On Prometheus and post-television cinema

June 15, 2012
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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.


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4 Responses to “ On Prometheus and post-television cinema ”

  1. Brad Schauer on June 15, 2012 at 9:54 AM

    Many people certainly seem to be reviewing it as though it’s a traditional TV show, focused almost entirely on pointing out weak character motivation, logical gaps, hackneyed plot twists, etc. and completely ignoring production design, VFX, and visual style other than to dismiss it as subordinate (i.e. “sure it looks great, but that script…”)

    The privileging of narrative to the exclusion of all other aspects of filmmaking seems an arbitrary and somewhat limited reception strategy, especially with a filmmaker like Ridley (and Tony) Scott. Would the film be better if the script had gone through a few more drafts? Sure. But there are too many striking images and engaging individual sequences for me to dismiss the film as “another mediocre big-budget summer genre exercise”, even if those individual moments don’t add up to a classically unified or even completely coherent narrative.

    • Jason Sperb on June 15, 2012 at 10:56 AM

      There are certainly a number of different ways to frame a film’s reception. In the longer version of this, there was more about authorship, for example, which was cut to make the piece more concise. That said, the question of narrative does seem to be key to the film’s lively debate, and thus worth thinking a bit more about.

      As for the visual design, I’m personally not quite sold. Ironically, one of the novelties of the first Alien was its radical shift to a more blue-collar sci-fi mise-en-scene, but this one seems more in keeping with the generic iPad aesthetic of more recent sci-fi (Star Trek, Star Wars, Wall-E). Darker, certainly, but still privileging a certain clean, sleek symmetry.

      That said, a lot of mediocre summer films have striking images and engaging individual sequences–to a point, that comes with the big-budget, A-List territory–and so its fair to look for more.

  2. Jonathan Gray on June 16, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    Would that it were more influenced by television. I felt it was lovely to look at, with sweeping, external shots and often very impressive CGI; and thus as a summer blockbuster “event” it worked quite well. Where it really stumbled, though, was in completely crap characters. Even Idris Elba — who I adore — was struggling. Fassbinder was engaging as ever, and Noomi Rapace was okay, but the writing, acting, and directing made for astoundingly bad characterization. One might say that Lindelof needs longer to get his characters up and running (as indeed, several of Lost‘s most compelling characters don’t come into their own until well into Season 1) … but I found the characters in the Lost pilot far more interesting than these, and was happy to see most of this lot killed off, since I have no interest in seeing more of them.

    And yet I’m still intrigued by your suggestion of this being “post-television,” as I also wonder whether the characters seem all the crappier because I’m comparing them to the much-better-fleshed-out characters that television offers today. Maybe the bar has been raised, not necessarily for film as a whole (since film still offers some great characters and always has), but certainly for sci-fi/fantasy world-building films. When I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Locke and Adama, this lot seems all the lamer … even if they’re actually not much different from the cast of Aliens.

    • Jason Sperb on June 17, 2012 at 1:56 PM

      Prometheus would be great as a pilot, though maybe not on the level of BSG or Lost perhaps. I think your distinction about genre is interesting–is it even possible to make a great self-contained sci-fi narrative world now within the confines of a single film? Most likely, but would that be truly satisfying for audiences (now) used to stories that go on and on, or ones that create endless gaps for the fans to fill for them? I’m increasingly wondering if the appeal of a fractured film like ‘Prometheus’ is precisely because it gives fans so much space to imagine their own narratives. But that seems to be pushing (outsourcing) a great deal of the intellectual labor onto fandom–participatory culture for the win!