Sunday 3 June 2012

Thoughts on Prometheus

The excitement I felt before watching Prometheus was probably the most I'd felt since I bought my ticket to see the last Indiana Jones movie. Being a huge fan of Ridley Scott, the original Alien, and of Damon Lindelof's writing (via Lost), I couldn't wait to see what these three ingredients produced when mixed together.

Sadly, as I walked out the cinema, all my excitement had been replaced by disappointment. Yes, it was Kingdom of the Crystal Skull all over again.

Update: I watched Prometheus a second time and had a different reaction. My new reaction is at the bottom.

The film is beautiful, no argument there. Scott's technical prowess as a director is perfectly on display. The story itself touches on some interesting areas: Questions about belief, religion, and humanity's origins, seem timely and apt. Michael Fassbender does a great job as this movie's android, David.

The broader strokes of the movie are quite interesting, and the ending, from the "Ripley" character's point of view, was satisfying. But...

(Be warned: Spoilers dead ahead!)

A beginning is a delicate time...
Actually, one of the first things that leaps to mind is how few surprises there were in the film. The very first scene explicitly reveals what the "Engineers" look like, so their later appearance is not a surprise. Another early scene explains precisely what the mission hopes to find, so that when they eventually do, it's also no longer a surprise.

I have to say that I found both of these to be baffling choices. The second one can be explained because it gives a reason for certain character to be onboard (the surprise guest -- but that only begs the question: Why was that guest on board? It did nothing for the story, but I'll get to that later). I really would have imagined that the scientific discovery would have been an interesting twist for the audience. Instead it's hinted at in the poster, the trailer, and spelled out right at the beginning of the film itself.

Speaking of which, if you've seen the goosebump-inducing trailer for Prometheus, you'll also be know that certain things from Alien will make an appearance at some point. They surely could have been wonderful surprises, too, but instead, as the movie drags, you'll find yourself starting to become impatient for them to appear (and wait you will, they only arrive at the very end).

Along with the lack of surprise and mystery, you don't feel any empathy for any of the characters, despite having 17 to choose from. In fact, this large amount of characters hurts our relationship with them: We never get to know any of them particularly well.

This larger crew smacks of something that's felt a few times throughout the film; More money = bigger, shinier everything. The ship feels bigger. The rooms cleaner. The technology flashier. I don't know if this was intentional, but overall it lacks the claustrophobic, "used" feeling that Scott tried to so hard to convey in Alien.

Really it's hard not to believe that the crew should have been reduced to the smallest possible number needed to tell the story effectively. At it stands, we see glimpses of interesting relationships, but they never go anywhere. For example, the clash between the button-down scientist and the unsociable, volatile geologist, felt interesting and dramatically fruitful, but it's all over before it's begun.

Even the film's "Ripley" character is somewhat difficult to empathise with. Arguably worse still is the fact that the crew never feels like a cohesive whole. You could contend that this is because they don't know each other before the mission begins, and that's true, but even by the end it's unclear what their relationships are. (How does the captain feel about Noomi Rapace's character? Theron's? Fassbender's? I have no idea.)

The film has plenty of Scott flourishes (the captain, like Dallas in Alien, enjoys music recognizable to modern listeners), but there's just no substance.

One screenwriting technique I've read about involves reading through your script once for each of your characters, in order to make sure they have a satisfying arc. I can't think of one character that managed to reach this goal.

That's illogical, Captain...
The next big issue with the film is simple character motivation and logic. We often don't understand why a character is doing something.

For example, when the crew first land on their new-found planet, there are members of the exploration team with a healthy fear for what they're discovering. When one of the members decides to take off his helmet, against all common sense, after being told the air is breathable, he is rightfully chastised by those around him.

But soon afterwards, the rest of the team follow suit, even those who are fearful about what they've discovered. It's one thing for a "believer" to risk catching alien space-flu (it's very much a "John Locke-ism"), but it seems to go against everything we know about the other characters. So why would they risk it? We're never given a reason.

Later on, a pair of characters get lost in the alien spacecraft. Again, this appears to make no sense. For a start, we can see everyone's position clearly on the ship's 3D map (very cool, by-the-way), and they apparently have perfect communications with those on board, so why didn't they get in touch and say, "We're lost, tell us which way to go"? What's even more baffling is that one of these lost characters is introduced as being the most au fait with the mapping technology, and explores caves for a living using said technology. Surely he should be the last member of the crew to lose his bearings?

Yet another example is when Noomi Rapace finally discovers what she's been hoping to find. It's possibly the greatest scientific discovery in human history, and yet nobody in the ship seems particularly bothered, including her. Surely the news would spread like wildfire through the small crew? On Earth, it would make the lead story on the evening news, but for the people who discovered it, they don't seem to care. Even she doesn't run and tell her own research partner.

This odd character decision leads to a frustrating scene where we have to watch a character learn something we've just seen another character learn. Surely repeating information to the audience is uniformly understood to be a bad thing? One thing is certain, it impedes the flow of the story. This same problem happens several more times with different bits of information. It's baffling.

In terms or production, one also has to wonder why in Guy Pearce was in the film, and not some elderly actor (Peter O'Toole? -- well maybe, Christopher Plummer?). Surely it wasn't just so he could do the TED talk? I'm not even sure why his character was in the film, to be honest. I can only presume the film was trying to say something about humans being sometimes more robotic than their robotic creations (the daughter was arguably colder than David). Or perhaps something about how our relationship with our creators shapes who we are? Unfortunately, like most ideas and themes in the film, it's never fully fleshed out.

They should have sent a poet...
All of these issues pale in light of the film's biggest problem, though: It's just not a satisfying story. The crew explore the alien world, they could back to the ship, they go back to the alien world, they go back to the ship. It's every bit as dull as I just made it sound. There's no clear sense of what the threat is, what people's motivations are, or what the "rules" of the world are (so we can gauge the cause and effect of their decisions).

Story strands are left unresolved, seemingly to deliberately try and spread more mystery into the world, and possibly leave some options for a sequel, but they're just not that interesting. I don't really care who or what the Big Head was supposed to represent. I don't really care what the grey goo supposedly does. Or what the worms are. Or what was in the grey cannisters. Or why sometimes they were lined up on their sides, or why they were sometimes laid out like the eggs in AlienBut I could have.

Even the immediately interesting questions regarding science versus religion, faith versus evidence, staples of Lost, and clearly within Lindelof's talented writing grasp, aren't explored to their full potential.

As I said at the beginning, I haven't felt this disappointed in a film since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and in both cases you'd be tempted to blame the scriptwriter, but really, you can't blame anyone but those who had final say. Just like George Lucas, Ridley Scott is powerful enough to not make a film until he's happy with the script. One can only presume that Lindelof saw this as Scott's project, and did his best to take Scott's ideas and turn them into something better than they were before. It's understandable that Lindelof would want to make Scott happy, it was his job, but Scott, as talented as he may be, is not a scriptwriter.

From Scott's point of view, you have to imagine he was very happy with it. As a director, the script gave him plenty of exciting opportunities to flex his visual muscles, but for the rest of us, it was lacking.

I still love and respect both Scott and Lindelof, and I look forward to seeing what they do next, but this was a remarkable disappointment from two remarkable people.

So sure was I that I was going to enjoy Prometheus, that I made plans to see it a second time before I'd watched it the first.  As such I was forced to sit through it again, lest I'd let down the person I'd agree to watch it with. Against all my expectations, though, I actually kind of enjoyed it the second time.

Yes, I was surprised, too.

This second viewing allowed me see it more for what it is, rather than what I wished it was. And guess what; the film kept my attention and entertained me throughout. Yes, most of the above complaints were still there (nng!), but they didn't completely ruin the experience this time around.

My best advice for those who have somehow missed Prometheus so far: Don't go in expecting Alien, and try and avoid watching the trailer if you can!