Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alien Week, part VII: The space odyssey


Fitfully great, and with far more potential than it ever quite pays off upon, Prometheus is ironic in that it's an Alien film that itself suffers from an unwanted xenomorphic impregnation.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
With Michael Fassbender (David), Noomi Rapace (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw), Logan Marshall-Green (Dr. Charlie Holloway), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Idris Elba (Capt. Janek), and Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland)

Spoiler alert: high

The short version is that Prometheus is a prequel to Alien that does not actually care about Alien.  That probably needs to be unpacked, though, because it's at least somewhat hard to imagine the story of a Prometheus that didn't take place inside Alien's universe—whereas it's totally impossible to imagine the look of a Prometheus that didn't, inasmuch as there are but a few memorable visuals to be found in Prometheus that don't owe their existences to the three-decade old work of H.R. Giger and Ron Cobb.

It began, of course, in the usual way: 20th Century Fox had an IP that it wanted to continue to exploit, but they belatedly realized they'd done a poor job of it for years, by pumping out Alien film after Alien film (and Alien vs. Predator film after Alien vs. Predator film) that few liked, and positively nobody respected.  Fox's mercenary approach had already proven itself as a prime factor in James Cameron's bitter retreat from the mostly-notional Alien 5.  Thus the only man left who'd ever made an Alien film of any canonical quality was the very first—Ridley Scott himself.

Yet, initially, Scott had only a very mild interest in coming back, to the point that while he was happy enough to produce, he figured it'd be better to pawn it off upon his directorial protege, Carl Erik Rinsch.  But Fox insisted upon Scott in the director's chair, correctly intuiting that Rinsch was but mediocre.  (Indeed, the saddest thing just happened as I was looking him up—Rinsch doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry.  The link in his name actually just redirects to his only feature, 47 Ronin—dreary, yes, but my goodness!  It wasn't that bad!)  Anyway, faced with Fox's intransigence, Scott could only shrug.  It's strange: his reluctance is hard to imagine five years later, now that the 79 year old director has apparently decided to dedicate the remaining years of his life to a franchise that's perpetually trying and failing to finally eat its own tail.  It's like Scott thinks that if he never quite connects the series back to its beginnings, and his own, then he can't die, either.

What Scott needed, it seems, was an in.  It was screenwriter Jon Spaihts who handed it to him.  Spaihts looked upon the intentional holes left in Alien's backstory, and leapt inside them, only to find even more mysteries within.  The big hook, of course, was the obvious one: just who was the Space Jockey, whose chest-burst corpse squatted like a colossus in the middle of that derelict spaceship on LV-426?  Spaihts worked backwards from there, taking a piece of thirty year-old production design and building a whole mythology to go beneath it.  Meanwhile (and giving us our first hint that this production was in trouble deep), Scott brought the evil Damon Lindelof aboard, for rewrites.  Lindelof took it even further away from Alien, and while this seems eminently reasonable, he tended to do it in the most lazily cosmetic of ways, like changing the name of Prometheus' Death Planet, without doing anything at all to fix the underlying structure of a screenplay that must've originally ended exactly the way you'd think an Alien prequel would—that is, with a room full of xenomorph eggs, waiting for the day when John Hurt would come by to stick his face into one.

But it was enough for Scott, who found his enthusiasm returning in full.  And that's how we finally got the messy, sometimes-extraordinary, sometimes-outright-dreadful Prometheus we did, which spins off its heady tale of human origins, of cosmic gods, and of the moral crisis inherent in the act of creating life.  Indeed, as has become exceedingly clear in light of Prometheus' recent follow-up, what Scott was actually interested in all along was never any prequel to Alien, but a sequel to Blade Runner.  And—more than it has anything else at all—Prometheus has the angry replicant to prove it.

We begin, however, a few geological eras before that, and Prometheus opens with something like a statement of principles: the value of its ideas are in the grotesque beauty and allegorical weight they contain, and it does not care if those ideas are expressed intelligently, or if they are not.  In fairness, we can't yet know this, for what we see is beautiful and weighty and seemingly intelligent—and, certainly, I'd defy anyone to not be thrilled during Prometheus' first few minutes, as an alabaster alien titan strides across a primordial Earth and sacrifices his own body so that a world might be born through him.  And Scott does not (at least so far) let words interfere with his image-intensive mythmaking.

But long after the progenitor walked our Earth, came us; and Prometheus surely has a rather low opinion of its gods' creation—both in and out of the film, in fact, for we'll soon be confronted with what Prometheus thinks of its audience, too.  But, for now, let us meet our most important humans, the coupled archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway.  They've recently made the discovery of a lifetime, by linking a series of cave paintings to those ancient astronauts we saw in the prologue, whom they dub "Engineers."  In short order, they've gotten themselves aboard an intestellar expedition funded by the infinitely-wealthy Charles Bishop Peter Weyland, who no doubt has his own agenda, because Weyland men usually do in these things, though the secret agenda in Prometheus is mostly furthered by a Weyland woman, namely the icy Vickers.  Their goal is to reach the distant star system described in those cave paintings.  Once there, the scientists hope they'll meet their makers.  Minding them as they languish in hypersleep, however, is a man who already has—David, the android.

Upon their arrival, of course, they find naught but an underground ruin, cluttered with the debris of some ancient disaster, including one of the Engineers' severed heads.  But something still lives here, and our android, nursing a subdued resentment toward his masters, is rather curious to see exactly what happens once it gets inside a human body.

Prometheus absolutely has its strengths, and one of them is what a good prequel to Alien it winds up being, in spite of its obvious wish not to be: the fan can easily quibble with some of Arthur Max's production design decisions, particularly the Appling-up of the titular starship (as opposed to the 1970s-vintage CRTs and push-buttons of the Nostromo, which theoretically won't even be built for several more decades); but Prometheus' slicker-looking future technology is a small and inevitable thing in the face of the recreation of a derelict Space Jockey ship, and Giger's creepy-crawly organic design of the same.  (Plus, the Engineers themselves are an excellent original creation, with just the right look: an imposing inscrutability that can seamlessly transition to their true aspect, one of vicious, angry cruelty.)  All along, Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski capture the humid, dripping, spooky-gross atmosphere of Prometheus' otherwordly haunted house at least as well as Alien did, the first time around.  Throw in a touch of genuine, sci-fi awe—along with a heaping helping of thematic heft—and we had the makings of something amazing here.

And its thematic heft can't be so easily denied.  Prometheus is all about how a creator's flaws get passed on to their creations; honestly, it ought to be a terrifically depressing movie, in that it basically argues that progress is all but impossible, and that existence is inherently disgusting, bounded, and worthless.  And so the Engineers (whom Shaw practically already worships as gods, and whom the hidden Weyland clearly considers his personal saviors) turn out to be monstrous and spiteful; the humans they made, of course, prove no better, except smaller, weaker, and stupider; finally, there is the third generation, represented by David, and there's nothing better in Prometheus than David, as given life by a Michael Fassbender performance that brings out the real nuance that may or may not have actually been in Spaiht's and Lindelof's script.  David is an agent of chaos in Prometheus, so bored and uninspired by his creators that he leads them to ruin, apparently just to see if he can; and Prometheus is a much better movie if you pretend (recognize?) that he's the hero, or at least the protagonist, rather than the dull (and oddly-indestructible) Shaw, who appears to be here mostly because the plot needs her to be, and because Alien movies are, traditionally, supposed to have female leads.

But then, one of the big reasons it's so incredibly easy to relate to David is that he's the only being in the entire movie whose inner life is actually interesting.  (Curiously enough, he's the only one for whom the thrill of discovery ever seems proportional, motivated, affecting, or even simply honest.)  Not to put too fine a point on it, but he's also almost the only being in Prometheus who isn't just outright obnoxious.

Some of the problems are in the performances, true; Noomi Rapace has, to my knowledge, never been entirely good in any role, and she certainly doesn't have what it takes to redeem Shaw, who is more of a list of symbolically-laden character traits (religious yet fundamentally truthseeking; fascinated with the origins of humankind, yet reproductively barren personally; etc.) than an actual character, per se.  As we move down the cast list, it only gets worse, and now we have to concede that it is mostly the script, which is awful at doing anything other than being a mere vehicle for carrying Prometheus' aforementioned thematic heft.  (Even so, the only member of the ensemble operating remotely on Fassbender's rarefied level is Charlize Theron, giving a perfectly archetypal corporate bitch in the form of Vickers.  And even she still flushes it down the toilet toward the end, with a read of the word "father"—surprise! this movie about creation has daddy issues—that would be more accurately transliterated "faaather," and wouldn't be out of place on a bad soap opera.)

In fact, that screenplay is often just plain insulting.  I said, a while back, that Alien was Scott's answer to the question "What if 2001 were a B-movie?"  Prometheus is his answer churned out in essay form: from its insane ignorance of biology (the ten-foot-tall Engineers are "perfect genetic matches" for humans?) down to its abyssally stupid supporting characters (like the scientist who pokes at an alien vagina-penis monster until it finally kills him), Prometheus just piles its many annoyances upon you.  The worst thing about it is that it didn't even need to; there were ways around all of this.  Easy ways, even.

What it did need to do, however, you almost wish it didn't.  This was to somehow, however vaguely, tie this into Alien, which Scott evidently decided to do by having his screenwriters devise the single most nonsensical life cycle for the xenomorphs yet (in a film franchise, mind you, that has only even come close to making sense out of its extraterrestrials that one time).  It's a double-edged sword—after all, the most appealing moments of Prometheus do indeed come directly out of its moronic impulse to locate the genesis of the xenomorphs within a pool of black oil.  (I mean, who could possibly want to get rid of Prometheus' masterful gore centerpiece, Shaw's awesomely-disgusting self-caesarean?)  There's even something to be said about the basic idea presented here—of a (bio)technology indistinguishable from magic.  But Scott lets it get away from him, and so do his screenwriters, who explain that magic away, establishing that it's just another biological superweapon, rather than the ink with which the Engineers write their names in the Book of Life.

Moreover, it just becomes obnoxiously hard to square the arbitrary endpoint of a xenomorph with each weird intermediary stage seen here.  Prometheus fans have made fucking wallcharts—but let's be honest, they don't help.  You wonder, vainly, "What could Prometheus have been, if it didn't have to be Alien Zero?"  It would no doubt still be rather willfully dense, insofar as that seems baked into the Spaihts/Lindelof cake; it would probably still give the faintest impression of a film that, itself, doesn't know why or how the Engineers do what they do (and it is here that any comparison to 2001 falls completely apart, no matter how nearly-identical their basic plots are).  Regardless, you can be certain it would've been a neater experience.

Still, the good in it remains: the mood Scott conjures, of eons-old mystery; the impressive body horror his special effects artists dream up; the pitch-perfect performance Fassbender delivers for the all-too-imperfect creation at the center of it all.  Prometheus is a movie that I wind up objecting to, early, often, and vocally, every damned time I see it; but I have seen it three times now, and there's little doubt that, yes, I'll see it again, even if—speaking frankly—it kind of pisses me off.

Score:  7/10

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