Why no one gets Prometheus, why the sci fi community, of all people, SHOULD, and why no one will probably understand my argument in this review
I’ve been stewing in my own juices, as they say, over writing this blog post, reading other reviews, seeing people respond to my excited Facebook rantings about the film in ways I can’t quite fathom…
(in response to my recent Facebook status update that I would be seeing the film a third time before it leaves theaters)
“See if you can close all the plot holes while you’re there.”
“You could certainly write a better screenplay while you’re there.”
“I liked Prometheus, but I’m unable to figure out why you’re so obsessed with it.”
I guess I shouldn’t be particularly surprised that even my above-average-intelligence Facebook friends (most of whom are lawyers, professors, and other types of knowledge-focused professionals) aren’t really getting behind this movie, but what shocks me even more is how many die-hard sci fi fans aren’t, IMO, getting why they didn’t like the film (two of the comments above are from folks who are major fans of the genre). Yes, you read that right: I think the entire criteria most people are using for liking/disliking this film are way off-base. AND: I think this has to do with longstanding tensions between science fiction films and their more-esteemed dramatic counterparts, tensions that will probably bleed over into any responses to this “review,” rendering my (admittedly highly nuanced (read: academic)) argument below null and void.
***SPOILERS PROMULGATE FASTER THAN THE BLACK OOZE BELOW***
Take The Tree of Life, for instance. You may remember this film from last year. Lots of slow shots and weird camera angles. Trees. Here’s a quote from the Rotten Tomatoes page for it: “Terrence Malick’s singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat” (emphasis mine). The rhetoric of this review summary is clear: “if you’re patient, you’ll get the obviously intricate and nuanced plot that only the most rarefied filmgoers will really be able to appreciate. If not… well: you other people are probably unable to access the genius of Shakespeare, as well.”*
Let’s compare this to the Rotten Tomatoes summary for Prometheus: “Ridley Scott’s ambitious quasi-prequel to Alien may not answer all of its big questions, but it’s redeemed by its haunting visual grandeur and compelling performances — particularly Michael Fassbender as a fastidious android.” Once again, we have clear implications about genre expectations: “Uh, isn’t the whole point of science fiction to answer, well, sciencey questions like where the human race comes from? Yeah, uh… you forgot to do that, Mr. Scott…”
The Engineers with their advanced intellects would probably figure out, rather quickly, from critic (and fan) responses like these that the species they helped create had developed a rather contradictory system of genre classification: in some genres, you get kudos for being vague (maybe even called a genius or given a prestigious award), but in others, you get called the polite version of a moron who forgot to answer his own questions during his multi-million dollar film production of a world he’s been thinking about for thirty-plus years.
My real purpose in this “review” of Prometheus, then, is to point out (here it gets really academic, be forewarned) that what The Engineers would probably notice about humans during their observations of the way we classify films is that we often don’t realize, as some thinkers have, that any genre of communication (be it film, writing, or even advertising) is actually a highly engrained social response to expectations we approach that genre with.**
Another case-in-point: Blade Runner. You highly astute few who have made it this far (okay, let’s face it, no one has read this far, because I stopped bolding things and Tumblr is a “micro-blogging” platform:) may also know that the selfsame director received a similar response from the viewing public when he debuted what is now a canonized sci fi epic in 1982. It didn’t do well in the box office. Viewers were divided. To this day, in fact, many fans are frustrated by their inability to know, for certain, wether or not Ridley Scott “intended” for Deckard to be seen as a replicant or not.
My point is: few, if any, sci fi fans seem to be considering the possibility that Ridley Scott “intended” for there to be “holes” in the plot of Prometheus, that he intended for the characters to act unlike sci fi fans are accustomed to characters acting (they’re supposed to act like very uptight, almost android-like super-geniuses; think Jean-Luc Picard); that he decided, as he arguably did in films like Blade Runner, Alien, and Black Hawk Down, to take the same liberties that his more drama-focused counterparts do: to be vague, to script irrational characters that are deeply flawed, and to not directly answer the very questions the film itself begs.
So, why should the sci fi community care about this? Well… how do I put this politely, and without making a sweeping generalization… yeah, there’s no way to do so… Let’s face it, folks: drama, on average, really is better than sci fi as far as quality-of-film is concerned. Characters in dramas are often better developed, plots are more nuanced, and themes are more complex.
So, all you fans, critics, and anybody else who is effectively punishing Ridley Scott for making a vague, nuanced, weird, head-scratching sci fi film, should think twice. Don’t we want better sci fi? Don’t we want all the things I mentioned above? I am a die-hard fan of sci fi. And… again with the offensiveness… I HATE STAR TREK. The characters are one-dimensional. They live in a utopian world where no real, human drama ever really happens, and everything just feels so stilted.***
I want sci fi that feels like actual humans who just happen to be plopped down in a futuristic world. I want to see how actual humans might react to that world. I want all the things I go to drama for AND I want mind-bending visual effects and interesting scientific and philosophical puzzles. I want it all, in other words. And: AS a die-hard sci fi fan, I am committed to supporting innovative filmmaking that heads in that direction even, nay, ESPECIALLY, when it doesn’t get it quite right.
DOWN WITH GENERIC TYRANNY! #end rant
*Full disclosure: my fiancee I tried watching The Tree of Life, but during one particularly swoon-worthy shot of a lone tree I exclaimed in an excited whisper “The Tree!” and my fiancee finished my thought with “—of life!” and then, barely able to contain our laughter to the exit, we left so as not to disturb everyone else in the theater who was obviously intent on trying to figure out just WTF was going on.
**Is it possible Carolyn Miller is an Engineer?!?! No one who isn’t a graduate student or professor of English should get that joke, so don’t worry if you don’t ;-).
***For a full list of my favorite sci fi, see here (you will see it is a very short list; I’m very, very picky): http://www.guiseppegetto.com/filmtvliterature/.
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