10 June 2012

My thoughts on Prometheus

I don't usually do movie reviews here but this one merits a little blog time

Let me start with this: There's nothing wrong with Prometheus per se. Fine acting, amazing special effects, atmospheric scenes etc. It was fun and I enjoyed it. Leaving the theatre though I found myself thinking it wasn't as good as Alien. I don't want to become one of those old curmudgeony sorts whose present will never in any way approach their technicolor nostalgia for the past.

Still, I felt like Alien was a better movie. Fans of this franchise will sympathize with those of Indiana Jones. If they'd just paid a guy to wrangle gophers and used the same cameras it might have been a much more pleasant experience than watching a CGI Harrison ford crawl into a CGI refrigerator and..... well you know the rest.

So why is it that supposedly good directors are unable to recreate their former successes? Maybe it has something to do with constraints. Maybe part of what made Alien, Indiana Jones and the original Star Wars trilogy good were the creative choices the directors had to make when they were told that their vision was impossible to realize.

The problem with HD movies that are 3D and/or IMAX is that directors seem to feel like every inch of the screen must be in-focus and colourful all the time. The problem is that when we can see and understand everything on the screen we feel in control of the situation. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that rocketing through the cosmos in the emptiness of space to meet a race of genocidal god-aliens is not something I should feel comfortable or in control of.  In Prometheus the actors acted like they were not in control so maybe Ridley Scott should have done more to make us feel like we were along for the ride and not lording above the actors from a 3rd person armchair.

Fear is about what's not there

"We fear the unknown" is a truism I won't get into here. It's the reason that a flailing tail or tentacle at the corner of a dark frame will always be more terrifying than the ghastliest, grizzliest, toothy monster in daylight. Showing the monster is almost always a mistake until the end when the hero is supposed to overcome his/her fear of it.

Cinema history has shown us that if directors can only restrain themselves from showing the hard work of the effects team the audience will start seeing monsters everywhere, even when you don't intend them to:

Alien (1979) -- Crew of the nostromo exploring the planet

It may seem lazy because you're just showing your audience a blank space and letting their minds fill it in but in the end it's more effective. What frightens me and what frightens the person next to me could be two different things. Your alien may scare one of us. A dark shadow will scare everyone in the theatre because our brains will put whatever scares us most into the void.

So why didn't Scott realize this in making Prometheus? Maybe he did. Maybe he just said to himself "This time I have enough money and SFX to do every little thing I can imagine. I don't really care if it's scary". This is now known as George Lucas syndrome. Or maybe from the vantage point of the wizard behind the curtain he had no way to know why the people of OZ were so amazed. We may never know.

My own theory is that the dark, blurry scenes from the 1979 Alien were done that way because any more lighting would show us a guy in a rubber suit. Any more lights on the model and you would start to see that it's actually a wooden miniature. Neither a rubber suit nor a wooden spaceship are particularly terrifying and awe-inspiring so Scott removed some lights, made a lot of shadows and filled all his implementation holes with the best parts of our imaginations.

Back to Prometheus

I think my point is easily illustrated with a side-by-side comparison. Here's a still from Alien:

Alien (1979) -- Space Jockey Scene

This scene is dark and twisted. On the reveal of this alien corpse we find ourselves very VERY glad that it is dead. This is true to the works of H.R. Giger. It's dark, it's alien and yet familiar, it's disturbingly sexual and fetishistic and it freaks me (and most people) out more than I can possibly say.

Now here's essentially the same room shot from Prometheus:

Ok, why does the future always have to have blue holograms everywhere? It's kind of exhausting.

No question that this is an amazing feat of design, FX, even plot. It will look amazing in 3D and on Imax.

So why do I feel so unaffected by it?


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