Thursday, May 18, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Prometheus" is Underrated

Michael Fassbender
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Alien:: Covenant opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Prometheus is underrated.

Noomi Rapace
Besides Star Wars, there are few sci-fi franchises that are as beloved and iconic as Alien. The image of the chest-burster is one of cinema's most recognizable scenes. The debate on if Alien or its sequel Aliens is the best one continues to resonate alongside whether The Godfather or its sequel is the best. It's an impenetrable force to try and take down the franchise that was started by Ridley Scott in 1979. It's especially peculiar since he is the only one to have directed more than one movie, with a 33 year gap in between them mind you. As he returns with his third take in the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant, it only seems right to look back on the franchise that taught us that "In space, no one can hear you scream." Of course, that hasn't stopped many from screaming about the seemingly inferior sequels Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection - but that's besides the point of my retrospective here.

There is something curious about Scott's return to the franchise in 2012. For starters, it should've been a welcoming cry of relief. After all, he was the mastermind who started everything so brilliantly. It even inspired people to ask if James Cameron would direct the reboot's sequel (he denied even thinking of it). It was going to be a return to form, possibly righting the wrongs of a franchise long dormant from a perceived masterpiece. That is what a logical fan would hope for when seeing those letters fade into the word Prometheus at the start of the movie. However, there was something that became unanimous and makes Alien: Covenant possibly less anticipated than Scott's involvement would suggest. People just didn't like it. Poor old Ridley Scott's lost his touch.

It's a notion that has resonated through pop culture so heavily that it's tough to argue against it. There's even the meme "The Prometheus school of running" that references a scene where two characters try to outrun a croissant-shaped object by running in its direct path. The smarts can be nitpicked to death from the film, and the lack of Xenomorphs or frankly any recognizable iconography are also disappointing to a degree. There's no denying that Prometheus is a flawed movie. It's one whose lofty goals are probably too big for a big budgeted R-Rated sci-fi movie that is as grotesque as it is beautiful. Yet there's something that I have to be honest about: I like it. I know it's at times confounding, but it comes from a mentality that isn't seen that much outside of the Star Trek franchise (well, some of them anyways) where philosophical debates are placed alongside great action set pieces. Prometheus comes from that school and frankly, if nobody had told the audience that this was an Alien "prequel," it probably would've gotten better reviews. Save for sparse iconography, it is difficult to say that this is more than Scott borrowing elements from himself to make another sci-fi adventure.

I suppose that I'll start with a controversial notes: to varying extents, most of the Alien franchise is dumb. It isn't necessarily dumb in how the action plays out, but one has to look at the motivation behind each story. The characters purposely put themselves in harm's way for little gain. In Aliens, Ripley even goes back to space when she knows the struggles. It works as movie logic and thankfully is headed by the brilliant Sigourney Weaver performances. Yet honestly, to call Prometheus out as having dumb scientists is a bit unfair. They may be eccentric and whoop and holler more than they should, but they exist in the mold of scientists who are clearly out of their element. They are going on an adventure and want to face unknown danger. Why? Because, science. The only thing that is inexcusably dumb is probably casting Guy Pearce as a very old man who isn't even recognizable. Unless Alien: Covenant uses it wisely, it's very much a confusing piece of the puzzle.

I also admit that the script has a lot of odd choices. It has plenty of comical beats that are momentary and don't add much in total. However, I think that it helps to balance the story alongside its darker and more perverse elements. What Scott does best here is turn the alien creatures into horrifying threats. The scenes where crew members are murdered by plantlike aliens is fascinating in its jarring horror. Likewise, the scenes in which Noomi Rapace attempts to retrieve an alien impregnated inside her is fraught with wonderful tension. It even subverts the chest-burster moment that defines the franchise and places it within the grander theme of the movie: creation. As the heroine of the story (the film's "Ripley" if you will), Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw goes through a ridiculous amount of struggle. It becomes almost comical to see her abdomen get crushed so repeatedly. Still, it feels like Scott's bigger narrative is about the struggle to terminate any chance of recreation.

To go further into the heart of why Prometheus gets a bad wrap is the screenwriters. This is most specifically true of co-writer Damon Lindelof, who gained a notorious reputation for being heady but otherwise underwhelming. This was especially true of the series Lost, which ended in one of the most controversial manners possible - leaving viewers without satisfying answers to seven seasons of mystery. Given that he also wrote the bomb Cowboys & Aliens as well as the equally maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, he didn't have the best reputation and is barely recovering with The Leftovers as it finishes its final season. Still, it is hard to theorize properly, but Jon Spaihts is probably more to blame for Prometheus' faults, as his writing credits since lack any audacity that Lindelof even tried for. While he's written some good (Doctor Strange), it becomes hard not to question Spaihts' problematic writing career after the controversial and maligned Passengers

Still, both bring something to the table, but it's interesting to argue what. Given that Lindelof has an obsession with spirituality, it makes sense why he would take the project. The whole film is essentially a cautionary tale about meeting your maker/God. The only twist is that Scott threw it into the Alien world and added unbearable fears. The film even ends with two on the nose sequences that suggest just how much the film was about faith. One features Shaw giving a final report aboard the Prometheus as she travels through the clouds. The other sees, in its only scene of the movie, a Xenomorph being born from previous carnage. As it juts out its menacing teeth, the movie ends. Maybe the film's spiritual debate is as dense as The Matrix's is (good for a studio movie, but not much otherwise), but what did it bring to the plot? I'm not entirely sure, but amid the somewhat flawed script is the final beauty: Scott himself.

The man is known for creating worlds that pop off the screen. This even goes back to the vacant corridors of Alien. He doesn't make an ugly movie - at least visually. This is an ugly film spiritually at times, but it's in part because of how it portrays the struggle between humanity and nihilism. Humans are inherently too curious to give up, but the creators have no desire to waste time with answers. As the android David (Michael Fassbender) suggests, maybe humans shouldn't go searching for answers that will upset them. As evident by the end of the movie - as with most Alien entries - there's a large body count and nothing to show for it. Nobody learns to stay away. Their drive to learn more and conquer inevitably leads them to the next dangerous place. To put it bluntly, curiosity killed the cat could've been any of these movies' tagline. Thankfully Scott's world is full of striking images and is heavily sexual. Some creatures are phallic while others feature vaginal faces. Even when discussing humanity's existence in the midst of impending doom, it's hard not to see just how blatant Scott's pictures try to tell the story without words.

If this had not been billed as an Alien movie, it probably would have a more favorable reputation. For starters, it would just be seen as something like 2017's Life: a fun journey into space. It's doubtful that anyone would consider it Scott's best journey into space (even then, his later film The Martian has a more favorable following). Still, I think it's entertaining and manages to use big budgeted spectacle for good use. It is powerful and visceral in ways that horror needs to be to work. It also is ambitious in its headiness, which is also where it's unfortunately most problematic. Still, for a studio film it is trying to be more than mere entertainment. It's trying to be art as thought provocation: a thing made more daunting given that it's in the middle of one of the bleakest and horrifying franchises that people recognize. It may be a silly movie, but it's still fun. 

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