Epimetheus on Prometheus

Posted: June 14, 2012 in Film, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Michael Fassbender as David.  David’s not a real boy.

Thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (5 Days Later)

While I avoided reading any actual reviews of the film prior to seeing it, the general tenor of fan response seemed nearly unavoidable online.  People Science fiction fans seemed disappointed to one degree or another, and some were even calling the film terrible.  I tried not to let this affect me.  After all, the bulk of Scott’s work is solid; I trust him more than overzealous, nitpicky fanboys.  Alien and Blade Runner  both remain in my top 20 films (not genre films, films).   The trailer was one of the best I’ve ever seen, and the film’s general concept is awesome (more ancient alien astronaut progenitor movies, please!).  Yet, when I saw it Saturday, as the film closed, I felt a bit underwhelmed.  The ideas, acting, and visuals (3D was actually good?) were all great, but something was off about how I responded to it.  I ventured online to read what people wrote about it and found less indecisiveness there–Prometheus seems to be divisive for viewers, especially genre fans willing to post opinions, and people with strong opinions were sounding off in typical hyperbolic and embarrassing fashion (do note that the film is garnering largely positive, if not overly enthusiastic, reviews from  mainstream media/critics).  The tendency seems to be that one must take a pro or con side in a discussion of a film if the original poster has a strong opinion one way or the other; this usually leads to crappy, uninformative dialogue.

To back up slightly, I watched both Alien and Aliens for like the 20th time on Friday before seeing the film on Saturday.  I also had planned on writing up a response/review on Sunday night but couldn’t because I still wasn’t settled on how I felt about the film (I’m still not entirely and probably won’t be until I see it again).  Finally, I’ve been unable to avoid thinking about Prometheus all week (which is usually a sign that a film is worthwhile and interesting).

I think my initial so-so feeling after seeing the film can be explained in a similar manner to how one might criticize the disappointed and vocal SF and Alien fans scattered around the world wide web.  So here’s some relatively obvious ideas on why many fans were disappointed and some reacted so harshly toward the film.

First, the build-up to the film was so huge and it was so highly anticipated that there’s no way it could live up to the expectations fans had.  There was/is no film I was more excited to see this year.  Anything short of perfect would seem like a failure given how hugely important and awesome Scott’s previous SF work is.

Prometheus is set in the universe of Alien and the sequels, but is a decidedly different kind of film (even if all fall under the banner of SF).  Judging it against these other films is about as unfair as judging the excellent Chronicle next to the also excellent The Avengers.  So, disregarding the weak third and fourth entries into the series, it is worth keeping in mind what the first two actually films are.

Scott’s Alien is, first and foremost, an atmospheric horror film set in space. The film has a compact plot, cast of characters, and worldview; it does not take up many philosophical questions directly.  Aliens, on the other hand, is a James Cameron film.  It is primarily an action/horror film with cartoonish military characters and fun/frightening set-pieces strung together at a relatively rapid pace.  Aliens certainly has more of a critique of politics/military/corporations than its predecessor, but it is not really focused on “deep” questions about humanity.  One might argue that Prometheus actually has more in common with Scott’s Blade Runner than any of the Alien films.  It is an ideas film with a lot of different things going on, and certainly more ambitious than either Scott or Cameron’s entries into this universe (the success as an ideas film is another thing entirely).  Fans expecting a film that was directly in the vein of space-horror or action-horror got moments, for sure, but Prometheus is not primarily those things.

There’s a lot of “missing” exposition, and you have to fill in blanks in Prometheus, which wasn’t really the case with Alien or Aliens. Not that this makes the general plot deep or hard to follow, but character motivations, particularly, aren’t always clear.  This is a 2 hour film that probably will have an additional 30-45 minutes in a director’s cut (I’m with those who would like to see this happen).  This lack of X is one of the main complaints people seem to have–plot holes, lack of character development, lack of explanation, etc.  However, this problem (if it is, indeed, a problem) is common with ambitious, idea-driven films and literature, and it is not entirely a bad thing because it makes you invent and weigh possibilities for the missing elements.  It places the viewer in the role of participant in, and sub-creator of, the fictional world.

Pretty sure this is not a good idea . . . .

There is also a lot of kind of dumb and unbelievable stuff that happens with the crew members.  This is the most egregious problem and reasonable reason for people to criticize Scott.  The biologist playing coochie-coo with an alien life form is one standout example, but the worst is in the scene where a toroid alien spacecraft is (somewhat preposterously) rolling toward two characters and they can’t figure out how to run perpendicular to its path:

Run sideways, you idiots.

These dumb moments are too numerous and make viewers think the script and direction are sloppy (which most other elements of the film argue against).  In Scott’s defense, however, if you rewatch nearly any canonically great science fiction film, and many excellent mainstream films, you’ll see similarly unbelievable moments.

The last major complaint is that the film fails to deliver on its promise of investigating deep philosophical issues . . . that it is a shallow exploration of these themes.  When I read comments of this sort, I’m a bit baffled.  You surely don’t expect to learn the answers to the great questions from a 2 hour film, do you?  What similarly engaged films were so groundbreaking in this way that one might point to them as precedents?  2001? SolarisBlade RunnerThe Fountain?  All of these and more are similarly thought-provoking, and deal with pretty heavy questions, but ultimately they never more than scratch the surface of these issues.

Overall, I think I’m settling into the view that Prometheus is a better-than-average film that bears repeated viewings (and an extended, director’s cut). The acting, settings, effects, etc. are all excellent.  Where the film falters is in those moments of character stupidity and unbelievability that are too frequent.  These are hard to overlook, but they hardly ruin the film.

I intended to do a little more exegesis here, but am short on time  So I will follow up soon with some ideas on how the film works with the myth(s) of Prometheus since I really want to talk about this guy:

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