Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Far Would You Go to Get Your Answers?

This post contain spoilers for Prometheus.

Nobody could be less surprised than I that the early word on the latest Ridley Scott film wasn't terribly good. Conversely, nobody could be more surprised that the film in question ended up being really, really good. Working from an unbelievably flawed screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (and I cannot recommend highly enough reading Drew McWeeny's piece that totally dismantles its character and structure deficiencies), Ridley Scott has miraculously crafted in Prometheus a remarkable artistic expression I no longer thought him capable of, an aesthetic examination of space that also doubles as rip-roaring entertainment.

After he brushes past two useless opening scenes, the real heart of the film begins with David (Michael Fassbender), a robot wandering the halls of Prometheus, a massive spaceship carrying a crew towards an alien planet. While the crew is put into hibernation for the two-year journey, David is onboard to ensure everything continues to run smoothly, leaving him, like the night watchman of a department story, with the run of the place for most of his time.

This sometimes eerie, often touching, always haunting sequence, which I'd gladly have watching for the film's duration, sets up Scott's preoccupations in the film, defined by the way we affect the spaces around us. The concept of Ridley Scott shooting in 3D seemed like the most crass of commercial ventures, but the result is revelatory. Every year, we get a new candidate for "best use of live-action 3D," and I can easily say this now holds the crown - it's stunningly beautiful, and it seems like Scott has taken David Fincher's cues for how to handle digital photography. But more than that, it's purposeful in a very striking way. The way David moves about the ship represents what he is - another cog in the machine. He bicycles without faltering, shoots hoops without missing, and Fassbender inhabits his character and these rooms more to blend in than to stand out.

David also makes two key decisions in this early sequence that, upon further reflection, are much more informative of the ensuing events than they first appear. First, he looks in on Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) while she dreams. This seems at first a way to usher in some backstory on Shaw, which it certainly serves as, but there are any number of ways this could have been accomplished without presenting it from David's point of view, which repositions the action as specifically his, and more importantly, positions his growing interest in and obsession with (love for?) Shaw.

Second, he watches Lawrence of Arabia, and dyes his hair and affects the manner of Peter O'Toole in that film. What robot that hasn't achieved some level of self-actualization would take this action? It represents a longing integral to the character and extremely important to thinking about everything he does from there.

Soon, the crew wakes up, and we're introduced to them in some quickly-sketched, but very effective, ways that also go a long way towards informing some questionable behavior later on (Milburn's desire later on to befriend a seemingly threatening creature is established here, for example), though some characters never make sense from the get-go (sure, Fifield, you're what must surely be a world-class geologist, you committed to being asleep for four years of your life, and this mission to go where no man has gone before is "just a job"). It's not nearly on par with a similar scene in Aliens, but it's solid work.

The crew is quickly debriefed on the purpose of the mission, a scene which itself is about how a dead man can still hold a room (physically, through a 3D projection that mirrors the film's medium, and attentively) without actually being there, or anywhere for that matter (or so we think at the time). The mission must have paid handsomely if everyone signed up without knowing what they were getting into, especially considering it all ultimately boils down to Shaw, her boyfriend/partner Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green, who my girlfriend and I immediately began referring to as "Tom Hardy-looking guy"), and billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland's (Guy Pearce) collective desire to meet the beings that created humans, which turn out to be aliens.

While that's a hell of a whim to hang a trillion-dollar mission onto, the philosophical questions invited by the premise alone are pretty staggering, matched only by Lindelof and Spaiht's surprising disinterest in exploring any of them. The hazy, 3am-in-a-dorm-room manner in which they handle the film's philosophy has been widely noted, and rightfully so, in no small part because they capture the shortcomings of those conversations without recognizing the rhythm of them. The sense of superiority for even "going there" is evident in every interaction, forgetting that these characters are scientists, not philosophers, and have a natural shortcoming in addressing these topics. They have an "out" they could have written their weaknesses to, but failed even on that front.

But once the crew gets to the cave, and they do so rather quickly, things pick up considerably. Scott re-establishes the purpose of space (not the "outer" kind, but, you know, our immediate surroundings) in pitching the 3D waaaaayyyyyy back to really evoke the depth of the cave, and they send out probes in an attempt to predict their environment. They come across projections of past actions that seem to take over the cave. Then they arrive at "the door" and everything begins to come together (Shaw's line, "We don't know what's on the other side," is filled with meaning) - the crew's presence in the cave literally changes the space around them. There are a couple ways to read this. Adrian Bott, in his widely-disseminated piece linking the film's religious undercurrents, argues that it's the presence of human emotion that changes the space, but a more scientific reading could simply say it was a sealed container, and the outer atmosphere changed it.

Either way, things start to go bad as soon as humans enter the equation, and the continued ways humans and aliens interact with each other's spaces (both constructed and, once we get to Holloway drinking the black goo and especially Shaw's pregnancy, organic) create more and more threatening scenarios. Part of the reason the Shaw's climactic fight with the Engineer was unsatisfying for me is that it totally disposes with the way the conflict had been pitched up to that point - alien life comes first as an external threat, then as an invasion of Holloway's basic life functions, then to Shaw's reproductive system, and finally to Weyland's soul ("There's...nothing..." he mutters as he dies). The spaces keep getting more and more personal until they attack our very essence, our very reason for being (which is also set up with David's invasion of Shaw's headspace when he watches her dreams).

The bulk of the second act is also where the film's prime entertainment value comes from, and I won't lie that scenes as insane as Shaw's self-cesarean are a big reason for loving the film as well. As much as people are interested in the film's "big idea" themes (though Prometheus feels the product of people more interested in the tropes of "big-idea sci-fi" than they actually are the ideas themselves), I'm far more taken with the film's "big idea" set pieces, and there are few words that could adequately describe how unbelievably threatening that sequence is. As much as one could take issues with the mechanics of the screenplay, a big part of the pleasure of genre cinema (and especially sci-fi cinema) is seeing certain imaginative approaches to conflict, be it people shrinking down and going inside the human body or a robot that just won't die or a computer program reforming the virtual world to defeat the hero. This is, after all, still entertainment.

So while I can recognize some of the issues of Prometheus at a screenplay level, I really regret that the conversation has stopped there for many. Beyond any talk of its "ambition" or "philosophy," it's a grand formal accomplishment top to bottom with a remarkably cohesive aesthetic viewpoint that's a blast to sit through. I'll take that in my summer blockbuster any day.

Further thoughts:

-Although the film's weakest dramatic beat may be its fan-servicing final scene, in which a familiar Alien emerges from the dead engineer, I do like what this adds to the film thematically, and it uses its prequel format in a much more exciting way than the usual "isn't it exciting to see how that got there?" In tracing the genealogy necessary for the first Alien to be born, we go from black goo into human, mixed with human sperm, into a human egg, which is birthed into a wholly distinct life form, which in turn has to...invade? rape?...with an engineer before the deadly creature is born. As much as the film deals with designing life, this reminds us of the randomness of creation, as well as its unpredictable consequences, and our familiarity with the result helps tie it all together, intellectually.

-On that same string, of all the unexplained motivations in the film, I like that David's reasons for bringing the black goo onboard and giving it to Holloway are not addressed. It could be random curiosity, it could be a genuine scientific experiment, it could somehow feed into a part of Weyland's plan to which we are not privy. It could also be David's genuine attempt to create life, which is as touching as it is terrifying.

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