Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Too many questions: on Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof, aliens, and 'Prometheus'

[Now, any in-depth discussion will probably necessitate a warning of spoilers. You've been properly notified.]

Here's how you enjoy Prometheus: don't ask, "Why?" sit back, and enjoy the gorgeous design of the movie. Because it is gorgeous, and recalls the great design work that marked Alien in so many ways.

The idea of making a prequel to Alien has apparently been kicking around for a while, but it's here now, even though Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof always go out of their way to contend that Prometheus isn't strictly an Alien prequel in promotions and interviews...

...but those last shots should disabuse anyone of the notion that Prometheus is anything but an Alien prequel, even if it is the first in a supposed trilogy of films, layering on even further the questions and the mystery.

Here are the high points from the questions my friends and I proposed after seeing the film:

- How did they find the star cluster "illustrated" in the ancient art? There have to be a nearly infinite number of stars that could look even kind of like that five dot pattern, right?
- How did Prometheus get out to LV-223 that quickly ([some number] * 10^37 kilometers away)?
- What purpose did Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron) serve that prevented her exalted "Weyland daughter" status from getting folded into an actual character? 
- While we're on the subject, why weren't the other two Prometheus bridge crew members, and that woman from Game of Thrones given some real characterization or things to do?
- Why didn't the future punk geologist not use his proprietary mapping technology to find a way out of the pyramid? 
- Who in their right mind wants to pet an alien slime snake?
- Why did David (Michael Fassbender) infect Holloway's (Logan Marshall-Green) drink with the bioweapon sample?
- Why did David want Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to carry her bioweapon/human offspring to term? 
- Actually, why did David do 90% of the things he did?
- Furthermore, why are all androids not named Bishop bad?
- Why did Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) keep his presence on the Prometheus a secret? 
- Couldn't they have found more to do with Captain Janek (Idris Elba) than have him deliver exposition? 
   + Okay, he did a little more. I did appreciate how the film once again upended the overdone "black guy dies first" Hollywood trope and made him the only one who actually died a heroic death, just like Yaphet Kotto in Alien.
- What was that last Engineer doing in stasis? If he was the failsafe for the attack on Earth, why hadn't he left thousands of years ago? If he was trying to avoid the bioweapons and stay alive, why didn't he leave? When he woke up, why did he start going all, "KILL ALL HUMANS!!!" on everyone?
- If an alien spaceship is about to fall on you, and it's shaped like a horseshoe, wouldn't it make more sense to run to the inside or the outside, rather than along the arms?
- Since the end of the movie was so intent on making Prometheus just an Alien prequel, and thus answering many of the implied questions in Alien, how did the xenomorphs get to LV-426, if most of the movie took place on LV-223? How, in thirty or so years, were they able to evolve from the proto-alien into what Ripley fought aboard the Nostromo?

Questions can be good. Movies that challenge you and leave you wondering can be amazingly good. But, when the questions you ask after the movie's over aren't so much about the world beyond the film, or the themes with which the filmmakers challenge you to grapple, but more nuts-and-bolts questions about the, "How?" and, "Why?" of the plot and characters, and they mostly turn out to be unanswerable, that's not so good. Unfortunately, that's kind of a hallmark of the work of the man Ridley Scott handpicked to polish the Prometheus script to their mutual satisfaction: Lost co-creator and co-showrunner Damon Lindelof.

Now, I don't know much of anything about Lindelof's biography, but based on his body of work, it seems like he's a fan of those great films from the late 60s through the 70s like Planet of the Apes, The Stepford Wives, Westworld, The French Connection, Soylent Green, Alien, even Star Wars, and some of their successors in the 80s like Scott's own Blade Runner, The Thing, and Robocop - films where mysteries are a fact of life not just for the characters, but the audience, too. While the audience tags along with the characters as they solve the puzzles that stymie them in the story, the audience is also made to piece together the world their characters inhabit, to process a different and oftentimes alien world that will confuse you even further just when you think you understand it. When executed properly, these interlocking mysteries have a propulsive energy unlike much else in fiction. There's a reason crime fiction sells as well as it does, across all kinds of demographics: most of us aren't ever going to be cops, criminals, or detectives, so we get a lens on this foreign world through popular media, all the while trying to piece together clues.

This is important because Lindelof's mania for mystery reached a fever pitch in Prometheus. Weyland agreed to finance the expedition to LV-223 for mysterious reasons, and sent Ms. Vickers along as his authority on the ship for an unknown purpose. Neither one is illuminated to any kind of satisfaction. David the android has an agenda that both compliments and runs counter to Ms. Vickers', but what that is never gets explained. The question that motivated the entire mission - why did the Engineers come to Earth and create us - gets junked when the expedition site transforms into an altar of death. "Why are we here?" gets its priority overridden by, "Why do you want to kill us?" That'd be a great dramatic shift, if that question ever got answered. It doesn't.

The characters aren't any more forthcoming. We don't know who anybody is, or why they do any of the things they do (except Dr. Shaw, who might be the first character I've ever seen whose motivations are overexplained and muddy simultaneously. She's religious, but she's a scientist, but she has only the worst traits of each), and irrelevant information gets dolled out with about the same level of care as the relevant stuff. Want to know that the geologist's a geologist, even though it doesn't matter? Don't worry, he'll yell it in an exposition dump. Want to know that the black slime alien snake monsters are biological weapons created by the Engineers to wipe all human life off Earth? Don't worry, Idris Elba explains it in an exposition dump. In a series whose two highest points (Alien, Aliens) did superb jobs couching exposition in action and character moments, when it felt like it needed them at all, Prometheus' shoehorning of them into awkward direct addresses is just disheartening.

In the end, nothing that really matters gets explained, and Shaw and David find a new Engineer ship and blast off for parts unknown, looking for answers to new questions that might get answered in the second and third installments of this not-a-prequel/prequel trilogy, assuming those films ever get made. One mystery has been replaced with another, and if Prometheus II: Fire On Olympus (or whatever it's called) can't handle the layering and revealing any better than this film did, it's difficult to imagine wanting to come along with them to find those answers.

Now, Ridley Scott, even though he's often my favorite director, has never really risen above his material. Frequently, that's because he picks such great projects to direct that he doesn't have to. His eye for detail and design can elevate - Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner - enhance - Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster - and compel - Black Hawk Down, The Duellists - but those times that he takes on stinker projects from the get-go (I'm looking at you, Hannibal, Robin Hood, and 1492, today), he can't do anything to salvage them. He comes as close as he ever has with Prometheus, but you can only stare at so many gorgeous, ultimately empty images without think it might've been better if this film had existed as an enormous coffee table art book. We could've enjoyed looking at the visual connections it makes back to Alien without trying to manufacture a plot around them.

Prometheus is a film about the quest for knowledge, both in the movie (Who are the Engineers? Why did they create us?) and for the audience (What can we learn about Alien that we didn't already know?). Aside from firming up the identity of the Jockey, none of the questions it raises get answered. That probably makes it a failure, but at least it's fun to look at, frequently even gorgeous, and features yet another lights-out performance from Michael Fassbender.


PS - Narratives should have satisfying endings. They can make you happy, or sad, or angry, or whatever, but a "conclusion" is called what it's called for a reason. Does Star Wars have a satisfying conclusion? Does Fellowship? Does Terminator? The Godfather? The 400 Blows? What about Prometheus?

PPS - That's not to say audiences need their hands held and to get absolute and total closure on every single point a film raises. We're not crossing into Mass Effect 3 complaint territory, here. But, if in raising a question, a movie shouts, "THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!" to you, it had better answer it to some satisfaction, or at least present you with enough information to allow you to decide for yourself.

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