Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Prometheus bored

Michael Fassbender plays at omnipotence in Prometheus.

You know, I keep going to the cinema, and it keeps reminding me of why I go to the theatre instead.  My latest foray to the multiplex was to take in Prometheus, Ridley Scott's pre-boot (re-quel?) of the venerable Alien franchise, the SF dread-fest he kick-started with such nightmarish inspiration way back in 1979.  I was a fan of both Alien and James Cameron's sequel (and I even have a soft spot for much of  David Fincher's Alien-Cubed), so I was hoping after the series' recent failures (and devolution into the Abbot-and-Costello-like Alien Meets Predator series), Scott could muster the mojo to actually resurrect Alien one more time.

But alas, no.  Indeed, Prometheus plays like a walking tour of Scott's weaknesses as a director, as well as the things one should never do if one is trying to conjure feelings of genuine awe or terror in SF.

The first of these cardinal rules, btw, is: never fully explain yourself; always leave something mysterious.  And yet the second, superficially-contradictory law is: you must clearly ask the big questions nonetheless - only never discuss them as if you were sitting around your favorite bong back at the frat house.  Note that the most resonantly mysterious SF movie ever made, 2001, has almost no dialogue, and explains almost nothing about itself.  And yet people are still debating it fifty years later.  (Shakespeare knew the same trick, btw; he deliberately deletes from the soliloquies of his tragic heroes the answers to the questions we're dying to ask them.)

Alien was no 2001, of course (much less Shakespeare); the only thing on its one-track mind was an eek!-fest (in fact its initial pitch was simply "Jaws in space").  But the banal material was transformed by H.R. Giger's design for the alien itself, coupled with Scott's creeping, dream-like direction.  Giger's creature seemed like a multi-foliate metaphor for the sexual scourge we all subconsciously dreaded was percolating beneath the frolics of the 70's (and which would in fact erupt from the gay population only two years after the film's debut).  Of course in purely visual terms, the film's "xenomorph" was a critter unlike any seen in any movie before; it was conjured with utterly convincing biomorphic panache, and hence exuded intense sexual subtexts.  Indeed, at maturity its gigantic head resembled nothing less than a huge phallus dentatus - a dick with teeth that opened to reveal a second dick with teeth, which penetrated its victims with a ferocious punch.  Scott and Giger even deleted the eyes from their design to re-inforce the sexual nausea the creature induced, and then coated it with K-Y jelly, just in case anybody missed their metaphor.  (And they famously stripped Sigourney Weaver down to a thong for her final encounter with its toothy tumescence.)

Meanwhile Scott directed the whole thing (as he directs most things) as close to the level of soft-core porn as possible.  This director is subconsciously driven to eroticize everything - he particularly likes snowstorms, and fog, or clouds of dust, which allow him to turn the very air into an erogenous surface.  His camera lingered over Weaver, of course, but also doted on the glistening alien, and even the tubes and gears of the technology which surrounded it - and he actually muddied the dialogue, so we couldn't always hear what people were saying, and slowed half his sequences down to the crawl of a sleepwalker.  The results were indelible; Alien was one of the very few movies (Funny Games was another) that gave me nightmares.

The "space jockey" in 1979.
And while the movie could hardly be called complex, it did, like 2001, leave a few intriguing questions hanging. Central among these was the identity of the fossilized "space jockey" (at left), who had been killed by a xenomorph a millennium ago - and had apparently been hauling thousands of the critter's eggs as cargo.

Had this been a battleship delivering the ultimate biological weapon?  Or was it the remains of a frigate overwhelmed by some insidious spawn from space?  To be sure,  the "space jockey" was slightly puzzling - yet he hardly cried out for explanation; he fulfilled his spooky function in the plot quite effectively, and his cockpit counted as another triumph of Giger's design imagination.  Indeed, Alien effectively pulled off what even Kubrick never managed: a vision of the alien which even today feels alien.

But alas, these trailing, resonant strands of plot, and their attendant glyphs of imagery, have been seized on as the basis of Prometheus, and the results are, I'm afraid, almost unbelievably vapid.  In fact everything that glowed like macabre gold in Alien has been spun here into dross - and to be honest, director Scott all but strip-mines the entire series for one recycled episode after another.  Thus Prometheus doesn't feel so much like a prequel, or even a remake, as it does a pointless re-configuration.  We get yet another variation on an inscrutable android (Michael Fassbender, in the movie's best performance), as well as more villainous machinations by corporate overlord Weyland-Yutani (just like in Alien 1, 2, 3 & 4), a scene with a decapitated talking head (Alien 1 & 3), a hurricane of sorts (Alien 1, 2 & 3), a squirm-inducing medical intervention (Alien 3 & 4), and even a few shots which probably count as re-enactments of similar moments earlier in the series.

Even worse, what's arguably "new" feels recycled, too.  The "space jockey" turns out to be a member of one of those Aryan super-races we remember from Star Trek (here dubbed "The Engineers") who brought life to a sterile Earth hundreds of millions of years ago - and then (in a blatant lift from 2001) left hints in the landscape pointing to their star system (just in case we ever wanted to drop by once we'd discovered warp drive). Needless to say, as soon as this code has been deciphered, a team of sexy scientists and assorted grunts is on their way to meet these Prometheans in a starship named, naturally, "Prometheus." (Get it?)

Where's Indiana Jones?

The movie then becomes a long, discombobulated attempt to reconcile this uplifting opening with the downer end-point of Alien.  It fails utterly in squaring this circle, but what's worse is that in the meantime, the dark temples and catacombs of the Engineers' lost civilization all remind us of either Indiana Jones or Gunga Din, and the new variations on Giger's alien look almost funny (particularly the giant squid of the finale).   And remember how in the first movie, people met their doom because they'd gone off to look for the cat?  Well, thirty years later the screenwriters still haven't come up with any better excuses for the cast to wander into harm's way.

What's most frustrating is that even as the dialogue huffs and puffs to get from metaphysical point A to point B, we feel that far more intriguing questions aren't even being properly framed.  The Engineers seem to have been wiped out by their own creation (at one point we see a hologram of them fleeing something in terror) - and so we find ourselves wondering what went wrong; but this question doesn't seem to have occurred to the screenwriters.  (We don't want this question answered, but we do want it asked.)  And there's a creepy black slime swishing around the dark corners of the Engineers' tombs - is it an accidentally-contaminated version of their earlier potions, or has it been intentionally poisoned?  Again, no one seems to care but us.

Perhaps this is because the script, and the movie, become more and more distracted with horrific set-pieces that are "required" by the series' formula - but if you're going to explore new themes, you need new plot elements - and at any rate, even the best of these, a self-administered Caesarean section, doesn't hold a candle to the shocks of the earlier films.  Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through, I'd argue the script begins to make no sense whatsoever, and Scott simply shrugs off his larger responsibilities to concentrate on optimizing the details of his digital imagery.  Thus Prometheus remains pretty to the end, but that's about it; and irritatingly enough, its closing flourishes don't even really line up with the opening of Alien, anyhow. Which of course only leaves the door open to, yes, another sequel!  In fact the heroine rockets off at the finish to jump-start its first scene (or so we imagine).  She's still searching for "the answers."  Only by now, we've decided we'd rather not know.

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