By Bob Clark
When pioneering sci-fi author Ray Bradbury passed away this week, there were plenty of places for the mind to turn to, reeling in the news of a great mind departing from the Earth. There were of course the numerous literary works he’d penned over the course of his decades long career as one of the most popular and thoughtful genre authors of the 20th century, and one whose influences can still be traced crystal clear through all manner of short-stories and novels. Additionally, one could think to the number of adaptations his work received over the years, from television miniseries like The Martian Chronicles or the fever-pitch crossroads of French New Wave and Hitchcockian dystopia in Francois Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451, no doubt the author’s signature piece (influential enough for it to turn into a mere punchline of a title in Michael Moore’s 9/11 documentary). Beyond that, there were the years of interviews and commentary he provided on the nature of science-fiction, particularly when it came to the ways in which he resisted franchising some of his most popular works. One of the earliest items of interest I’d read about him, as a child, was that while he very often enjoyed original science-fiction films, he often despaired when the filmmakers turned to the same premise for a sequel, even when the resulting product turned out to be something as universally respected (within the genre community, at least) as The Empire Strikes Back. And as much as I’ve enjoyed the series of films represented by that sequel– one of the rare efforts to join the “better than the original” club of classics in many critics’ eyes– I have to admit that I’ve always rather agreed with him.
After all, just as THX 1138 led to the original Star Wars in George Lucas’ career, wouldn’t it have been something to have seen what might’ve followed in the path from that blockbuster-of-blockbusters, rather than just the next episode in the series? I’ve certainly held myself to little or no restraint when it comes to admiring that series, of course, and especially the much-criticized Prequel Trilogy, but at the same time I can’t deny that in dedicating his creative efforts and resources to franchising his saga, that Lucas may have very well cut short an even greater span and range of cinematic works. It’s something I wonder about when looking at Ridley Scott’s second and third features, especially considering that both of Lucas’ sci-fi features up to then had motivated the British director to consider the genre in the first place. Both staunchly works of hard-core (if not expressly “hard”) science-fiction, yet each of them miles apart from one another in theme and tone (farther apart, in some respects, than THX 1138 and Star Wars), the films Alien and Blade Runner have long since become two of the most beloved and respected contributions to the genre, as well as cinematic classics of any stripe. Once word of a sequel to the initial film went underway, it would’ve been very easy indeed for Scott to have joined that bandwagon and allow both himself and the series to repeat themselves for another exercise in bio-horror stalking in the dark (had he stayed on, it’s unlikely we would’ve gotten anything remotely resembling James Cameron’s appropriation of Heinlein-isms for Aliens, another arguable member of the “better than the first” club), but he had moved on to things both bigger and bolder (the teasing promise of the abortive Dune adaptation, and the eventual greatness of his tackling Phillip K. Dick) and smaller and weaker (basically everything up until Gladiator, with Thelma & Louise thrown in if you want to be charitable). In that sense, perhaps it’s smarter to stick with a franchise, or at the very least a genre, when you’ve got something good going, but at least he attempted something different, for better and worse alike. Or at least that’s what he’s attempted all this long until this week’s addition to his filmography, Prometheus.
In truth, Scott has long discussed the possibility of his return to the Alien franchise, and were it not for the way that the series painted itself into a corner with David Fincher’s underrated Alien 3, we might’ve seen this return a fair deal sooner than 2012. That film saw fit to make good on the fatalism running throughout the series and offer the stand-out heroine Ellen Ripley a true martyr’s death, sacrificing herself to keep the unstoppable xenomorph life-form out of the hands of the diabolical Weyland-Yutani corporation, guaranteeing both the safety of the human race and a sense of crushing emotional closure to the franchise as a whole. But being the product of the modern studio system, it only turned out to be only a few years until an eventual sequel was put to film in the form of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection, whose Joss Whedon-penned script saw fit to cheapen the sacrifices of the previous films by simply cloning Ripley and jettisoning all of the corporate villains and replacing them with a lame collection of stock government stooges and space-pirate action-figure archetypes that feel less like a holistic whole of the Alien series and more a dress rehearsal for the space-western of Firefly. Following that disappointment (whose biggest contribution to cinema remains how it helped bankroll Jeunet’s palate-cleansing follow-up of Amelie) it barely seemed that disrespectful to the franchise to see it combined with a couple of fondly remembered sci-fi action romps from the 80′s in the shape of the Aliens Vs. Predators movies– in fact, one could even grade them higher than Alien Resurrection if one were willing to chart a bell curve wide and generous enough.
And yet, every now and then for the past decade or so, there have been teasing hints and rumors of Ridley Scott’s intent to return to the Alien series, usually revolving around his desire to explore the world that the xenomorphs themselves came from originally, as well as flesh out the barely glimpsed alien figures of the Space Jockeys from the derelict space-craft where the ravenous life forms were found in the first feature. But growing dissatisfaction with how the series had degenerated and been tramped out into a mere blockbuster crossover amongst fans, critics and even the cast and crew made the possibility of a sequel increasingly unlikely– were it not for the comic-book inspired fantasies of Aliens Vs. Predator, we might’ve eventually seen a Cameron-scripted and Scott-directed return of the cloned-heroine Ripley to the homeworld of the xenomorphs and the Space Jockeys, and perhaps seen the grisly series brought to a mature and satisfying conclusion that even the studio bean-counters couldn’t have wriggled their way around. But with series mainstay Sigourney Weaver dropping out after seeing the franchise she’d helped built, and been nominated for an Academy Award as best actress no less, milked into a connection with an Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up, all the talk of continuing the franchise turned dead. At least that was until somebody hatched upon the fine idea of turning the series in the opposite direction and following the example of so many blockbuster franchises into Prequel territory. Granted, between Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof (by now nearly as beloved and reviled among the fanboy cognoscenti as Lucas ever was, for the ups and downs that Lost took in its six-seasons on the air) and all their denials that this feature was to be straightly connected to the preceding Alien films in all but the broadest of ways, one might’ve been forgiven for thinking that Prometheus was actually to be an original work entirely, and a return by the director merely to the genre where he had sired his proudest cinematic achievements, if not the same continuities.
But that illusion of complete originality disappears not long after the film begins (it would’ve vanished without a trace for anyone paying even a moderate amount of attention to the movie’s marketing campaign, which all but named Weyland-Yutani as one of 20th Century Fox’s corporate sponsors). Indeed, even if one discounts the connections the film has to the previous entries of the Alien cycle, the bare bones of the story we’re given certainly don’t count for any drastic innovations as far as science-fiction narratives go. Following a crew of scientists who trace a series of identical star-map cave paintings around the world to a planet far from Earth that may hold the answers to where humanity sprang from, but turns out to merely pose more questions and offer nothing short of planet-wide doom, the basic narrative of Prometheus has an unsettlingly familiar feel to it for the ways in which it follows in the footsteps of seemingly countless like-minded stories ancient astronauts and the origins of mankind springing from the stars on film and television of the past twenty-odd years. We’ve seen this kind of Chariots of the Gods premise and quest capitalized upon before for Stargate and its television offspring, for The X-Files and its elaborate alien mythologies, for Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars and even that last Indiana Jones movie everybody kept complaining about. We’ve seen half-baked documentaries on television speculating upon extra-terrestrial influences upon ancient civilizations as far back as the Egyptians and the Mayans– in fact, we’ve even seen these kinds of theories in Aliens Vs. Predators itself, complete with frozen pyramids buried underneath one of the poles (don’t ask me to remember if it was North or South, please). And it certainly doesn’t help that the questions are done so in an increasingly shallow, teasing way– they spend more time talking about how important it is to ask important questions than they do actually elaborating the philosophical musings such topics represent, making it all feel a bit like listening to precocious college kids patting themselves on the back for how clever they think they are.
More to the point, these questions have long been a part of science-fiction literature and science fiction, to the point that it’s almost quaint to see such a self-conscious emphasis on them through what might just as well be another high-concept monster movie. Scott pays homage to Kubrick’s seminal collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 early on, and offers a piece of genre surrealism so evocative and suggestive in meaning that it ought well stand beside the first glimpses of the monolith onscreen as some of the best realized feats of movie fantasy, if only it weren’t for the rest of the horror-conventions dragging the rest of the film down, amongst other things. Even those horror formula aren’t nearly as revolutionary as they could be, considering the lengths to which Scott revitalized the genre in the original film, and especially considering the ties that feature and this one share to the canon of Lovecraft and the whole genre of awe-inspiring existential dread that followed in his wake (indeed, if one is to believe what Guillermo Del Toro has said, the production of Prometheus may very well prevent the making of his long-planned At the Mountains of Madness for the similarities the Scott film has to that primordial piece of ancient-astronaut literature). Even anime creators like Hideaki Anno and Chiaki J. Kanaka have taken inspiration and woven allusions to Kubrick, Clarke and Lovecraft in their work (Kanaka has written his own stories in the “Cthullu Mythos”, himself), making the use of these themes one that has already been well capitalized on an international and cross-media disciplinary scale as well. As such, for all the talk there’s been in recent days of Scott’s supposedly revolutionary take on the genre and material, there’s no end of the usual prequel-related hype and expectation that Prometheus has to live up to, and a question of its own to answer, on both ends– is it a game-changing work of existential science-fiction, or a crowd-scaring horror blockbuster like all the other Alien flicks?
The answer is almost inevitably both and neither. To be fair, a lion’s share of what’s wrong with the film owes more to the very connection it has to a pre-existing franchise, and to its attempt to build a new one off its back at the same time. Scott is indeed attempting to create something more or less new inside the same creative world as the Alien films, and that’s not such a bad notion as that series was for a time a golden example of a franchise that was big enough to contain all kinds of creative forces and permutations, resulting in completed films that were as unlike from one another as one can imagine. But there’s so little of the essential germs of what made the Alien films what they were in this movie, yet at the same time an overabundance of aesthetic details from the increasing periphery of the first effort, that there seems little point in connecting the story to the franchise at all. Yes, there’s no end of time spent looking at the Space Jockeys and their bone-shaped craft, reliably invigorating interpretations of the usual body-horror spectacles (including a stand-out medical set-piece that, were it in a slightly stronger film, would no doubt go down as one of the new classic moments in modern scares– then again it probably will anyway), and thankfully all of the ripe anti-corporate themes that helped make the original trilogy of films such an impressive feat in the studio system. But nearly all of these elements and themes could have easily been put into a genuinely original storyline and aesthetic formula without having to connect-the-dots to the more obscure elements of the series, while more or less avoiding much of the most definitive iconography. Granted, there’s nods to all the Alien films throughout, but only teases to the actual xenomorphs themselves, the kind that seem to be there only to hook audiences in to an eventual sequel. The same’s more or less true of the answers that the crew go out searching for– yes, when dealing with Clarke/Lovecraftian themes of unknowable, unfathomable alien/elder gods out in the cosmos there’s bound to be a certain amount of uncertainty, but the degree to which questions are raised and then seemingly forgotten throughout the film feels less like artful ambiguity and more like your typical long-form narrative table setting.
It’s this sort of loose-end storytelling one might come to expect from Damon Lindelof, if not from Ridley Scott. As the co-creator and showrunner of Lost, there were no end of unanswered questions he saw fit to raise and then summarily dismiss without addressing before that series’ end, and as such Prometheus feels less like a fully-fleshed out feature of its own and more of an elaborately, expensively produced pilot episode screened in theaters. One might expect that most if not all of the open ends he leaves in the film could be filled in within the audiences’ mind by the already existing Alien films, seeing how the story here is tailor made to fit their mysterious backstory, but those films never really needed to have that backstory filled out in the first place to keep interest alive and far from flagging. It’s curious especially to consider how in this film Lindelof has committed many of the same creative sins that he admonished George Lucas for in The Phantom Menace and its succeeding films– Prometheus fails to have anything remotely like an effective stand-alone story as it busies itself about laying groundwork for future sequels, all while tying itself into knots with references to the original Alien films so remote and obscure one is almost obliged to have watched the DVD’s the night before in a marathon run just to pick up on who’s playing an android before white blood actually spills. With only a handful of exceptions the cast assembled is merely a bunch of overwritten cannon-fodder for the bio-mechanical nastiness that awaits them, and the rate at which most of them spout of lame dialogue in strained attempts to create performances make one long for the long, silent stretches of Scott’s original (or even the sketchily drawn roughnecks of Cameron’s venture, or the wonderful collection of authentic sounding British accents of Fincher’s).
As such, for a film that occupies an increasingly disillusioning franchise fence-sitting position and fails to provide any real sense of narrative, dramatic or thematic closure, is it a complete failure in and of itself and a waste of time, in general? Not quite. Because this is a Ridley Scott movie we’re talking about, and at the very least that allows some very captivating eye-candy, if nothing less. One wonders if the film might open itself a bit more once the seemingly inevitable director’s cut is made available, as at two hours the whole experience feels increasingly telescoped and rushed, which only compounds the larger problems of the making of a film that’s both dependent upon a pre-existing series of films it’s trying to distance itself from, and a series of films that haven’t yet been made. Though much of the movie amounts to merely revisiting the same locations of the first film with more light and time to spend luxuriating in the Giger-inspired sets, there’s a genuine visual feast to be found both in the recycled locations and from the new ones throughout, as Scott puts new spins on all the old ideas of a lived-in working and living environment for blue-collar astronauts to cruise through space in. Scott especially puts color to wondrous use in visualizing all manner of holographic projections throughout, showcasing a dexterity with digital effects that stands up to any of the stand-out physical model work from Alien or the masterpiece of Douglas Trumbull’s work on Blade Runner.
And at key moments, like the wordless, evocative opening or the harrowing medical set-piece about midway, the film absolutely comes alive in a way that only seems possible at the edge of space in a place where all life seems to be just inches away from ending in a bloody, painful mess. This might not be the best sci-fi film Ridley Scott has ever made, or the best sequel he’s ever made (Hannibal beats it for the Vita Nuova-inspired aria alone), or even the best of either that he’ll ever get a chance to make should sequels to this feature or Blade Runner ever get off the ground (and yes, he’s been talking about doing a sequel to that film for decades, too, for whatever that’s worth). But may stand as one of his better films, and it marks a return for him to the territory that he made his best work in, however many decades ago that was, and for all its faults it is undoubtedly a visually impressive tapestry. It’s nowhere near better than the original, or even as good, but at least it’s better than the last 15 years’ worth of Alien films.