Friday, 15 June 2012

Why it's okay to like Prometheus...

A few months ago I didn't care all that much about Prometheus. I'm not the biggest Ridley Scott fan and always thought most of his work was a little over-rated, with the exception of Alien. I'm not even that keen on Bladerunner - I always preferred the original version with the miserable Harrison Ford voiceover. That doesn't mean to say I think any of his films are bad, I just didn't happen to enjoy them and that's kind of what this post is about - the distinction between whether you enjoy a film and whether it is good or bad. If you don't fancy reading 5000+ words about that last sentence then take that as a handy summary.

Meanwhile everyone else in the world seemed to be bubbling over with excitement at the prospect of a master returning to the genre he built his career on. It quickly became the must-see film of the year, without anyone really knowing anything about it. If you stopped a random person in the street and asked them which film they were most looking forward to this year the majority would say 'Prometheus'. People even sneered at Avengers, with a kind of 'You thought that was good? Just wait until you see what Sir Ridley has up his sleeve' attitude.

So I went to see it the weekend it opened, like most other people. And rather surprisingly I quite enjoyed it. Not my favourite film of the year (that would be Avengers, obviously) and probably not a masterpiece but I was never bored, I liked the ideas and I left the cinema thinking about life and the universe and other suitably big questions. Even the 3D didn't bother me. You can't ask for anything more than that really.

Apparently you can.

As soon as I went online I found the whole world telling me how wrong I am about what I just saw. How could I have missed the terrible script? The awful characters? The downright implausibility of everything that happened onscreen? We had all been conned into paying a ridiculous amount of money to see poorly constructed garbage. Some people were gloating because they knew all along it would be awful, others were really quite seriously upset by what they considered a desecration of cinema itself, but most were just angry. Really really angry.

Doesn't matter, I thought to myself. I liked it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

And still the anger flooded the internet. Day after day of negative reviews and status updates and debates over which was the most ridiculous plot point.

Let it go, I thought to myself. I can live with being in the minority here (especially when that minority includes Philip French and Roger Ebert).

But something about this barrage of unnecessary criticism started to really bother me. It wasn't about the film itself, it was about the attitude to films in general. It was about the fact that at some point we've decided we have a right to be entertained and that filmmakers have an obligation to entertain us. We've paid our money, we demand entertainment! And if we don't get the level of entertainment we are promised we all get a bit angry and indignant about something that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't really matter.

The problem is, art doesn't really work like that. Never has really. We've just decided it should.

And now I'm going to write a really long blog post to explain myself.

Before I start -


Consider yourselves warned.

So what I thought I'd do is run though each of the apparent problems with the film and try to explain why they aren't really problems at all.

1) It didn't live up to the hype -

It has to be said the marketing team on this film did an outstanding job and in many ways the advertising strategy was the real genius at the heart of the whole project. That thing I mentioned, where everyone you spoke to was excited about seeing it - THAT NEVER HAPPENS!

I actually found this rather refreshing. For once people seemed to be looking forward to seeing a film without wanting it to fail. Why would they want it to fail? I have no idea, but sometimes after I've read too many sneering, angry blog posts or have spent too much time on Twitter or Facebook I start to wonder why most self-proclaimed film fans bother going to the cinema at all. It mostly seems to make them miserable. There are other things out there, you know, like books and stuff. You really don't have to watch films if you don't want to.

But this time it was different. People went into Prometheus wanting to like it. That is a good and wonderful thing. Three cheers for the advertising folks!

The downside of this is that that the film could never live up to the life-changing experience it promised to be. But then, it never actually promised to change your life did it?

No. It mostly promised to be loud.

From the reaction some people had to the film it certainly seemed like a life changing experience was what they were expecting. It was as if this would be the film to end all films; that after Prometheus one need not go to the cinema ever again because one would have seen all there is to see.

All the marketing really did, and this was a genuinely smart move, was to hit the right balance between showing you enough to get you interested whilst not telling you anything about the film itself. This is how film marketing should work, and if every film was advertised like this one we would probably all go to the cinema a lot more because most trailers don't keep anything hidden. Most trailers show you the big set pieces along with all the major plot points in narrative order. Most trailers seem to want to show you exactly what to expect so you know what you're getting. No surprises. And maybe that's a sensible approach, because the reaction to Prometheus seems to suggest that surprises are unwelcome.

So what did the dissatisfied Prometheus audience really want? A remake of Alien? Would that have been any better? Considering that what they got was more like a remake of Bladerunner and that wasn't good enough either then it appears that people didn't want a remake at all. I would really like someone to explain to me what they expected from this film. Please, leave a comment explaining what you expected so I can perhaps understand why I should be more angry.

Anyway, the point is any sane person should know that a marketing campaign does not have any bearing on the quality of the finished product. You want proof? Witness the best trailer ever made...

...for a truly terrible film.

2) Bad characters -

This one I don't get at all. In fact, at the risk of sounding patronising, this and the script complaint (which I'll come onto later) seem a bit like lazy criticism. Bad characters is something proper film critics point to all the time so now when the rest of us don't like a film that's what we say too. I actually think that the majority of the characters in Prometheus were well written, well performed and generally well constructed.

First, some concessions. I agree the supporting characters are pretty poor. The two pilot guys, Chance and Ravel, weren't really set up very well. But do they need to be? Do we really care about who they are beyond the fact that they'll do what their Captain tells them to do? Are we really suggesting we wanted more screen time for those guys?

Aside from that I'll also agree that the numerous red shirts (i.e. the unnamed characters who were only there as cannon fodder) could have been used (or rather not used) less obviously, because there was no effort to even pretend that the extra numbers on the ship weren't there for any reason other than to bump up the bodycount. But these are minor issues that you can apply to pretty much every film (except maybe Avengers because Joss Whedon is the ultimate plate-spinner when it comes to making the audience care about lots of people at the same time). If we're honest, we don't care about those random background guys because we like our films under 3 hours, so let's stop complaining about a lack of screen time for wallpaper.

How about we look at the rest of the central characters in the film (except David - I'll get to him later)?

Vickers (Charlize Theron) is obsessively trying to impress her father; to be everything Weyland wanted her to be (or perhaps thought she could never be).

What makes this work is that it doesn't come out until much later in the film. So we spend most of our time wondering if she's an android when in fact she's probably the most human character we meet in that she's the most flawed. And the second her father fails to recognise her achievements she instantly goes from being one of the strongest characters in the story to one of the least important. Her physical involvement in the events of the film begins to resemble her relationship with her father and the effect it has on her personality. In that moment her whole life is laid out for the audience because we now know that no matter what she did to impress him in the past it  was never enough.

Janek (Idris Elba) has a fondness for history; for long-dead art and culture, hence all the junk he keeps around.

This serves various functions in the film -

a) it sets him up as a direct contrast to Theron's character who's all about the future which is smart and shiny. This contrast sets up enough of a shorthand to make it believable that they would be interested enough in each other to have sex, which turns out to be critical to the plot because if they weren't off having sex they would've heard the distress call from the guys getting eaten by monsters and the film would have taken a very different turn.

b) it draws a parallel between his character and David who also has fondness for old stuff, if for different reasons.

c) most importantly, it explains why he is willing to sacrifice everything, without hesitation, when Shaw tells him Earth will be destroyed if he doesn't stop the escaping ship.

On top of that he's the one character in the film that the average audience member can relate to, because in a way he is from our time.

Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) is striving for the ultimate human endeavour - a conversation with God. When he doesn't get that he has to confront the fact that his life may not have the meaning he thought it did. That's what makes him and Shaw (Noomi Rapace) such an interesting couple. He only cares about the destination, whereas she's all about the journey. At least that's how it is until the end of the film when she's lost so much she becomes just like him and is destined for the same crushing disappointment we see him fail to deal with.

This feeds neatly into the plot - Holloway is so ravaged by disappointment he turns to alcohol. This means a) he's vulnerable and b) he's drinking which allows David to slip him the evil black goo and turn him into a walking science experiment.What makes this moment work is that it's easy to relate to - it's the disappointment that follows any kind of event or achievement because his sights were set on the destination and not the journey (see above). His expectations were so high that the destination could only ever be a disappointment, and thus Holloway's journey becomes a representation of audience reactions to the film. All you people drowning your sorrows after the film finished and ranting about how awful it is, you better watch out for your robot buddy because...the analogy kind of runs out of steam after the drinking bit, but you see what I'm getting at.

Meanwhile Shaw has become obsessed with finding out the origin of life because she can't create life herself. This contradiction manifests itself in her own flesh when she becomes pregnant and suddenly has to deal with a miracle. And yet she is forced to terminate the thing that she once wanted because she feels threatened by it. It's a bit of a clumsy interpretation, but do you see where I'm going with this? I doubt it, because you were too busy sneering through 3D glasses at all the crazy stuff we're supposed to believe people do on alien planets, in space, in a world that doesn't exist. Sorry, I'll get onto the implausibility issue later...

My points it that when it comes to Shaw every question raised by the film is answered in her internal conflict and subsequent actions. In the film she asks why the Engineers want to destroy humanity, but she already has the answer because what happens to her can be taken as a microcosm of what happened to the Engineers. So all the big ideas and grand themes of the film can be explored by looking at this one character. That doesn't seem like bad character work to me.

This is, of course, just my interpretation. Why not try it yourself? It's fun and you might learn something!

The reason the characters come off as 'bad' is that all the character work is done fairly minimally - a few lines here and there. No one gets a proper monologue about who they are and where they came from, and other than Shaw there are no flashbacks (and in Shaw's case the importance of the flashback is not that we see it, it's that David sees it).

This is how characters should be written - they should complement the main plot, not obstruct it. If you look at the characters in any film pre-1960 you'll find the same approach. Take one of my favourite films, The Magnificent Seven. In that film you have seven well-rounded main characters who all have backstories and their own reasons for taking part in the fight. And yet the film isn't 7 hours long, it gets all this information across with an odd line here or there. That's what's happening here. Vickers doesn't have a 20 minute scene with her father explaining that she wanted to be like him and that she just wanted him to hug her just that one time, because the filmmakers have trusted us the audience to not need it.


Because we don't. Or at least we shouldn't. The information we need about all the characters is there, we just have to join the dots. That's the part that requires some effort, which we are apparently unwilling to put in.

3) Bad script -

Okay, fine. I'll give you bad script. But not for the reason you think. Bad scriptwriting is another one of those lazy criticisms people like to throw around because it's what proper critics say. But mostly they just mean the dialogue, and that's barely scratching the surface of what makes a good script.

First of all, let's look at what's good about the script. All that character stuff I mentioned above? The actors don't come up with that stuff on their own. That's writing. Also it's proper film writing, in that it's minimal and gets the story across without boring us to death with asides about what they're having for dinner that night and needless pop culture references. And at the same time it has just enough reality to it to stop most people (well, me anyway) questioning whether 'people really talk like that'.

But of course you may not have agreed with me about the other characters, so let's turn to something we are all agreed on. Let's talk about Michael Fassbender's Oscar-worthy performance as David.

David is by far the most interesting character in the film because he's a constant enigma. We never quite know what he's doing or what his motives are. We never know how human he really is and thinking about this makes us question what makes us human anyway. At the end of the film it's unclear whether this was the resolution he was aiming for. Was there some kind of Machiavellian plot at work at all times, or was he simply driven by a childlike curiosity to find out how all this stuff works? Every question raised by that character could spawn a thousand blogs longer than this one. It's brilliant, fascinating stuff. And it's all in the script.

Where else did you think it came from? Fassbender did a great job but he wasn't writing the lines. All he really had to do was not fuck it up. And he did very well at not fucking it up, but then it was so well written that other than winking at the camera every time he did something with ambiguous motives it would have been impossible to fuck it up. I'm not trying to take anything away from Fassbender's performance which I agree was sublime, but film is a collaborative medium and the part everyone agrees is perfect would not be there without the script everyone agrees is garbage.

But wait, I agreed that the script was bad. And it is, because the structure falls down after the second act. As you can probably tell I'm not here to criticise the film but if you must know the part that disappointed me was the sequence immediately after the 'birth' scene. I had been loving the slow pace of the film until that point, but suddenly it was like someone reminded Sir Ridley that in films stuff must explode and people must run about a lot, because otherwise the marketing people don't have anything to put in their trailer. The pace went out the window and that last half hour turned into a lot of running and shouting and stuff. Which is fine, because films should have running and shouting and stuff, just not at the expense of plot and character and all the things Prometheus was doing really well with until that point.

I'm not going to start going on about screenplay structure because it's as dull as it sounds, but there is a school of thought that says the best films actually follow a 5 Act structure (like what Shakespeare did) rather than the traditional (and rather simplistic) 3 Acts (here's a handy summary). Prometheus definitely needed another two Acts, or at the very least an extra twenty minutes to give the final Act time to breathe. That is the only real flaw in the screenplay, and I'm pretty confident it wasn't the writers (or the director for the that matter) who decided to sacrifice that all important extra time to cut to the running and shouting.

4) Implausibility -

Okay, now we're through the heavy stuff let's take a look at something much less important - whether you as a human person in 2012, believe that what you're seeing on the screen (in a film set in space in the future with aliens) is actually happening. This is what people seem to have been getting most angry about.

Let's break it up into the most common complaints -

Complaint #1 - Why does Vickers have a medical pod that's only designed for males?

This question has come up a lot and it's the easiest to answer. The medical pod is Chekhov's gun (speaking of which, if you want to see a clever and hilarious misinterpretation of Chekhov's gun may I recommend the short film Jenny Ringo and the Monkey's Paw which you can see by going here and signing up to the mailing list? Thank you!)

We see the pod in the first Act so we know it will be used in the second or third. At the same time it makes sense in terms of the plot because it, along with Vickers' quarters, is there for Weyland. By the time the pod is put to use we already know Weyland is on the ship because we saw David talking to him. So as well as becoming a further obstacle for our protagonist it also gives us further insight into the selfishness of a father who would have his daughter on a ship and build a medical pod that can only save him.

The only way to make this more obvious would be for the medical pod to say 'Sorry, I am only designed for males because although you thought these quarters were for a woman they are actually for the old man we've got hidden out the back.' Would that have made it better? No, it would be ridiculous. But if you complained about this then the next time a character in a film delivers a 15 minute monologue of non-stop exposition please remember that you asked for further clarification on such matters.

Complaint # 2 - Why are Fifield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall) so dumb? Why are they hanging out in the room with all the gloopy scary stuff? Why do they poke the evil snake thing until it eats them?

For a start, hanging out in the room of evil didn't seem all that implausible to me. I could actually relate to it. Possibly because I have been trapped in a lift.

When you are trapped in a lift common sense says to wait. Someone will get you out eventually. Just stand there, wait for help and don't panic. After all, you're in a tiny box suspended over empty space - you don't really want to be tempting fate by trying to escape. But after about five minutes I was looking at the ceiling in case there was a hatch like in films, another guy was prising the doors open with a penknife and someone else was making himself at home on the floor and offering his lunch around. The point is that the way you relate to your environment changes when the context shifts i.e. when the small metal box stops being the means to get between floors with minimal exercise and instead becomes a prison for the next two hours you tend to stop caring about how far up you are and become fixated on how to get out. At least the five of us trapped in that lift did. In those situations the combination of boredom and panic will always get the better of common sense. That's what happened to Fifield and Milburn.

You may be thinking I'm making excuses, but that's honestly the moment I flashed back to while watching Fifield and Millburn in that room. I was thinking 'They're going to start prising the doors open!' and that scene worked for me.

As for poking the alien snake thing yes, that was a pretty dumb move. But then, so was this...

Remember that moment? From everyones' favourite sci-fi/horror film Alien, the greatest sci-fi/horror film ever made in the whole history of cinema ever? That's the scene where John Hurt STICKS HIS FACE INTO AN ALIEN EGG.

But that's not dumb or anything because it's like, you know, a classic and stuff.

Complaint #3 - Moments after slicing open her abdomen and performing a self-administered c-section Shaw is then seen running all over the place as if nothing happened.

Let's start by looking at the alternative. Let's say this is happening in real life. Let's imagine that having watched Shaw slice herself open with super medical robot things from the future, extracting the alien creature from her womb and then putting herself back together with staples she spends the next week recovering. And we wait.

Meanwhile, the rest of the film carries on without her which means she's still hanging out on the ship while the Engineer is setting off to destroy Earth. The fact is if you can't put up with the implausibility of someone recovering from childbirth in a matter of minutes then I guarantee you won't put up with watching someone sitting around doing nothing while the world ends.

From my perspective, the film showed her pumping herself full of future drugs and if Sir Ridley says that's all we need to get her back in the plot then that's fine by me. It's not like we've never seen something like this before. Every Rambo film features at least one occasion where Stallone has to carry out major surgery on himself. In fact action heroes do it all the time, and though we know that getting up and running about after pulling an arrow out of your gut or whatever is unrealistic we don't question it. Because it's a film, and all films would be over a lot quicker if the main characters weren't a little more resilient than the rest of us.

The real problem here is that people are asking these questions in the first place. That's usually a sign that there's a bigger issue with the film because the audience is paying attention to irrelevant details rather than the bigger picture. And if I'd felt the same way about any of the above complaints I would agree that it suggests deeper flaws in the film. However, what I actually think is that we've become too quick to pick holes in film plots. Like the minimal dialogue that used to deliver the most character information in the shortest time, we've forgotten how to take in film shorthand. Do we really want a film in which everything is explained to death? In which characters stay on the ship where it's safe then decide to leave because it's all a bit too creepy? In fact, why do they even leave Earth at all? Why not just stay at home picking holes in far-fetched sci-fi films like the rest of us.

Fiction, particularly genre fiction, puts us in situations and places that we can't possibly relate to. It relies on us to be okay with that so the writers/filmmakers can get on with telling a story. If we're suddenly not okay with that then there's always reality TV.

5) Unanswered questions -

The biggest criticism of the film seems to be about the fact that it was sold on the premise of explaining the origin of the alien in Alien and then didn't. On top of that it posed new questions about the origin of life itself and then didn't answer those either. Not only that, but we're told that these answers and more will be provided in the forthcoming sequels. So this whole thing that we were all looking forward to and paid loads of money to see was actually just an advert for two more films that haven't even been made yet?

Well, you could look at it like that but you would basically be looking at the finger rather than the moon...

Since you got this far, here are the answers most people couldn't be bothered to look for.

First of all, forget about the sequels. That's just more marketing stuff in case the film makes enough money to justify making more in which case they can guarantee some of us will go see the next one.

All the answers you need are in the film. This film, Prometheus - not Alien, not Bladerunner, not the as yet unproduced sequels. Let's take it as read that in the story of the film the Engineers created human life (and probably other life too). They then create the black gooey stuff to destroy it. The black gooey stuff is not only a weapon but a lifeform itself and it evolves - that's why it reacts differently depending on how it is applied and who it is applied to. The ultimate evolutionary state of the the evil black stuff is the Alien. So the Alien was created as a weapon, but the evolution of that weapon also has parallels with the evolution of human life. It even starts of as a kind of amphibious/reptile type creature and at the end emerges as humanoid. That, as far as I'm concerned, connects this film to Alien just fine.

The next question, and the question that will apparently be answered in the sequel, is why? Why would the Engineers go to the trouble of creating life only to design a way to destroy their creation? Remember all that stuff about Shaw and what she does when she feels threatened by the life she created? There's one answer. Another answer is stated more explicitly by David in conversation with Holloway - they do it because they can.

That's just what I thought and other opinions are available, like this one.

Of course this may not be anything like the story the filmmakers were trying to tell, but is it really their job to provide the answers? No, it's not. Films are supposed to ask questions, not answer them. That job is supposed to be down to the audience. And this, 5000 words later, is the real reason that the reaction to Prometheus concerns me so much. Audiences should have been leaving those screenings discussing what the film was about, not complaining that they didn't get what they wanted.

Let's recap on what audiences apparently want. Endless exposition so all questions are answered? A film that devotes much more screen time to character moments which ultimately don't drive the plot forward? A film that gives us more of what we've already seen in the trailer and nothing else? A film that does not ask anything of its audience other than to sit there and be entertained? If this is what you want then fear not for there is a filmmaker out there making films just for you...

The point of this is not to say anyone who doesn't like the film is wrong. If I'm honest I didn't like it all that much. What I'm saying is something I've said many times before. There is value in any film, as in any piece of art. Whether we like or dislike something is purely subjective. I'm not saying there's no such thing as a bad film (actually I am but that's another argument for another day) but if we don't even try to look for the interesting stuff; if we just sit back and expect to be entertained with the least amount of input from ourselves, then we may as well be watching a montage of flashing colours and loud noises.

Popular opinion would have us believe that no one wanted a filmmaker like Michael Bay, but the fact is if we keep going into films without wanting to think about what we're watching, without wanting to contribute anything to the experience at all, then frankly Michael Bay is the filmmaker we deserve.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A Trip to the Fishing Museum and Other Stories...

Too busy to do a proper blog but here is some stuff what has happened with some soon to be relevant music (click play below)...
Following on from my last post Julia totally smashed her target on Kickstarter! I'm really happy for her and excited about the film - it's going to be awesome. Also I think the fact that she set her sights so high and still made it gives the rest of us creative-types a bit of hope for the future.

And she got an extra boost when Mr. Amanda Palmer (aka Neil Gaiman) tweeted a link to her page, which is awesome and makes their domination of the crowd-funding universe seem a little more acceptable.

Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret from Hell is still keeping me busy, hence I haven't really had time to write a proper blog about it recently. Last weekend Ross and I polished up the edit and cut two and a half minutes out which has improved it no end (mostly thanks to some awesome notes from Dr. Geraint D'Arcy, which is further proof that if in doubt you should always refer back to the writer). There's one more change to put in but we can't really do that until we're further along with the sound so for now we have an almost final cut and I'm really happy with it.

A couple of weekends ago I met with a sound designer, Ben Brockett, who also happens to be in an awesome band The Galleons (whom you should now have been listening to). You should definitely buy their album because it's awesome. I also have a composer and mixer ready to go and my next plan is to actually sort out recording the additional dialogue. So despite the lack of updates, it's going really well.

Speaking of bands, Hollywood Assassins are playing at the Prince Albert in Brighton on June 22nd. They are also awesome and feature heavily in Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret from Hell.

MovieBar, the short film night I run in Brighton, is still going really well and don't forget that even if you're not based anywhere near enough to come along you can still see some of the short films we've screened on our website.

In other news my love affair with my Xbox may be over after my Assassin's Creed: Revelations save file got somehow corrupted meaning I would have to start from the beginning again. I was 93% into the game. As my wife pointed out, that doesn't happen with books.

Or films, so I watched some stuff...

I saw Prometheus which I thought was ace apart from a dodgy pacing issue between the 2nd and 3rd Act. I actually would have preferred it to have been twenty minutes longer - how often do you find yourself saying that about a two hour film? I thought it had good monsters, the performances were uniformly awesome and it was a bit arthouse - kind of like Solaris only a hundred times more expensive and with monsters. Philip French liked it too.

Then I saw Kill List which was similar in that it too had some pacing issues, was mostly an arthouse horror film (if I had to choose a favourite genre it would definitely be arthouse-horror) and had one of the best shock endings ever.

I've also started work on a new project with Brother Pete which involved visiting Brighton Fishing Museum on our lunchbreak for research. It doesn't have anything to do with fishing (I mean our project doesn't have anything to do with fishing, not the Fishing Museum which has quite a lot to do with fishing as you would expect).

Also, I should probably say something about Ray Bradbury dying. He was definitely up there with my favourites, as I'm sure he was for most people. A Sound of Thunder is the best time travel story ever written (you can read it here) but my favourite Bradbury story was always The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl in which a murderer goes on an obsessive cleaning spree. It's like The Tell-Tale Heart, but with dusting. I'm probably not selling it very well - it's just really good and you should definitely check it out.