“Prometheus” the Expressive Text
A little late in the day, I offer my reaction to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction. It is perhaps interesting that Scott’s re-entry into the genre has been marked by a 30 year absence, filled with films from such diverse genres as crime thriller (Black Rain, American Gangster), military drama (G.I. Jane, Black Hawk Down), historical epic (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) and conman tragi-comedy (Matchstick Men). Yet Alien and Blade Runner cast long shadows over the director’s career, creating an initial level of anticipation for the viewer. The film’s marketing increased this anticipation, with viral marketing giving details of the Weyland-Yutani Company and snippets of the characters. The stage was set for something special, spectacular and superb.
The reaction to the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mixed, but if there is a consensus, it is that Prometheus failed to live up to its hype. Plenty of online comments have lambasted the film, with such comments as: “Prometheus is a train wreck”; “Prometheus is a vacuous experience. Just well-directed nonsense with magnificent production values. Plenty of it makes little sense and one can only hope that a Blu Ray ‘Director’s Cut’ will prove more satisfying. Why did you create us? Because we could. Why do you believe? Because I choose to. These one-liners are metaphors for all of Prometheus’ secrets”; “Prometheus – Not an alien film!!!! And not good. One has to worry when the only interesting character is a freaking robot. Far too long. Nothing explained”; “Ridley Scott is a hero of mine, but Prometheus is not the intelligent, emotionally satisfying prequel that Alien deserves. It’s a derisory, empty experience – and anyone who loved Alien is surely too old and too smart to be fobbed off with something this bad just because it’s shiny”; “Alien worked because it focused on believable characters stuck in a terrible situation, without that believability the film would be greatly lessened. Prometheus, lacking that, is uninteresting”; “With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises”; “The CGI is good and the acting would be fine if the actors had been given something worthwhile to do. But every other aspect of the film was a disappointing waste of time”. Other responses go into more detail – “My God, We Were So Wrong”, “Prometheus Rising” and others. Critical response has also varied, with critics such Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert being impressed with the film, while publications such as Empire, Variety and the Guardian have been critical but not damning. The only aspect of the film to attract universal acclaim, it seems, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David.
What is interesting about these responses is that they have been largely comparative, a common complaint being that Prometheus is not Alien, nor like Alien. This is fair: Prometheus does lack the slow, drip-feed menace of the earlier film, and when the scares come, they are thrills and spills rather than tension and suspense, and its action compares poorly to that of Aliens. When compared to Alien and Aliens, Prometheus does come up short. Compared to Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and (whisper it) Alien VS Predator and Alien VS Predator: Requiem, it excels.
If the rest of the franchise is left aside, however, how does Prometheus stand on its own? Many criticisms have been directed at the script, rather than the style, to which I return later, but to consider the script first, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay does lack characterisation, or character detail and distinctiveness. The simple reason for this is that there are too many characters – 17 in total, but many are disposable and could have been amalgamated, providing less cannon fodder (or should that be alien food?), which would have increased the tension as the major characters have less to hide behind.
In terms of the major characters though, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Captain Janek (Idris Elba) are fine, and Fassbender’s David is a great character, superbly played, and a useful expression of the film’s major themes, to which I shall return later. As Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce (under a tonne of prosthetic make-up) is somewhat wasted. Indeed, considering David’s interest in Lawrence of Arabia, it is a missed opportunity that the role of Weyland is not played by Peter O’Toole (who recently announced his retirement from acting).
These responses highlighted a common issue for me in film analysis. Characterisation is not a major concern for me, a position that I find interesting as it appears to be unusual. For years, I have been irritated by the complaint: “I didn’t care about any of the characters”, because this concern, to me, is given disproportionate weight. Why is it necessary to care about the characters when there are events going on? What is going to happen next has always been more important to me than to whom it happens. For example, in relation to The Dark Knight Rises, I want to know what will happen to Batman (Will he live or die? Will he retire from crime fighting? Will it end with him going back on the job?), but am less concerned about what character development there may be. Similarly, with Prometheus my interest and enjoyment of the film are related to what will they find on the planet and how will they deal with it.
I may be demonstrating the accuracy of a stereotypical male response, simplified as “men like plot, women like character” and oversimplified as “Men like action, women like story”. I cannot speak for men in general, but for me, plot and story are more significant than character. This is not to say I have no interest in character – I find many characters fascinating especially those in the films of Michael Mann that I have analysed in great detail. Character is one pleasure within texts, but I do not regard it as essential – the progression of events is just as rich a pleasure for me.
One comment that my position invites is “If you don’t care about the people you’re watching then why spend your time watching them?” It’s a good question – if I am not overly concerned about the people onscreen, what am I getting out of the experience? My enjoyment for events over people is not as straightforward as plot point A to plot point B to plot point C, they need to be presented in an engaging fashion, and it is this presentation that is crucial to the specific enjoyment of cinema, at least for me. The medium of film employs a multitude of techniques, features and elements, and it is the combination of these elements that makes film work.
Furthermore, I think there is a certain responsibility on both sides – films and viewers work together to create meaning, theory, analysis and audience studies have demonstrated that film viewers are not simply passive receptacles. Characters can indeed be under-developed by screenwriters, unsympathetically or unconvincingly played by actors and edited out of films – perhaps more of Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was left on the cutting room floor, for example. But if you do not care about a character, might this not be down to your own reaction, taste or personality as much as the film text itself? It seems unfair to blame the film for not presenting a character that you will care about, because how could the filmmakers possibly know what every possible viewer will need from a character to care about them? A response to this is that “good writing always means good characters, so when I don’t care about the characters it’s because the writing is bad.” To me this is too easy, simplistic and a little arrogant – good and bad writing are not determined by objective standards, however much we like to believe they are. Good writing is good writing? Character is character? According to what? To whom? Who decides these things? Critics? Academics? Audiences? None of these groups collectively agree, so is there not space in textual, cultural, aesthetic, artistic appreciation for all views, responses and positions?
For me, all elements of a filmic text, including the plot, character, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and cinematography, are tools for the presentation of the film’s meaning. What matters to me, what makes a film (or any text) engaging, is the meaning within it, i.e. the sub-text and themes. One of the first academic essays I ever wrote on film was concerned with the power of sub-text, and I didn’t do very well because I discussed sub-plot as much as sub-text. Perhaps this early career trauma (ha ha) made me more sensitive to sub-text and it has become a major source of pleasure for me in film – what is this film actually about. It may be deep and complex issues like those in Prometheus, and they may be explored in greater depth as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be a simpler notion of learning about one’s own courage or how do two people get together, as a great many films are. How that central question plays out, for me, is what I want to see on screen.
To return to Prometheus, criticisms have identified the plot holes, but perhaps these holes are strengths – the narrative involves a quest for ultimate knowledge, answers to the ultimate questions, but instead grand narrative proves unreliable, leaving only incomplete interpretations and speculation. This may be too generous – the plot holes are there and the script is patchy at best. But visually and stylistically, the film is stunning – as expansive and looming a use of an alien planet’s environment as Star Wars or Avatar, and Scott makes great use of 3D in his signature world-building. More importantly, these are not empty visuals or style for style’s sake – they serve the film’s central premise (according to my interpretation) of people getting out of their depth, largely due to their own hubris, scientific and otherwise. This thematic conceit is expressed visually through the location filming (Iceland), the grand sets, and the deep focus potential of 3D. My impression when viewing the film was one of being overwhelmed, on a regular cinema screen but in 3D. 3D is a tricky cinematic device, vastly overused and often for no good reason, but in the case of certain cinematic worlds, such as those of Avatar, Hugo and Prometheus, it does add something.
Indeed, this sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed is a common visual and thematic trope of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. From the expanses of the South-West USA in Thelma & Louise to the grandeur of Rome in Gladiator, as well as Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the rain-soaked cityscape of Blade Runner, the horrific urban war zone of Black Hawk Down and of course the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo in Alien, time and again Scott depicts people in environments that threaten to subsume them, both mentally and physically. Fear, courage, resolve, determination, panic and eventual defeat or triumph are juxtaposed against these odds, and Prometheus develops this idea further when the Engineers prove to be anything by benevolent. Prometheus therefore continues the director’s interest in environments that are both beautiful and terrifying, overwhelming the people within them, landscape manifesting the overpowering forces that the characters encounter. Rarely has this been more apparent than in Prometheus, which perhaps might have been better named “Icarus”, as the explorers indeed fly too near the sun and are severely scorched – indeed two spacecraft rise and subsequently fall. This is one of the main ideas in the film, which for me is its ultimate and considerable strength. It is a film of ideas, as the most interesting science fiction films frequently are: where, what and who do we come from? Why do we exist? How do we regard and react to our creators/parents? And that old favourite, what does it mean to be human?
Through its exploration of these ideas, largely through visual devices and techniques, utilising the expressive potential of cinema, I suggest that Prometheus will make a very useful study text for film studies courses. When asking students the initial questions about what makes film work, it makes sense to present them with something that depends on its filmic expression for meaning. At the other end of the scale is another 2012 release, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), which is largely dialogue-based and has a very restrained visual palette. Prometheus utilises cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound and editing for the major exploration of its thematic material, so I would certainly show it to students with the directive to look, see and interpret, rather than focus on the (admittedly apparent) shortcomings of the writing.
With its combination of big questions and horrific answers, I would class Prometheus as the offspring of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, perhaps midwifed by Blade Runner. Doubtless many fans of these classics would lambast me for comparing Prometheus to them favourably. I doubt Prometheus will become a classic of the genre as these have, it is unlikely to join the ranks occupied by The Terminator and Aliens, Star Wars and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but it is a science fiction film willing to ask big questions, and leave us pondering the answers. That, for me, is reason to applaud it, and to teach it.