Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: PROMETHEUS, Preboots, and Parasitic Cinema

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: PROMETHEUS, Preboots, and Parasitic Cinema
Stepping back from the fracas that occurred within the nerdosphere over the release of Ridley Scott's latest film, one of the more interesting tensions that rose was between those that steadfastly refused to consider it a sequel to the Alien franchise, and those that judged it directly against the earlier films. This tension further manifested itself when comments from the filmmakers tried to distance the film from the 1979 original, while the marketing chiefs did nothing other than to pump up the direct connection.

This ambivalence between a new creation and a revisiting of a familiar world was one of my principle frustrations with Prometheus as a whole. In my previous article, I articulated some of the (slightly) more esoteric elements that elevated what should have been a B-grade monster movie into something quite extraordinary. Looking back over that list, it's clear that more than a few of these elements were incorporated into the new project. Naturally, the title sequence is mirrored, the letters forming over time echoing completely the original's sense of pace and scale. While we don't get the cursing, we do have at least one character smoking a cigarette. The initial camera moves through the quiet ship also echo Alien, and while Streitenfeld's score isn't an instant classic, there are a number of motifs that directly mirror Goldsmith's original.

My seventh point about the success of Alien, that they included a cat, speaks to an important structural decision in the crafting of the original film. Historically in these types of monster films there would be the woman who's being chased, who then breaks her heel, starts to scream, and then is devoured by, say, a cone-like beast with thousands of teeth (the poorer the quality, the better, what Frank Zappa called "Cheapniss"). Through the 80s and 90s, after seeing our accidental heroine Ripley make it through to the end, there was a preponderance of including kids in the role of the frightened innocent that needs to be protected from the big beasties.

Spielberg was the king of this device during this period, and while the first film of his lucrative monster series managed to make you feel genuine jeopardy for the child protagonists, the inclusion of the stowaway daughter in Lost World: Jurassic Park II laid bare just how tiresome this contrivance can be. If there's no real sense that any of your leads will actually be killed, particularly the kids, then it all becomes even more banal. Later films like War of the Worlds tried to toy with these expectations to limited success, and other films add sense of jeopardy by offing the family pet or annoying sidekick (often a lawyer or rich businessman) to sacrifice to the creature coming to take out our heroes.

While the cat shows up again in the series (and put into genuine, fatal jeopardy), Cameron's film decided to add a precious child in lieu of an animal that can be more readily sacrificed. In so doing, we know that Ripley will not under any circumstances leave the child behind, as narratively the film wouldn't support such selfishness. The levels she goes through to rescue Jonesy, on the other hand, are enough to try and save the cat, but not so much that she wouldn't choose herself over the pet. This is a fine line with the feline, but by having something worth taking risk for, but not too much risk. We care about the cat because Ripley cares, and are worried for Ripley when she goes after the cat rather than getting out safely. All our emotions are on our central character, rather than split between our hero and the subject that she's (foolishly, perhaps) going off to rescue.

With Prometheus, we have no cat, nor any kid (save for a calamari looking afterbirth thing). We have a slew of crew members that have little personality, so that when they do make a genuine sacrifice (staying with the Captain on ship, say) we really don't particularly care. We have an old man that shows up towards the end in one of the several awkward plot twists that is meant to be pulling the strings, but when he finally meets his own violent demise there's no sense of either loss or catharsis.

One of the critical elements that gave the crew of Alien such rich character was the deceptively effortless crosstalking, a form of  banter that characterized Altmaneseque filmmaking of the 70s. In Prometheus every line seems either expositional or disposable, and there's little chemistry between our heroes as they seem to talk past one another. More troubling, in attempting to graft higher themes and ideals (read: philosophical concepts), the film oversteps its reach dramatically. If it's to be taken as a serious examination of the origin of human life, then its preposterous missteps and clunky dialogue mask this goal. If this is a monster movie simply using these elements to fool an audience into seeing something more sophisticated than it really is, well, it failed on that count as well. By making explicit these concepts, Prometheus becomes actually less satisfying intellectually than Alien. The '79 film is superficially mundane but intellectually rich, while Prometheus is superficially sophisticated and heady, using wide-eyed notions of faith and family to try and gloss over the disjointed plotting and malformed motivations of the key characters.

With regards to the sexuality and wetness that dripped from practically every frame of the highly Freudian '79 film, Prometheus once again fails by making things explicit that were much more fun when hinted at, even if hinted at broadly. One of the best moments in the new movie is the new form of the creature, a slimy, penis-like abomination slithering through the goo, splaying open like some cobra to reveal vagina dentata. This type of effect is the closest the film gets to the original in terms of the darkly erotic, but it overshadowed by two explicit uses of human-on-human sex that are there for little more than plot advancement. The lovemaking fucking scene between the two archaeologists is required to impregnate our heroine (a far cry from a misguided glimpse into a throbbing egg), and while it does lead to the most successful scene in the film when Elizabeth must find a way to self-abort, the actual act of coupling is shot with as pedestrian a fashion as a daytime television soap opera.

Similarly, while we never do see the act in question, the script requires the crew to be absent from the monitors so that things can transpire unseen, so once again we're made to believe that this is such an unprofessional group of individuals that they can't keep to their roles even in the face of obvious challenges with the mission. Worse, the dalliance is quickly forgotten as if it never happened, making the contrivance even more transparent.

This is not to say the film is a complete disaster - it remains a visual feast, with particularly effective use of 3D. While there's less smoke and lasers than in Alien, Ridley and his designers made a satisfying looking craft for our crew to be holed up in. Visual cues to the previous film abound, from the more obvious elements such as the "captains chair" aboard the alien craft to the numerity of antenna and other greebly elements protruding from the Prometheus' hull. The use of Lawrence in Arabia is a nice touch, as is the curved, Cinerama like projection that reveals a subtly dimensionalized version of that Lean classic. For any fan of the original franchise, being able to fill in some backstory brings with it a certain sense of satisfaction - seeing the mask that covers the space voyager in his seat, revisiting the ship's design from the first film, and so on.

In the end, however, I found that Prometheus, as both a response to Alien and its own attempts at philosophical and spiritual investigations, ended up filling in holes that simply were not mandatory to have filled. I may be a fan of another prequel, but I don't pretend that the notion of Midichlorians really improves my appreciation of the "Holy Trilogy", any more than notions of alien DNA matching our own helps me better appreciate the giant monster trying to eat the crew of the Nostromo. What made the first film so powerful, so carnal without sex and so epic without necessitating excessive scope was that the beast had no motivation. The Alien simply was, its role to consume the crew simply accepted, its unique pathogenic form of impregnation a fascinating and visually incredible cinematic tool. We don't need to know about Bush-doctrine like "weapons of mass destruction" (I shudder how clunky that notion will appear only a few years from now), nor notions of how interconnected we are.

The lesson to learn from Alien is that in space they can't hear you scream. With Prometheus we learn that hot space ladies have daddy issues (and the screenwriters have watched The Empire Strikes Back too often), that movie scientists can be derisive of empiricism, and that one shouldn't really ever take off their space helmet, no matter how sweet the air appears to be. We learn that a post-abortive patient can have all the manic pixie power we expect from our nymph-like, femmy heroines, and we learn that despite all the protestations, Ridley's really trying to rewrite his own cinema history, throwing away all films post-Alien and concentrate on themes that, all these years later, he thinks are central to the core of the story.

This leads back to the central discussion, about how much we should be judging Prometheus based on the lessons and rules of O'Bannon and company's Alien script. Sequels (and prequels) are certainly not new to the history of cinema, and the history of cinema is littered with numerous rehashes on a given story. During the first half century of cinema, the so-called "Golden Age", most films were less "permanent" back then, most forgotten once it had stopped its theatrical run, so that a few years, or even a few months later, one could "reboot" a story yet again, using the same source material in a comedy, a drama, a musical, whatever. While we see two Hulk origin films in a decade as pretty abnormal, the likes of Maltese Falcon was remade at least twice within the same span, with the Bogart one the last of that run.

What is relatively new is the notion of the "preboot", a specific combination of both prequel (a film set in the timeline before an established core, "canon" work) and reboot (a re-imagining of that core world or circumstance, allowing a new timeline to continue). The Dark Knight was a reboot of Burton's Batman, which in turn was a reboot of the TV-series' film adaptation. This summer's Spider-Man film revises the origin story, dropping the canon of the Raimi adaptation to carve its new path. The Attack of the Clones, or Temple of Doom, situate their stories before the canon work, and thus work as an episodic precursor, yet play as part of a consistent, narrative whole with a shared timeline and shared core characters. 

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (like Prometheus partly penned by Lindeloff) does the eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too trick to good effect. We start with a straight up prequel (the birth of Kirk), then have a convenient device (shard in time!) that allows for a companion timeline to evolve without being slave to canon. This allows a new series Trek to have little to do with anything that 40+ years of sci-fi baggae has brought about, without directly alienating (ha!) the core audience. We get the characters we love, but they get to be new. Win/win.

It should also be noted that both Trek and Prometheus use almost the exact same narrative device (smashing a smaller ship into a big one) in order to make large changes to the story, but I assume we can forgive this kind of self-plagiarism.

Arguably, the newest installments in the James Bond series have done the same, with Craig's take on the spy both preceding the likes of Dr. No and shifting tonally the entire series. That said, the Bond films were never particularly stringent with regards to source material or consistency film-to-film, nor was there a particularly effective "origin story" film that Craig's Casino Royale directly contrasted. While Quantum of Solace is clearly a sequel to Casino, its harder to claim that Goldeneye is directly in line with Goldfinger, save for our titular character. There's next to no sense of direct timeline between most of the films, and it's only recently (in part because of the success of the Bourne series, another film looking at a pre/reboot) that we're seeing a more consistent story line for dear James.

The latest X-Men film with the kiddies (also, of course, starring Fassbender) does take the tact of the pre-boot as well, moving the storyline away from the core events of the previous series, and allowing another direction to unfold. Alas, I've not seen the film (I gave up after the second in the previous series), so I leave it to our readers to determine whether it sufficiently diverges from the core canon. That said, by being based on comic books, a form of literature that constantly shifts and evolves over the generations with reboot after reboot, the adoption of a new tact for this film is hardly a surprise.

The there's the sequels of sequels, the AVP series (drawn, again, from the comic book world) that extended the "canon" of the four established Alien films. In theses works we're close to the incessancy of the creature from the first film, but our cast is even more disposable, the whole thing devolving into a kind of mad pugilism of action tropes.

If the preboot motif worked well with Star Trek, with Prometheus the results are far less elegant. We're situated on another planet, we're given another Queen to fret about, and we get to see mechanisms that fill in certain holes from the previous works that, as above, didn't particularly call for being filled in.

Critically, the however, the film doesn't play as a standalone work, it practically screams its intention as the beginning of something new. The film feels more like a retroactive writing exercise, a way of ripping open new avenues for exploration couched under the notion of "opening up" the universe of the narrative rather than something truly organic to the story unfolding.

Again, like comic book films, the Trek example lends itself well to such devices, the notion of a space continuum shift hardly foreign to sci-fi lore. With Prometheus we're given something I think a bit cheaper, a kind of bait-and-switch cheat. Ridley and co. could well have created a whole new world, exploring these very issues, but he's pimping our experiences with the world of the Alien series in order for us to care about esoterica like dumping black goo into waterfalls. One the one hand, we're made to care about certain key elements about this new film only because of our foreknowledge of the previous works, and on the other we're being asked to forget what made the original film so powerful in the first place.

A straight-up prequel can, when done well, be re-situated in the viewing-order timeline. A more complicated sequel-prequel combination can still be excellent while working best when seen after the initial film (think Godfather II). With a preboot, however, you're running the risk of actually damaging the original work by grafting on elements that in their superfluousness render certain factors of the first movie less gratifying upon reflection. Alien works in part because of the mysteries that are implicit, the long-dead civilization that's been lying in wait, its chest ripped open by an unknown foe. Tying that scene to an weapon gone wrong, and to notions of earth life being the fodder for alien weapons development, cheapens the mystery by glomming on extra, unnecessary stuff.

The failures of Prometheus are manifest when one contrasts with what came before, no matter how much the filmmakers wish to diverge from the original timeline and thematics. They've needlessly complicated where simplicity proved to be profound, they've filled in back-story and created new vectors for story development, yet lost site of their objectives in creating a stand-alone work. Judged boldly, the film's a far cry from any film in the Alien series, including both the Fincher and the Jeunet episodes, both in terms of raw visceral thrills and the execution of the story. 

The storyline of Scott's next films may well lead us down some interesting paths, but I fear from this first instance that we're going to get more and more convoluted, needlessly labyrinthine stories masking what fundamentally is almost certainly a less interesting story than the original. Moving forward, we'll have more giant monsters chasing our heroes through hallways, our heroines barely escaping with their lives while a few sundry minor characters are sacrificed. It may help that we know we're somehow related to those that created the monster, but it won't help us care about those that they're chasing.

Ridley's newest creation is not quite the irredeemable, unholy abomination that some have claimed, nor is it some transcendent and luminous examination of our metaphysical nature through the lens of science fantasy. As we wait for the Director to tinker some more (there's already talk of a new, longer cut on the Blu-Ray), and wait as well for the films that will be coming in the wake of the financial success of the film, it's worth recognizing that Ridley has lost little of his visual touch, and these are films well worth seeing on the big screen. At the same time, we should not fall for the belief that talk of spiritually equates with philosophical depth, nor should we fall prey to the manipulation of our love for the original work to ascribe more meaning and pleasure to those moments where we get to see behind the curtain of the world introduced to us by Alien

As titanic as its ambitions are, Prometheus never rises to the levels it wishes to reach, stultified by both high expectations and clunky, misguided plotting, poor character development and a needlessly trite, convoluted final act. Regardless of what your take on the film is, it seems clear that Prometheus sinks or swims entirely based its status as a preboot. Its richness and beauty is borrowed from the original film, while its story tries to craft its own way while borrowing liberally from the original series.

It is no small irony, then, that Prometheus is less a standalone creature but rather something parasitic, born from a host of the previous work (or works, depending who you believe). It's a hybrid between new and old trying to take myriad pieces of both. Just like the squid creature in the operating theatre, the film has moments of struggle and strength, but is soon clawed into submission, dangling flaccidly after all the tension is deflated. It too may rise again in the end, made whole by what may come later, when it is shaped more by what it births rather than what its essence is drawn from. For now the film is a strange, frustrating little thing, compelling to look at to be sure, but a poor comparison to the host that incubated its ideas.
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