Archive for June 11th, 2012
I’m tired of secrets. Over the past few years, ever since the release of the teaser trailer for Cloverfield, an increasing number of movies have shifted from the entirely reasonable attempt to keep certain plot elements a surprise to making a fetish of secrecy for its own sake. I blame J.J. Abrams, a talented director and producer who often puts more thought into a movie’s marketing campaign than into the story itself—witness Super 8, which shrouded in great intrigue a plot that turned out to be utterly conventional. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is perhaps the most disappointing victim of this tendency to date, a movie that comes cloaked in secrecy—is it a prequel to Alien, or isn’t it?—only stand revealed as a total narrative nonevent. (It may not be a coincidence that one of the film’s writers is frequent Abrams collaborator Damon Lindelof, whose Lost displayed a similar inability to deliver on the revelations that the hype had led us to expect.)
Prometheus, to put it mildly, has some script problems. The trouble begins in one of the very first scenes, in which Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, as a pair of startlingly incompetent archaeologists, discover an array of remarkable cave paintings at a site in Scotland, only to begin blithely tromping around with flashlights, no doubt destroying thousands of years of material in the process. The paintings, we’re told, are 35,000 years old—the age of the earliest human settlement in Scotland is usually dated closer to 15,000 years, but never mind—and depict a constellation that has appeared in works of art in every human culture, a configuration the archaeologists have confidently identified with a single star system many light years away (the arrangement of the stars in the sky having evidently remained unchanged across thirty millennia). Such plot holes are far from unusual in a big summer movie, of course, but none of these issues make us especially optimistic about the quality of the story we’re about to be told.
Our concerns are not without foundation. Rapace and Marshall-Green end up traveling on the most casually organized interstellar voyage of all time, a trillion-dollar project whose members not only haven’t been told the purpose of the mission, but haven’t even met yet, or been told anything about the chain of command, before awakening from hibernation on their arrival. Upon landing, they do, in fact, make the greatest archeological discovery in human history, stumbling at once on the remains of a massive alien civilization, a result which is somehow seen as disappointing, because none of the aliens there are still alive. (This is after a single day of exploration at one random site, which is sort of like aliens landing at Chichen Itza at night and bemoaning the fact that the humans there have gone extinct.) But of course, there is life here, of a particularly unpleasant kind, and Prometheus soon turns into something less than a coherent horror movie than a series of disconnected ideas about scenes it might be cool to have in an undeclared Alien prequel.
In interviews, Scott and Lindelof have spoken about the supposed profundity of the film’s ideas, and their decision to leave certain elements unexplained, with a nod toward such works as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But 2001, for all its obscurities, gives us the pieces for a perfectly straightforward explanation, which the novel makes even more clear, while Prometheus consists of such ill-fitting parts that any coherent reading seems impossible. There are occasional pleasures to be found here: Michael Fassbender is particularly good as an android who draws his personal style from Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and there’s one nifty scene involving Rapace, an automated medical pod, and a particularly traumatic surgical procedure. For the most part, however, the astronauts are such idiots that one finds oneself missing the cult of of competence that James Cameron brought to Aliens. And that’s the heart of the problem. If we had characters that we cared about, the movie’s incoherencies wouldn’t matter. Because in the end, I don’t want answers. I want Ripley.