On Prometheus and post-television cinema
Is Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) a half-baked pile of philosophical babble, or is it more seductively an early harbinger of a kind of post-television cinematic narrative—filmmaking in the age of television? Prometheus makes more sense as a television pilot than a feature-length film. Criticism of the movie often highlights the numerous story gaps that may point towards larger, more interesting ideas, but on their own are so muddled in easy obfuscation and clichés as to be utterly meaningless and unengaging. However, some defenders of the film, such as Roger Ebert, propose instead a kind of Lost-like fantasy—an elaborate diegetic world that simply isn’t there (at the moment).
The reference to Lost is not arbitrary, of course, as its showrunner, Damon Lindelof, was also one of Prometheus’s writers. It’s pretty obvious halfway through the movie that he and others are simply drawing on Lost’s playbook—throw out a few interesting characters, a few promising narrative possibilities, and a whole lot of messy gaps. Then, wait until later to figure out what it all “means” (or hope the fans do it for you). This is why some turned on Battlestar Galactica in later seasons—when it started to think about “meaning,” when it shifted from tight sci-fi action to broad intro-level philosophy, some got turned off. Prometheus, meanwhile, is a collection of several possibly good story beginnings instead of one truly great finished one.
So, half-baked babble or post-television cinema? I’m inclined to say the former, if for no other reason than the fact that no one involved with Prometheus will ever actually have to back up its unfulfilled potential. I don’t see three or four more movies coming out of this—the kind of epic narrative canvas that would begin to deepen this film’s easy ambiguity. The degree to which one likes the new film seems in rough proportion to the degree to which you are drawing on the kind of post-network television narratives like BSG and Lost as your point of reference, or whether or not you are approaching it from the standpoint of the Alien franchise it’s so disingenuously aping.
What’s most frustrating is how Prometheus is trying to have it both ways in relation to the larger brand. The film instantly became an elite A-list project once Scott attached himself to it, which not only returned the legendary auteur to his early sci-fi roots, but also ensured a certain expectation of big budget polish in a franchise reduced to B-level junk like the Alien vs. Predator series. But, early on in the film’s production, there was clearly a mixed message at work in its paratextuality—Scott and company seemed to be going awkwardly out of their way to say it’s not an Alien film.
Yet, it’s absolutely part of the Alien franchise—explicitly existing within the same universe, filled with identical characters and iconography, and structured in obvious and subtle ways just like the original 1979 film. And, has anyone else noted that the premise—archeologists on Earth find clues in the ice that point towards an alien intelligence, causing dying rich guys from the same family to pursue a larger meaning to life—is exactly the same premise as the one in the much-maligned Alien vs. Predator (2004)?
At the time, I read the Alien ambivalence as fanboy contempt, but also auteurist pride—Scott didn’t want to admit he was retreating to well-worn territory, the site of one of his two greatest accomplishments. Although I didn’t feel this way, the decision to return to Alien could be read as creatively lazy, or worse, desperate, especially in the “Event Film” era where all of the old school is doing elaborate CGI blockbusters now. So I read the not-Alien Alien messages as a careful negotiation of that.
Now that Prometheus is out, I think all that white noise about not trying to be an Alien film was more to inoculate it from all forms of criticism. I’ve repeatedly read in the last few days some variation on the “it’s trying to be something else (or more)” defense—but that’s not the issue people have with Prometheus. It’s pretty clear that, like many recent reboots (such as Star Trek), Prometheus is more interested in creating its own new world under the veil of a pre-sold brand, than in doing anything insightful with what’s already there.
The oft-circulated idea that it’s not an Alien film, or that it’s taking on grander ideas (as though the two are mutually exclusive) becomes an attempt to hide the obvious—that Prometheus is just another mediocre big-budget summer genre exercise. And I think the problem people have with this post-televisual film is that it doesn’t know what it does want to be.