Prometheus Bashing & New Frontiers in Sci-fi

It’s a few weeks since I saw (and enjoyed) Prometheus. Normally, if I was going to review a film, I’d do so quite quickly having had the opportunity to see it early, but in this case I really needed some time to mull over the film. Besides, this really isn’t a review at all, more a discussion of the general trend of existing reviews and Prometheus’ ambitious attempt to broach one of life’s big questions: how did we get here?

Plot Problems
Reviews have been mixed, but there has been an awful lot of ‘Prometheus bashing’ going on; a lot of disappointed Ridley Scott fans who’d gone in with very high expectations. Take this, from a review by Ben Peek (no relation) as an example:

“The problems of your film [Ridley Scott] are many: your characterisation is flawed, your science is bad, your internal plot mechanics make no sense, and there is absolutely no sense of pace or tension within the film at all. In truth – and I won’t lie here – your film is completely and utterly unredeemable, from start to finish…”(http://benpeek.livejournal.com/874712.html?view=6869720).

The negativity of this review is not uncommon amongst those I’ve read and, although I don’t find this level of disappointment surprising, for reasons I will discuss later, I do think it is a little unfair. Of course, many reviews also focus on unfavourable comparisons with Alien and Blade Runner; such comparisons are inevitable.

Certainly, there are points at which Prometheus suffers from internal confusion and disorganization. In fact, I agree with many of the specifics of what Ben Peek has said in his review; similar things irritated me. For example, it annoyed me when Shaw leapt off the automatic-operating table after major abdominal surgery and, apart from a few staggers and occasional stomach clutching, proceeds to run and jump around like someone with fully intact abdominal musculature. I guess it is supposed to be a very advanced operating table, but still…

Likewise, I’m always frustrated when people do dumb things in movies, such as remove their protective headgear, bring alien specimens on board for closer examination, touch things that look menacing and, well, like they shouldn’t be touched, or go off alone in dark, narrow confines in search of the alien responsible for killing teammates. But this is part and parcel of the genre and as true of Alien as it is of Prometheus. These plot devices are required to build tension, apprehension and fear in the audience.

I certainly agree that Elizabeth Shaw’s creationist views do not sit well within this particular plot and the theme of ‘where we came from’ is rather confused and underdeveloped within the film. Clearly, unanswered questions create room for another film in which perhaps this theme is to be further developed. It’s an ambitious theme though, since an attempt to resolve it one way or the other will likely result in half the audience finding themselves alienated (no pun intended) and unwilling to suspend disbelief any further.

Comparisons & Philosophies
Philosophical themes dealing with ethical issues, such as how we should treat clones, ‘replicants’, robots and alien life forms are, in some respects, easier to address in film than those that deal with questions about the origin of life or how we got here. Blade Runner addresses the former so successfully and with such exquisite sensitivity, that Prometheus’ attempt at the latter does seem clumsy and incomplete by comparison. But it should be remembered when making such comparisons that, within the sci-fi genre, these films aim at a different kind of audience response and broach different types of questions about life. Blade Runner explicitly deals with the concept of what it means to be human (in relevant experiential and ethical respects), while Prometheus sets out to explore possible origins of humanity – a much more ambitious undertaking. Alien does not attempt any big philosophical questions. There is no more than some brief disagreement and debate over how quarantine issues should be dealt with (though certainly this is more elegantly done than the sudden appearance of an overacting Charlize Theron with a flame thrower in Prometheus). I guess we will see if subsequent films in this franchise are able to do anything interesting with the creationism vs Darwinism subtext. If, across subsequent film(s) Scott can navigate this tricky territory with the kind of delicate artistry shown in Blade Runner, then hats off to him, but I suspect, for the reasons given above, that this may be over ambitious and, with Prometheus, he is not off to a good start from the perspective of philosophical interest.

So, with respect to comparisons, it’s certainly true that Prometheus doesn’t have the beauty and depth of Blade Runner, but perhaps we shouldn’t make this comparison if the films have different agendas, as indeed Blade Runner and Alien do. Scott has a varied filmmaking background, which includes films as diverse as Gladiator and A Good Year (incidentally, I love the latter, a very sweet film). Not all of his efforts are noteworthy and it would be of little value to compare certain Scott films with others in very different genres. It must be difficult to have produced such good work thirty years ago that all subsequent efforts, especially those in related genres, are held up against it. Ultimately, I don’t think comparisons with Blade Runner are entirely fair to Prometheus but, given that both films are within the sci-fi genre, Scott does invite comparisons by attempting to address big philosophical questions in Prometheus and failing to do so with the sophistication shown in Blade Runner.

Comparisons with Alien are entirely warranted of course, with most making the claim that Alien is a much ‘tighter’, more coherent film. In most respects, however, I think Prometheus stands up quite well as a prequel to Alien. Alien also has certain (albeit minor) flaws, moments of confusion, things left unexplained (how could there not be!) and obvious ‘surprises’ we all saw coming: we knew certain characters were creeping towards their death, we knew the alien was going to turn up on the escape vessel, etc. However, I suggest that we have all became so familiar with the film that it’s coherence has appeared to increase over time.

But surely we would have noticed any such problems when we first saw the film, as many have with Prometheus? Not necessarily. I think the impact of Alien at the time it was released should be borne in mind. It was a time when sci-fi, space travel & aliens were the new frontier in film and tv and no-one had ever seen, and most never imagined, anything like what they were seeing on screen before. This kind of impact can be so absorbing that minor flaws are easily ignored. Prometheus, as a prequel working with the same concepts we’ve now seen for decades, could never have this same impact on audiences familiar with the past thirty-something years of film in this genre. Really, what were people expecting?

Prequels & New Frontiers in Science Fiction Film
As Star Wars fans know only too well – prequels made after we have grown up with the originals are highly problematic. For one thing, we miss the likes of Harrison Ford or Sigourney Weaver. True, Prometheus has some excellent performances from fine actors (the Star Wars prequels had some fine actors, but perhaps not such good performances). In Prometheus, Rapace and Fassbender are excellent; Rapace’s character, Shaw, is meant to represent humanity (apparently we’re quite irrational), while Fassbender as David is the robotic foil, lacking human characteristics such as empathy and compassion. The fact that the other characters are less well rounded is relatively unimportant, since we know most, if not all, will die anyway. What I do think is often missing from modern films is the kind of slightly cynical, somewhat worn down by life, flawed in all too human ways with room to grow and improve as people, characters that Ford and Weaver are so good at playing. A chain smoking Sigourney Weaver saved Avatar by being the only recognizable human being. Harrison Ford’s ability to play realistically flawed but ultimately compassionate characters with a cynical dry humour (Star Wars) or jaded loneliness (Blade Runner), provided a critical foil for the pure idealists, evil zealots and non-humans in these films. Many more recent sci-fi films lack this realistic portrayal of human nature. In Prometheus, Rapace as Shaw is supposed to represent [pure/the best of?] humanity. But apart from her irrational attempts to reconcile her religious beliefs with her scientific background and findings and her distress over her infertility, Shaw lacks those human flaws we can really relate to. She’s just a bit too idealistic, too brave, too physically fit and strong in the wake of major surgery to be entirely believable. We need a character we can relate to to take us into the unfamiliar frontiers of science fiction; to help us suspend our disbelief so that we might imagine ourselves there. I wasn’t able to fully suspend disbelief in Prometheus and fully engage in its imaginary world.

However, it isn’t all bad news by any means. Prometheus isn’t all obvious computer generated effects. Though, for me, it doesn’t quite reach some of the moments of beauty from the aforementioned earlier sci-fi films, it is visually impressive and the effects are wonderful. Prometheus was engrossing, captivating even, in parts. I disagree with critics who’ve said that the film lacks dramatic tension or pace; it held my interest very well and it was only afterwards that many of the flaws occurred to me.

It’s a great pity about the flaws, but I feel that too many viewers went in expecting something groundbreaking. I’m not sure that this is a reasonable expectation for a prequel. For groundbreaking we need a new concept, such as those that characterized the sci-fi films we still so dearly love from the late 70s/early 80s (perhaps the heyday of science fiction film?). Watching Blade Runner, or the original Star Wars films now, one wonders: ‘Where’s the skyway’? ‘Why aren’t we planet-hopping yet?’ ‘Dude, where’s my spaceship? … It’s 2012!’ I can’t help wondering if to some extent we’ve stopped believing in the amazing visions of the future that filmmakers, authors and audiences were imagining thirty-odd years ago, because they don’t seem to be materializing. In fact, while certain technologies, largely those in communications, are advancing beyond what we might have foreseen, others relating to space travel, genetic engineering and robotics, seem to be moving at snail’s pace. Have we given up on them a bit? I think we have and that this is reflected in sci-fi film. Where are the new imaginary concepts, technologies, frontiers & landscapes that blew our minds in the late 70s-early 80s? It’s a shame that fine filmmakers are spending time and money making prequels that are no better – arguably, in some cases worse – than the originals, rather than exploring new frontiers, concepts and imaginary worlds. It’s especially sad that the likely reason for this is nothing more than guaranteed profit margins.

Prometheus is a good film. I enjoyed it and will watch it again. But I sense that a generation or two of sci-fi fans are hanging out for something groundbreaking; something to make us feel the way we felt growing up watching the original Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, etc. We’re waiting for a new vision of the future. Prometheus isn’t it. As a prequel, it was never going to be.