I read a piece on David Fincher recently where he described a distinction between “films” and “movies.” He says The Game is a movie, Fight Club is a film. “A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for an audience and the filmmakers,” he explained. The way I extrapolate that statement is that I imagine a film as something that asks and attempts to answer the big questions, whereas a movie just sort of references them to use as playthings. You could say it’s the difference between art and entertainment, but let’s not, because I’d rather piss hot thumb tacks than get hung up arguing the semantics of “art.” Point being, what I found most compelling about Prometheus was they way it keeps you wondering whether you’re watching a “movie” or a “film,” schlock or philosophy.
It starts off as your basic, rag-tag-team-of-scientists plot. Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green play a husband-and-wife team researching similarities between ancient civilizations’ depiction of aliens. I could go into more detail, but long story short, as Rapace says, “I think they want us to come and find them!” Yeah, totally, that’s why they got some cavemen to draw their planetary system in wooly mammoth dung and hid it inside a cave 2,000 years ago. “The humans are sure to figure this one out!” they were probably thinking. But Rapace and Green are convinced that the aliens are some kind of race of “engineers,” who created humans.
From there, Rapace and Green, along with the rest of a team assembled by the Weyland Company, spend two years in stasis onboard the ship Prometheus to get to the galaxy described by the ancient alien drawings. While the humans sleep, the ship is manned by Robo-Fassbender, who spends his days researching ancient languages and bleaching his robo-roots to look like Lawrence of Arabia (…don’t ask). Also aboard are bitchy corporate rep Charlize Theron (she likes “to minimize risk”), a couple other scrubs who’ll probably die at the first sign of trouble, and ship pilot Idris Elba, trying to Idris elbow his way into the all-time bad movie accent Hall of Fame with some kind of British take on a Cajun Hee Haw. It’s 2012 now, and regional accents are already disappearing. Is a spaceship pilot in 2094 really going to sound like a molasses shitkicker? Probably not, and it’s not a big deal in and of itself, but it speaks to a pattern I notice in a lot of Damon Lindelof projects (he co-wrote Prometheus with Jon Spaights). The characters are kind of like reality-show contestants. They all have a “hook,” some instantly-recognizable, usually familiar gimmick — drawling, good-ol boy pilot; mohawked, tattooed geologist; ice queen; young lovers; comic-relief guy, possibly-evil gay robot; the puppeteer — and instead of starting out mysterious and gradually growing into fully-dimensional, singular characters like you might experience in life, they essentially just stay the same two-dimensional collections of quirks who either hook up or shift between hero and villain depending on what each scene demands to create “drama.” Trying to figure out what actually motivates seems mostly fruitless, because they’re mainly just tools for whatever crazy story Lindelof wants to tell. There’s never an attempt to make it seem like the plot is growing semi-organically out of interactions between them. A dead giveaway is whenever a character says “So let me get this straight…” or “So you mean to tell me…” like the two scrubs constantly do in Prometheus. As a thespian named Ice Cube once proclaimed in the film Anaconda, “Yo, so exactly how big is dis snake?” At that point they’re not contributing to the plot, just helping explain it to you.
The central question of the plot is, if you could meet “God,” what would you ask him, and how do you think he’d feel about you? (Dear God, are there bewbs in heaven, and can I touch them?). There are some fits and starts and false leads, but that’s Prometheus in a nutshell. It’s a pretty deep question for a summer popcorn movie, and the answers get pretty goddamned nihilistic at times. What if God created you on a whim and got tired of you right away? Whether genuinely asking or just using the question as a plaything, it makes Prometheus more than just a “yikes! Aliens!” movie. I appreciate the boldness of it, even if the execution’s sloppy.
Prometheus is messy, overstuffed, and there are at least three completely unnecessary characters. My favorite is Guy Pearce playing a very old man who never appears as young Guy Pearce. Did that part get cut out? Was it a way to pimp a sequel? And then there are the unfortunate action-movie conventions. Wait, you mean the corporation in charge of the mission has an ulterior motive?? You don’t say! Corporations and scientists usually get along so well in sci-fi movies! There’s also the barren, childless mother, and one of my least favorite action-movie clichés, the characters all too willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the plot. In real-life, the percentage of people genuinely willing to knowingly kill themselves for the sake of humanity has to be one in fifty or less. In action movies it’s like three out of five, I suspect mainly out of convenience. “Look, I know I’m not a very important character in this, and since it’s almost the end of the movie, I’m going to go ahead and fly my plane right into the aliens’ cannon to make it backfire. Toodles, everyone! Don’t forget to feed my dog!”
But even when it’s dumb, Prometheus is thoroughly watchable. It’s been a long time since I saw a movie where the composition was great without drawing attention to itself, so that you’re always thinking about the story, and never wondering why the asshole cameraman can’t do his job. The visual effects make the aliens feel gnarly in a way that will make you squirm, and the direction gimmick-free. (A pleasant surprise from Ridley Scott, since even Gladiator was kind of gimmicky). By the end, I was pretty sure I was watching a movie, not a film, but the fact that I still cared makes me think it was a pretty decent one.
I was sad we never got to see Charlize’s bewbs or Fassbender’s dong, but… I’ll live. I guess. (*kicks can*)