Saturday, June 9, 2012

Prometheus; or, The Modern Prometheus; or, Who Are These Idiots?

I was planning on rebooting my blog, which I've not touched in two years, with a clever piece about the overuse of the term "reboot."  But Ridley Scott won't let me keep my mouth shut.  It's opening weekend.  I just saw Prometheus in IMAX 3D.  I can't keep quiet.

So, yeah, it looks cool.  It's well designed.  It's scary at times.  It's got what is easily the best automated abdominal surgery scene in film history.  Big whoop.  I didn't like it.  I have problems.  Spoiler alert.

This will not be an Alien easter egg hunt.  Although the Alien fan in me wanted more prequel satisfaction than I got, that's immaterial.  Prometheus isn't a prequel to Alien; it's a prequel to a prequel.  Fine.  I won't judge Prometheus based on that criterion of hopeful fandom.  It's its own movie, for better or worse, and I'll engage it as such.  I won't even talk about how the first 45 minutes is a near carbon-copy of the utterly mediocre Alien Versus Predator.  Nope, I'll just talk about what's not working here.  Now, where to start, then?  How about 200 years ago?

Since Mary Shelley brought us Frankenstein (subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," mind you) in 1818 (!), one of the central tenets of science fiction has been the wayward scientist.  How often have we seen it in films?  The scientist(s) either makes a misstep or miscalculation, practices science unethically, is exploited by a more sinister overseer, is evil him/herself or, in the case of Frankenstein, simply overreaches in the pursuit of knowledge.  No matter the motivation, calamity ensues.  We know the drill.  The last version of the scientist gone awry -- the overreacher -- is perhaps the most poetic and dramatic in nature, by virtue of the fact that it is the most morally ambiguous.  Shelley's Victor Frankenstein is a virtuous, brilliant man, who quests -- perhaps egotistically -- in search of knowledge for knowledge's sake.  There is a secret of life, and his intellect demands that he find it.  In doing so, he engages in practices which, while some might call abhorrent, are not evil, and do no direct harm to Victor's fellow man.  The result of his labors, however, is so instantly horrifying to him that he snaps to his senses and tries, in vain, to turn his back on his work.  He spends most of the novel either consciously avoiding or reluctantly confronting the repercussions of -- depending on how you look at it -- his error, or egotism, or lapse in ethics, or moral inferiority... whatever you want to call it.  Students, theologians, and literary critics have debated how to read Victor for nearly 200 years because Shelley gave us a rich, layered text from which we can draw.  We can all agree that Victor is a genius... it's where his genius leads him that we find inner and outer conflict.  That's drama, kids.  That's good writing.

Compare this, then, to the dilemma of the f*%#ing idiotic protagonists in Prometheus.  I feel for Victor Frankenstein because I respect him.  But these dunces are so unforgivably illogical, unrealistic, and one-dimensional as to be totally uncompelling.  Look, I get it: it's a slimy monster flick dressed up as a slick space opera.  As a devout fan of Alien, I am more than ok with that.  That doesn't mean our standards for dramaturgy have to drop.  These characters shouldn't be mere fodder for fangs and claws; this isn't a straight-to-video mutant horror film.  We should be "with" them, not merely observers of their demise.  And yet, I call "bulls#!%" at nearly every decision by the professional scientists in this film.  Don't say, "What's the big deal; you're nitpicking."  In another film, this might be quibbling over minor points, but not here.  "Don't go in there... He's right behind you... Turn the light on," etc. is for midnight grindhouse fare, not for a film by the man who made Alien, Blade Runner, and The Duellists.  In a sweeping, major motion picture that is so fundamentally about scientific research itself -- about the big questions of our origins and existence -- yes, I will take major umbrage with the scientific method, or lack thereof, onscreen.

The film lost me in one instant fairly early on and never got me back.  Here we are: we were right, we've arrived on this distant planet, we have made the most important discovery in recorded science, we are standing in the ruined halls of our extra-terrestrial progenitors.  What's our next move?  Let's celebrate by taking off our helmets.  WHAT?  Excuse me?  But the air is breathable, you say?  So what!  Keep your f*%#ing helmet on, you assholes.  You're scientists.  No one, not even the nerdy biologist, says so much as, "But we don't know what kind of contaminants might be in the air."  The most we get is a muffled, "That's not a good idea," or something to that effect, from the non-scientists back on the ship.  I see this not only as a mistake made by the characters for which there'll be hell to pay; I see it as a lapse in judgment on the part of the filmmakers, mostly because there's no reason for this action.  It's not the catalyst needed to get the biological terror unfolding (that happens through other means), so it serves no purpose other than to make me think that these chaps are borderline retarded.  But what's the value in making me think that of these characters?  Remember: I care about Victor Frankenstein because I respect him.  These people, I don't even buy as being remotely sensible.  For a film that asks such philosophical questions -- "who created us" and, more importantly, "WHY" -- I am left wondering the same on this point.  WHY would you even want to take off your helmets?  They weren't a hindrance.  There was no macho pissing contest to impress a lady.  Our handsome young archaeologist just does it, and everyone follows.  Even the crude and comparatively uneducated grunts in Aliens have a better sense of protocol than these supposed egg-heads.

This scene is soon followed by some character development I just don't buy.  Scientists numbers 3 and 4 -- our nerdy biologist (skeptical, but excited to be there) and punk-rock geologist (sociopathic, in it for the money) -- very suddenly and inexplicably get spooked and decide to head back to the ship.  Apart from a holographic playback of ET's running the now peaceful corridors, and the petrified remains of one such dude, there's been no cause for alarm, and yet these two guys decide: "Most important discovery of ALL TIME?  No thanks, we'll split.  Mummy's curse, or something like that."  Even if I bought their unlikely superstition, their convenient separation from the group is implausible.  They get lost and stranded underground, despite the fact that Mr. Ian Curtis Geologist is the expert on the mapping hardware.  They're isolated by the script solely for the purpose of delivering a horror scene later on, in which they're attacked by a starship cobrasnake dildo monster.  Dr. Nerdster Pointdexter, previously such a coward that he walked away from a monumentally historic expedition when faced with no perceivable threat whatsoever, is now happy to make puppy-love cooing sounds and reach out to touch a hissing and self-evidently hostile alien organism.  BULL... S#!%.  We call that bad writing.

In order to get me to buy illogical character actions, you have to convince me that the characters are not in their right mind(s), that they are strained, frightened, or driven to a point of irrationality.  These scientists, however, have started off at that point, which, frankly, makes me hope they all die.  I doubt that Mr. Scott would say that I'm supposed to feel that way about our "heroes."  Now, beyond illogical actions, there's the issue of illogical emotions.  That may sound oxymoronic, but here's what I mean: after the first surface expedition, scientists 1 and 2, our beloved couple, are depressed.  They wanted to meet their makers live and in-the-flesh.  I'm sorry, but I wanted to smack them.  I was going with the movie for a while there, losing myself in the idea of being with that group and finding the holy grail of scientific discovery.  Live aliens or not, this is, as I've mentioned, THE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY IN THE HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION.  One might expect the scientists, therefore, to react as scientists would: ecstatically.  Yet Dr. Dragon Tattoo and Tom Hardy, Jr. have to remind themselves that it's a pretty neat find, whilst battling self-pitying ennui and drowning sorrows in a bottle of booze.  Imagine if you discovered Ramses' tomb... would you be disappointed because some gold had been stolen?  What if you unearthed the fossilized remains of the Missing Link... would you curse your damn luck for finding a specimen with so many partial and fragmented bones?  This is a time for celebration.  This is historic.  This is the first day of a lifetime of research and fame beyond any scientist's wildest dreams.  Revel in it.  That way, we'll feel for you, we'll care about you, we'll have something at stake when all the horror ensues.  Right?  Nope.  Instead, I just want the aliens to put you out of your misery.

We might even forgive these scientists their poor research methods and helmet blunders if they were smart enough to appreciate the magnitude of what they stumbled upon.  But no, there are no character stakes in this film.  There are only the mechanics of warm flesh and that which kills it.  Compare this to the first Alien.  The ethical question of whether or not to abandon protocol in order to save a crewman's life is repeatedly a point of contention.  The mostly non-scientifically trained crew of the Nostromo are principled and/or idealistic enough to get into some heavy debates over life and death.  Ripley defies Dallas' order and won't open the airlock, in the interest of quarantine.  Later, Dallas says he'll take responsibility for what happens to Kane after ordering a surgery.  Duty, ethics, protocol... this makes for emotional consequences.  In the Director's Cut of Alien, Lambert confronts Ripley with a slap in the face because she'd have left her to die in the airlock, yet we know Ripley was right to have done so.  Even without that scene, Lambert treats Ripley with passive disdain for the rest of the film.  We call this good writing.  It is a tense plot point.  It is not entered into cavalierly, with the reckless abandon of oh, say, taking off a helmet for no apparent reason.  The closest we get to this subtle treatment of ethics in Prometheus is when Snow White's Evil Mother doesn't want to let an infected man back on the ship (sound familiar?).  She threatens him with a flamethrower.  Will we get a tense stand-off that will affect the balance of power on the ship, as in Alien?  No, the poor dude will rather suddenly ask her to burn him, with no discussion, despite his girlfriend's brief and futile protests.  And will Noomi resent Charlize for the rest of the film for making s'mores of Logan?  Nah, it's whatevs.

Fast-forward: a horseshoe-shaped ship crashes and rolls on its side.  Normally, I'd forgive a well-made and engaging flick for having the two remaining souls run that gauntlet in a straight line, rather than veer a few yards to either side to avoid being crushed.  But, in light of all the incredulity that preceded this moment near the film's end, it's just another thing that pisses me off.  Ridley Scott is usually better at the mechanics of action scenes like this.  Logic falters here, as it does throughout Prometheus.  This failure may be most evident when exhibited by the one character who should be more logical than any other.  David, the android, is easily the film's most compelling character, not least for Fassbender being awesome at everything he does.  He manages to ride the line between evil and nobility beautifully, in the tradition of the franchise's artificial humans.  And yet, his most consequential action in the film is neither logical nor warranted.  When asked by his hyper-sleeping boss, Wrinkly Weyland, to "try harder [to get the plot moving]," he decides to spike Handsome's ennui booze with alien anthrax and let the slimy monster chips fall where they may.  Later on in the film, David seems rather concerned with the preservation of human life, but, for now, he'll risk the lives of everyone on the mission, and compromise the safety of not only the ship, but his raisin of a boss as well, by playing Iron Chef with primordial soup.

This serves no rational function other than to create more horror scenes for the movie's purposes.  But for Weyland's purposes, the strategic weakness of this plan surely would be evident to a being so clairvoyant and brilliant as David.  In Alien, by contrast, Ash's destructive, crew-expending actions make sense for one simple reason: "Bring back lifeform, priority one."  But David's objective is to arrange an audience between Guy Pearce and the Master Race, not to facilitate biological warfare.  As it turns out, David's goal of awakening the gods is accomplished simply.  He need only further explore the expedition site and find a slumbering, albino Yul Brynner.  Done!  You think he'd have tried that option before unnecessarily wreaking biological havoc on his fellow crewmates.  Oh, but wait, the film needed an android murderer and more monsters in the middle there.  We call this... you know what we call this.

Side note: speaking of logic, explain to me the decision to cast a 40-something-year-old actor as a 90-something-year-old character, when no youthful flashback scenes are required by the script (viral TED Talk promotional film notwithstanding).  I'm not saying it's verboten casting (Toshiro Mifune is a revelation in Kurosawa's I Live in Fear), but it's puzzling.  If casting Lance Henriksen as yet another member of the Weyland dynasty on film would have been too on-the-nose, then surely someone else might have made more sense than the dude from Memento, as good an actor as he may be.

In any event, whether it's for power or fame, for an attempt at curing cancer or the pure quest for knowledge, we know fiction's scientists overstep their bounds.  It's the first step in a lot of great stories.  But Dr. Otto Octavius, Moreau, Tony Stark, Peter Venkman, or Victor Frankenstein... they all would have kept their mother-loving helmets on if they'd found themselves on LV-223 in Prometheus.  They'd also have exhibited a modicum -- if not a boatload -- of awe or reverence for the titanic revelations and relics discovered therein.  They'd also have had the common sense to hightail it out of there as soon as they saw the predicament into which their disregard for scientific method had placed them.  Alas, in this film, those sensible decisions to flee are made too late, by characters written with brains just slow enough to keep the horror unfolding a few steps ahead of them.  Prometheus is a film about our genetic engineers, and the supposed ingenuity we exhibit in unraveling their code.  A great film -- an Alien or a Blade Runner -- similarly can have us marveling at the engineering of such a masterpiece, decoding technique, form, and style for decades to come.  Films such as those weave themselves into our cinematic mythology -- stories and characters as dear to us as the original overreacher of myth, Prometheus himself.  I will, in all sincerity, put Lt. Ellen Ripley in the pantheon of great tragic heroes, alongside the Titan who stole fire from the gods, alongside Victor Frankenstein.  As for Prometheus' Dr. Elizabeth Shaw?  She's a well-intentioned, unthinking, solipsistic pawn in a transparent screenplay's attempt at replicating Shelley's lightning in a bottle.  I call bulls#!%, I call sham, I call wasted potential.

Saving grace: I LOVED seeing a blue & tan Border Terrier nipping at the heels of Guy Pearce.  She was my own Buster's doppelganger, and I'd rather watch a sequel about her and Jones the Cat than see what I can only assume will be a similarly disappointing Prometheus 2: Rise of the Alien Begins.