Why I want to see Prometheus

>> Thursday, June 07, 2012

Great filmmakers all go through rough patches. But [Ridley] Scott's rough patches have joined together into a continuous rough surface. No sooner was he through that Duellists-Alien-Blade Runner trio than he released Legend, which critics praised for visual panache while lamenting how dramatically threadbare it was. In the years since, Legend has become a seminal Scott film, in that it set the tone for his later misfires. Here was the work of a master craftsman who knew how to envision a world, yet couldn't make the small stuff—like, say, the characters—resonate. It was put together with an incredibly sophisticated visual palette, forcing the viewer to begrudgingly respect the enterprise but not to love it.
- Tim Grierson, "Ridley Scott: What’s The Big Idea?"
Gawker, June 1st, 2012.

Ain't it the truth, though? There was a phase I went through when I was a kid where I wanted to make movies, and Ridley Scott was one of my favorite directors, possibly my very favorite, because he had that remarkable visual palette, y'know? Ridley Scott movies are, for better and frequently for worse, obviously Ridley Scott movies in the same way you can visually identify something by Hitchcock or Kurosawa, say.

Only that visual panache wore thin after a while. It's awesome to have a visually interesting, striking, even stunning movie, but it only gets you so far if everything else sucks. Legend is gorgeous, yeah, but it's an awfully weak story and Tom Cruise is a weak link casting-wise that breaks the whole thing, though the whole thing is ultimately so silly that maybe no actor could quite carry it. And even Scott's distinctive visuals are finally laid on so heavily, as if scooped from a bucket with a trowel, they eventually work against themselves, giving the whole affair the quality of one of those euphemistic advertisements for feminine hygiene products where they're overly concerned with whose delicate sensibilities might be offended by even naming a device to be inserted into delicate ladyparts for that oh-so-fresh feeling. And I write this liking Legend; I think it's a far more enjoyable and worthier film than the admittedly pretty but vastly overrated fight porn Gladiator or the surprisingly unwatchable Hannibal.

At some point, I'm not sure precisely when (though it may have been around 2001 or 2002, after those last two awful films I mentioned in the previous paragraph), I sort of gave up on Ridley Scott. I think he'd stopped being a favorite well before that, actually, but he dropped all the way down the list to "I'm probably not bothering with that one". He possibly even dropped beneath Uwe Boll, modern cinema's equivalent of a registered repeat sex offender, as someone whose movies I'd go and see in a theatre, because while Boll makes hideously bad movies, sometimes at least they're worth a laugh or an incredulous boggle at who he managed to cast ("Ben Kingsley is in Bloodrayne?! Really?!"); as much wasted potential as you see in most of Ridley Scott's filmography is hardly worth a giggle and gets to be uncomfortably depressing or even enraging (Gladiator, for instance, actually makes me a little angry).

(This is one of the often-uncommented-upon things about bad movies versus good movies, actually: that there's this kind of rule of diminished expectations, such that a mediocre movie by a talentless director somehow seems better, often, than a mediocre movie made by a brilliant one, because you didn't expect anything from the hack, but you're haunted by the awareness that the genius could have and should have made a better movie. Objectively, the auteur's mediocrity may even be a better-made film--it may have real actors and a real budget and nice sets and costumes and everything is competently blocked and framed, etc., while the mediocrity's mediocrity may be full of B-list actors and poorly-composed scenes and such; but that very fact only makes it more disappointing and less enjoyable. Still, we usually all end up misleadingly saying the good director's middling film is "awful" and the bad director's middling film is "pretty good", don't we?)

So when a friend recently said he wasn't going to see Prometheus and later, after reading a favorable review, that he felt conflicted about seeing it, I really did get it. I certainly wasn't going to see it when it was announced--"Ridley Scott" and "prequel (sort of)" and "Aliens" all being strikes against the concept. Scott hasn't been particularly good in ages, prequels are generally awful for all sorts of reasons, and the Aliens franchise has been completely run into the ground at this point. I can not only comprehend wanting to avoid Prometheus, I think there are legitimate causes for suspicion and skepticism.

Like a lot of people, though, the previews turned me around. Though I'm not sure for reasons those folks may be excited. I mean, I actually do think there's something kind of sketchy about all the bombast of the previews and the sense (also shared by a lot of people, it seems) that you're practically seeing the whole movie in them. I do have some sense in my gut that Prometheus-style trailers for another big summer SF movie would be a gratuitous fourth strike against seeing the thing.

What got me about the Prometheus trailers, actually, was that it became clear they really were returning to the horseshoe.

I'll go ahead and warn you, I'm about to contradict myself horribly in a couple of paragraphs, and I hope you'll hang along for the ride and bear with me. It's a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance on my part, though not really as dissonant as it might seem.

One of the things that doesn't seem to get commented upon too often is that the original Alien isn't just a "haunted house in space" or a "Lovecraft story in space" or a body horror film or a monster movie--it's also a first contact movie; i.e. a movie about human beings encountering a species of extra-terrestrial for the very first time, like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or The Day The Earth Stood Still or 2001.1 It's not a major theme in the movie, because the first contact doesn't exactly go well, what with the representatives of humanity and the extraterrestrials being introduced when the latter forces some kind of prehensile penis-ovipositor down the former's clenched throat, but, you know, things happen and sometimes cultures clash. One of the original screenplays for Alien had human marines going to the extraterrestrials' homeworld and discovering they had this elaborate culture involving ritual parasitism and so on, and that the reason the Nostromo's crew was victimized was just some kind of misunderstanding because the alien on Kane's face was just a kind of feral orphan that didn't know you don't stick your prehensile penis-ovipositor down a stranger's throat when you first meet him nor do you go on to eat his friends, etc.; there was even some concept art done for this idea by H.R. Giger, who designed the alien and the crashed ship and all; but the whole thing got scrapped because it was too expensive and complicated, and it was wiser to streamline the story down to what we saw in the final film.

But all of that isn't the only first contact scenario in Alien, and this is one of the sort-of-overlooked (I think) things about the film I really, really love. Because the other first contact (of sorts) is these human astronauts encounter the infamous franchise monster-aliens on that horseshoe-shaped derelict spaceship apparently belonging to a third extraterrestrial species, represented by that dead "space jockey" reclining in its enormous chair with an ominously-foreshadowing hole in its chest.

And this is never explained in the film. This is the part I love, that these humans go on board this big, weird-ass, apparently crashed ship--the one that broadcast the signal that brought them to the planet in the first place--and then are understandably quick to get out of there when something attaches itself to one guy's face, and then they never have the chance to really revisit the subject because for the remainder of the movie they're far too preoccupied (understandably) with being jerked up into air shafts and crawlspaces and being impaled on a ravaging creatures extendible phallus-jaw. So this part of the movie, this weird extraterrestrial spaceship on this weird, blue-black planet, just floats out there as a mystery of the universe, never answered, never answerable.

Only this is where I contradict myself, as promised earlier. Taking Alien alone, I love that there's this mystery left for the audience to chew on forever. Why is this ship here? What is it? Where was it going? Who's that dude with the hole-in-the-chest? Why did they have a chamber full of parasite eggs? What was with the force field over it?2 And yet, loving that mystery, it irritates the hell out of me that they never even mention the whole damn thing ever again after the second movie.

There's another bit of cleverness buried in Alien and, much to James Cameron's credit, in Aliens: see, it's not just that everybody gets preoccupied with other things in those two movies and can't revisit the issue of the derelict ship when the chest-exploding and screaming starts, it's how wonderfully blasé everybody is about it even to start with.

What I mean is: in the first movie, these blue-collar space-refinery workers get dragged out of suspended animation to deal with an unidentified emergency signal, land on a planet with a crashed alien spaceship, go onboard the alien spaceship, see a dead alien, and none of them ever says, "Ohmigod! Aliens! Humanity is not alone!" No, they just poke around as if discovering new extraterrestrial creatures is something that happens all the time. And this gets reinforced in Aliens (and beautifully) by the throwaway dialogue: Private Hudson asking during a briefing, "Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?" (my emphasis) or the whole exchange about how many times Lieutenant Gorman has (or hasn't) been dropped onto strange planets--the implication being that these Colonial Marines (and why else would they even exist?) go around blowing the crap out of extraterrestrials all the time. You don't ever see any other aliens, aside from the titular monsters and the dead space jockey, but you don't have to: the first two movies in the franchise exist in a universe where extraterrestrial life is so ubiquitous that ordinary space workers treat it as commonplace.

It's a nice touch.

And it's ridiculous, then, that this hidden premise gets quietly dropped from the third and fourth films and only comes back in a kind of bastardized version for the Aliens-Versus-Predators movies, which took a cute sight gag from Predator 2 and beat it to death with a shovel. (In a weird and ironic way, what ends up coming across in the AvP movies, which are set in contemporary times, isn't that there are lots of other ETs in the Alien-verse, but that one of the ET species from Alien exists in the Predator-verse. Which seems like it would violate some kind of transitive property and is therefore even more irritating than the absence of other ETs from Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection.) Possibly the strangest and most frustrating thing about the Alien franchise is that the more movies they did, the smaller their whole universe became: we go from a pair of movies where meeting strange and exotic creatures is just in a day's work to a pair of movies where it's just humans and their parasites, and finally to a pair of earthbound monster rallies. Which is just oppressive and depressing when you notice that fact, y'know? How does something so big become so small when you expand it?

As for the cognitive dissonance: I guess I'm saying that I like an epic mystery in one or even two movies, but if you're going to make seven maybe you ought to do something about it.

Which is where we get back to that seventh movie, and why I'm excited by Prometheus in spite of various red flags and alarm bells: the trailers and leaks make it obvious that Ridley Scott is going back to the mystery, one way or another, he's revisiting the third species. The space jockey has shown up in the trailers, the horseshoe-derelict has been shown in flight. And the weird thing is, I don't know how much I really want an answer (contradiction, again, I know); I already feel prepared to disregard whatever Scott has to say about the horseshoe now and write in my own answer (see FN2 if you haven't already, infra). But I like that he's going back to it, I like that it looks like he's trying to make the Alien universe bigger again by pointing and waving and saying, "Look over here! There's this thing! Remember the thing?" That thing, revised and expounded upon, may end up looking pretty stupid, I know. But bless him for pulling it back up after all these movies where face-rape and the worst kind of ectopic pregnancies ever have become as ho-hum as William Hudson's attitude towards meeting new and exotic lifeforms and shooting them to death with powerful futuristic weapons.

"Alien" was always a title that worked for the first movie on multiple levels, as a noun, an adjective; to refer to the parasitic predator, to the deceased inhabitant of the spaceship where the monster was found, to the intimidating moon that spaceship seemed to be beached upon. (Something else I love about the first movie.) There are various lines in the press from Ridley Scott and screenwriter Damon Lindelof to the effect that Prometheus is an Alien prequel that isn't really an "Aliens" movie. Of course I haven't seen it yet, but there's a very real possibility Prometheus is more of an Aliens movie than any of the five sequels with variations upon that word in the title.3

And that's why I'm excited by this film.

1Okay, two things. First, I realize I'm being a little fast-and-loose calling Alien a "first contact" film, as you'll discover in a moment (or already discovered if you waited to read notes until last). Usually, "first contact stories" are "we are not alone" stories, in which humans encounter extraterrestrials for the first time. Which Alien isn't, actually; it's humans encountering kinds of ETs for the first time. Which is technically different. Sorry. I needed to get there from here and that was the road I chose. You can sue me, I'm practically penniless.

Second, I distinguished first contact stories from Lovecraft in that line, but aren't so many of HPL's stories first contact stories when you get right to it? Some of them even more classically so than Alien, though the results of the encounter are at least as bad. "Hey, we met an alien for the first time! And by 'met' I mean we saw its enormous shadow obscure the stars when it loomed over to eat us and I don't know how I escaped because I went insane while it was eating Hodges! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! Yog-Sothoth! Cthulhu fhtagn!"

2I always liked to imagine the horseshoe derelict was the interstellar version of one of those chicken trucks you pass on the highway, transporting consumable delectables from one world to another, only one of the chickens got out and killed the truck driver. So then the space jockeys are the really scary ETs, not counting the unlucky SOB who got killed by what was supposed to be something's dinner.

Alas, I don't think that's where they're going with Prometheus.

3I just have to mention: Scott has said he considers his film and James Cameron's to be canonical and the rest of the Alien films not; of course he might be saying that just because he knows how many fanboy heads would explode if he said Cameron's film was rubbish, besides which he'd be full of shit because Aliens is a fairly good film. But. He's also said he was angry he didn't get asked to do the sequel to Alien, and considering that Aliens was originally a completely unrelated project that Cameron repurposed as an Alien sequel, I think it's pretty certain Scott would have taken a sequel in a very different direction. All of which is why I think it would be very, very funny and awesome if Prometheus turned out to be a gigantic "fuck you" to all of the franchise films, Aliens included, that attempted to "de-canonize" Cameron and everything after via some plot twist or revelation. Because while I love Cameron and think Aliens is a pretty great movie, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a prequel that basically cuts the first movie in a series out and tosses everything later off the side of the ship would be proof Ridley Scott has gigantic balls cast from some rare alloy impervious to all human metallurgical technologies. And whatever Scott's many faults as a filmmaker, I would nevertheless be in awe of any mortal being with cojones like that in his have-to-be custom-fitted trousers.


John Healy Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 2:13:00 PM EDT  

I liked the sad dead pilot on the horse-shoe ship. He implied a much larger, unexplored universe that is the essence of science fiction. He ended up being one of the things I thought about. That seperated 'Alien' from another bug-hunt. Oddly, the other thing I liked was the ship's cat surviving. Not that 'Alien' sucked otherwise. It's that the details matter, and sometimes what is left out is just as important as what gets put in. I'll probably watch 'Prometheus', after 'John Carter', though.

Eric Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 2:33:00 PM EDT  

I liked the sad dead pilot on the horse-shoe ship. He implied a much larger, unexplored universe that is the essence of science fiction.

Exactly! (And damn you for being able to summarize almost my entire too-wordy post in one eloquent sentence!)

John Healy Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 5:11:00 PM EDT  

It was easy. I had just read your post.

Fred Drinkwater Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 12:41:00 AM EDT  

Regarding the Alien universe-of-imagination getting smaller as the number of movies expanded: it occurred to me that it's the cinematic version of the rule about dictatorships: the first dictator is ruthless and competent, his son is merely ruthless, and HIS son is neither.
(BTW I wish I could remember where I first read that - you don't happen to know, do you?)

Regarding the ubiquity of aliens in "Aliens", there's also this nice bit early on:
"Hey Mira, who's Snow White?"
"She's some kind of consultant. Apparently she saw an alien once."
(that last line from Hudson, natch.)

Eric Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 11:09:00 AM EDT  

Fred, I don't recognize the quote, but I like it.

Some friends pointed me to another throwaway line in Aliens that points to a larger, exotic universe:

Frost: Hey, I sure wouldn't mind getting some more of that Arcturian poontang! Remember that time?

Spunkmeyer: Yeah, Frost, but the one that you had was a male!

Frost: It doesn't matter when it's Arcturian, baby!

Which is great stuff. I mean, it's totally a throwaway line that doesn't do anything for the plot and only a little for characterization, and yet it tells you that these people on the screen have lives outside the film you're watching.

Something sorely missing in Prometheus, by the way, where the characters are treated much as Backgammon pieces: largely indistinguishable markers that are shuffled around to wherever it is they're supposed to scream or die or scream-and-die or whatever.

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