2 June 2012

PROMETHEUS (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, US) - Tales of the Future

The origins of the Alien films.

‘Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. Thus, the science fiction film is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction.’  - Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag (1994)

If science fiction and the horror film are genres continually maligned by critics then the current critical reception to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus should be looked upon cautiously. Prometheus sees Ridley Scott return to the science fiction genre since Blade Runner. Both Alien and Blade Runner are considered to be classics of the science fiction genre and thus expectations for Prometheus have been extraordinarily high. Intertwined with the hype from an expensive and sophisticated marketing campaign, Prometheus is another summer tent pole film that has suffered from a franchise heritage especially given the shadow cast by the first three Alien films. Unlike Alien, which successfully blends science fiction and horror, Prometheus is far removed from such a hybrid particularly the slasher sub genre. In many ways, Prometheus is a science fiction that follows in the existential footsteps of Scott’s Blade Runner, posing a plethora of metaphysical questions. As a visual spectacle, Prometheus doesn’t disappoint and deploys visual effects to produce a classical dystopian reality in which corporate power is represented as a familiar site of hegemonic corruption whereas the workers are monstrously expendable. Such a conflict between the most intelligent and physical member of the crew (Ripley) and the Weyland corporation thankfully remains intact. Writer Susan Sontag says that, ‘Science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings. We are merely spectators; we watch.’ Such an observation underlines the different spectator positions we take up when watching genre films. In the case of science fiction, we first judge the film on the world it offers us and how plausible or imaginative such a world is when compared to our own reality. Undoubtedly, if we see Prometheus as foremost a spectacle then on such initial criteria, the film succeeds in offering moments of awe and wonder. Just like the musical in which we lose ourselves in the escapist nature of song and dance, science fiction offers us similar gratifications by predicting future worlds in which science and technology dominate. Ridley Scott has been careful not to saturate and dilute the construction of the world on LV-223 with CGI. In fact, Scott’s decision to embrace physical sets constructed in the traditional cinematic sense offers greater visual credibility while maintaining the roots of the early Alien films. Although it is probably best not to compare Prometheus to Alien, given the way they depart from one another, they are still linked by the same universe and the same set of conventions. Prometheus is part of a much bigger franchise about the Alien creature that by the fourth film the franchise had developed its own set of genre conventions such as gender tropes, ideological debates and narrative situations. Such a firm genre context means Prometheus has to adhere to the traditions, rules and conventions of the Alien film genre, thus to expect the film to depart radically from an established formula would have been unlikely. However, this is the exact problem of genre films - anything too radical, too unexpected can result in audiences openly rejecting innovation or reinvention as a betrayal of the origins. Additionally, a franchise or saga brings with it the added problems of a fan base. The Internet and regular conventions have not only made fans more influential than ever before but the studios actively seek out their approval in a bid to build trust and credibility. 


Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw - a mirror image of Ripley?


In essence, the four key ingredients or staples of the Alien films have been gender politics in the shape of Ripley as a female heroine, the duplicitous android, the insidious corporation and of course, the alien creature or monster. Prometheus reworks all four of these key ingredients. Firstly, the presence of a strong willed female heroine, who in the case of the first film can clearly be interpreted as the final girl, is re imagined in the character of scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Similarly, like Ripley, Shaw’s attempts to question corporate ethics are met with open resistance by the corporation, which predictably resorts to violence. However, a difference between Ripley and Shaw is perhaps the issue of class. Shaw appears to be well educated and commands a superior intellectual position than the rest of the crew members. Unlike Ripley who gradually emerges as the unlikeliest of hero’s, it is clear from the outset of Prometheus that Shaw’s intelligence reflects the way gender representations have evolved in line with changes in society since the 1970s and the first Alien film. Secondly, Ripley’s distrust of the corporation was repeatedly manifested in her conflict with the android. In Alien, the android, which remains a secret from the outset, is pathological and has been programmed by the corporation to protect the alien creatures. In Prometheus, the android re-emerges this time as more of a central figure in the shape of David 8 (Michael Fassbender), a chilling creation. David who slowly questions his own mortality and emotional capacity is indicative of science fiction’s on going fascinations with artificial intelligence. Thirdly, when Alien was released in 1979, corporate power had emerged as a popular 1970s ideological current in mainstream American cinema. Since 1979, corporations have become even more powerful and so the representation of Weyland Industries as a singular corporation in the film logically reflects current anxieties. Weyland’s desire for immortality echoes the empathetic plea of Roy Batty in Blade Runner who is searching for more time and inevitably the chance to live forever. The eternal quest for immortality crosses over into the territory of traditional horror literature, suggesting Prometheus also blends science fiction with horror. The fourth and final ingredient and on which the Alien films is largely hinged is the presence of the alien creature/monster. Giger’s monstrous and nightmarish creation is one of modern cinema’s most enduring and iconic monsters – an alien creature that is ruthlessly determined in its own self-preservation. Although we don’t get to see the alien creature in its most recognisable cinematic form until the final frames, the film does offer us a fascinating origins story in which the aliens are regarded as weapons of mass destruction, as a military tool. This is in keeping with the rest of the films that continually saw Weyland corporation trying to protect the creature so they could use it as a weapon. 


Fassbender as David, a duplicitous android.


So, in terms of conventions, Prometheus repeats the familiar but does so by offering us some noteworthy ideological variations. Prometheus is largely successful as an intelligent science fiction film but it does have some flaws. The first half is far superior to the second; the final third of the film scrambles to establish multiple narrative strands and inadvertently reveals a studio bound cynicism to do with commercial prospects for a sequel. The script is populated with too many characters and so repeatedly falls back on stereotyping. Additionally, the score by German composer Marc Streitenfeld, a regular Scott collaborator, is somewhat underwhelming when compared to the memorable contribution of previous composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Elliot Goldenthal. Another element, which is just as significant as the four I have outlined, is that of body horror which was first established in Alien (1979). The fear of alien impregnation would develop over the Alien films into one of the most politically charged areas for debates to do with gender politics. The human body being taken over by an unknown hostile force is a thematic shared by science fiction and horror. It is an image of destruction, and that of disaster, which Susan Sontag argues defines the best science fiction films. If this is the case, then the science of Prometheus is eclipsed in the film’s finale by images of destruction, thus returning to the allure of the spectacle that makes science fiction cinema such an a sensory one for the spectator. 

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