OK, so this is a review, and it contains spoilers. Though that raises the question of whether you can spoil a film that is irredeemably bad in the first place.
I had high hopes for Prometheus. I love the original Alien film – as I’ve blogged here previously, its script and screenplay (and design and direction) are timeless marvels. The fact that it was made pre-personal computers (so that all the computer interaction is utterly clunky to modern eyes) is actually a blessing, because it lets you focus on the thing that is always fascinating in a good film – the interplay of the actors, the things they say and do, and the plot.
If you want a hilarious dissection of the first half-hour or so of Prometheus, do enjoy yourself by going over to Digital Digging, which starts by looking at it from an archaeologist’s perspective, and then just the perspective of someone who wants people to behave a little more rationally than just “that hole looks dark, I think I’ll stick my head in it and then turn the light on”. The comments (especially the dimmer bulbs transported over from Boing Boing) are worth a laugh too. Bear in mind, of course, that some day those people will be eligible to vote. You could also enjoy James Whatley’s post on the many WTFs in the script.
Focus, always focus
But I want to focus on those elements that Prometheus missed, which are the essential things of a successful film. In part it’s because I’d like to be able to imagine what a good screenplay would look like, but also because it’s only the very worst of things that shows you quite how badly things can be.
I now discover that one of the screenplay writers worked on Lost. Oh, the TV series that threw off loose ends and never bothered to tie them up endlessly, and sprawled over seven series before gasping over the line? Sure, that would be a discipline for writing a self-contained film. Not.
Not that a film has to answer every question. You can’t. In a screenplay, some things just have to be accepted: why someone is a stepchild, why they are rich, why there are a bunch of pods that seem to just be sitting there, where the blue light that plays over them came from. (Answer: from The Who, who were rehearsing in the studio next door. Sorry, did I spoil that?)
I knew in the first moments of Prometheus (which I watched in 3D at an Imax – I told you my hopes were high) that something was very, very wrong. Why? The music. Whereas the original Alien runs violin bows up your back, this was playing jolly major chords as though you’d just accomplished something. How can a film that’s going to discover the makers of the Alien going to be jolly? That’s all wrong.
Cut to a scene with SuperOffWorldMan drinking something and curling up and dying and his DNA all splurging into the already rather fecund streams around Iceland. Er, why? Why does he need to do this in order to seed the planet? Eh? This is not explained, and while it’s OK to have some things be mysterious, it would be nice to feel they fit into a broader picture. Later we learn (after being told “you can’t cast off hundreds of years of evolutionary theory”) that human DNA is a 100% match with mateybloke’s. Which raises the question rather forcefully of the whole animal kingdom and the preservation of DNA and genes throughout the entire phylogeny. Seriously: if you’re going to play around with science in a film, try not to insult those in the audience who might have even a vague scientific knowledge, because you’re going to piss them off. None of the science in the whole thing was the least bit convincing. None of it. It’s not even worth bothering writing why it wasn’t. None of it at all is how scientists behave – that is, thoughtful, rational, reflective.
Next moment I knew this was a wrong ‘un: Noomi Rapace, as an archaeologist, finds a cave (how? Not explained) and shouts down a Skye valley to another archaeologist. If you’ve ever gone anywhere in a valley of any description, then you know that you can’t shout down them and expect anyone to hear a damn thing. But, magically, blokey down in the valley does. Though by the time he’s made it up the valley, she’s tidied it all up and dated it. Uh-huh.
Some space stupidness follows; my heart sank as I saw that the Prometheus spacecraft is meant to have a crew of 17. Seventeen people. Now, that might actually be what you need to run a spacecraft. However, for a film it breaks a key rule.
Rule No.1: how many characters?: people can only follow a story with a maximum of seven, perhaps eight, characters to worry about. Seventeen is a bus load. (Alien: seven people. Friends: six people. ThirtySomething: six people. Mad Men: six people, plus a few who come in and out – Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Bert, Pete, and the wives and some of the others.) Do not try to write more than six people into your script unless you absolutely have to have the seventh. (Stuff Magazine’s Mat Smith, who has been to see it twice – he’s a man of some taste – says that he still doesn’t know who some of the people are.)
Rule No. 2: pacing. This film doesn’t have it. There’s no obvious motor. Yes, we know that it’s an expedition, and we in the audience are all on edge expecting an alien to jump out; but that’s not the same as a motor, the reason why you keep watching. In thrillers, it’s called the Macguffin – the excuse for keeping you interested. (So in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol it’s the stolen Russian nuke codes, for example. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the film – you already understand that stolen Russian nuke codes are probably something you want to be unstolen, or grabbed.) In Prometheus, what is the Macguffin? What are you waiting to find out? You’re never sure, and that’s a key weakness.
Rule No. 3: tidiness. If you drop hints about events or people, don’t then drop them. So Idris Elba, having emerged from the sleep things, decorates a Christmas tree, because they’ve missed a whole load of Christmas parties. Aw. Except that’s the last reference to Christmas or parties. We don’t learn whether he’s a party type, or whether Christmas has some deep meaning, or what.
Rule No. 4: character. This is so important. Idris Elba again: he’s the captain of the ship. This should in theory mean that he can tell anyone what to do in order to keep the ship safe. If he can’t do that, then he’s just another Red Shirt. But we never find out which he really is, because he never has the sort of confrontation with Charlize Theron which would tell us what he thinks of their relative positions. Only that he would like (and gets, apparently) a shag with her, which doesn’t actually advance either of them as characters; although it does tell us that he’s perfectly happy to leave the bridge uncrewed while two of the crew are marooned off-ship, leaving them effectively without radio contact. So, basically, a completely crap captain. Except that at the end he then becomes big brave captain, prepared to try to wallop the departing alien ship. Why? What? When did that change come about? And how exactly did they choose him in the first place, if he’ll abandon the bridge like that? The character makes no sense. You can’t predict what he’ll do at any time – although I did realise after a while that it would always be “the utterly stupid thing”. Someone been attacked by an organism off-ship? Let them on! Someone attacking the crew down below at the ground hatch? Open the hatch a bit more so you get a good look – don’t want to close it off or anything. Hell no.
Rule No. 5: consistency and plausibility. Cite above: Idris Elba and his wandering characterisation. (I blame this on the script, since his Luther and Stringer Bell were so powerful.) Cite 2: plausibility. Not explained: how do the archaeologists know that the star formation is… how the hell do they know anything, actually? Why does the “invitation” turn out to be a pointer to what we are led to believe (perhaps wrongly, mind) is a military dump?
And while we’re on the military dump thing: another part of the plotting/pacing/plausibility thing is that at no point do the characters get together and try to figure out what’s going on. In Alien, after the alien escapes, they gather and plan how to catch it; after Brett gets done, they gather again and plan what to do. See? Talking. A council of war. Some discussion of quite what they’re dealing with.
Update: Rule No. 6: script. I was reminded of this by this tweet (if you can’t be bothered, it says: “Ok, yes, Prometheus was awwwwful. What a disappointment. I feel like I need to scrub the black goo out of my brain by watching Contact.”
Damn, yes. Contact – the film in which we discover aliens beaming messages to us instructing us how to build a rather large and scary structure – has one single exchange which deals with questions about faith and belief and existence far better than anything in the whole of this film.
So the setup in Contact is this: Jodie Foster (rationalist scientist) is debating with a reasonable, but religious fella, about how you can “prove” things in religion, and whether science can prove everything (she maintains it can). Foster’s father, we’ve already learnt, is dead.
Religious fella: “Did your father love you?”
Jodie Foster: “Of course!”
Religious fella: “Prove it.”
What a line. It’s the sort of line that completely floors you. And of course it floors Foster. That’s great scriptwriting – create a situation where the viewer is drawn in, and then leave them in the same place as your main character.
Doesn’t happen in Prometheus.
What Hollywood wants
But no, that’s all ignored; instead Hollywood wants what Hollywood gets, which is a daft action movie, with loud noise and unscary creatures, unexplained motives (I couldn’t figure out what Fassbender’s android was meant to be doing at all) and a refusal to deal with stuff like plot in favour of stürm-und-drang. Kids might enjoy it, but I think that actually kids can tell the difference between lazy scripting and good scripting.
If I hadn’t been told this was an “Alien prequel” (which it can’t actually be, because it’s not the same planet – the number differs, there isn’t an astronaut in the pilot chair, it hasn’t been attacked by an alien, there isn’t a message warning people off) nor that it was made by Ridley Scott, then my expectations would have been much lower; I might have tolerated it, but I’d still have thought that it was crap, with stupid behaviour and cardboard characters who don’t do things real people do.
Let’s leave with this, from Red Letter Media, which asks most of the questions that I couldn’t be bothered to ask.
What was that black goo – was that different to the sparkly green goo… Why did Ridley Scott let his 12-year-old son do the makeup for the old man… How did the old man know where to point where the scientists were when he did the introduction…
And so on. There are tons of unanswered, and unanswerable questions.