So there you go – your basic alien monster movie.
You’ve got your dodgily-imagined alien planet with not very convincing unities of time and place, shot on location in some inhospitable corner of the globe in a bid to offer some naturalistic weirdness. You’ve got your conveniently breathable air. Your stock characters, your fairly predictable narrative arcs, your human victims in rapidly dwindling supply. You’ve got your monsters, cheaply done and looking like it, trading on a template already decades old. You’ve got a bit of cod-philosophising thrown in, some side commentary on god and faith, a bit of standard-issue sexual tension. You’ve got your violent struggle, your poignant loss, a pleasingly conflagrative conclusion and a quietly emotive coda.
And you know what?
Somehow, it all holds together – you’re gripped despite yourself, swept along, enthralled. It works (well, at least it did for me).
I’m talking, of course, about Pitch Black.
Oh, you thought I meant Prometheus? Oh, fuck, no! Whatever gave you that idea?
Well, okay it’s true Prometheus does feature monster effects that look like they cost about 50p to make and came courtesy of the reject pile from Fraggle Rock. It’s true that the planetary vistas look like a widescreen version of some shot-in-a-Welsh-quarry episode of Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven. (And, somehow – don’t ask me how, I’m just the consumer here – both monsters and planet manage to look less convincing than their 33 year old FX counterparts in the original Alien). It’s true that the script is littered with painfully crude Christian agit-prop, a factor made even more gapingly obvious by the deleted scenes my DVD copy came with. But these things, oddly enough, are not what makes Prometheus such a profoundly dispiriting experience to watch. Or at least, it’s not just those things……
See, I wanted to be fair. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t my inner Alien geek sulking because Prometheus didn’t live up to my fond teenage recollections of the original movie. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t my atheism, profoundly irritated by the invocation of gaahhd in conversations between supposedly hard-nosed adult professionals.
So, I went back and watched Pitch Black again, and lo and behold, despite the dodgily imagined alien world and the derivative monsters, Pitch Black is a great little movie. Sure, it’s not paradigm-shifting or iconic in the way Alien was (its monsters are borrowed more or less wholesale from Geiger stock, for one thing), but then few movies are. But the stock characters in Pitch Black behave in a way that’s coherent throughout; the religious ones strike interesting dialogue sparks off Vin Diesel’s avowedly materialist protagonist (and the religion itself is a decently imagined future faith, rather than something cut and pasted from contemporary middle class, middle American bible class); the narrative spine of the movie is tight and strong. You care about the characters, you care about the outcome, there ae some truly powerful moments (eg – did not know who he was fucking with!) and even a few small surprises thrown in. From pretty much the outset, your emotions are firmly engaged.
My strongest emotion while I watched Prometheus was irritation. Or, more accurately, a kind of weary exasperation that could only occasionally be bothered to flicker into genuine annoyance. And close behind that came boredom. I watched because I’d paid for the rental and out of some vague professional interest. But if, for some reason of parenting or other family emergency, I’d had to switch off the playback at any point, I’m pretty sure I would never have bothered to go back and finish it. For me, Prometheus had all the savour of some SyFy channel spin-off show, and all the emotional punch of a TV movie from the after-lunch slot. Prometheus is…….bland. Massively so. Prometheus is Alien for the Hallmark channel.
Recall the icky-snake-gets-in-your-helmet-and-then-orally-rapes-you sequence? Recall how far out and distant the shot was? And how fast it was over? Now compare that with John Hurt’s iconic death in Alien – close in, juddering camera, a tangle of thrashing limbs and agony, violent splatter of blood, and it just went on and on. That shit was horrific and personal, and you felt it as if you were there. Prometheus’s snake-in-the-helmet scene needed some of the same – so tight in you felt the claustrophobia, you felt as if you were in there with that guy and no way to even twist aside, let alone run. Recall the big-tentacled-thing-grabs-engineer sequence? Was it just me, or did it remind anyone else of one of the monsters from sixties TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, or – let’s be charitable – maybe Space 1999 circa 1977. Compare that with Veronica Cartwright’s superbly performed death in the original Alien – the tears, the weeping begging, the awful inevitability as that barbed tail slides out across the floor and up to gather her obscenely in, the sheer terror so suffocating that you were fucking relieved when the scene switched back to Ripley and the sound of Lambert’s death screams over the intercom.
See what I’m driving at here?
Did anyone notice that Prometheus was a fifteen certificate? Did anyone else notice how little actual blood or actual horror there actually was?
Okay, Richard – so look, with such vast acreage of Meh under your belt, why the long post? Why get so hot under the collar after your professed boredom and mild irritation?
Well, boredom and weary exasperation were my feelings while I was watching the movie.
The anger came later.
Because it’s my feeling that this movie is something of a canary in a coal mine for the genre. Not that it’s the first such, not that the floor of the genre cage isn’t littered with other stiff little feathered corpses, but still, this one feels kind of pivotal. Once again, we’re seeing – having rammed down our throats rather like that snake in the helmet – a vision that assumes the audience for SF consists entirely of brain-dead teenagers and franchise geeks with the emotional range and imaginative capacity of a Skinner pigeon. Keep the age certification down for christ’s sake, otherwise we lose our core audience. Pander to the values of the antiquated middle class middle American cabal that is the MPAA (anyone seen This Movie Is Not Yet Rated) and we’ll keep our certification down. Reference the genre canon, and we’ll get the fans on board. Stick to superhero comic book story-telling – that’s all this sic-fi crowd can relate to, y’know. Seriously – we’ll make a fucking pile of money.
If Prometheus had just been a seriously crap movie, I guess it would have been okay. There’s a lot of it about, as Theodore Sturgeon will tell you. But Prometheus is not just a seriously crap movie – it’s also a profoundly cynical exercise in franchise mining, and that sticks in my throat. (As, to be honest, do the piss-poor monster effects – quite how you spend a hundred and thirty million dollars and end up with monsters less convincing than those in movies made decades earlier and costing a tenth as much, I’m not quite sure – maybe by the time you’ve paid for all the obscenely under-used, pissed-away acting and directing talent out of that one hundred and thirty million, there’s not a lot left for SFX. Or maybe it all went on marketing.) Prometheus set out to cold-bloodedly co-opt one of the finest genre movie IPs around, and milk it until it bled. And they got away with it. That’s what stings. That’s what puts me on the verge of despair for the future of the genre on screen.
To paraphrase the Manic Street Preachers, if you tolerate Lost, then your genre crown jewels will be next.
And – you know what – I take back every disparaging thing I ever said about Avatar. Compared to Prometheus, Avatar was a thing of beauty, a towering masterpiece of cinematic achievement – stunning special effects, a coherent narrative, an intelligent and even vaguely subversive thematic base. Acting talent being deployed, used to good human effect. Directorial talent stretching itself to the available limits. And – perhaps most important of all, something I didn’t actually see at the time, because it’s taken Prometheus to ram the point home – Avatar was quite clearly a passionate labour of love on the part of its makers.
I didn’t like it especially, but you can’t argue with that passion. And you can’t overstate the worth that passion brings to art.
Nor the novocaine numbness that you get when it isn’t there.