Monday, August 6, 2012

New Edition (Kind of a review for Prometheus)

Steven Spielberg is a director I have some degree of respect for; I dislike many of his films but I have respect for his accomplishments. One thing that earned a little more respect from me was last month when he said he was going to give fans the Theatrical release of ET on Blu-Ray rather than the edited 20th anniversary edition. The reception to the 20th Anniversary edit of ET, mostly negative, seems to have made Spielberg reassess the seeming obsession with directors revisiting old works. Spielberg has revisited old work before, most notably 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" which to date has had three cuts released. Due to studio issues rushing the film into release the theatrical cut was not to the director's liking, as it was success he was able to re-release the film in 1980 as a "special edition" which included several sequences that were not finished in time to make the 1977 cut. I'll get back to Spielberg and "Close encounters" in a moment.
The Internet has already been abuzz about Ridley Scott's "Prometheus", his return to Science fiction and his revisit to 1979's Alien. His talk about a sequel to "Blade Runner" as well as the reissue of Star Wars on Blu-Ray and the assorted manglings by its creator have gotten me thinking a lot about the idea of the auteur director and their classic works...

Prometheus is a mess of a film frankly, and a very distinct example of a movie not being equal to the sum of it's parts. One thing many of us forget when watching a film is that they are in reality an assemblage of multiple components; Direction, Sound, Cinematography, Script etc. Prometheus is an example of a film where these elements fail to mesh in a consistant way; the design and visual appeal of the film is stunning for example, but the script in many places sucks balls... big alien balls. Red Letter Media point out very well in their latest comentary track to Star Wars how the opening is so effective as it shows rather than tells. Alien is also very much like that, at no point do we see the intrepid crew of the Nostromo exclame how big or weird or like flesh the Space Jocky's ship is. No we get matter of fact statements about not about the bleeding obvious but what our characters are thinking about. Alien almost appears unscripted in parts as the interactions between the characters seem so natural. This was one of the two most jarring elements in Prometheus; the script is quite bad for the most part with the majority of characters seeming unformed and flat. Now why is that? Characters actually speak more dialogue in Prometheus than in Alien, in fact we know more about our Heroine's background than we do about Elen Ripley's. It's not an acting issue, as the majority of the performances are fine, Noomy Rapace is an excellent actress, Fasbender is Awesome as the Android David, even Guy Pierce is good under a stupid amount of very silly looking age makeup. The one answer is the script. Genre Scriptwriters these days seem to need to pack more clumsy exposition into thier scripts than the average episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Star Trek the exposition was almost always about things not apparent to the Audience (the audience not being trained Star Fleet Engineers for the most part) , in most Sci Fi movies these days character exposit about the visually obvious. This is why Prometheus has a script problem. Characters shouldn't have to vocally explain their feelings constantly, the character's actions and the actor should allows us to connect and feel with them. (In a good movie anyway)

The second bugbear for Prometheus is tone. From sound track to themes dealt with, Prometheus's tone is a mess. It has the same "new discovery" sound track for landing on a new planet as it does for exploring the very disturbing Gieger designed alien pyramid. Sound is important as a cypher for the audience, and Prometheus's score saps any horror from what could be a very effective body horror films. I have heard and read a lot of people talk about how the various plot hole and unexplained elements are so the viewer can "add their own interpretation" to the plot. I honestly despise this Post Modernist Canard used as an excuse for poor film making. While the interpretation of a film should be up the the audience , and it's fine when the audience needs to do some work to get there; the film has to function as a film as well. A film cannot just be a cypher for the audience to throw meaning at, it needs to do some work of its own as well. Prometheus is not "trying to leave it up to the Audience" in the way a film like "Eraserhead" do as it has a clear narrative structure which you can't really get around. The ambiguity is just the result of poorly expressed themes.

Now I'm bookending my thoughts on this film due to the ending, it is a prequel or reimagining of Alien. Now if that was Scott's idea or the studio's that is irrelevant as its in the cut of the film and we can't really ignore it. So it sits in well with the idea of directors revisiting old ideas. What works in Prometheus works very well, the "Space Jockey" from Alien really being a space suit for humanoid giants is a great swerve. HR Gieger's designs have never looked better on screen imho; his style of work really gains alot from HD filmmaking as it is all about the visual intricacies of darkness and surrealist double images. (One thing that appears and two things) The theme of "daddy issues" is also strong (can you be surprised as the writer is from LOST?) but it's the combination of these elements that is weak.

The 1980 cut of Close encounters added a bunch of new scenes and drastically shortened several others, it added a couple of new effects sequences including the controversial Mothership interior scene while shortening or removing some of the more mundane scenes of Roy's life. Both versions feel a little disjointed emotionally and narrativly; factors that prevented the film from really becoming one of Spielberg's classics. In 1998 it was re cut again as the "collector's edition" which combined elements of both versions, omitting the added mothership interior. I am actually a big fan of Close Encounters, it was a film I saw in childhood and even today I think it is one of Spielberg's most articulate. It features some very dynamic camera work, music and effects that mostly stand up today. It makes amazing use of nighttime and artificial lighting as well as found sounds to create mood and is able to be hopeful and full of wonder without getting too schmaltzy. The 1998 cut made me interested in the film once again after I saw it last year on TV, it is a much more complete work reassembled by a more experienced filmmaker. The editing is better, the narrative flows much better and the stories of the secondary characters seem fuller. (The re-adding of the scene with Gillian and the media for example stops her going from loosing her son to drawing pics of the Devil's Tower and makes her pain feel a little more real.)
It feels like remakes, re-editions and revisits are all part of cinema's extended middle age; and not always a bad thing. Prometheus and Alien are two separate films, and the former is an unsuccessful attempt to revisit the mood of the later. Scott can still ride high has having two legendary genre films under his belt, but I feel unlike Spielberg he has not become a more mature film maker just a more ambitious one. Unfortunately in Prometheus his ambition seems to outstrip his skill as a storyteller.