Sunday, 6 January 2013

NerdTech's Most Interesting Film of 2012

There are three main things I learned from writing my Film of the Year series:
1 - Word processing apps on phones are brilliant. They mean I can use my spare moments to do something productive and creative, rather than just checking Facebook for the fortieth time.
2 - Don't expect constructive criticism from family. The only comment I received was, "No-one's impressed."
3 - Writing these things is fun! I really enjoyed it, and I'd really like to keep doing it. Hopefully I'll manage to review some films in the coming year, but for now I'll have to write about something from last year. But what?

As fantastic as The Avengers is, there's not much to talk about beyond heaping it with adoring praise and discussing which Hulk moment is the best. So which film of 2012 gives the best opportunity for conversation and discussion?
Is it the enjoyable but flawed John Carter (formerly of Mars)? The genre-bending exposé that is The Cabin in the Woods? The wibbly wobbly, timey wimey (totally broken) plot of Looper? Or could it be the confused and uneven The Dark Knight Rises?
Actually, the one film that I've kept mulling over and arguing about, with myself and with others, is the film that began the year as possibly my most anticipated. I've been thinking about it so much, in fact, that what follows is not a review so much as an analytical essay. I'm sorry, but I'm really into this writing thing now! Let's do this!

Prometheus - Ridley Scott

Prometheus might be the most well-made bad movie of all time.

The story, such as it is, follows Elizabeth Shaw - a scientist who, along with her archaeologist boyfriend Charlie Holloway, have found evidence that life on Earth was originally seeded by aliens they call "Engineers". With funding from the Weyland corporation, a team of experts heads out (on a ship called Prometheus) to find the planet Shaw and Holloway think is the likely source of the Engineers. Things do not go well.

The legend goes that Sir Ridley Scott originally developed this film to explore the origin of the "Space Jockey" from his horror sci-fi masterpiece, Alien. That's the big dead guy in the chair with a face like an elephant and a hole in his chest. He, as you may have guessed, is an Engineer. But, as development progressed, Scott grew less interested in the origin of the Jockey, and of the Alien, and instead began to focus on loftier themes of life, death, gods, and creation. But, because of its inception as a prequel, the script remained tangentially tied to Alien - and there the problems begin to arise.

In many ways, Alien is a B-movie. A nasty little horror film with a heroine who ends up running and screaming in her underwear. But it's a very good B-movie. The best, in fact.
Alien pulls this off by embracing exactly what it is. It knows it's a simple film appealing to simple emotions - namely fear and more fear. With no other aspirations to worry about, Alien is free to be the best damn version of that simple B-movie that it can be.

Prometheus, on the other hand, is definitely an A-movie. And it's probably the worst damn version of that A-movie it can possibly be.
Where Alien knew exactly what it was, Prometheus can't make up its mind. It has no idea what it is or what it's trying to achieve. Is it a horror film, or is it a philosophical sci-fi? Is it simple or complex? Is it intellectual or visceral? Is it plain and obvious or mysterious and withholding? Does it want answers or not? Answers to Alien's questions or its own unrelated ones?
Is it a prequel? Even that simple question is one Scott refused to conclusively answer before release. When you see the film you realise this is because he doesn't know. The film itself doesn't know!

Prometheus wants to answer each of these questions with "both". It always tries to service both camps and, as a result, the actual answer is "neither". Scary bits do happen, but because they don't have anything to do with the central questions of life and creation they are promptly dropped and forgotten about. Likewise deep meaningful questions are asked, but before the film can explore them in any detail they are abandoned in favour of running around and screaming.
This schizophrenic nature of Prometheus results in the feel of a series of sketches. It's as though the individual scenes have been included because of how well they work on their own, without looking at their effect on the overall story. Sometimes films are constructed this way - with setpieces written first and the story built around them - but here the story has been vaguely draped across the individual sequences, with little to no attempt to integrate them effectively.

However, if Prometheus is a sketch-show, it is an incredibly well-made one. Each individual sketch is a lovingly made piece of art. The cinematography is absolutely stunning. Set design, gorgeous. The actors are actually very good in each given moment - filling their scenes with emotion and power (though we'll come to their overall performances later). The atmosphere of each scene is heavy and immersive, sucking you deep into the moment. Sir Ridley's direction is great and his composition even better, filling the frame with strong visuals and finding beauty in even the nastiest moments. The film was shot in true 3D and Scott naturally knows what to do with it - it adds texture and depth to the shot, but never distracts.
When the film is playing horror, everything on screen comes together to create something horrific. When it's playing tension, it's claustrophobic and fearful. When it's going for grand and philosophical, it becomes huge and powerful and inspires a sense of awe. The individual sketches are better in places than entire films that reach for the same results.
Prometheus is probably, with apologies to The Hobbit, the best looking and best made film I saw in 2012. It really is a gorgeous piece of work, so far as each individual scene is concerned. The problems only arise when looked at as a whole.

The fact that it is so well-made essentially serves to hide the problems. A film so pretty, so clearly high-quality, cannot possibly have a script as incompetent as this one seems. A film this good must surely be clever. It certainly thinks it is, and acts as though it is, so there must be more to it. And so theories and lengthy extrapolations crop up on the internet seeking to explain the confusion. I, like many others, somehow convinced myself that it must have been good, and that seeing it again would clear up my niggling doubts. I just needed to think about it longer.
This is the usual line from Prometheus' defenders, too. There's nothing wrong with the film not explaining everything, they say, and those who don't like it are at fault for wanting it all spelled out. It's open to interpretation - just think about it longer.
Thinking about it more may help you come to conclusions about the "big questions", but it will never help you to explain why this scene followed that unrelated scene, why these characters did this thing after learning that contradictory thing, or why people's motivations literally U-turn from moment to moment. In focusing on unanswered questions the defenders overlook that the well-constructed sequences which contain those questions are held in place with chewing-gum and rusty paperclips.

Lets go back to Alien for a second. Think on John Hurt's ultimate fate - the Chestburster scene. Think how that event changes everything about the film from that point on. The film becomes a different thing entirely, for both the characters and the audience.
Now imagine that it had happened to Hurt alone, in his bunk perhaps, and that somehow (work with me here) he survived. Imagine that Hurt stumbled - wild eyes, covered in blood - into the room where the others were gathered. They look up in shock and, rather than warn them of the thing on the ship, rather than tell them about what surely must be the worst ordeal of his life, he just says something vague like, "This planet is bad!"
This is what happens in Prometheus. The scene is a clear analogue to the infamous chestburst, and the aftermath essentially plays out exactly as above. But wait, it gets better!
The crew, faced with this man who is covered in blood and possibly raving, just turn back to what they were doing without a word. Then one casually says, "We're going back down to the planet. Wanna come?"
And John Hurt, seconds after saying how the planet is bad, minutes after a monster literally crawled out from inside him, replies, "Yeah, ok."

This is what I mean when I say the scenes are essentially sketches. The chestburst-alike is the best sketch in the film. That sequence is tense, claustrophobic, nailbiting and immediate. But the connective tissue tying it to the next sketch (returning to the planet - notably a "big question" moment) is utter nonsense. As a way of effectively leading one scene into another the scenario above is impossibly stupid. Yet the whole film is made up of moments like this.
The scene is connected so weakly, in fact, that other than one specific moment later in the film it has no effect on the narrative at all. In terms of immediate impact it matches its Alien equivalent. In terms of lasting story impact it does no such thing.

The real casualty of the scene above, and others like it, is not actually the plot. The plot suffers - it suffers a lot - but it might have been salvageable were it not for the damage to the characters. Looking at the scene again, it's clear that Hurt is not acting like a human being. The other characters perhaps even less so. They are acting as the plot requires to get them into position - consistent characterisation be damned!
But of course, it's not actually John Hurt. In Alien he was the ship's officer - intelligent, sure, but by no means a genius. In Prometheus, the character in this scene is a scientist. Most of the characters are scientists and, we can assume, they're the best scientists that the Weyland corporation can afford. It's an important mission - they wouldn't have sent amateurs. Yet, in order to get them into position for the next sketch, whatever that may be, the script constantly has them act like amateurs. Worse, in fact - these characters are frequently outright stupid. They are terrible scientists.

The first obvious blunder is that, upon learning that the atmosphere within an alien structure is breathable, they waste no time taking off their helmets. "Breathable" is not the same as "safe", people! So there's oxygen - there could also be all kinds of bugs and microbes in there. Maybe you scanned for that sort of thing, but this is an alien planet - you'd have no idea what you were looking for! That might seem a minor error, and it kind of is, but it opens the floodgates.

Mild spoilers follow.

Within no time, the one biologist on the crew - the guy brought specifically to examine lifeforms - sees an alien corpse, finds it too creepy and immediately wants to go back to the ship. The guy should be freaking out with excitement, if anything, but instead he wants to leave. And they let him. They actually perform an autopsy on this corpse later and the crew's expert biologist isn't present!
The geologist is (far more forgivably) creeped out too, and goes with him. Then they both get lost.
Most people point out at this point that the geologist is the guy who made the map. That's silly. The geologist simply started up the automated map-making process. He doesn't have a copy of that map - it's being created holographically back at basecamp. The same basecamp that is tracking all of the away-team within that map, monitoring their lifesigns, and in constant radio-contact. Yet somehow they get lost.
You've probably guessed what happens to these two morons. You guessed it because the only reason they would act so stupid and against their actual roles is if the script needed to isolate them for some reason. It doesn't care how or why or if it makes sense - just get these two alone for the next horror sketch.
So, naturally, these two end up trapped in the structure that night. Their first move is to head back to the room with the alien corpse they were both so desperate to get away from. Which makes a certain kind of sense, but isn't really in character. What's totally against character, though, is how the biologist reacts when faced with a live alien specimen. Where the corpse freaked him out, the very alive, hissing, snake-thing makes him go all goo-goo-eyed and want to stroke it. This would be stupid anyway, but given his jumpy, fearful nature earlier it makes no sense at all.
When those two die, as they were clearly always going to, no-one knows it. This is because the guy on watch at basecamp - the one with radio-contact, location-tracking and, most importantly, lifesign displays - is off having sex. That sounds as dumb as it is and it's never mentioned again. It's just an easy (stupid) way to get him out of the room.
That same night (this is the last one I'll list, because it's my favourite) Holloway, Shaw's archaeologist boyfriend, gets very depressed and very drunk. Why? He just had all his theories validated; he discovered an alien civilisation; he found what is likely the cradle of human existance; he should be drinking champagne! So why is he drinking whiskey? And why is he drinking it alone?
Holloway is sad because the aliens are all dead. Specifically because he can't talk to them - can't ask them those big questions. Ignoring the fact that they only looked for a couple of hours in one area of one structure in one valley of this planet, HE'S AN ARCHAEOLOGIST! Dead civilisations are what he does! They are his thing! If he's depressed, after discovering everything they have on just their first day, about Engineer history and about our own, then he is the worst archaeologist in the history of the universe!
It makes him look like a whiny, self-entitled arsehole. Remember, this is our secondary protagonist I'm talking about. This is not good characterisation. Like everything listed here, his actions are dictated by the things they need to set up. Later on he does something pretty selfless, which clashes with the spoilt, selfish brat he's established to be in this scene. Not in a "he learnt his lesson and changed" kind of way, either, just that he's now a different character entirely because the script doesn't actually care.

Spoilers end.

Because the script doesn't care, neither do we. There's no characters to care for - just actors who appear in sketches as different characters. Even Shaw and company representative Meredith Vickers, the only two who remain consistent from scene to scene, aren't so much characters as lists of attributes. Very short lists of attributes (they are "a bit religious" and "corporate ice-queen" respectively). Neither of them have an arc, and both end the movie in the same place, character-wise, that they began.
The only character getting any critical attention (from both critics and audiences) is Michael Fassbender's portrayal of David, the ship's android. He plays the part fantastically, with an understated menace. I agree that it's a great performance but, at the script level, David is no different to any other player in the sketch-show. He does whatever the scene requires to set up the next scene, with no clear motivation driving him to do it. But because Alien taught us that androids are devious schemers with ulterior motives, and because Fassbender wisely plays into that, David escapes the terrible characterisation of everyone else. The script doesn't make the android interesting - it's Fassbender that elevates him beyond the script.

This is true of the entire film. Anything that works works in spite of the script, not because of it. It feels like a first draft. All the important story beats are present; all the setpiece moments (or sketches) are in place; the characters are beginning to come into their own; the themes are beginning to rise to the surface. But it's not fully formed - it needs a few more passes.
The ridiculous part being, of course, that an early draft has since surfaced (entitled Alien: Engineers) which is less ambitious but so much more complete and polished than this one.

Prometheus is a mess. It does the vast majority of things perfectly - Ridley Scott certainly knows how to make a stunning film - but it gets a few core things monumentally wrong. The script undermines everything the film does right. It's very pretty, has strong performances, is atmospheric and paced well (it's certainly never dull), but none of that matters if the characters' choices never make a lick of sense.
It's a bad film; it's just a phenomenally well made one.

That's the end of this extended review-cum-essay, but I could easily have written more.
For one thing, I described the bad scientists but I never mentioned the bad science. The Engineers' DNA is apparently a 100% match with humans, for instance. These are nine-foot-tall hairless blue aliens we're talking about. And a match with which humans specifically? My DNA isn't even a 100% match with my immediate family!
Oh, and I didn't mention that line. The great "twist" from Vickers that is so obvious, yet treated as so revelatory, that it had me howling with laughter.
There's also my own theory, which I think explains everything.
Yes, I could write a lot more about Prometheus. This crazy contradiction of a movie is such a fertile topic. The story contains a number of "big questions" worth a conversation on their own, but the biggest question is how such a well-crafted, beautiful film reached the screen with such a painfully inadequate script. I've had and will continue to have discussions and arguments about almost every aspect of the film, making Prometheus my Most Interesting Film of 2012.