Sunday, June 10, 2012

In Space No One Can Hear You Snore

This piece is on Prometheus. Spoilers abound so beware.

There's a 1985 Tobe Hooper movie called Lifeforce, starring a very young and yet still oddly old-looking Patrick Stewart and a constantly topless Mathilda May, that's remained stuck in my mind throughout the years. The reason for this has nothing to do with it being any good -- on the contrary, it's an unmitigated piece of crap -- but more for the fact that for years after seeing it for the first time, I would find myself returning to it at regular intervals. The reason I'd continue to subject myself to something I obviously disliked intensely? Because I very much wanted to like it, and I always held onto hope that maybe at some point I'd hit on something I hadn't noticed before and the movie would click for me and fall into place. It was a great idea and I wanted it to be a great movie -- unfortunately, no matter how many times I saw it, it never became one. It just kept being the same piece of shit I remembered from the last time I saw the thing.

Ironically, the script for Lifeforce was written by Dan O'Bannon, the writer of my favorite movie of all-time, Alien, and that adds an interesting layer of synchronicity to my feelings about the nominal Alien prequel, Prometheus -- a film I've been waiting for in one form or another for 33 years.

I saw Prometheus on Friday night -- and I desperately wanted to like it; almost no other movie imaginable would receive the automatic benefit of the doubt from me as one that saw Ridley Scott returning to the Alien universe. And with that in mind, I gave the movie that benefit -- over and over again as I turned it over in my mind in the few hours after leaving the theater -- only to finally realize that if the movie hadn't been Ridley Scott's return to a beloved canon, I wouldn't even have bothered trying to rationalize my feelings about it and to assign deeper meaning where I simply wasn't finding any. I just would've come right out and admitted that the film wasn't all that great.

Make no mistake: Prometheus is a visual feast; it's worth seeing strictly for how lovely it is to look at and for how masterfully the 3D optics are used. I would recommend the movie to anyone based solely on that. Prometheus also has a couple of truly spectacular set pieces and one or two very nice nods to the original Alien beyond simply the revelation of who and what the "Space Jockey" is and where it might have come from. Beyond that, though, it's a mess. A beautiful mess -- but a mess nonetheless.

I'm just going to throw out the issues in a stream of consciousness fashion and let anyone who's seen the movie and who feels like it discuss whether they were bugged by the same things.

1. Okay, a trillion-dollar expedition into space with the aim of discovering the origin of man, the most important mission mankind has ever undertaken, and the 17 people hand-picked for it are the dumbest and most unlikable people planet Earth has to offer. Scientists don't behave like scientists. The captain of the ship seems strangely disinterested in his crew's peril. Characters do unbelievably stupid things seemingly without reason and thoroughly against what we know of their personalities through the meager amount of set-up we're given. (The two terrified crew-members who suddenly decide to play with the pretty alien worm; the two jokey co-pilots who instantly and complacently volunteer to martyr themselves at the ass end of space because a woman they don't even know says somebody's going to have to.) Jesus, I cared more about the kids getting picked off by Jason in Friday the 13th VII than I did about anybody -- anybody -- aboard the Prometheus. And what's worse, I really get the impression that the writers and director didn't care about the characters either.

2. Maybe Noomi Rapace can carry an American movie -- but she didn't carry this one. Again, I didn't give a damn about her.

3. While the C-section scene is admittedly excellent, the fact that Shaw then immediately -- after pulling an alien squid the size of a football out of her -- runs, jumps, gets the shit knocked out of her and isn't doubled over in excruciating pain the entire time required a suspension of disbelief I kind of couldn't muster. Also, why did no one seem to notice that she'd just hacked herself open and why didn't she bother to tell anyone, "Oh, by the way, there's an alien squid in the med-pod bay -- might wanna go check on that," instead of pretending it never happened?

4. While David was absolutely the most interesting character in the movie -- and Fassbender's performance was a lot of fun -- can anybody explain to me the motivation for 80% of the crap he does? Why poison Charlie? Why revel in the fact that Shaw is pregnant with an alien? Why then reach out to her at the end? DXM regular Votar has a good theory, which is that David isn't actually taking orders from Weyland and has instead been programmed by someone else and that his mission is actually, keeping with Alien tradition, to bring back a specimen for bio-weapons. This is the only possibility that makes any sense.

5. If Captain Janek is supposed to be the audience surrogate -- or the closest thing there is to one among the characters -- and if he's indeed right that the planet they discover is nothing more than a weapons facility, then why the hell did the Engineers tell humans about it? Why try to entice them to come for a visit? On that note, if what the crew of Prometheus finds is indeed the remnants of an accident in which the Engineers' bio-weapon got loose and killed a bunch of them, that means this is the second time at least that this has happened, since the Space Jockey in Alien was obviously the victim of his own cargo. That makes the Engineers the most incompetent alien race to seed our planet imaginable. Although admittedly I appreciate it if that's the point -- that we're a bunch of assholes who aren't the product of God or an enlightened species of space men but were instead created by beings that are as angry, petty and stupid as we are.

6. In reference to all of these questions, I blame and kind of hate Damon Lindelof. Despite its popularity, Lost was annoying metaphysical tripe that masqueraded as intellectualism -- and Lindelof seems to have brought the same ethos to Prometheus. No, churning out a script in which you can almost hear your own voice saying to the audience, "Ah? See? Interesting, isn't it? That's a big question, right? Bet that'll give you something to discuss!" while smirking smugly doesn't make you a genius or your work high-minded. It's cheap and easy to ask questions you don't even try to answer and create chaos just for the hell of it.

7. There are vast stretches of the movie that are just boring as hell.

Again, it took me about an hour or so after seeing Prometheus to admit to myself that the only reason I was trying to give it a pass on the issues I had with it was that it was ostensibly an Alien movie. Upon any kind of close inspection -- really any inspection at all -- the whole damn thing falls apart, and that obviously disappoints me greatly.

I should say, by the way, that I'm going to see it again -- mostly to see it in IMAX and truly immerse myself in its visual splendor, but also because, as with Lifeforce all those years ago, I really want to like it. I want to find something I didn't catch the first time that will make it all come together for me. I'm not sure that's going to happen, though.


QuadCityPat said...

Saw it on Friday and had many of the same issues with it you did. Having said that I liked it somewhat better than you did. Here's an answer to some of your concerns as I see it.

1. Agreed that the crew was completely unlikable. Their stupidity can be explained in my world by the fact that they were all hired by Weyland independently of each other with no idea what they were getting into. Thus the geologist just wants to check out the rocks and go. The biologist was uninterested and scarred until he saw a new lifeform etc.

Captain Janek's disinterest in his crew was born of the same stuff. He was getting paid one way or another, if the rest of them wanted to be idiots so be it.

2. I got nothing for you there. ANY number of actresses could have pulled off the same (lack of) gravitas.

3. In several scenes she is in excruciating pain, she just isn't a good enough actress to carry it off. Also, it was clear to me Weyland, and the MD's were in on the plan to get a pregnant specimen back to Earth. They were taking her to cryo before she cold cocked them, and Weyland's "I didn't expect you'd join us" comment led me to believe he was aware of David's machinations.

4. I agree that David wasn't exclusively working for Weyland. His poisoning of Charlie led to the impregnation of Shaw which is what he wanted.

5. I think what they were going for was that the Engineers who came to Earth came from the bio-weapons planet. Returning to that planet was a step to get back to their home planet. If humans could get there, then they'd get the details to go to the Engineers home. Which we are left to believe is what happened to Shaw and David.

I also think that the Space Jockey in Alien was killed by his cargo after he left the LV 223 and before the other specimens destroyed the Space Jockeys on LV 223. Its the only thing that makes sense. If the Jockeys in Prometheus were all dead before the Jockey in Alien left, he'd be dead on LV 223 as well.

6. Agreed on Lindelof and the Lost crap. Bunch of self serving new age bullshit. Too much of the that in Prometheus. Really fucking annoying, I kept thinking of the black ink stuff as surrogate for the smoke monster.

7. I was never bored. I kept my eyes glued to the background of the sets. The dialog in stretches was Phantom Menace bad so I kept watching screens and the inside of the Space Jockey Dome for interesting things. There's a bit more Alien DNA in it than you might expect.

Enjoy it in IMAX. I saw it in 2D, I'm going back to see it in 3D this week.

Thanks for the forum to vent some of theses thoughts.

Quad City Pat

QuadCityPat said...

Also typos. lots of typos! LOL

C.L.J. said...

1. My first thought was that Scott should have hired Jack McDevitt to go over the script - McDevitt has written dozens of books on future archeology in space, and could have made the team more believable in constitution and behavior.

2. I don't see it, either.

3. I did see her doubling over in pain in many scenes, but through to the end of the season. I attributed this to advanced pharmaceuticals aiding in speeding up the healing process.

David obviously knew about the caesarian from looking at her. As for telling someone: at that point, she couldn't know who her friends were.

If someone came up to me and said they just removed a squid thing that had grown inside her, I'd have locked her up in a hermetically sealed box to prevent possible infection. And wouldn't THAT have made for a boring movie?

4.David realized that the substance was bio-active, and posited that it would over-write the subject's DNA to replace it with, he hoped, the Engineer's DNA. This explains the quip about Charley getting to meet his maker.

Of course, we saw an Engineer drink this stuff and fall apart, so we know better, but David wasn't around for that bit.

5. Janek was the audience surrogate? Says who?

regarding the tomb drawings: It's not so much telling humans about it; it's that it's ingrained in our racial memory, since we are all descended from one individual. "We came from there!"

6. Lindelof admits all that in an NPR interview about PROMETHEUS.

7. I wasn't bored. To each his own.

Chez said...

When I say that Janek is the audience's surrogate I mean that he's the one who points out what needs to be pointed out. And yeah, I'm not saying I hated the movie and I've read enough to think that there were things going on that I may not have caught, but I just feel like it wasn't as effective as it should have been in communicating what it was all about. I like questions, but it can't be all questions.

VOTAR said...

Trying to offer up reasonable answers to these questions misses the point; there shouldn't BE these kinds of questions in a movie from a director like Scott. He's better than this.

It's fun to debate the nuances of Roy Batty's struggle with the acceptance of mortality and how that parallels our own awareness of death. In so many extraordinary and subtle ways Blade Runner was a masterpiece of science fiction. Having given us art like that, and Alien, it's significant that we are left with such a need to fill in the blanks with this movie.

A $1 trillion expedition full of scientists and engineers who appear to set out to prove how completely unscientific and undisciplined they are, that's just SyFy Original Movie Of The Week bad. A biologist who tries to play with the first alien species he's ever encountered? You wouldn't do that even on Earth (unless you're Steve Irwin, and well look how that turned out...).

There were, what, seven crew members in Alien? We got to know them, we were invested in their motivations, and their deaths were visceral. Except for David, Vickers, Shaw, and Holloway (and I'm pushing it even with Vickers), the rest here were uninteresting, expendable stock characters. Even Weyland himself was extra baggage. Incidentally I almost laughed at the "old man" makeup; Scott should have consulted with David Fincher as to how to transform young actors into old characters. Sometimes it takes a little more than a rubber mask.

I know these comments seem nitpicky but damn. When you wait this long for something *cough*phantommenace*cough* expectations get set really high.

On that note, I've been left thinking this really odd, philosophical question: maybe disappointment is the point. Maybe on some subconscious or meta level, we the audience are supposed to leave the theater disappointed. That's the message. We create an image of omnipotent god at the risk of discovering that god is just an incompetent clumsy alien. Maybe we're also meant to feel as though we've all been waiting two decades for an idealized version of this movie.

I know that's certainly not the case, but to feel a little better about this movie, well, "it's what I choose to believe."

Fungi said...

I thought most of the same things you did about it. But what really bothers me, is that this is the same movie we've seen before. It's funny that you reference Friday the 13th. All 10 of those movies are the same damn movie, just like this one, Alien & Aliens. Same movie. For one reason or another, people employed by the same company, on a spaceship, wind up getting attacked by an alien life form in its pupil stage and when it transforms, it kills everyone. Hell, even the dialog is the same. The grunts in Alien were only concerned about how much money they were going to get paid. Same thing is said in Prometheus. Votar is probably right about David. I thought the same thing. Lindelof should just change his name to Alan Smithee.

QuadCityPat said...

@Votar, I couldn't agree more on the last point. Much like the crew we waited for something extraordinary from the 'god' Sir Ridley, only to leave on a quest for more answers A la Shaw and David at the end.

Janean said...

I guess this is all about expectations. I enjoyed the movie, but maybe that is because I expected it to just be entertaining. I agree that there was much of the plot that was stupid, and the characters weren't the most like - able people. But I kind of went in expecting some mindless entertainment. I think the difference in viewpoint is that some of you wanted a brilliant masterpiece.

Aaron B. Brown said...

Adam’s ‘Prometheus’ Review/Rant: Big Things Have Small Beginnings (Very, Very Small Beginnings)

Anonymous said...

I agree with your epic disappointment with Prometheus. However, the bit about Damon/Lost...dude, man, the guy who loved BSG, the show where Lee Adama fapped to his daddy issues and the entire thing ended with DON'T get to make fun of Lost, mkay? It's a matter of taste, and both had metaphysical bullshit woowoo. You fapped to BSG, some of us fapped to Lost, and we will forever be embattled as to which was was smarter, mmmkay? Seriously.

ZIRGAR said...

I thought the whole setup was flimsy--"Look, we found all these matching ancient images, and they're CLEARLY telling US to come find THEM, assuming these giant "they" are aliens out on some other planet and not Watusi warriors in Africa, so it'll be really easy to convince anyone to fund this exploration, because this is so totally believable, and no one would be so stupid as to be unwilling to take the biggest shot in the dark in history, so we're going! Oh, and assuming "they" are still alive after all these millenia!"

Chez said...

People who actually write out "mmmkay" are annoying.

Anonymous said...

I found this bloggers analysis of the move interesting. Helped me make sense of the move:

VOTAR said...

That blogger guy sure has presented an interesting analysis, I'll give him that.

Too bad it takes some blogger dude to lecture us on what the movie is about. I like to think I'm a relatively smart person but I really don't like having to take an AP comparative philosophy class to understand the movies I watch :-/.

Jeffery 44 said...

I don't know, guys... I really liked the movie. Maybe because it WAS slow and grandiose. I guess I was willing to let go of some of the clunky plot problems because I'm so desperately sick of SF movies made for people with a combination of A.D.D. and Asperger's disease: that's a big robot: it smashes/that's a big robot: it smashes/clever/snarky/clever/snarky/that's a big robot: it smashes/that's a big robot: it smashes.

Chez said...

Yeah, Votar, I'm with you. His analysis is really interesting and it'll give me something to think about when I see it again -- but I'm still not sure Lindelof really meant for it to be that deeply philosophical. I think he just threw shit at the wall and hoped something would stick. And even if the guy's analysis is dead on, the movie did a terrible job of communicating that connection.

KrisDub said...

Here's an interesting allegory breakdown that makes a lot of sense. However, it's sad that I feel that I needed this breakdown. Agree fully with you on #6. I hated Lost, was convinced the writers of Lost were making shit up as they went along and felt they did the same crap here. I want to like this movie, frankly I don't. Though I don't hate it either. I'll probably see the followup for the visuals.

Also, it should be noted that not only would she have been in excruciating pain (which she did keep giving herself injections for), she would have had massive internal bleeding that would have led to her death in about 15 minutes. The med pod only stapled the outside.

Jeffery 44 said...

I just read the blogger analysis from above. Awesome. I picked up a fair amount of those same ideas when I saw the movie.

Here is a great Ridley Scott parallel: In Blade Runner Roy Batty becomes the self sacrificing Jesus symbol... nails through the palm et. al.. I always have this argument with people who believe that Dekker was a replicant (I haven't read the P.K.D. book, and R.S. always makes things his own interpretation, so I don't think it matters if Dekker was a replicant in the book): I think the sacrifice symbolism is much more potent if Dekker is human because it makes Roy Batty's saving him reflexive on the fact that Batty has come to the conclusion that LIFE is important, not just his kind of life.

StupidVelociraptors said...

The more I think about the biologist and geologist the more pissed off I get. They find the severed Engineer head, first sign of alien life and the biologist doesn't care at all. The geologist, the one with the mapping ball things and the equipment to read them gets lost in 5 minutes in what looks to be a perfectly round hallway while everybody else manages to get out just fine. They make a huge production of being terrified of the room with the head statue but decide to spend the night there later on like nothing happened. It's beyond the characters being stupid, it just straight up sloppy.

Chez said...

Exactly. Nobody in the movie behaves like he or she is a normal person.

Chris said...

I had heard there were mixed reviews so I went into this film with lowered expectations. I was there for two reasons: 1) to have questions from Alien answered and 2) the visuals.

Some of 1 was answered and 2 really paid off. But damn, those characters were lifeless--Charlize (whom I ADORE and can do no wrong in my book) was pretty much the only thing this film had going for it. And I had issues with her... but I'll forgive her ('cuz I love her!)

When we got to the C-section scene, I checked out. Just give me cool pictures, because this shit doesn't make sense.

I do have one question which none of my friends could explain: In Alien, the director/guy in the chair of the crashed space ship had a hole from his chest, as if he died because one of the aliens popped out. However, the director obviously survived the crash (only to meet his demise with that creature that reminded me of the walking vagina from The Wall). So what's with the burst chest in Alien?

I want to see it again, too... just to enjoy the visuals... and maybe to mock it a la Rocky Horror.

ZIRGAR said...

Chris, remember, there was more than one Engineer ship, so the space jockey from Alien was not the same one that was in Prometheus.

ZIRGAR said...

This post has really got me going, since I too really wanted to like Prometheus, and what bothered me as much as anything, was that in the original film, you got a genuine sense of complete alienation and otherness. It felt like the space jockey ship crashed on the planet because the xenomorph aliens killed the crew. But where was space jockey ship from originally and where had it been going? Who knows. Adding to the overall effect was that the now fossilized space jockey had eons ago(?) sent out a warning message that was still transmitting across the void of space. Eerie. Creepy. Everything about the participants and the events on that little moon was, literally and figuratively, otherworldly and wonderfully weird. From the physiology of the space jockey, to the organic structure of the ship, to the xenomorph aliens, Scott, along with Giger, gave us something remarkably alien. Prometheus destroyed that.

Eric said...

The Cavalorn piece is interesting, but (as others have pointed out) it doesn't make the movie less of a mess. It just makes it an allegorical mess, a swing and a miss at C.S. Lewis. And it doesn't help that the Cavalorn poster has to misread some scenes: e.g. Shaw certainly DOES try to kill her "baby", spraying it with the decontamination devices until it stops moving, the equivalent (one supposes) of Mary trying to drown Jesus in a trough and leaving the body in the manger.

Plus, as a religious friend who sent me a link to it points out, it's an iffy read on Christianity. E.g. if the "Engineers" value self-sacrifice above all else, why are they mad about one of their own sacrificing himself? Especially when his project was at least arguably a partial success in getting at least some large segment of humanity to at least attempt to be more altruistic? It doesn't survive scrutiny.

ZIRGAR said...

This is hilarious. Enjoy:

Aaron B. Brown said...

Anyone who thinks Noomi Rapace isn't a good actress (QuadCityPat), hasn't seen ' Girl with the Dragon tattoo' and the other two movies based on Stieg Larsson's book. I'm talking about the Swedish versions, not that crappy American ripoff. She was amazing in that movie and even better In the others which are focused solely on her character.

I haven't seen this movie, but I've seen the dismal excuses for movies that Ridley Scott has produced this century, and I must objectively conclude that his gift has deserted him. Not uncommon for many aging artists, sadly he doesn't have anyone around him to tell him the truth, just a bunch of corporate owned lackeys and yes-men willing to shovel money in his direction, based solely on his name recognition, which he is doing a beautiful job of demolishing by directing one turkey after another and tarnishing his once phenomenal career.

What Ridley should be doing is mentoring up-and-coming young directors, helping those with fresh vision to get the backing and support they need. Unfortunately it's becoming painfully obvious that his ego won't allow him to accept the truth, which is he's lost it. And we are all suffering, wasting our money and being disappointed because producers know they can make millions continuing to milk a dead horse.

And as for Charlize Theron, you know, some white males look at a blonde woman and see a whole lot that isn't really there, she's a prime example. Some critic tells you she has talent, and you want so badly to believe it so you can see her again and again and keep fueling your fantasies. Good luck with that.

warrenbishop said...

@Chez: I couldn't agree with you more about Lindelof. It's not good writing, it's not good storytelling. Period. Anyone that tries to tell you that "Lost" (in particular the 6th season and that finale) is an example of good storytelling is on something.

If someone other than Lindelof, or heaven forbid, Paul W.S. Anderson had gotten the 'Prometheus' assignment - the resulting film could have been much better.

The funny thing is, I like Ridley Scott and I'll still watch it again, but I have to admit there are alot of plot holes, wildly inconsistent character behavior, and just needlessly dumb stuff (i.e. Vickers' death). It could have been so much better.

Well Christopher Nolan, it's all on you now.

Predictions for the Thunder x Heat series?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Lindelof demonstrated a key idea in fiction in "Lost." Mystery is a powerful driver of drama. Character motivation is a powerful driver of drama. Mysterious character motivations kill drama.

Without understandable character motivations (which also means "non-stupid/non-suicidal motivations"), we can't identify with the characters. That is the end of audience emotional involvement, which kills drama stone dead.

"Lost" hosed this many times over. I spent most of the last season trying to figure out why any of the characters were doing what they did, and mostly failed. Dammit, Lindelof. Keep "mystery" in its proper place; stop being so goddamned sloppy. Multiple interpretations of the meaning of a scene are fine, even desirable. But we have to understand why it gets to that point. Argh.

So says Some Guy What Is on the Internet.

BJD92275 said...

Folks - want to run some theories by you...

I've seen a lot of disbelief / disappointment posted regarding the geologist and the biologist and their behavior. As soon as they began making noise about leaving the group and going back to this ship - my first thought was, they're bullshitting. Most people seem to attribute that to bad writing, or perhaps even bad acting...but I think that was the intention. They had a separate mission they were carrying out, one that required them to separate from the group and go off on their own and NOT return the to ship. This is why the captain was not surprised when they were still wandering around - he was in on it.

As far as what the mission would have been - we can only speculate... but I suspect their jobs were to help further along one of more of the true objectives of the mission.

Those true objectives were NOT the objectives that Shaw and Holloway believed them to be... but those that Weyland, or perhaps Vickers, intended all along. They may even have not have been professionals on their respective fields at all, but may have been given their titles to convince the company board that the mission was scientific in nature rather than a last-ditch attempt by the king to avoid death. Weyland/Vickers hired them specifically to do what they did...go off and explore on their own, away from group carrying out the 'sanctioned' mission.


Taking this yet one step further and slightly to the right, most of the people on the ship (excluding Holloway and Shaw) had to know that Weyland was on board, and the purpose of the mission. Vickers, whose responsibility was to hire everyone, may have intentionally chose imbeciles. We KNOW she was ready for her father to give up control, so may have intentionally thrown a monkey wrench into the works by hiring the people she did.


Regarding David infecting Holloway - his overriding mission was to figure out a way to find (or resurrect) a 'creator' for Weyland to meet,. He obviously had no qualms about using the crew to further his goals. It was an experiment that more or less worked. He may have had an inkling of the purpose of the black liquid and the affects it would have on DNA - and decided an experiment was in order. In the meantime, however, he managed to find an actual living engineer and so the other plans were no longer needed. He hit pay dirt and so no longer cared about what happened to his experiment.

Plenty of holes... but hey - so be it.