legend if you have a problem with it.  But I'm not solidly in Scott's camp.  I'm sort of "eh" on some of his other work that I've seen, and some of it didn't interest me at all.

And, like many of these guys whose true glory days and the movies they're still cited for are decades in the rearview mirror, I can appreciate Scott wanting to return to the world of Alien and sci-fi.

Unfortunately, I found Prometheus (2012) a B-grade sci-fi movie that had a budget like the GNP of a small European nation.  Yes, it's an absolutely beautiful movie, and I felt the 3D was demonstrative of the ways in which 3D can be used effectively if the film is planned to take advantage of the technology (not that I think you'll suffer seeing it in 2D.  I'm just saying...).  Fassbender is stunning as the Android shipmate, and I can now finally say I saw a Charlize Theron movie.  Seriously, never seen one before.*

But the movie was just so full of dumbness.  You can't have a brilliant performance happening like Fassbender's, and then have "scientists" encountering alien lifeforms like 7th graders who've never thought about germs before.  It's absolutely absurd to see grown adults in a movie in 2012 take their helmets on and off in a potentially hostile alien environment.  They're called safety protocols, people, and I'm pretty damn sure that if Mr. RTF degree here is concerned about them, somebody a hundred years from now spending a trillion dollars to launch this cowboy show into space would have at least put a pamphlet in the hands of the crew.

I can forgive a few liberties with the details, but a lot of the plot hinges on supposedly experienced space-travelling, highly educated people making mistakes you'd know to avoid from watching ten minutes of Outbreak with the sound off or even the occasional encounter with a stray cat.  I was... dumbfounded.  How do you make a movie and spend this much money, and... and... and...  Seriously?  You're a xenobiologist and you're going to make baby-talk at the eyeball from the garbage trap from Star Wars?

And that's not the only thing that just doesn't make sense, but it's all tied back together.  The thing with seeing there's maybe something in your eye?  You know what?  Play it safe, get a scan.  Especially if you've been sharing a bed with the woman you love after exposing yourself to unknown pathogens on an alien planet.

And, seriously, Noomi Rapace?  Bringing a HEAD onto your ship in a ziplock bag and opening it on a table like a baloney sandwich then bringing it back to LIFE?  Are you kidding me?

Speaking of:  what, exactly, sort of scientist was Noomi Rapace?  Because as near as I could tell, she'd been at the Gilligan's Island School of Professoring, what with being an archaeologist in one scene, a geneticist in another and maybe a licensed medical doctor.

Sci-fi differs from fantasy in that we are given our world, but with a few twists.  Some of what we see needs to feel set in reality, so that what we're exploring is the question of "if we suddenly knew X, or Y happened, this is how humanity would learn about itself from this new influence".  It requires a realism that's, if you read a lot of mid-century sci-fi, perhaps a bit too rational in its approach.   The narartive must feel grounded for the illusion to work (or at least have a working set of rules), but here, all that falls flat.  We're treated to a goony, "let's move this along, it doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense" approach to story that one usually reserves for low-budget flicks by Ahab-like genre directors (see: Birdemic).

It's a bit heartbreaking to watch the movie disintegrate before your eyes.  The first act is so good, Fassbender is amazing, and I could tell this would be a neat looking movie from the trailers.  I didn't know much more than that fans were disappointed on the internet (which...  not really a sign of anything), and I'm probably making it sound like I'm angrier than I am, but this was some bloated, messy filmmaking, which just shouldn't happen when the writing and directing parts should be the things you can most easily control.

By the third act we sort of abandon any higher-minded ideal set forth in the first act in favor of creepy body horror stuff, riffs on John Carpenter's The Thing, shock nobody by rolling in the very old, wealthy financier who mentions on his message that he was dying (seemed extraneous at the time...) and watch as the script actively and utterly refuses to deal with the questions set forth in the prologue.  Essentially, what Scott seems to be saying is "your past two hours are prologue for the sequel.  Thanks for sticking around while I dodged the very questions I raised!  Sorry we wrote a movie that had to turn into something like tentacle porn rather than just go ahead and spend thirty seconds explaining anything.".

There's a brilliant movie in here somewhere.  We're served up an adequate and occasionally baffling film.  You can see the brilliance in some of the ideas, the trailer, the design, Fassbender's exploration of what it means to be surrounded by your creators who look down upon you...  But someone got lazy here.  They counted too much on tricks and scares at the exact moment they should have been working to make sure the story train that had left the station had secure bridges to pass and somewhere to arrive.  Instead, we flail for the last forty minutes of sci-fi and horror cliches and end up with our final survivor (this is an Alien movie, after all) heading for parts unknown in a craft she shouldn't be able to pilot without so much as a Cliff Bar or a bottle of water.  Good luck.

Unfortunately, all brilliance fades away when you realize the whole jump start point of the movie: the star map, was pointing our heroes to the one point in space where they really shouldn't have gone if the guessed-at explanation of the planet by our captain was meant to be taken seriously.  I half have to believe that this was what happens when two different versions of a script are crammed together and compete for ideas.

And let's not forget the absoludicrous add-on to the already too-complicated biology of our favorite angry, shell-headed ceiling crawlers.

Y'all, I went in really wanting to like this movie, and walked out feeling like someone just made a very slapdash 80's sci-fi movie on a tremendous budget.  You can't have the only person making sense in a movie be the person case as the ice-queen business-lady villain, and have your heroine committing to countless bad decisions**.  In fact, if I had one major script note for Mssrs. Lindelhoff and Scott:  yes, actors will recite the lines you give them, but one shouldn't have have characters going through motions simply because that's what the script says.  But this movie, taking action with either little or highly questionable reason happens so much and so often, it seems that they forgot that "motivation" not only drives a script, it's something that most actors hunger for.  Which could explain the flat performances by most everyone but Fassbender.

Why on earth did David contaminate his own crew?  How was that helping other than to call back to Alien?    Why was Vickers straining so hard with her father?  Why did Rapace worry so much about being barren when her lover just shrugged it off?  Why why why why?

I am sure this movie will make a bajillion dollars, but it just felt like such a waste.  A fun, pretty waste with a good cast, and one great performance that feels like a worthy successor to both Bladerunner, HAL or even Frankenstein's monster when it comes to artificial intelligence.  But it's not enough.

Also, Hollywood, stop lighting helmets from the inside.  I know we need to see the actors and look kind of cool, but I know how glass and lights work.  You don't need to light your own face to see out a window.  At this point, it's @#$%ing distracting, to think about every time someone puts on a helmet in a movie.

*She's great!  Hollywood should really start offering this talented young lady all sorts of parts.  I have a feeling she could make something of herself one day.

**I am assuming future surgery is way easier to deal with than current surgery, because...  everything Noomi Rapace did in the last half-hour was bullshit.  You people know that, right?  She would have been lying there bleeding internally and screaming in pain just from walking down the hallway.

(Late edit:)  As a final note, Scott's handling of "faith vs. searching for aliens" is becoming a bit of a Hollywood cliche in and of itself, seemingly started by Contact a few years back.  It's always handled too gingerly to make a real point, and the math never quite works out.  The bottom line is that Hollywood can't actually tackle the implications of what they're suggesting without pissing off the overwhelming majority of folks out there who profess a belief in a divine creator.  It was an unnecessary bit meant to give Noomi Rapace a bit of character, but it ended up basically marking her as the virgin who survives at the end of the slasher film.


Paul Toohey said...

I saw the 3d version, and it seemed like it added nothing to the movie.

One thing I can't understand is why this crew had so much more advanced equipment then the crew of the Nosotro. When they go back and make these prequels (or whatever you want to call them) they should make some effort to stick with the original design/world so that it makes sense, not use all the technology they can to make it seem to fit with the current idea of the future.

Moonlight Kingdom was a lot better.

The League said...

because Mr. Scott likes to play with his visual toys.

It didn't really bother me that much. Ever since the Star Wars Prequels I've been pretty used to the idea that directors aren't going to stick too closely to the dated and limited aesthetics of the original films. Like it or not, they're making a movie for 2012, not 1970-whatever. But, yes, I noticed it, too.

I think what I rolled my eyes at was the technology of the future all feels a bit the same with the "what if we have a floating interface?" hoo-har. Didn't we just see this in Avengers?

Anyway, that was maybe the least of my worries. And I fully believe Moonrise Kingdom will be a better movie.

Paul Toohey said...

No, I didn't see The Avengers.

The League said...

Well, I'm sure we can watch it on Blu-Ray sometime.

ncapp said...

I'm late to the party, but we just got Prometheus at my theater, so I watched it. I actually enjoyed it despite having many of the same feelings as you (the dude playing with the space snake, Rapace running around with a stapled gut, Rapace and Theron not running at a 90 degree angle from the rolling spaceship).

A lot of what I've been reading inevitably compares this directly to the Alien movies, which I think is a tad irresponsible and I was glad to see you didn't really do that.

I think I've been able to overlook many of the shortcomings (I admit that I'm an admirer of Alien3 and Resurrection) due to my interpretation (which is not what Ridley Scott claims) that the Engineers created humans by accident. Viewing the film like that gives a whole other dimension of irony to the main quest of the humans, all interactions with Fassbender, and suggests that the Engineers planted the seeds of their own demise both in humans and in their biological weaponry.

While a lot of questions were left lingering, I was more than happy with what I was left to think about.

The League said...

Well, that's the question, isn't it? What WAS the issue the Engineers had? I suppose a sequel could provide answers. My problem was that this movie didn't make me care enough to find out.

Since writing this post I've read a few things stating that this movie was intended to work on a mythic level, but you sort of need to know your ancient, dead religion creation myths or some such to "get it". Which... no. Glad Ridley Scott has a hobby, but he needed to make a movie that didn't need a secret decoder ring - if, indeed, that's what he was doing. Mostly, he seemed to believe he'd told a compelling enough story to earn a sequel, and that wasn't my read.

Paul Toohey said...

I tried to post something, but it got eated by the internet...

Nate, did you see the 3D or 2D version?

I think part of a lot of people's problem with this film is that it asks them to think, and to have some knowledge of myths. I have read several articles that actually made me want to rewatch the movie (links below). I think the one does a really good job of explaining the Engineers actions.

The League said...

I agree that the film does ask the audience to think - the problem is that it fails to engage by calling back to mythologies which they may not know (Prometheus being the one they would - and probably better handled than I want to give it credit for).

At the end of the day, if what they're doing on screen doesn't work to convey the story they're trying to tell - then it's not the fault of the audience for not spending their time with Edith Hamilton before walking into the movie.

The movie itself played to dopey horror tropes, as I think the second review states, that it's hard to get past the "what the hell?" moments and enjoy whatever ideas Scott had about literary allusions.

I think Dark Knight Rises teeters on this edge without falling over. It's far more about the ideas and themes than the actual plot, and almost drops the ball a few times by failing to explain things like "how did Bruce get back?" But it wasn't contrary to what we could assume about Batman.

I'm impressed with the effort of Scott and Co., and I won't say he doesn't deserve points for effort regarding ambition and visual acuity. But I think the movie became too much for him at some point, both too large in concept and too small in execution. And insisted we stick around for a sequel.

The problems with myths is that they ARE stories - and so riffing on them means you're essentially telling part of another story, which is also the mindset of most movie-goers walking into a theater, anyway. How do you say "this is riffing on a Babylonian creation myth" rather than "this is riffing on the 2000 other sci-fi movies we've seen where some guy in a robe does something 'magical'?". And I think Scott needed to tie that up a bit more if he wanted the audience to go along with him and ignore the goofier parts of his movie.