Be warned, this conversation will contain a few SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen Prometheus yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before you continue reading.
Anders: For all the digital ink that has been spilled over Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in the week since it’s been out, one more painstakingly pedantic “takedown” is hardly called for. So thankfully we’re not interested in that. I get to play the contrarian hipster this time, going against the consensus, and I don’t even have to take a negative, dismissive position to do so, but rather embrace the fact that I rather liked the film.
Aren: The majority of the conversation concerning Prometheus has focused almost entirely on the script and people have paid the technical aspects of the film very little heed. Yes, the negative critiques have all commented on how it’s a technically marvelous film, but they say this as an afterthought, as if it doesn’t matter, as if every good script produced in Hollywood always has impeccable camera work and sound design, which is obviously not true.
While I don’t want to say that Prometheus succeeds in spite of its script since I think the script is far stronger than most people think, I will say that glossing over the mastery of its technical aspects is making a critical mistake. A film is as much its craftsmanship as it is its story — a controversial statement, I know, but one I believe is true. Is a movie just its script or is it also its sets, costumes, sound design, cinematography, special effects, and score? If all that mattered about a movie were the script, people would stay home and read scripts instead of heading to the cinema. To see a script in motion, in combination with all the other technical aspects of cinema projected onto a screen, is to see a movie.
In technical terms, no movie in 2012 comes even close to matching Prometheus’ craftsmanship. Instead of the confined claustrophobia of Alien, Scott’s visuals here echo the lofty ambitions of the film’s themes. They are expansive and ambitious. Most scenes are composed primarily of long shots. The palette is cool and murky, and yet, the 3D doesn’t suffer because of the dimness of the exploration scenes. In fact, this is possibly the most impressive use of 3D in a movie yet, feeling immersive and subtle, adding dimension and depth to the impressive set design.
Scott is a master of art direction and Prometheus is a master achievement in it. From the haunting interiors of the pyramid installation to the star-map of the Engineer’s ship to the pristine glamour of the Prometheus to the surface of LV-223, Prometheus is gorgeous. And don’t let me forget the opening credits scene, a beautiful, awe-inspiring montage of the haunting, primal landscape of Earth. If I ever catch you saying that Ridley Scott doesn’t know what he’s doing with a camera, I’ll smack you.
Anders: Indeed, the fact is that Prometheus is one of the best-looking science fiction films I’ve seen in ages. It strikes me as odd that people aren’t talking about this fact, since I’ve always thought that one of Sir Ridley’s strengths was cinematography and composition. He even shot the hell out of the mostly boring A Good Life, which was basically a highlight reel from his and Russell Crowe’s vacation in Provence. So, going into a Ridley Scott film, I’m going to be more enthused about how the film is going to look rather than things like plot, etc. – like you, I’m not intimating that I agree with those who think Prometheus is nonsense, but I wonder if people have really seen this film, you know, with their eyes.
As you mention there are amazingly compositions right from the get go. The landscape of the primordial earth looks fantastic and otherworldly (perhaps it is actually otherworldly, but I tend to agree with Ebert that that’s a red herring). The point is that it looks awe-inspiring. The shots of the Prometheus approaching LV-223 from space with the rings of the gas giant in the background were as wonderful as the origins of life stuff in Malick’s The Tree of Life (with which, I think, there might be some interesting commonality). On the wall-to-wall high definition theatre screen on which I saw the film, I was astounded at the detail and the way that the ship is dwarfed by the planet, especially in 3D.
This was one of the “weightiest” 3D films I’ve seen. A lot of complaints about CGI I hear are that it makes things look plasticky and weightless. I think 3D, used in the right way (and this film, in my opinion, is the new standard-bearer for 3D), can return a feeling of depth and weight to the fantastic imagery. Anton commented after the screening on the way that the 3D doesn’t seem flashy and in your face. It draws you into the film rather than jabbing out at you. The scenes in the tunnels give you a sense that the tunnels actually recede into the distance and that anything could pop around the corner.
So, while I agree it’s not enough that a film looks good, form is inextricably wedded to content in the arts. This is where Prometheus’s filmmaking adds to the themes that I think Ridley wanted to explore with this film. A lot of the complaints around this film basically fall to the fact that it’s not Alien, but I think looking at how this film differs can offer insight. The main mode that Prometheus is attempting to operate in here is awe, perhaps even the sublime. The compositions are wide. The figures are dwarfed by their surroundings in a mysterious and frightening universe.
Alien (which I re-watched the morning before going to see Prometheus) is a claustrophobic film. The human figures are often shot in close-up or extreme close-up, the camera right up in their face. The fear is one of being trapped with something terrifying. Prometheus, in its expansive mode, is about how the terror is bigger than that. No matter how far you go, you can’t escape it. I can totally see why Guillermo Del Toro said that after this film he won’t be able to make his adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (perhaps the number one slight against Ridley’s film is that loss), since this film shares a Lovecraftian sensibility in which humanity discovers their place in the universe, which is strange and humbling and terrifying. Even David plays into that theme, which I’ll touch on in a moment.
Aren: What I most appreciate about Prometheus is how it dares to ask the unanswerable. It ponders nothing less important than the origin of human life. Like other great science fiction, Prometheus is more about its themes than its characters. The story and the characters are only means through which to explore its themes. Unlike most blockbusters, it reaches for the profound. While it may not always get there, it succeeds far more often than not, and ends up astounding in its ambition.