Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012)

Caution: SPOILERS below.

I'm a little late to the Alien party. I didn't see the Ridley Scott classic until just a couple of weeks ago, before Prometheus finally lumbered into theaters, and I still haven't seen AliensAlien 3, or Alien: Resurrection. I have seen Prometheus, though, and what I can tell you based on these two films is that I don't think I'll ever be all that passionate about the Alien series. I don't think either one is a bad movie--Alien is effectively paced and still effectively thrilling, while Prometheus delivers moments of cringe-inducing anxiety--but I do have a few issues with both of them, and in general they left me a little cold.

Part of my problem is that I just don't have a feel for the world they take place in. I don't need to know everything, but I would like to feel that the writers and Ridley Scott do. Instead, I feel like we're missing out on a lot of valuable information that would help us understand these characters and give us some kind of grounding. Scott did a great job of giving us just about everything we needed to know about Blade Runner's world by simply showing us Deckard's Los Angeles. But in Alien, we never see Earth, and the crew never has contact with anyone living on it. In Prometheus, we get the briefest of looks at our home planet, but it doesn't seem any different than it does now. Whatever these versions of Earth are like, they must be radically different if we now have robots as advanced as Ash and David, not to mention enormous spaceships and suspended animation, but you just wouldn't know it from either movie.

Maybe if Alien or Prometheus had given us a strong sense of their world, I might not have been left with as many questions as I was with both. In the case of Alien, I wanted to know about the company behind the crew's mission. How did they know about the signal the crew found? Did they know what was there? If they did, what were they hoping to do with that information? Why did it all matter to them?

Now, these questions aren't directly pertinent, because Alien isn't about any of that. It's a thriller, so it's about atmosphere and creating a sense of terror. Scott's gorgeously framed shots and his limited use of music enhances the tension by creating a realistic, fly-on-the-wall feel. And then there's the beautifully streamlined screenplay. There's absolutely no fat on those narrative bones. All of which is why I won't contest its reputation as a classic. Alien is a very well made movie that has stood the test of time and will continue to.

But. That doesn't change the fact that when I was done watching it, I didn't understand anything about its world. Are corporations controlling everything now? And if we have robots as advanced as Ash, would it really be so surprising that there's one onboard the Nostromo? And does Ash (or David, for that matter) have to be a robot? Is he only important because he doesn't have the same kinds of concerns for human life that a human would? How much is the story really improved by him being a robot?

Well anyway, as I said, I won't try to go against the flow too much here. Alien is much more well-regarded than I am, and it is a good film, I just can't shake these question. Nor can I shake the feeling that once you get beyond the scares and the eery atmosphere, you're just not left with much to come back to.

Which leads me to Prometheus, which I also can't fault from a formal perspective but which I will fault from a storytelling perspective. The script, by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof, feels too busy. Alien may have left me with questions, but at least its streamlined plot kept me distracted until it was all over. I was so focused on Ripley's fight for survival I didn't have time to wonder anything else. Prometheus, on the other hand, wants to come off as complex, but it's really just complicated, which isn't the same thing. A movie can be straightforward and complex at the same time, but a complicated movie can never be anything but all over the map. Moments of Prometheus are effective, like Shaw's emergency caesarian and the scene where the crew's lost team members are horrifically killed, but these moments either sprung from or resulted in incidents that felt like a distraction. We couldn't have had Shaw's cringe-inducing surgery without David infecting Charlie, but did David really need to do that? The scene involving the two lost crew members was terrifying, but did a zombie version Fifield need to return to Prometheus to wreak havoc? This seems to be the new movie's major flaw--it's most effective moments are closely tied to others that, in the grand scheme of things, just really don't matter.

What can a blogger really do, though? There's already talk of a sequel, and yes I'll go see it, if only because the summer movie season feels like a game that you just can't resist. And who knows, maybe none of these questions will matter to me if I go back and watch both of them again. Opinions do change, after all. That's part of the fun of going back to movies you loved and movies you hated. You have the chance to find out just how much you've changed, and how much the movie has stayed the same. 

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