Prometheus has Landed

Ridley Scott's addition to the Alien franchise has finally hit theaters following a fantastic marketing blitz. Prometheus is a good, but at points flawed, predecessor to his own 1979 start to the franchise. One of my more anticipated films of the year, I found it to be a decent film, living up to my somewhat lowered expectations, and certainly one that I'll watch again.

Prometheus follows a lot of similar formula as that of Aliens, with some notable differences. An archeological team comes up with a series of star maps that points the team to a distant world with extraterrestrial life. An interstellar expedition is assembled and financed, and sent off to a moon designated LV-223 in a far off system. Overseen by a robot overseer on the 200 day trip, the crew lands on the moon, and discover an unnatural feature. Suiting up, the scientific contingent set off to find what message might have been left behind. Helmets come off, people get lost and suddenly, chaos ensues as the relics infect the crew.

The key to enjoying Prometheus seems to be ignoring that the film is connected to the Alien universe. While it's not as good as Alien, I did enjoy it a bit more than Aliens, and when compared to your average summer blockbuster, Prometheus comes off rather well.

What's notable for Prometheus is how absolutely gorgeous it is: the design of the world is one of the best that I've seen, a spaceship that looks practical and well-rooted in the modern world, much as the Nostromo likely felt back when it was first released. Outside of the ship, the film is treated to a phenomenal opening credit scene, and continues to put together some wonderful planetscapes and general images. It's a slick, great movie, visually. Even the 3D, which I normally can't stand, worked exceptionally well throughout the film - there were none of the flat sections where the film reverts back to 2D outside of the action sequences. Here, it's seamlessly in the background, where it's never intrusive.

Prometheus's story is where the film begins to stumble, while also attempting some very ambitious things. There's a lot that Scott's tried to pack into the movie, ranging from overarching themes of science verses faith, the idea of maker-gods who have helped along the human race, to the responsibilities of science and technology. It's easy to see where the ideas are, and where they're attempting to go, but it's lost in a bit of a muddle. While watching the film, I got the distinct impression that there was quite a bit cut out of the movie to keep the run time under a certain level, and I can't help but wonder if somewhere down the road, we'll get the bits that were cut out, which will hopefully help to reinforce some of the characters and overarching themes.

Beyond that, some of the letdowns come with some of the really stupid things that the characters do throughout the movie. Characters take their helmets off at every point, even when it seems like it might be a really bad idea, quarantine protocols are ignored, and everything that should be done to keep a trillion dollar mission on schedule and safe really isn't done. This is where Prometheus is a disappointment: there's a lot of potential that's lost in the characters and their actions.

The characters frequently have their moments to shine: Charlize Theron does a fantastic job as Meredith Vickers, the Weyland Corporation rep, while Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw finally finds her legs towards the end of the film, after she's been pushed to the brink. Most notable, however, is David, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, the ship's robot who has some considerable issues when it comes to his maker, Peter Weyland. Frequently though, each of the characters are drawn with too broad a brush and the often come off poorly. Other characters, like Captain Janek and the bridge crew, have great appearances - Benedict Wong especially, but just little enough to make us want more.

Where the story really does work is looking at the big ideas, and I applaud the film for really trying something, rather than simply mirroring the audience's expectations. The idea of an alien race bringing their technology to seed a world, only to find that they've made a mistake is a rather epic idea, and I'm thrilled to see the ideas there: I simply wish that they'd been followed up on a bit more. The ideas of religion and science that come out of those ideas are similarly brought up, and not fully explored. While that's not great, I can't really think of the last major science fiction movie that put together interesting ideas with a dramatic story, (Maybe Inception?) and I'm happy to see a film at least try to do something a bit different.

Weirdly, this film felt very optimistic throughout: focusing on exploring and learning about our surroundings, it's an interesting change from many of the reactionary (and still excellent) science fiction out there, even up through the end. Where Alien was purely a horror film set in space, Prometheus feels more like a space opera film, with quite a few horror elements.

Looking back, the film is stymied by its lack of focus: there's several subplots, focusing on David/Weyland, the Engineers, and corporate intentions, all of which try to share the space with each other. The film never quite meshes in the way that it should have, and coupled with the extraordinarily high expectations set forth by the film's marketing contingent; it's no wonder that the film has received such mixed reviews. In a lot of ways, the film would have likely fared better if its connections to Alien had been completely severed, with it released as a stand-alone science fiction adventure. Here lies the major problem when attempting to bring back a well-worn franchise with an established fanbase: it's almost impossible to capture what everybody loved about it, and entrenched expectations really prevent the filmmakers from really innovating. Prometheus is able to get away from this a bit: I'm sure that continuity hounds and nitpickers will argue for a long time about this, but Scott really is able to pull out a good movie out for his return to the genre.

But, despite all of the issues with the film, I really enjoyed it. I'm a sucker for great imagery in the genre, and Prometheus certainly delivers here. But beyond that is a film that, once some of the extra baggage is ignored, is a decent film when you look at it against the lesser Alien films, or even the broad canon of summertime blockbusters. It doesn't quite stack up as high as Blade Runner and Alien do in the greater picture, but it's a good film that should have been great. I can live with that.

Bad SciFi Movie Night

A year or so ago, I posted up on Facebook that I had finally gotten a chance to watch Tron, and asked people what movies were worth looking into. The response was overwhelming, and I've come up with a long list of films that I should watch, along with some of my own research into cult classics and gems from the science fiction / fantasy genres. When Megan moved in to my apartment, we began what we jokingly referred to 'Bad SciFi Movie Night', running with the idea that most of the films from that time period are bad films.

It's entertaining, that whenever I post up something about Bad Scifi Movie Night, there's an inevitable flood of replies that the films that I'm watching *aren't* bad. It's true: while there have been some films that I've come across that have been hard to get through, most are outstanding. So, here's an explaination to what I can point to.

So far, Megan and I have run through an excellent list of films:

12 Monkeys, 2001, 2010, Alien*, Aliens*, Alien Nation, Batman, Blade Runner*, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind*, Dark Crystal, Dune, Enemy Mine, 5th Element*, Forbidden Planet*, Jason and the Argonauts, Gattaca, Highlander, Last Starfighter, Logan's Run, Omega Man, Outland, Planet of the Apes, Predator, Silent Running, Starship Troopers, Supernova, Soylant Green, The Thing, Tron, Total Recall and Westworld. (* indicates that I'd already seen and owned it, but rewatched it.)

Of those, there's some real classics that I've really, really loved: Alien, Alien Nation, Omega Man, Outland, Silent Running and Soylent Green. Others, I didn't like: Enemy Mine, Dark Crystal and Supernova. Win some, lose some.

What I'm enjoying about this watch-list is that it's an excellent opportunity to go through some of the roots of science fiction classics. Movies such as Alien, 2001, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet and a couple others are real classics in the genre that have absolutely shaped the films that come after it. Part of this came out of my love for the film Moon, by Duncan Jones. In some of the interviews and commentaries that I've read/listened to, he's cited films such as Silent Running and Outland as direct inspirations for his first, brilliant film.

As a historian, my instincts are to look at the roots of what form the present. The films of the 1950s through the early 1990s form the basis for movies and popular culture of today - it's easy to recognize the phrase 'Soylent Green is People!', but it's also important to see some of the roots and themes of the stories from these movies. Understanding the past is important to understand the present, especially in something such as popular culture.

So, while Bad SciFi Movie Night is titled as such, it's not reflective of the quality of the films that we're watching: if anything, the films that we've gone through are just as good - better in some cases - than films that are coming out today.

I, Human, not I, Robot

Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.

I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.

The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.

The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.

In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.

In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.

Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.

With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.

1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168

Alien vs. Aliens


Over the weekend, I watched two Science Fiction films, Alien and Aliens for the first time. In my quest to have a better sense of the genre, I've been putting together a list of older films, from the 60s and 70s, and these two were on it.

Actually, I had watched Alien once before - I had watched it once, not very closely, and was rather indifferent about it, and when the movie vanished from my collection, I never bothered to pick it up again. This weekend, with little to do but housework, I set up both films (recently aquired used from a local store) and watched both.

Alien is a masterpiece of a science fiction/horror film. Aliens, not so much. I realize that this flies against most of what other people have said about the movie, and taking in to consideration that the two films are vastly different, but I'm willing to stand by my assessment on this.

Alien is quiet, thoughtful, engaging and absolutely beautiful. Aliens is a mess of action, annoying characters and an overwhelming sense of energy. The two films could not be more different from one another, but in a way, that is why the two of them work so well for one another.

What strikes me most about Alien is the sets, look and feel of the universe that Ridley Scott and the production team set up. The Nostromo is wonderfully put together, a space ship that feels well worn and practical, the way that science fiction should be: durable.

Aliens on the other hand, feels flimsy, out of place after watching Alien. Rather than a quiet science fiction film, Aliens is a loud, fast and exciting rush that at times, drags on the plot. Where Alien succeeded as a horror film, building up the anticipation, Aliens kicks the action into high gear.

This is logical, I suppose, for the fans of the first movie, and for the franchise as a whole. The fact that the second movie is so different helps, I think, even if it does fall into the more is better mentality that seems to be the guide rule for most sequels now. A second film like Alien would be the worst thing for the franchise: it would be a dull installment.

Still, while this is good in theory, a major change and shift in tone, Aliens, I found, is let down by its execution. There's action, but it's not smart action. James Cameron has never really been a subtle director, and this is no exception. The acting is annoying, until the end, but the endless action is just repetitive and brings down the film as a whole.

Still, it's a better action film than most action films out there right now, and it's easy to see where the rest of the genre really comes from. That being said, Alien ends up on top.