Thursday, 14 June 2012

Body Count of "Prometheus" Not High Enough? Try "Alien" Instead

I was  pleased yesterday to get the chance to see Prometheus, the Ridley Scott film that has been much anticipated as the prequel to Alien. There was a lot of hype involved on the net concerning its development and eventual production, and with good reason. If "Alien" is not Scott's best known film, then at least it's the one that is thought of as some kind of a benchmark of his collected work to date. "Alien" was a monster hit when it was released in 1978-79, and I'm not trying to be funny; its's just a fact. (Also, I confess to becoming vague about release dates. So I will include both years, to bow to such things as confusion over when it was exactly released in Australia, when I actually saw it myself, and any possible time lag between when it was released in other parts of the world. That is if there was one. Which I don't remember).

In space no one can hear you scream. But not so the audience.

 Audiences were enthralled by the story of a alien life-form running rampant and killing off members of the crew of a space ship.  It possessed a primordial desire to survive, alongside an evolutionary resistance to all  man-made efforts to have it destroyed. Audiences and critics alike praised what seemed to be Scott's originality, and his unique approach to the material which was less interested in the metaphysics of space travel as was the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more interested in scaring the viewer out of his comfort zone, as well as his seat. Not that I knew much about Hitchcock back then, but this kind of approach may very well  have been used by Hitchcock if he had ever gotten around to making a science fiction film, which we all know sadly that he never did.

Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, and Tom Skerritt in "Alien".

Scott's collaborators on the project included artists and designers such as H.R. Geiger, Moebius as well as many others who contributed to the interpretation of a straight-forward story of  a horror in deep space too dreadful to contemplate. Horror was piled upon horror as every member of the crew was harrassed by the alien, hunted down, and then slaughtered in all manner of horrific and terrifying ways. Three crew members are eventually left, but only one survives, the heroine Ellen Ripley.  Sigourney Weaver made this part her own, and it's her best known role. The story goes she initially turned the part down when it was offered to her, because she thought that being in a science fiction movie was a tad beneath her abilties as a serious performer.

Detail of interior of spaceship with Veronica Cartwright and John  Hurt

Thanks to these talents involved, "Alien" had a distinctive look, a unique kind of production design (if you like), that nobody had really seen before. The compelling interior of the space-ship Nostromo, an oil refinery ship in which the travellers were trapped and seemed to have no way of escaping; a mysterious and uninhabitable planet enshrouded in perpetual fog, that wakes the travelers out of their sleep in order to investigate a possible SOS; an alien spaceship that somehow exists for the precise reason of sealing the traveller's doom, and a dripping-acid monster that once seen, is never forgotten and was the stuff that nightmares are made of. "Alien" was an instant triumph for director Ridley Scott, who had previously worked in advertising and had only made one other movie, The Duellists which had only received a limited release in the United States.  Despite some rumblings about the lack of a plot, a controversy concerning the soundtrack, and a group of actors taking part in an ensemble cast who were not widely known, "Alien" became immediately iconic and I think it's fair to say will always have its pride of place in the pantheon of great science fiction movies.

Publicity shot of the cast of "Alien". The gang's all here

Now we cut to the chase, 34 years down the track. (My God, has it been that long?)  When the original was released, there was no such thing as the internet; video tapes began to be marketed domestically; there were no such things as CDs. As I said, it was a long time ago -- the world has changed, and, I must admit, so have I.

 There have been a number of sequels to "Alien", but I have only seen one of them, Alien Resurrection. Frankly, the other two were of no interest to me, which doesn't mean they didn't make money. By 1982, I had discovered The Thing, John Carpenter's own interpretation of an unfriendly alien. "The Thing"'s box office was indifferent when first released, but I loved it almost as much, if not more, than "Alien".  Fans howled about more sequels, and Hollywood provided the necessary finance and a number of directors to keep a profitable franchise going. About twelve months ago it was announced that there was a 'prequel' underway -- that is a 'backstory' which would be an illumination of the original, as well as a narrative that would stand on its own. I had no idea how it would turn out, but knew that I would go see it which I did.

I was taken to see this when I was 12 years old.

I have to say, that I liked "Prometheus", and quite a bit at that. It is entertaining in a totally undemanding way, and that's not a bad thing. Nor I am attempting to be patronising. This is not to report I didn't notice its shortcomings, only that I was prepared to forgive them. With the fullness of time between my loyalty to the original and the release of its prequel, I was not prepared to have my expectations rise to such an extent that I would suffer disappointment. I had too many fond memories of the original to expect that "Prometheus" would exceed them, and in hindsight I am glad to have attained such sage wisdom at least in my movie-going habits. For example,  I wouldn't say that "Prometheus" is dreary -- it is instead "workmanlike"; I wouldn't call it visionary -- it is "conventional"; nor would I call it thrilling because it is "philosophical",  or at least tries to be. It doesn't hit the mark of something like Soderbergh's "Solaris", but it isn't for lack of trying and this should be acknowledged out of respect for the original which was about as unphilosophical as you can get. And since we were all grateful enough not to have noticed, we didn't care.

 What is saddest about "Prometheus" and what makes it pale in my estimation in comparison to the original, is what I would call the "bad faith" inherent in its conception. Everything about it seems to point to Scott's insecurities about the original, how he may have made it differently, and the things he would have changed if he'd been given the chance.  I find this a puzzling undertaking for an esteemed director (in his middle years), who has piled success upon success with most if not all of his ventures, an  artist who has the respect of the public and his peers for his flair, and the tackling of material that may be off-beat, but is always entertaining. I am refering to my (other) favourite Ridley Scott movies, namely Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Someone To Watch Over Me and "The Duellists".

Scene from "Prometheus" with Charlize Theron

The most glaring shortcomings of "Prometheus", at least to me, are the following:

*We are introduced to another crew. Fair enough, but they seem to bicker with each other for no particular reason and do the silliest things. Like not co-operate when they're supposed to be running a space-ship. Nobody much stands out, unlike the crew in the original "Alien", who seemed to be authentic human beings, where the ensemble cast works superbly.  Nobody emerges as a leader, and they all run backwards and forwards from the mother ship to the alien's site and back again in an effort to keep audience interest because there is no alien per se, and therefore the danger has to be coming from some other source.

*Any kind of suspense appears to be disposed of, and is replaced instead with a large amount of philosophical rumination about the nature of mans' origins. Unfortunately it compares unfavourably with something like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, which is a re-make of Andrei Tarkovsky's  Russian film of the same name. If you've read  Dostoyevsky, you would know that the Russians are big on religious philosophy and probably do it better than anyone else.  This is juxtaposed with  lots of pointless action, presumably in order to satisfy the audience demographic of 18-25 years old males who go to the movies on Friday and Saturday nights and who Scott and the producers hope will turn their movie into blockbuster fodder.  (Something, that in any director's early hunger days would send him into fits of fury concerning his artistic integrity and purity of vision. Not to say disbelief)
*Some have praised the production design. I found it haphazard and unimaginative.

*The opening sequence seemed tacked on, and does nothing much to explain the subsequent events in the movie, but I admit the ending instead, does a lot to explain what has been going on, and is designed I am sure for further sequels, which depending on your opinion of "Prometheus" may be either a good, or not so good thing.

*There are a couple of thrill set-pieces, in so-called homage to the original, but these come off as a bit tepid and unconvincing. What could ever live up to the 'chest burster scene'? Or the death of Ash the android? Or the other memorable scenes from the original? To me the chest burster scene is better than the shower scene in Psycho.  Sadly nothing comes close to this, but if it did, this would be an entirely different movie, in other words, something  that Scott would be making in good faith and not in an attempt to re-think the first movie for a new audience who hadn't been born yet when it was originally released.

*The character of the  'Old Man' seems to have been stolen directly from the last section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But here, he's being taken along for the ride, rather than being tacked onto the end of the movie. And his make-up reminded me of Andy Garcia's shrivelled facial features as a dying man who refuses to give up smoking in Dead Again (1990), a homage to Hollywood film noir directed by Kenneth Branagh,   but other than this has no obvious connection to either "Prometheus" or "Alien".

*And finally, there isn't any ship's cat, especially one as adorable as Jonesy who has a lot to do in "Alien" as an extra character in the original film. Jonesy is a fellow traveller, who helplessly watches as his friends are picked off one by one. But he is wise and doesn't say anything, going about his own business instead. But  I suppose this point is nitpicking, and goes too far in exhibiting my one-sided and perhaps unfair preference for "Alien".

Despite these reservations, and after all is said and done, I still found "Prometheus" to be a perfectly acceptable entertainment. What raises it above a certain pedestrian quality is the ending, which no doubt is meant to spawn a sequel or two. There's nothing wrong with that -- George Lucas had great success with his prequels to "Star Wars:" -- which I usually refer to 'star bores'. But enough of my humour at the expense of the great unwashed. He's entitled to his glory, and the movie business is just that, a business. Comparing one thing, to something else that you have always loved is probably a silly activity in any case. It's like asking a man whether he loves his girlfriend, or the woman he's been married to for the past fifty years. What could he possibly say, without at least having a good word for them both? This is exactly how I feel. I have no right to feel disappointed, as I can always go back to the original.

I have my memories.

No comments:

Post a Comment