“We are the gods now”
Having seen Ridley Scott’s epic Prometheus, it occurs to me that my expectations for certain films are particularly high, and that I set myself up for disappointment. I like my standards and have no intention of lowering them to suit mediocrity, but it does mean that the older I get, the more it takes to satisfy me (let alone impress me). I did expect to be impressed by Prometheus—the master returning to a genre he helped define! But Prometheus is nowhere near the achievement that was Alien. It is beautiful to look at, and consistently entertaining, but it lacks the potency of Alien.
Most of Alien is surprisingly quiet, and the opening of the film captures the mundane realities of a cargo ship and its crew. These people are on the job. There is much discussion of wages, earnings, and shares. There is much complaining and explaining as they process their orders and how it affects their livelihood. We connect to the crew as ordinary folks who want to get off the job as soon as possible and be compensated for their pains.
Because the film is so quiet and the actions of its characters so mundane, when there finally is a burst of threatening activity, we experience it as the characters might—a shocking blow to the natural order of things. These people are not prepared for or equipped to deal with the reality of the monster they encounter. By banding together and allowing the natural leaders to define the best action to take, they somehow manage to hold the thread at bay for most of the film.
The technology of the film (the ship and the its equipment) are clunky and seem somehow—like our characters—unrefined, and this adds to the general verisimilitude of Alien. You get the sense that these people are working with tools that were the industry standard about twenty years previous. The ship is functional, but it’s not perfect, sterile or pretty. Doors don’t open quickly enough, computer monitors are glitchy, lights flicker on and off to the rhythms of chance.
At this point, you may notice that I have spent three paragraphs on Alien in a blog about Prometheus. This speaks volumes about my experience of Prometheus. While watching it, I thought a lot about Alien, and what a superior film it is. I was constantly comparing the sights and sounds of both films. I watched and waited patiently, hoping to spot the trademark Giger-esque alien-ness, watching and waiting for it to rear its ugly and elegant head.
The filmmaking process itself serves as an apt metaphor for the experience of the film. Prometheus is chock full of CGI. Much like the advanced technologies of these manufactured environments, it is clean and predictable. Actors are standing comfortably in front of green screens and react to environments and stimuli that will be added-in later. But with Alien, back in the late 70s, so much had to be rigged up on set. Actors are interacting with a tangible presence. The filmmaking is not clean and predictable. It is awkward and messy and alive.
I do not want to come across as stubborn and old fashioned, and I hope you will indulge me in my nostalgia. I really do miss the days of model work, and matte paintings, and on-set creative ingenuity. Recent advancements in film technology are quiet amazing, but I do feel as if we are losing touch with our humanity, letting everything happen in some digital universe instead of out here where we can touch it and feel it. Not just in films, but in all aspects of our personal and working lives, we are advancing into a wireless, digital new existence. To its credit, Prometheus does acknowledge this phenomenon, with its exploration of human cybernetics and how we are modeling ourselves after the gods we invented ages ago. So, perhaps it isn’t that we are “losing touch,” but that we are actually becoming something new.
One of my greatest pleasures is the smell and feel of a book in my hands as I lay curled up in bed. E-readers make me very sad. Who am I to say this new world is “good” or “bad.” It simply is. However, as long as I can, I will hold on to the lingering vestiges that comfort me. I am keeping my books on the shelf, and I will seek out screenings of Alien and line-up at a theatre to revel in a shared experience.
I will also see the new stuff, because the world is changing and we must adapt to it. I saw Prometheus because somebody I admire took the time to make it, and he had a whole bunch of new toys to play with this time. There is a certain beauty in its ideas of human achievement and the mythology it invents to explain it. Not as resonant or as uplifting as the ending of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but still thought-provoking.
I just think Ridley Scott achieved masterful brilliance thirty years ago when he was working with what he didn’t have.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Noomi Repace, Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender