Festive Films 9 – Prometheus

There isn’t much mystery to Alfred Hitchcock, As naked exhibitionists of the inner self through one’s work go, only John Norman, author of the astonishing-but-not-in-a-good-way Gor series, comes close to Hitch I reckon. They are amazing, the Gor books. Slave porn disguised as fantasy they are written nonetheless in such a mimsy, short of breath way that arousal, even if the text wasn’t so ethically troubling, would be borderline impossible. 

Norman can refer, for example, to a woman being hit (and there’s a lot of woman-hitting going on) ” just below the small of her back”. Run that phrase through your brain a couple of times and you realise that there is a much shorter way of describing the area of the body which is just below the small of the back, and the action of hitting it. Much shorter indeed. Maybe he was getting paid by the word. Certainly if he was getting paid by the idea then his bank manager would have been calling him in for a chat.

Maybe they just don’t have a word for “spank” on Gor.

Anyway, despite Hitchcock’s clarity of motivation and identity in all other spheres of his work, it is still completely mysterious why in the name of God’s blue thunder knob he chose to set Psycho round about Christmas time. Every December I remember this and I dig out Psycho for another watch, and it’s always great but I never get close to an answer. There’s the caption right at the start of the film: Friday December the Eleventh. It never gets mentioned again. Nobody talks about it. There are no Christmas trappings in evidence. Why, Psycho, why? Maybe it’s Hitch’s Christmas ghost story. Or maybe it’s just because he was a big, fat, awkward blancmange of polymorphous perversity who liked to make people uncomfortable.

That’s often the answer to Hitchcock questions, I find.

Still though Psycho is a good one to have in the bag for when people ask what your favourite Christmas movie is. And it’s certainly a lot less emotionally harmful than, say, Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday or, as doctors call it, The Pancrea-tiser.

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Friday, December the Eleventh: Psycho time

A brand new addition to the Christmas panoply is, I am delighted to find, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, his festive prequel to Alien.

Now. I like Alien. I like it a great deal.

When it was released in 1979 it was successful, but I seem to remember it wasn’t particularly favourably reviewed. There were specific complaints that it was just a haunted house movie in space, or an uncredited remake of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space (beyond space being, in this instance, Mars).

Looking back now, this is inconceivable. There is so much in Alien that it’s hard to know where to start talking about it. Firstly, in reaction to the explicit criticisms of its structure, I really like the stripped down Ten Little Indians format. It’s involving, and the character acting is such that I consistently become quite affected by the deaths.

In addition to this though there is a ton of uncompromising stuff in there about the physicality of sex and birth, and about how relationships between parents and offspring work. It’s a fiercely unsentimental film, and that exposition of what life actually is once you take off the recently-acquired evolutionary doilies of self-consciousness, morality and rationalised emotion, that was not the common currency of cinema at the time. It still isn’t really.

Thirdly, and this is the bit I like best, Alien is a witheringly political look at the inefficacy and lack of justice inherent in a profit-oriented work environment. From Parker and Brett’s disgruntled engineers up to Dallas’s compromised captaincy, that horrifying capitalist stratification is played beautifully. And it’s deeply encouraging to the small S socialist in me to witness the way the ranking system dismantles itself under threat and the professionals start working together as people. It’s a film which is less nihilistic than a lot of people assume. It is ultimately quite generous in its depiction of the human species.

There have been sequels. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is as good a movie follow-up as has ever been made. A dramatic inversion of the first film it makes humans the invading force and inciters of the action. It brings the parental theme of the first film to the fore, making it more specific and offering explicit statements about motherhood. You would need someone less unsalvageably blokey than me to tell you how successful these statements are, but what I can do is vouch for the peerless-ness of the action sequences.

Cameron’s forte lies in  making films of utter mechanical majesty. He is less good with the kissing and cuddling. This is why the sinky bit of Titanic is better than the dancey bit, and why the whole of Terminator 2 is endlessly re-watchable and the domestic banter of True Lies isn’t.

David Fincher’s Alien3 (1993) secured a less enthusiastic audience than the first two films, but I found its astringent monasticism to my taste. More so certainly than the fancifulness of Alien Resurrection (1997) which might just about cut it mustard-wise as a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, but as Alien 4 is frankly unacceptable.

In brackets I should mention that there are also two Alien Versus Predator films. The first one is marginally less catastrophic than the second. Prometheus (thank God) renders both of these non-canonical. We can move on. There is nothing to see here. Literally nothing to see in fact in the case of AvP: Requiem which, for ninety interminable fucking minutes, consists of little other than badly rendered CGI monsters fighting each other in a swimming pool in a power cut. I’ve eaten salads that have more narrative complexity than that.

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The news that Ridley Scott was making a prequel to Alien was not met with uncomplicated delight, in my head at least. He is, for me, a problematic director. I think, up until now, he has only really made two good films: Alien, which is beyond good, and Blade Runner which is great, but completely broken at story level. It’s almost like we’re following the wrong characters for most of the duration of Blade Runner. It would make much more sense if the central characters were Eldon Tyrell and J. F. Sebastian, and the Deckard/Batty/Rachael thing was a sub-plot. Yes? No? Just me then.

These two bon fide marvels aside, what actually is Scott’s career? Legend, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator have their fans. (Not me.) I quite like Kingdom Of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and Body Of Lies.

But: White Squall, GI Jane, Black Rain, Someone To Watch Over Me, 1492, Hannibal? Really?

A Good Fucking Year? Robin Fucking Hood? Really really?

(And sorry completists, but I haven’t seen The Duellists or Matchstick Men. I know. What am I like?)

So love of Alien and qualms about Ridley’s choices abounded, but there was also in my recent memory a deplorable example of how badly a well-intentioned prequel can misfire. People other than me have written well about Matthijs van Heijningen’s precursor to The Thing, also stupidly called The Thing, and how its wretched digital haecceity should be clicked and dragged to a huge Trash icon in the middle of the Antarctic.

Here for instance is m’good friend Andygeddon’s blog on the subject: http://andygeddon.com/2011/11/13/the-thing-2011usa/

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), itself a remake of a 1951 film, was a master class in siege narrative. A brilliant, layered, litotes-infused depiction of paranoia and lethal trust failure.

Van Heijningen’s prequel however is a lamentable fannish misfire, so concerned with ploddingly joining the pre-existing dots in numerical order that it completely neglects to bring anything new to the party. Christ, it doesn’t even bring most of the old stuff. And because the end of the film is, by its own definition, the start of Carpenter’s film there is literally no surprise. It’s the grim cinematic equivalent of watching someone who isn’t very good at Sudoku puzzles doing a Sudoku puzzle.

Ridley Scott’s decision to revisit a past triumph is not completely unprecedented in science fiction. As they reached their later years novelists Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both started to reconfigure their work into vast, self-contained units. Heinlein had a head start as a lot of his stuff was written as a consistent future history, but even he had to introduce dimension-hopping immortal characters to make it work. His later stuff is quite hard to read. It’s a melancholy, quixotic spectacle, a writer gleefully including himself as a character in his own stories. And there was a burgeoning fixation on breasts too which was a little uncomfortable to be in the same room as. Number Of The Beast (1980) is a 512 page book 509 of which seem to be about nipples.

Isaac Asimov cheated a bit in his oeuvre-consolidation by using the time travelly men from The End Of Eternity to jam together a number of series which were quite all right by themselves but which buckled when forced into close proximity.

So in summary the auspices for Prometheus were not good: Scott’s own debatable career, the lack of wisdom inherent in the process of prequelising in the first place, and the tragic precedent of aging authors revisiting the scenes of past triumphs.

And yet, and yet, and yet… The trailers looked so cool. The cast was full of proper actoring people.

Then it opened a few days ago and, despite my best efforts to avoid reviews, I began to become aware that people were disappointed. Star ratings were posted where I could see them. Critics ignobly stampeded over each other, competing to be the first to deride in sneer-o-vision.

I heard someone use the word “Meh”.

I hate “Meh”. It’s completely fucking meaningless. It’s a definition-free word for people who have VERY IMPORTANT disdain to share but who lack the necessary articulacy. “Fuck language,” they presumably think, “With all its fancy words and shit. I’ma use me a phoneme to impart my VERY IMPORTANT opinion.”

Fuck.

Anyway, I went to see Prometheus in 3D today. 4D if you include time.

It was very good.

I’m going back to see it in 2D on Tuesday and I am right looking forward to it.

The negativity I am hearing (and yes, I did mean to use the present continuous there – it’s rhetorical see) is completely confounding.

What has happened is this, I think. A significantly large bunch of professionally paid film critics have become complete idiots. They have taken to reviewing their expectations of a film rather than the actual film itself. This is less damaging to a movie like The Avengers (or Avembers Assengle as it is known in the UK) where earlier films have provided enough momentum to squash the point-missing critics, but it’s instant death to films that are opening cold like, say, John Carter.

I liked John Carter. I wouldn’t make claims for any abiding artistry or anything, but it was a pleasant callback to the blockbusters of my early adulthood: Conan, Dune, Flash Gordon, Superman, that kind of thing.

But it got completely, mercilessly kicked to bits before it opened to the public, and it never stood a chance after that. Some critics, like Mark Kermode, are still jumping on the pieces. This is quite sad. Most folk I know who have seen John Carter think it’s OK. Not a happy-ending massage from Victoria Coren in a platinum bikini perhaps, but definitely a step up from shooting political dissidents in a football stadium, which is where a lot of reviewers went with it.

This “I can snark snarkier than you” attitude is quite tiring.

Whilst the critics are busy with their meh-ing what is happening in Prometheus is this:

Archaeologists at the end of the 21st century have interpreted prehistoric images from around the globe as depictions of pre-civilisation alien visitations. Perhaps more than just visitations. The inference drawn is that these visitors created humankind. They are dubbed the Engineers. There are enough astronomical data in the carvings to pinpoint where in the cosmos the Engineers came from. A ship is crewed and the crew dispatched to see what they can see.

There is obviously an element of inevitability to the film’s denouement because it has been sold as a prequel to Alien and we know where Alien starts.

Where Prometheus scores highly in comparison to the The Thing prequel is that the inevitable points are reached quite surprisingly. The planet the ship arrives at, for example, is not evidently the planet in Alien, though aspects of it start to look familiar quite quickly. The last fifteen minutes, in which loose ends start getting tied up with some celerity, are emotionally very compelling. I had my hand over my mouth and had to sit and gather myself as the credits rolled. I was the only one though.

The rest of the audience (couple of dozen of them that there were) scarpered as soon as the credits started. They didn’t seem particularly taken with it.

What were they expecting exactly?

The original Alien is 33 years old now, fifty percent further away from us in time than It! The Terror From Beyond Space was from it. If you see what I mean. Cinema has moved on and expectations of plot and spectacle are different now I guess. But I am bewildered by the nay-sayers. To my mind Scott has turned in a thematically consistent, visually beautiful, thought-provoking companion piece. Am I missing something that other people are seeing? Am I seeing something that isn’t there?

Here is what I liked about Prometheus.

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SPOILER ALERT! That man from Loofah wears a hat in some scenes in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! Sean Harris has got some sort of funny hairdo or something in Prometheus!

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SPOILER ALERT! The man from Shadow Line wears some sort of space glasses in Prometheus!

Scott is a thoughtful director and he is working with a very competent script. This is not a simple story about conflicting forces. It is a film whose principal concern is one of ontological enquiry.

One of the themes of the film, made clear in the title, is that the exercise of curiosity is an irresistible urge in us, but that the obtaining of knowledge comes at a price. The knowledge the characters are seeking relates to the origin of mankind with a view to shedding light, stolen light, on our place in the universe and our purpose.

If we have one.

This compulsion to dig deeper and to understand more about our creation, regardless of all negative consequences, is contrasted with the glibness with which we humans treat our own creations. The central antagonist in the film is not, uniquely for an Alien movie, a rampaging xenomorph. It is David the robot who catalyses the events of the second half of the film. With his inclusion in the dramatis personae we now have three layers of parenthood: the Engineers who made humanity who, in turn, made David.

Much drama is eked from the relationships between parents and their children, harking back to the original Alien’s unspoken suggestion that parents and offspring are, ultimately, in opposition to one another.

The passing of old orders is very much in evidence in the film too, and at least one character is motivated to find the Engineers as a bid for apparent immortality. The possibility of an afterlife is debated on a few occasions also.

It is possible that these themes are what attracted Ridley Scott artistically to the project, and he does seem infinitely more engaged with Prometheus than he did with, say, Robin Hood. But I’m just guessing. They are certainly the concerns of a man in his later years: mortality, legacy, usefulness, achievement. What might come next, if anything.

The confronting of the issues is not half-hearted either. There is an admirable bluntness to the answer of what happens after you die.

“There’s nothing,” exclaims one character on the very brink of extinction.

“I know,” consoles David the robot who is uniquely placed to, in fact, know. It’s like the desolation of the end of Ken Russell’s sublime Altered States when William Hurt’s character returns from a hallucinogenic trip down through his own molecular structure only to announce that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.

Even that isn’t the end of it though, and Prometheus finishes with the start of a spiritual quest, taking the end of everything we know as its first step.

This is a Christmas movie in a way that seems quite purposeful. If it is mere set dressing then it is highly weird set dressing. It is referenced specifically several times in the dialogue, and visually in the literal Christmas tree they have on the ship. The topology of the tree is even reflected in the constantly developing green Pyramid Scan that the ship’s crew run as they map what they find. Does this festive trappery mean anything?

The Christmas thing is about the bestowal of gifts I think. Life is, initially at least, that which we are given and, however vigorously we pursue an explanation of its cause and intention, it is just life. As with our Christmas presents, how much we like it, and what we do with it is entirely up to us.

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VUE Cinema extra features included: Wallet-damaging personal expense; an overwhelming sense of existential dread; compulsory commentary from the ten year old boy sitting next to me. He made pretty heavy weather of the chocolate he was eating too, though in fairness to the lad that may all have been part of the 3D experience. He was eating a colossal Toblerone which is the least two dimensional chocolate known to man.

In related Doctor Who news: The female protagonist played by Noomi Rapace is called Liz Shaw.

Imagine that. Liz Shaw.

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3 comments on “Festive Films 9 – Prometheus

    • Thanks Michelle. I held back quite a lot about the film, just in case. It is not exactly Salmon Fishing On LV-223. In fact it is, more than most straightforward horror films, quite scary.

  1. Just ran across your post 2 years late. I had a different take on the Christmas aspect. In the film they seem to imply (or maybe directly mention, I don’t recall exactly) that something happened about 2,000 years ago that made the Engineers seriously pissed off at us humans and they decided to basically destroy us. That never came about because of what transpired on LV-223. I thought it was no coincidence that there are several mentions of Christmas in the film, especially considering this information. Maybe the crucifixion of Christ disgusted them so severely that they decided humans were the equivalent of intergalactic pond scum that needed to be eliminated from the universe? Just a thought.

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