When Alien Covenant is released on 19 May I hope it's not like Prometheus, but more like Ridley Scott's original Alien movie. Here's why.
Alien is a stellar example of economic film making and it doesn't require a guidebook to get what's going on.
Back in the 70's Scott had to rely on basic tools, mainly because there wasn’t much else. He let the camera do the talking. In the opening scene the camera switches back and forth between the emergency helmet and the transmission screen. The scene is well constructed, detailed and eerie - a mysterious communication travelling through the voids of space.
Alien seemed to be as much about the unforgiving nature of space as it was about the vulnerability of human beings. It reminded us that space travel is a process of constantly monitoring, balancing and fixing just to survive.
I felt I was watching living, breathing people operating a functioning vessel. This gave me a greater sense of shock when their environment is invaded by an inhuman organism.
Prometheus gave me no real sensation of being in space. It was just a placeholder territory for the scene.
How did morons like Fifield and Millburn end up on such an important mission? Surely to qualify they’d need to be emotionally well-adjusted people, not the types who freak out on a quick recce of an alien craft? Well this is what Fifield does when he says: ‘Look, I'm just a geologist. I like rocks. I LOVE... rocks. Though it's clear you two don't give a shit about rocks but what you do seem to care about is gigantic dead bodies.’
Is that the only geologist they could have got? A guy who, along with the other brainiac, decided to try to head back to the ship with almost no guidance. The rest of the crew should have saved space on the ship by just renting Fifield's spherical mapping scanners. They did seem to be his only contribution, besides turning into a rampaging humanoid bushpig. Not a choice candidate.
Millburn isn’t much better. He appears to be about 35, yet becomes an adolescent during Peter Weyland's presentation. Okay, there were no pastries and coffee, but all the same it's rude.
I guess there's a stronger correlation between suicide missions and candidate intelligence levels than I thought?
I’m not saying these two characters don't have potential, but by the time we see even a small sign, they're killed, and may I say, rather stupidly.
The little jibes between the 'doctor' and the android, David don't seem to add much to the story, except for providing some surface level tension leading up to the moment when David spikes his drink.
It's not even clear why David wants rid of Holloway, besides just removing him as an inconvenience. I'm also not sure why Holloway wasn't smart enough to pick up on the fact that David may want him out of the equation. This is pretty naive for a doctor. Drink spiking is a classic from as far back as Bond movies.
Alien managed to rework some familiar things to unsettle the viewer.
Let's take their ship, the Nostromo as an example. Most people who've seen the film can probably recall that the surroundings are half NASA half H.R. Giger launderette. These melded ideas seem to show the idea of something already corrupted. In other words, the ship seems doomed from the outset.
Dial down the elaborate construction of this creature and you've basically got a crustacean. But again, some simple modifications helped to put a grotesque slant on normality. Ash's basic investigation of this creature is a good scene, as his reaction betrays an inhuman admiration for it. Unlike David in Prometheus, Ian Holme's portrayal of an android is subtle.
Ian Holme played this role exceptionally. Early on in the film he maintained such a fine balance between colleague and malevolent robot that I was never quite sure about his intentions. He even appeared at times to share the goals and value systems of his human colleagues. He only gives very subtle hints about his motivations. Notice the word 'subtle' here, then try to apply that to David in Prometheus.
Holme lives his double life convincingly. He's part of the team. He's able to be calm, rational and friendly to the other project members, while knowing all along that the MO of the ship is to make contact with - and maybe even source - one of the alien creatures. All along I wasn't quite sure how his personality fitted in with the rest of the crew, I just felt something wasn't quite right. But we spend just enough time with the other characters, so we don't have too much time to ponder his position, and therefore this intensifies our feeling of surprise leading up to the point when he malfunctions. We're surprised because the characters are, because we've had chance to invest in these characters, and we share in their horror.
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott goes out of his way to remind us that David's a robot. I don't blame Michael Fassbender, as I know he's a highly accomplished actor. I put this down to misdirection, which given all the evidence can only lie at the door of Scott. It's a director's job to bring subtlety to a film.
Such lack of subtlety includes David shooting hoops on a unicycle, then combing his hair in front of old movies, to somehow emulate humans? The point is never clear. Read any book on creating scenes for film. There's no clear goal to some of these scenes. They add up to a portrayal of an AI that's highly unsophisticated, provoking no deeper thought than came out of films like Pinocchio. At best, David portrays some sociopathic / psychopathic tendencies, rather than the complexity of subtle manipulation that might have amounted to a more dramatic outcome.
Doctor Holloway's comment about alcohol being wasted on David seems again to have no point but to reinforce David's position as the only physically human level AI aboard the ship.
The way David's actions are staged are also pretty clunky, and his position as a malevolent character is handled too indiscreetly to make it convincing. He's just always there in the background like some kind of spy, collecting samples, looking as suspect as possible. It's about as subtle as some oddball feeling up all the fruit in a supermarket at 3 a.m. He does this while the rest of them - aside from the doctors - begrudgingly bumble along in search of 'answers'.
We're constantly made aware of David's role as the bad boy robot, who indeed has his own agenda, which seems to be to get to the planet of the engineers. But I wasn't ever sure. Of course he's not guided by emotion, as should be the case with all stereotypical outlines for any good robot character. Well, except when he gets annoyed enough with Holloway to poison him.
Prometheus doesn't use the element of surprise to very good effect. Peter Weyland turns up at the end, then reveals he's Vicker's father. Both these twists actually seem to take the film off course, as there are too many surprises thrown in at once. These surprises add an unbalanced weight to the closing sections of the film. When this happens, audiences will tend to switch off, as there's too much to deal with. More academic audience members will do some research to try to tie up some of the loose ends, but oh dear, by then, it's too late, you've lost everyone else.
Maybe if they'd revealed Weyland's physical existence earlier on, they may have been able to explore the existentialist story idea in more depth?
There didn't appear to be any background mission behind the secret mission in Prometheus. In Alien, there's a mission, plus an underlying game plan. This makes for some wonderful tension in the film, and shows the crew to be expendable in the face of a larger plan.
Instead of loading films with baggy underlying symbolism, just show people the unfolding of a good story. The beauty of the original Alien movie seems to be tied up in its simplicity. Things do just seem to happen, but they're underpinned by clear direction.
All but one of the crew of a commercial spaceship are picked off by a superior organism because they followed what they thought was a warning - or SOS - signal. There's no forced deeper meaning - there doesn't need to be. It's just a set of unfortunate events, which happened in a pocket of time in all that emptiness. A director should trust the audience to bring their own meaning to each element of a film, then weigh it up against the whole.
But this room-to-breath approach isn't applied in Prometheus. Firstly, the name should be a giveaway. This association brings with it the full weight of its mythology. There are articles out there with titles like 'What Prometheus is really about'. The problem is, what it's really about should be fairly obvious by paying for your cinema ticket. When a film isn't finished - cake not baked syndrome - people end up bewildered. Why? Because loose ends remain flapping in the wind, and an audience will not know what to do.
The original Alien movie appears to be more of a secular film than Prometheus, and it's better for it. This is because it presents sacrifice in a more arbitrary fashion. The form and existence of that perfect organism is geared towards survival through removal of all interference or potential risk. It's a perfectly engineered, remorseless, self-interested killing machine. This idea, although hard to stomach at first, is perversely attractive to human audiences, whose value system sways between this and moral judgement when convenient and available. But despite this underlying harshness, I still think audiences prefer this simplicity compared to bloated, underdeveloped symbolism.
Prometheus does have some redeeming aspects, and they begin with the sketching out of the humanoid engineers. There's no doubt that they are beautiful creatures. They appear from the start to be fairly unique compared to anything else I've seen in film. Their skin has a translucent marble-like quality. They invite an immediate fascination. I was curious to know more about them, not just the surface level information provided. Had Scott focused on the idea of human creation instead of setting up two counterposing story strands, we would probably have seen more of this detail.
Only two of the characters really work in Prometheus. One is the captain, Janek, played by Idris Elba. But like many aspects of this film, he doesn't get the time to develop, or react for very long with other characters. The other one is Doctor Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Aside from her comments about god, which appear to be force-fed on behalf of the director, she's pretty compelling as a character. At points, I even thought she could be the next Ripley. The tension in the self-service surgery scene was palpable. This shows that some decent actors thrive despite bad direction and floppy story architecture.
One of the main problems of trying to deliver multiple ideas in a film is space and time. Especially for a box office hit. You've got two and a half to three hours maximum, even less in some cases. The clock is ticking while you get your story to completely arrest the audience's attention. If that's not enough, you make a TV series, where you then have more time to develop characters and story lines. A film is almost like a short story, in that a director has to be economic in what they show and how. Even a film based on one idea can over spill.
Prometheus appears to be two films in one. I'm still shocked Scott managed to bring any coherence to this film. Despite the fact I think the film doesn't work as a whole, it's because of his experience as a director that it was released at all. Obviously, there are also economic pressures to get the thing out the door.
Besides Janek and Shaw, most of the characters in Prometheus appear to be placeholders to drive home whatever the film's woolly message is.
If the film's overall architecture had been properly thought out, we could be looking at a balanced piece of cinema. Instead, there are only these little pockets of promise waiting to take off, but never quite getting there.
Scott used some good little tricks to reveal character in Alien. In the first dinner scene, he gave us the idea that we've just happened upon a group of people interacting socially. There's tension, as we get the impression these people have been forced together out of professional circumstance. We also get the impression we've come in partway through the dialogue, which has the effect of showing that we're entering into a story that's alive. These people have history, opinions, desires, fears. They engage with the full weight of developed personalities. The result? It looks natural. It makes us think we're observing a sort of reality. This was almost entirely absent in Prometheus.
Please note, this isn't the opening dinner scene. I had trouble getting hold of it. However, it illustrates the approach I mentioned above.
This scene is doing something vital as far as characterization is concerned. It gets the characters interacting altogether in one room. Prometheus does this to a certain extent with the initial presentation scene, but A, this was not an informal enough setting and B, it didn't invite consistent interaction between characters. They just looked like a bunch of sullen kids who'd been dragged along on a mission they didn't want to be on.
Because of the motivations of both the two doctors (Shaw and Holloway), there was a clunky us versus them situation. This may have worked if Scott had followed it through, but he didn't. Also, if there had been more of a group comradery, there would've been greater impact as the crew numbers became reduced.
In essence, the characters seemed to lack spirit in Prometheus. There weren't enough natural character signatures.
The group interaction that worked so well in Alien didn't occur in Prometheus. In the latter film, characters tended to interact in pairs, or very small groups. A lot of the scenes in Prometheus involved only two characters in a room together. This reminds me of some of the scenes in George Lucas's later Star Wars movies, where a camera was just placed in front of two actors with very little thought for dynamics. These scenes seem forced together to extract one or another of the director's messages, rather than reveal much about the character.
The surprise of seeing Peter Weyland at the end is lessened because it's so obvious he has an agenda. The agenda itself isn't so clear. Like Alien, the android in Prometheus is linked directly to this agenda. Weyland's first motivation seemed to be to get answers from the engineers on why they created humans - assuming they even did. His second appeared to be to somehow extend his tenuous grasp on life. His plans for acquiring both seemed pretty non-existent. It's not like a species he's never met before, who appear to be geared for conflict are just going to dispense with the pleasantries and get on to providing some sort of care plan, with a meaning of life document thrown in. This kind of character naivety shouldn't belong to such films.
I was shocked by the reception of Prometheus. Overall it seemed to be positive. What surprised me the most was how this could be the case given the level of inconsistency, lack of character development and attention to story and plot structure. Commercial pressures appear once again to have lowered the bar, as they always do.
I really hope Scott looked back at Alien for some historic inspiration, if not just for old times sake. The film made audiences feel sick, scared, helpless and disturbed. It sometimes made them laugh. It worked, but also changed the game a bit. It showed what could be done. It used environment, set pieces, props, camera work and acting. More importantly it focused on attention to detail, done with wonderful economy. It wasn't lazy or insulting.
I have no issues whatsoever when it comes to reinventing the film making game. It absolutely needs to be changed, mashed up, pushed forward, questioned, you name it. Do something new, that's the whole point. It's great if a director can do it - some have. A great film sings with invention and character. It gets you to cry and scares the crap out of you. It makes you forget the world you just left for the one you're about to enter. But if certain directors keep churning out sterile, CGI-focused films like Prometheus, the industry is in real creative danger.