Sunday, August 12, 2012

Owen Weetch: Prometheus

by Owen Weetch
Alternate Takes

Prometheus renegotiates the events in the Alien franchise, presenting a creation myth that interweaves the birth of the xenomorph with the evolution of humankind. This piece will explore how this creation narrative moves Prometheus away from the horror conventions in which the original Alien (1979) traded. I’ll also consider my own negative response to what is admittedly an adequately constructed and beautiful-looking science-fiction adventure film. I think this might not be solely down the filmmakers’ failure to meet my own (probably unfair) expectations: it might also have something to do with the different industrial practices of 1979 and 2012, and the pressures that today’s filmmakers face when blockbusters are constructed a priori to be part of a franchise.

Both commercial demand and fandom culture have clearly influenced the production of Prometheus, and the curious intertwining of these two pressures is symptomatic of wider industrial trends. When The Avengers was released earlier this year, ‘Drew McWeeny’ wrote a piece called ‘The Bigger Picture: Muppets, Avengers, and Life in the Age of Fanfiction’, in which he opined that these films are indicative of a systematic shift in Hollywood: “we seem to have handed over our entire industry to the creation of fanfiction on a corporate level, and at this point, I'm not sure how we're expecting the pendulum to ever swing back.” Not to do a discredit to fanfiction as a whole, but it is interesting to note that the most financially successful mainstream blockbusters of this year, such as The Avengers and The Muppets, are essentially the results of what happens when creators finally ‘get their hands’ on the properties that they loved from their youth. New instalments in franchises are now produced by those who cut their imaginative teeth watching the earlier instalments, and function as articulations to a mass audience as to why the property deserves that audience.

Prometheus is no different. While directed by Ridley Scott, it was written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, both whippersnappers when the first film was released. Their previous work - much of it in the science-fiction thriller genre - suggests the influence of Scott’s cinema, and they have now been charged with creating something new out of the pre-existing Alien property. As Spaihts and Lindelof admit in this fascinating interview, “There’s a cult of existing intellectual property in town.” The mysteries of the original Alien are thus investigated and accounted for by imaginations sparked by that very film, so that the latest movie seems guilty of tracing over its originator rather than expanding upon it.

The xenomorph in the 1979 film was indeed a fundamentally alien presence, unpredictable and unknowable; the Weyland-Yutani corporation was hubristic and imbecilic to think that they could harness it as something as crassly utilitarian as a bio-weapon. In Prometheus, we are informed that this alien was actually created as a bio weapon in the first place, making it little more than sentient pesticide. The entity that many have referred to in the first film as the ‘Space Jockey’ is similarly reduced: when Dallas, Lambert and Kane stumbled upon its inter-galaxial dirigible in Alien, the corpse they discovered within was an unfathomable portent, a giant simultaneously elephantine and deific. Here, it’s an etiolated bodybuilder man in a nappy. What’s more, his narrative simply repeats that of the franchise’s human characters, so that the series folds in on itself: ‘The Engineer’ is a cryosleeper who fell foul of the things he created, just as the crew of the Nostromo fell foul to Ash, the android, and in just the same way as the scientists aboard the Prometheus are (along with many audience members) unable to work out just what in blinking hell it is that David is up to.

There is the counter-argument that this objection is churlish, that one shouldn’t criticise a film for not being another film. Furthermore, perhaps these riffs on the original are meant as rhymes and resonances, intended to be expressive in their allusion. In the above interview Lindelof says that Scott is, “very interested in ambiguous sci-fi, or think-piece sci-fi, where all of the dots are not connected for you” and Spaihts observes that “there’s an art to leaving yourself open.” The original film is a prime example of this because its chthonic weirdness is readable in other terms than those that Prometheus prescribes.

While the first film hints at investigations of sexuality, capitalism and humanity’s place in the universe, it never provides any answers. Nor does it presume to ‘ask questions’ as such, which would imply the possibility that they be answered. Prometheus, however, not only keeps shouting at you through a foghorn every step of the way that it’s asking you big and highly important questions about the provenance of humankind, but its evocative title functions as both a question and an instruction manual on how to answer that very question.

In fact, the title is worth further consideration in relation to its forebears. Each of titles in the series is telling, in terms of both the respective films’ concepts and expressive qualities: Alien is a noun and an adjective, referring to not only the threat but also the investigation into its otherness; Aliens (1986) removes the adjective and rams the plural down our throats, anxious like that movie’s frantic marines to descend into furious shock and awe; Alien 3 (1992) betrays both Ripley and the filmmakers’ resignation to the creature’s self-perpetuity, an absurd hopelessness that sowed the franchise’s end; Alien Resurrection (1997) is a title that sounds pretty cool but doesn’t really make much sense if you think about it in terms of the other ones; and Prometheus is a portentous-sounding proper noun that refers to something which isn’t technically in the film. Lindelof has stated in interviews, “part of the fun of the movie is understanding exactly why we called it Prometheus. And also, it sounds really pretentious […] so we were just like, 'Yeah, that makes the movie sound really smart!'” Blog writer Cavalorn here unpacks the title’s allusions to come up with an interpretation that is in many ways more exciting than the film itself.

The intended ‘ambiguity’ of the whole enterprise is further compromised by other agendas: the filmmakers have stated that they had to bow to commercial pressures in order to provide a film that also functions as an entertainment. In this interview Scott acknowledges that with such a large budget there is a pressure to provide entertainment as well as explore the weighty issues in which the film trades, and that he feels his job is to make sure the film is at the least “communicating.” Lindelof’s comments elsewhere are also telling, and highly indicative of the results that this had on the film, when he says things like: “Just when the movie is getting lost in its own sense of importance, then the fuse gets lit, and you’re like, ‘Well those questions are going to have to wait for another time because now we’re in survivor mode.’” Prometheus polarises ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’, seeing the former as self-important and laborious. The result is an oddly staccato experience: a film always in two minds as to what it should be doing at any particular moment, so that it ends up doing little convincing of either.

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