Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the Cold Silence of Space, Max Power Meets Prometheus

I have a real fondness for directors who did a lot of their work in the late 70’s/80’s era of genre film. At some point I will have to devote more time to discussing the incredible proliferation of genre films that epoch gave us, but for now, suffice it to say that special effects were advanced enough to give us things we had never dared to dream before and yet limited still so that storytelling had to carry the bulk of the film. At the risk of sounding like a grizzled Luddite; filmmakers today have it too easy. Thanks to CGI the look of a film far too often trumps effective or even sensible storytelling. World-building happens through performance and storytelling first, then we were about visual setting. The Wizard of Oz lasts because it is a testament to wonder and joy. After the time spent in dustbowl black and white, the explosion of color tattoos joyously on to our retina, even if it is all being filmed on a back lot of wood, cardboard and asbestos. That’s storytelling and the Emerald City lives more vibrantly in my mind than Cameron’s Pandora. Unfortunately the film wizards of the past, rather than tending the flame of “story first” have been seduced by this new technology and just as the new class of filmmakers spew drivel derivative of their masterworks, the old mages have morphed into soulless copies of themselves. Enter, Prometheus.

We have so few new and worthy film franchises today. The superheroes do not count because they are not original creations of film, such as Aliens, Terminator, Predator or even Robocop. Rather than create new worlds and characters, Hollywood has been content to exhaustively mine the great franchises of the 80’s. It is a sad commentary of our times that the most prolific original franchise of the 2000’s has been arguably…sigh…Saw. The greater problem is that in mining these films franchise of yesterday for every last drop, we have literally squeezed out all of the wonder and mystery. In four Alien films and two Alien vs. Predator films, what was left to say about the filmic world that the Xenomorphs inhabit? According to Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott, enough.
Admittedly, Prometheus is a competent film. Fassbender’s performance is an absolute standout and Elba and Rapace are solid. All other characters are paper thin however, while Theron grates and Pearce’s heavily made-up Weyland just confuses (why not hire a real old guy?) The film is a hollow testament to the pitfalls of staying too long within the world of a once healthy franchise. Oddly for all the special effects at Scott’s disposal, the film largely takes place within two set pieces, an alien tomb-ship and your standard, future spaceship. For a galaxy spanning journey in search of gods there is very little wonder to be found in this film. The tragedy of the movie is not that it does or does not honor the Alien franchise; it’s that it tries to at all.

Let’s explore what is at times and should have always remained the central idea of this film. What happens when the child becomes old enough to question the motives of the parent? What does it do to the child to ask the question “why did you have me?” only to be faced with the answer that perhaps you were an accident or even worse, a regret? What is the response of the parent to when they are questioned in this fashion by something they up until now viewed as their inherent subordinate? What happens when humanity finds that its maker is indifferent at best, hostile at worst? These questions resonate with me deeply, were we a divine inspiration or a failed experiment? I know what I believe but I would enjoy watching the debate play out. What does not resonate as much is when you add in; and what happens when the ALIENS are there RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!!
Every time this film has to pause to make you remember you inhabit the same world as Ripley and her pals it stumbles, going for needless scares or over the top slime-gore. The idea that humanity as a race has passed into its adolescent stage should be the core concern of the film. We are old enough now to question, to search, to yearn for truth and search for answers, yet we are still dependent upon the parent for those answers. We are frustrated by our inability to act independently of the parent, who now that we are old enough to be a pain in the ass, perhaps likes us far less than when we were younger and cuter.

I guess I am mourning for the deeply epic and spiritual questions this film could have asked. I must also say I cannot abide how it contributes to the growing list of undead tropes that plague the film world, infecting every movie with the same tired gimmicks. Spoilers here, but there is an evil corporation in the film. GASP! I long for the day when a company has the balls to trademark itself, Evil Corporation. I am so endlessly tired of the soulless capitalist conglomerate playing the part of Big Bad in every film since the 80’s. In the greedy 80’s it was relevant and new. Now while sadly still relevant, it’s tired and boring. I get it; companies with a lot of money make amoral decisions that sometimes include alien killers, genetic tampering, war machines, drugs, Chuck Norris Clones, Miley Cyrus, movies featuring Rhianna and delicious zero calorie sodas. Noted.
Prometheus also commits, what is to me the ultimate film sin, over-explaining the mystery. In Alien we knew hardly anything of the creature. It was the monster in the shadows. By the time Aliens was over we knew a little more but not much. They had a queen, they were smart enough to tamper with an elevator, to purposely expend the rounds in automated machine guns, and they felt enough for a queen to want vengeance. That was all we needed. Stop there please. Let me speculate what their home world was like, did they have culture? Let me wonder. When we first see that giant Space Jockey in Alien all we can do is wonder. Where did this massive giant come from? Where was he going? Is that his suit or his body? What killed him? The fun and the beauty were wondering.  Here in a brilliant film was a throwaway idea good enough to be a film all its own. That doesn’t mean you go and make that film. You leave the mystery in and I will make the film in my head adding it to my memory of your film and thus enhancing my enjoyment. There, we just made a movie together. I got to live in a film world and I didn’t even need 3-D glasses. Imagine that.

I don’t want to know what Vader was like as a little boy. The Anakin Skywalker you give me will never be the Jedi badass I imagine in my mind. I don’t want to know what that Shark was doing before it got to Amity; it was probably eating a fucking seal or something. Who cares? Let me wonder what that shark might have been doing while lurking in the depths of the cold Atlantic Ocean.  I don’t care what Spider-Man’s parents were up to, I care about what Spider-Man is up to. Much like the crew of the Prometheus should have realized, some things are meant only to be wondered about, never explored. The trouble is that our great visionaries and hacks alike are losing the ability to discern what should be shown, what should be told, what should be implied, and what should be left to be inferred.

Max Power
Contributing Writer

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