Sunday, 21 October 2012

Prometheus and Ambiguity

Prometheus as a film was one I had largely forgotten about. In a summer that had some of the best blockbusters I can remember (Avengers Assemble, Dark Knight Rises, Pirates! etc. – people may disagree on the various merits of these films but they were all nothing less than extremely entertaining, ultimately popular cinema’s raison d’ĂȘtre) Prometheus ranked as probably the only truly disappointing film I saw.

So why go back? Two reasons, really. Firstly, I saw it again, in the original theatrical cut*. The second was that during an online discussion about the film, after expressing my qualified disappointment**, this was the response:

”I suppose some people just don’t like ambiguity in their science fiction any more.”

Now, in one way, this was a last ditch response from someone telling me ‘I just didn’t get it’. In another, you could argue that maybe there was a point buried there. Many people I know were confused by Inception, for instance. So are we being spoon-fed, so to speak?

To answer that I will do something that I criticised reviewers for doing at the time – compare the film to Alien***. But this isn’t a review. So I’m not a hypocrite. Or much of one. Whatever.

Central to this is my hypothesis is that there are two different sorts of ambiguity – the kind that adds atmosphere (in Alien’s case, a layer of dread) and the kind that obfuscates the plot and makes the motivations of everyone involved muddy as hell.

Alien has its fair share of ambiguity. Watched in isolation, the presence of the space ship, the ‘jockey’, the eggs and even the motivations of the company remain utterly opaque. Sure, the characters pose various theories, particularly with regards to the company, but you’re left to fill in some very large blanks.

But (and this is an important but) at no point are any of the crews’ motives random or unexplained. All the reactions expressed are perfectly logical and natural – curiosity, horror, disgust and a sincere desire to kill It, whatever It is they are dealing with. In one early scene, the discovery of the diversion to investigate the derelict ship results in an argument about pay bonuses. This is the good sort of ambiguity – at no point does it detract from the plot, muddle motivations of the human characters (se what I did there, Alien fans?). Even the alien itself is pretty unambiguous, except in its origins. It is, after all, a pretty large, extremely dangerous animal.

Prometheus, on the other hand, has characters that do weird things constantly. There’s a dude who tries to tickle a completely new alien creature. There’s a robot that poisons one character for reasons that it’s possible to guess, but are left maddeningly unclear. Another character sacrifices himself with absolutely zero build-up.

Most irritatingly, the ‘Engineer’ when they find it and wake it up, attacks indiscriminately with what appears to be a sadistic glee. I usually refrain from swearing on here, but what the absolute fuck? The same race that seeds life on earth then turns out to be a race of assholes (actually, that would explain a lot). I’ve heard the theory put forward that it was ‘grumpy’ from having been woken up by some of its own creations, but why would it then pursue Noomi Rapace’s character? (Insert appeals to Blue and Orange Morality here.) If a character’s motivation needs explaining by debates on the internet, that is not good plotting. Sorry, gotta draw the line somewhere.

This is probably the best example in the film itself, but the fact that there is more than one suggests that the ambiguity in this film was caused by slapdash plotting. This is the ‘bad’ kind of ambiguity. It’s what makes Prometheus a badly written film, let alone a sci-fi film. No amount of ‘You don’t get it’ can salvage poor characterisation, ‘bad’ ambiguity, and a lack of coherence.

Rant ends.


* For all the claims that the DVD and Blu-Ray releases ‘answer questions’ the fact remains that they released the theatrical version as a Finished Product, so its problems are still up for debate. That and the fact that I believe Prometheus’ problems are so entrenched in the narrative that extra scenes won’t clean it up very much.

** Two things saved it from the scrapheap. Michael Fassbender’s performance was excellent, even though he falls victim to the same odd plotting as everyone else, and Noomi Rapace’s scene in the medical unit, which may be my scene of the year.

*** There is an argument to be made that Alien is actually a horror film rather than a sci-fi one, so comparisons between Prometheus and Alien are unfair. I have a certain sympathy with this view (demarking genres is a contentious issue, but compare Alien to Star Wars and Halloween and see which it most resembles) but the marketing clearly highlighted the link to Alien and shot itself in the foot by doing so.  

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