Seven Problems with Prometheus

I’m a huge fan, so I’ve been waiting impatiently for Prometheus ever since I heard it was in the works. At last Ridley Scott, a guy who knows how to give us an original vision of the frightful future (Alien, Blade Runner, A Good Year), was going to sweep away the pretenders, the imitators, the arrivistes.

Didn’t happen.

Sorry, but Prometheus arrives on screens this week with a squishy and derivative thud.

I mean, I felt as though I were watching a mash-up of Alien and 2001. Yes there are stunning alien vistas and the requisite heavy-duty hardware of space travel and the predictably surly bunch of crew members and of course the alien, or at least a variation of same.

But so much has gone wrong here. In particular, seven things:

1.  First we’re told there are seventeen crew members, so we settle in to see them knocked off à la And Then There Were None. But it’s hard to care when only four or five of them have any real dialogue. The others are just faces that pop up every once in a while to make us wonder who they are.

2.  Then there’s the theme. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s better suited to a Theology 101 essay.

3.  Then there’s our old friend the exposition mule. Why do our intrepid space-hoppers conclude that, because they find human DNA on a distant planet, it means that the creatures found there must be our creators? Where’s the logic in that? And later the ship’s captain explains who the aliens are and what they’re doing—based on what? Nothing, that’s what. Just the screenwriters’ need to inject information. The movie’s long on mood, thin on plot.

4.  I like all the actors. I just don’t think they’ve been given enough to do. And whose idea was it to give the excellent Idris Elba a southern drawl that makes him sound like the long lost cousin of Slim Pickens? Noomi Rapace, who was excellent in the original Girl movies (. . . with the Dragon Tattoo, . . . Who Played with Fire, . . . Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) plays frightened-woman-running, the role she played in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. She and Jennifer Lawrence are quickly earning the distinction for most-underutilized actor. It’s  a shame. If any actor has the intensity to be a match for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, it’s Rapace, but when all she’s given to do is run away, it’s hard to think of her as heroic. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the robot, a character more nuanced than the any of the others, but too similar (even in his fate) to the character played so well by Ian Holm in the original. Charlize Theron seems to be recycling leftover meanness from Snow White and the Huntsmen. Her performance is all in her menacing glare, which would be fine if she had more to do with driving the story, like the Paul Reiser character in Aliens.

5. The movie’s too long. As writer Wallace Stegner used to say about some stories in fiction workshops, “This story’s got a lonnnggg front porch!” Cutting fifteen or twenty minutes from the first half might have done wonders for the movie. The Sleeper dropped off in the first half, and I gazed on her with envy.

6.  The 3-D is pointless. One of the things—the only thing—that made Avatar interesting is Cameron’s ability to create the illusion of space, especially in the lab scenes. You feel as if you can step into the room and walk to the other end. In Prometheus the characters and objects seem to be layered on different spatial planes, but after your first moment of realization, you kind of take it for granted. Shouldn’t a movie based so heavily on spectacle provide us with, well, you know—spectacle? And has anyone else noticed that the layering of images in 3-D movies actually makes the individual objects and characters on each layer seem more two-dimensional? Yes there’s more depth to the overall image, but the object or character on an individual plane seems about as three-dimensional as a sheet of Mylar.

7.  The movie’s derivative. Everything you see in the movie was done—and done better—in Alien. We’ve been there, done that. Yes, Prometheus has more visual polish, but that isn’t enough to make a movie compelling. Character and story matter more than spectacle. Alien changed the starscape for science-fiction movies forever. Since then, every other moviemaker in the genre has been playing catch-up. And now, instead of breaking new ground, Sir Ridley seems to be playing catch-up with himself.

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Green Lantern: Bye Bye CGI

Green Lantern Onesheet  I’m not in the mood to jump on the bandwagon in criticizing Green Lantern. Because that would make me a hater. And besides, with production and marketing costs reported at about $400 million, and projected worldwide income at only about $270 million, it would be cruel to add more fuel to the fire. People might lose their jobs over this. Knowing Hollywood, though, they’ll just get promoted.

Instead, I want to think aloud about the state of that all-American classic—the effects-driven movie. After all, what’s wrong with Green Lantern? It’s got CGI up the wazoo. It’s got a hero in tights. It’s got likeable stars. It’s got a Syd Field written-by-the-numbers story. What could be the problem?

Maybe it’s not the movie’s fault. Maybe we’re suffering from a CGI overdose.

When you see a character in a movie fly, is it really possible any longer to be amazed and delighted? No, no, it isn’t. The same thing is true of movie cars that jump into the air when they explode, of buckling skyscrapers, of massive alien spaceships hovering over cities. These effects just aren’t enough anymore. It’s the same old thing. Once you’ve seen Earth annihilated over and over again, it’s hard to get worked up over the next great inter-galactic threat.

You couldn’t possibly be surprised by these effects unless you have the memory of a gnat.

Only a few effects-driven movies have had truly original and lasting images, ones that still strike us as amazing. Alien was new in several important ways: a creature whose looks and behavior we hadn’t seen before, a gritty vision of the future we hadn’t seen before, and an alien habitation that was both repulsive and fascinating. I’d put Predator in this group, too. Not a great movie, but a great creature. Blade Runner, of course, for its noirish vision of the future, an outgrowth of the fantastic Metropolis, whose effects still haven’t been matched—or totally understood—since it was released in 1927. And while we’re back in the old days, add 1902’s Voyage dans la Lune, whose effects fascinate in part because we know they weren’t all camera tricks. What else? 2001, whose eerie crispness has been copied so often that we forget its impact when it first came out. What about Star Wars, you ask? Dont’ ask. The first one looks dated. By the way, whoever thought those overweight, middle-aged extras looked like X-wing fighter pilots? And watching the more recent chapters is like watching a three-card monte game on a street corner. You know there’s a trick, but you just can’t see how it’s done. Terminator 2’s relentless quicksilver villain was a brand new creep-out. And I’d add Iron Man as the first superhero/CGI movie I can remember that was its own send-up of superhero/CGI movies.

I can remember when serious filmgoers moaned that, after Jaws, every move would be effects-driven. That came to pass so quickly and completely that we think a movie’s boring if it doesn’t have special effects.

But maybe now the wheel has turned. Maybe the failure of Green Lantern means we’re done with effects-driven superhero movies. For all the CGI we’re seeing in movies these days, we’re seeing precious little that’s new, that truly amazes. What we’re getting are copycat movies with interchangeable parts—same old heroes, villains, and effects with just a few cosmetic changes.

So let’s put down the matte painting, the miniatures, the keyboard, etc., huh, fellows? Let’s get back to real movies about real people.

There. I feel so much better for not making fun of Green Lantern.  I mean, I could have said that, back in the day, we had no idea that all it took to save the world was a mood ring and a lava lamp. And I could have said that Parallax, the bad guy, looks like that spud you left in the oven too long.

Parallax, Villain

And I could add that Muammar Qaddafi should learn a lesson from his brother, Hector Hammond, about the downside of evil. And what outrageous dermatology bills must these guys have?

Villains

But I feel better for not indulging myself.

Let me know about a truly amazing effects-driven movie that I’ve missed—one that adds something we truly haven’t seen before.