Saturday, April 16, 2016

Best Movie Ever: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Leatherface family sez: "Join us for dinner!"

Tobe Hooper's low-budget rural horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is my single favorite movie of all time. It appears on every iteration of my personal "Top Films" list and is my go-to answer to the question "What is your favorite movie?" 

I love low-budget films and I love horror films. My love for low-budget film aesthetics dates back to my 1990s independent film fandom, spurred by stuff like Slacker (1991), El Mariachi (1992), Clerks, Go Fish (both 1994), and Gummo (1997) but also via the influence of John Waters, whose films I started watching voraciously in the late '90s and 2000s.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the pivotal film that won me over to the horror genre. I had seen Halloween and a few other slashers (including Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and the incredibly weird Sleepaway Camp) before I first watched Tobe Hooper's masterpiece in 2002. I enjoyed those films, especially Halloween, but Texas Chain Saw really showed me what a powerful horror film can do.*

There is something special, something charged and electric and more about TCM. I don't like the phrase "this movie transcends its genre" because that is both technically impossible (if it is a genre film, it is a genre film and it ain't transcending anything) as well as insulting to whichever genre you happen to be talking about. Genre-film lovers should never use that phrase.

I will say instead that TCM is a superlative example of the rural slasher genre. Along with Peeping Tom, Psycho (both 1960), Black Christmas (1974), and Deep Red (1975), TCM helps set the template for the "classic" slasher which fully emerges by the time of Black Christmas or surely Halloween (1978).

As far as the specifically rural slasher goes, TCM is the best of the best -- its only close rivals are Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987), and the intense, well-shot The Descent (2005). Other more distant (but still worthy) runners-up include Motel Hell (1980), Pumpkinhead (1988), Wrong Turn (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), the even better Wolf Creek 2 (2013), and Rob Zombie's underrated Halloween II (2009).**

Despite (or probably because of) its low budget, Texas Chain Saw's camera work is effective and inventive, its mise-en-scene artfully insane. Its performances are all-out. It is tautly edited and incredibly suspenseful. It is, in every aesthetic category, a triumph of scrappy, compelling, no-frills filmmaking.

One of Texas Chain Saw's great strengths is that it trusts its imagery to convey its ideas. The shot compositions and blocking tell the story without the need for dialogue. That said, the dialogue, particularly about the Leatherface family's history in the slaughtering industry ("My family's always been in meat" brags Hitchhiker), is believable as spoken by the characters and simultaneously freighted with deeper thematic implications.

Chain Saw uses many images as "free motifs," that is, as abstract imagery that suggests, rather than outright denotes, meaning. For example, there are several recurring images of circular objects: the sun, the moon, a windmill. To me these suggest cyclical time, prehistoric time, the centripetal energy of the Leatherface family devouring itself. The windmill in particular hints that the Leatherface family is "spinning its wheels" -- see also the generator that endlessly runs, powering nothing. All these circular images rhyme with each other, with certain circular camera movements as when the van pulls into the gas station, and with Leatherface's twirling dance that ends the film. When Sally flees Leatherface, her journey is also circular, from the house to the gas station then back to the house. Circularity abounds.***

Chain Saw's experimental soundtrack contributes much to the film's overall tone of terror. The minimalist score consists of weird pitch-bent tones resembling metal scraping against metal, plus occasional staccato percussion including cymbals and gongs. The diegetic music, especially the plinky little ditty "Fool for a Blonde" by Roger Bartlett is eerie and effective during Hitchhiker's bizarre ride in Jerry's van.

Along this same line, pay close attention to the sound design throughout Texas Chain Saw's opening vignette and opening credits -- it's creepy! -- and note how the radio announcer, whose lengthy report about local grave robbings is important, sound bridges us into the film's first scene in the van.

Hitchhiker sez: "I have this knife -- it's a good knife."

In addition to all its artistic and cinematic virtuosity, I love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because it is an important cultural document, an ecstatically truthful reflection of early seventies American culture. Written and shot by college-aged youths in summer 1973, the original TCM captures U.S. malaise during the period of our national post-Watergate "nervous breakdown." According to historian Andreas Killen:
In 1973 America was jolted by three shocks, following on one another in rapid succession. First, the war in Vietnam ended in the first-ever military defeat for the United States. Second, the Watergate cover-up unraveled, and the presidency of Richard Nixon became engulfed in scandal and, by year's end, calls for impeachment. Last but not least, Americans were hit hard by a collapsing economy: 1973 was also the year of the Arab oil embargo and the beginning of the long slide into stagflation that lasted until the 1980s. Any one of these events alone would have challenged America's image of itself; together they shook the national psyche to its very core.†
In short, Chain Saw is a succinct, powerful snapshot of that shakedown of the national psyche. Screenwriter Kim Henkel and director Hooper confirm this interpretation on their DVD commentary, explicitly calling the movie a response to the Vietnam war and the Watergate crisis. While all films carry ideological meanings and can be analyzed as reflections of and responses to the cultural concerns of their time, the 1974 Texas Chain Saw is a particularly rich and multi-layered cultural looking-glass. Embracing the tropes of the just-burgeoning slasher genre, Hooper, Henkel and company commit to their project with abandon, infusing their despair and anger over the loss of life in Vietnam and the lies of Nixon into their depiction of the Leatherface family's impotent yet deadly rage against the privileged teenagers who invade their homeland.

Which is probably why I keep returning to the film in my writing. I advise my film studies students not to write about or critically analyze films they are too close to as fans, and I usually follow that advice myself. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an exception: I have published one article about the film and plan to include more Texas Chain Saw analysis in a chapter of my (slowly) forthcoming book.

In that article of mine, "Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films," I point out that low-budget rural slashers like Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre
present their cannibalistic hillbilly "villains" in extremely sympathetic terms and, due to the emerging conventions of the slasher horror film genre to which they belong, may even present the rural killers as the ultimate "heroes" of their scenarios in a way that a critically acclaimed Hollywood studio film like Deliverance does not attempt.†† 
Indeed, in TCM, the teens who intrude upon the Leatherface family property, especially the males, are presented as insensitive, oblivious jerks who think nothing of entering the Leatherface house uninvited. Even wheelchair-bound Franklin, who has a strange affinity for Hitchhiker and an appropriate sense of foreboding about the threat the rural family represents, is so whiny that he drives his sister Sally -- TCM's protagonist and Final Girl -- to distraction. Franklin is easy for the viewer to pity but hard for most viewers to like. Of all TCM's teens only Sally and maybe Pam are relatable.

Meanwhile, despite his violent, psychotic tendencies, Leatherface in particular is shown to be emotionally vulnerable at certain key moments of the film. His two brothers bully and mistreat him when they're all at home together, and the viewer sees Leatherface's fear and worry after the third teen, Jerry, walks into his house unannounced. This provocative, finely nuanced ambiguity about who we're supposed to feel for and root for places The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the highest echelon of successful horror movies, alongside other masterpieces like Peeping Tom, Psycho, and King Kong.

Leatherface sez: "I'm frightened and upset and deserving of your sympathy."

Beyond singling out The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as my personal favorite film, I am also quite serious (if hyperbolic) when I call it the "Best Movie Ever" -- that is, I would definitely place it on any more "objective" Top 100 Films list I had a hand in creating. Like so many canon-generating lists, Entertainment Weekly's is, in my view, disappointingly light on horror movies, including only seven: Psycho (#5), King Kong (#11), Jaws (#18), Rosemary's Baby (#36), Frankenstein (#55), The Shining (#66), and Night of the Living Dead (#79) -- all of which I'd keep.

But where is Nosferatu (1922)? Vampyr (1932)? Halloween (1978)? Videodrome (1983)? Peeping Tom (1960)? Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960)? John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)? Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977)?

John Carpenter sez: "Not a single movie in your Top 100, EW? You're fucking kidding me!"

What about Alien (1979)? Gojira (1954)? Wait a minute, EW, you're really putting The Fucking Dark Knight and Return of the Stupid King on your Top 100 Films list and not Gojira? That's completely fucked up.

Furthermore, any "Top 100 Films" list that excludes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- one of the most terrifying, visceral, brilliantly crafted, culturally significant, and influential American horror films ever made -- needs serious revision.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Gunnar Hansen, the original and best Leatherface actor.

Bonus Afterthought: Why the 2003 remake is a worthless abomination. I hate to waste any space at all discussing the 2003 Marcus Nispel Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, a formulaic, boring, worthless piece of shit that completely misses the point of what made the original scary or compelling. Instead of creating truly horrific situations arising from the motivations of the characters, the 2003 version goes for cheap jump scares -- yes, a cat even jumps out at one point -- lots of gore, and improbable, ill-motivated plot twists.

Besides its bland aesthetics, abuse of cattle prod cinema techniques, and crappy plotting, the remake's worst offenses are its decision to give the Leatherface family a surname -- Hewitt, which I guess is supposed to be "funny" -- and to fully explain the hillbilly clan's (hackneyed, pedestrian) behavioral motivations.

You see, in the 2003 version, the Leatherface -- er, Hewitt -- clan kidnaps babies because they want to expand their brood and be parents. Sadly, this is a stupid and disastrous miscalculation on the filmmakers' part, for it makes the Hewitts comprehensible to us in a way that deflates their power to horrify. It completely negates the powerful structural social critique of the original. The 1974 Leatherface clan kills because, as professional meat slaughterers, it is all they have ever known. They have been displaced from their jobs by the advent of the air gun stunner. Their family pride in their profession has been stripped from them, so they just keep on butchering -- now humans instead of cattle.

Their insanity and cannibalism is therefore a logical extension of the core principles of capitalism -- they are simply small business-people doing what they need to to survive.††† The inappropriateness of their choice of raw materials serves as a savage critique of the capitalist system, showing the desperate, horrific lengths to which the economically disenfranchised must resort to survive.

The 2003 version offers no such critique or thematic nuance. It is simply about a family who wants more babies and who isn't horrifying or scary at all. Yawn!

--
* Perhaps due to the early influence of Halloween and Texas Chain Saw, to this day I generally prefer slasher and serial killer-based horror films and thrillers. Along this line, let me recommend the raw and terrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the criminally under-seen Peeping Tom (1960). And, on the horror-comedy side, Man Bites Dog (1992). And of course Hitchcock's classic Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
** The elephant in the room here is Deliverance, which at least indirectly inspired the rural horror slasher cycle and the figure of the monstrous hillbilly. But that film itself is not precisely a horror film. It's more of a dark male melodrama with higher artistic pretensions than most slashers. Psycho also (again) sets an important precedent for TCM via the rural locale of the Bates Motel. Rural locales, from Dracula's castle to Night of the Living Dead's farmhouse to Them!'s California desert, pervade the horror film.
*** I noticed this circle motif due to reading Christopher Sharrett's "The Idea of Apocalypse in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Sharrett says some really smart and insightful stuff in that indispensable article, found in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, Scarecrow Press 2004).
† Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (Bloomsbury, 2006) p. 2.
†† Carter Soles, "Sympathy for the Devil" in Ecocinema Theory and Practice (ed. Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, Routledge 2013) p. 237.
††† This idea comes from Robin Wood, in his "An Introduction to the American Horror Film." also found in Planks of Reason (Scarecrow Press 2004). 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

German Expressionism and its Descendants


"As has often been noted, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between horror and science fiction. Not only that, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between horror and the crime film, and science fiction, adventure and fantasy as well."
-- Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood p. 85.

Expressionism is an artistic movement that began in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century. Expressionism at first emerged in poetry and painting before moving into theater and, eventually, film. The style eschews realism in favor of a more intensely subjective point of view. It favors oblique angles, forced perspective, heavy lines, and distorted and grotesque imagery. With its roots in Germany's trauma of losing World War One and subsequently plummeting into a recession, Expressionism tends to depict exaggerated / extreme emotional states, especially grim, negative ones like terror, fear, pain, sadness, disorientation, loss, etc.

Though it predates German Expressionism proper, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893, 1910) is considered exemplary of Expressionist aesthetics and was itself influential on twentieth-century Expressionism.

The interwar period of German film production, lasting from 1919-1933, is known as “Weimar Cinema.” It is named after the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic government. The tumultuous, unstable Weimar period coincides with the emergence of German Expressionist cinema -- that is, Weimar cinema and Expressionism are somewhat synonymous. Noting that "German’s cultural strength in the 1920s stood in marked contrast to its political and military weakness," historian of German film Stephen Brockmann describes Weimar Expressionism as
characterized particularly by the use of chiaroscuro (an Italian word containing the words for light and dark and indicating sharp contrasts between light and shadow), by jagged and bizarre sets that indicate an otherworldly or inhuman space, or that reflect the torments of the individual soul, and by stylized, unnatural acting.* 
I would add that many Expressionist films use mise-en-scene to simultaneously indicate otherworldly, uncanny spaces AND individual torment, as in Count Orlok's castle and surroundings in Nosferatu (1922), or the Moloch sequence when Freder first visits the underground factory in Metropolis (1927).

Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele's Living Room in Neulengbach (1911). . . 

. . . features weird angles, heavy lines, and a distorted sense of perspective similar to what we see in this shot from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). 

The first German Expressionist film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene. Caligari tells the story of Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a homicidal somnambulist controlled by the evil Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). As part of an attraction at a traveling carnival, Cesare tells people's futures, which usually involve impending death -- then at night, in a trance, he goes into town and murders them. Brockmann calls Caligari the "quintessential example of German Expressionist cinema" and suggests that, via the psychological instability of its onscreen protagonists, the film unnervingly depicts an "entire world that is possibly out of balance" (pp. 59, 62).**

High-contrast lighting is one of the most pronounced aesthetic properties of German Expressionism, horror films, and films noir, as these stills from Caligari, Dracula (1931), and The Third Man (1949) respectively demonstrate.



German Expressionist cinema had run its course by about 1930 with The Blue Angel or 1931 with M. Yet its techniques, style, and thematic tendencies have been enormously influential on many subsequent film cycles and genres.

Specifically, Expressionist cinema gives rise to the sound horror film (predominantly a rural genre, descended mainly from Caligari and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu) and, later, to film noir (predominantly an urban genre, descended from Caligari and most other Expressionist films). German Expressionism (especially Fritz Lang's Metropolis) also exerts a strong influence on the development of science fiction, horror's generic cousin. No Metropolis = no Bladerunner.

The Replicants in Bladerunner . . .

. . . are cinematic descendants of the Maria robot from Metropolis . . .

. . . as is this guy.

Speaking of Bladerunner, observe how film noir and science-fiction blend together so organically in that film. Same with stuff like Dark City (1998) and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (2005-12). I think these genres and styles intermix well because of their shared Expressionist heritage -- its aesthetic strategies and dark, grisly themes. Along this same line, there's Tim Burton's excellent Batman duology (1989, 1992), especially the criminally underrated Batman Returns, which mixes noir and sci-fi and horror and gothic melodrama all in one. It's a veritable Expressionism-descendant feast!

"Holy genre mash-ups, Oswald Cobblepot!"

In his historically grounded book Genre and Hollywood, Steve Neale refuses to split apart cinematic sci-fi and horror, treating them as "related, but also as distinct" intertwined genres (p. 85). One only need consider obvious examples like Alien (grotesque body horror meets hard sci-fi) and Bladerunner (with its Metropolis-like "evil robot run amok" plotline plus raw frozen eyeballs and graphic head squeezings) to see the truth of this conception. Also note how certain monster movies, especially 1950s ones like The Thing from Another World (1951), GojiraThem! (both 1954), and even the slightly more "hard" sci-fi thriller Forbidden Planet (1956) tread a super-fine, nearly indistinguishable line between horror and science-fiction.

However, despite their inherent messiness and tendency to hybridize, film genres have specific histories. The sound horror film begins with the Universal monster-movie cycle launched by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The American film noir starts with The Maltese Falcon in 1942 though I've heard Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (1937) and even Fritz Lang's M (1931) put forward as credible candidates for the "first" film noir.*** In any case, as we've seen, both horror and noir share an antecedent: German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

Film horror is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with the literary Gothic (or romantic gothic, including Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) and the grotesque (the explicit blood, gore, graphic monstrosity, and gross-out stuff).


Film Noir is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with hardboiled detective fiction and the police procedural film genre.† Film noir is extremely male-centered due to its ties to the hardboiled tradition, the police procedural, and the gangster film.

Like the melodrama or weepie, film noir favors style and sensationalism over complex character psychology. But unlike the melodrama, which uses elevated style to convey heightened (usually female) emotions and to evoke viewer pathos, film noir uses its distinct stylistic repertoire to reflect (primarily) white, male subjectivity and to achieve a disorienting, alienating effect.

As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton argue in "Towards a Definition of Film Noir,"
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir.††

At first glance, this alienating strategy would seem to be at odds with the attempt to generate pathos, but the more I think about it, maybe it isn't. After all, Borde and Chaumeton describe the "anguish and insecurity" central to the viewer's experience of film noir as "emotions," which are the traditional domain of melodrama.

Furthermore, both noir and melodrama use highly stylized mise-en-scene to achieve their effects, so there is always a tension between the intensity of the subjective emotions being evoked and one's distanciating awareness of stylistics and surface aesthetics. It may be most accurate to say that classic film noir is a form of highly stylized male melodrama, a violent precursor to the male weepies of the 1950s starring method actors like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean.

That said, despite its ventures into the realm of male melodrama, I'm pretty sure the film noir has more in common with the action film and the horror film (distanciating genres) than with the weepie or the Gothic romance (emotional genres). Or does it? Paul Schrader says it favors compositional tension over action . . . crap. Hard to pin down.

Anyway, to conclude, I'll say a few words about some must-see German Expressionist (and related) films:


Subtitled "A Symphony of Horror," F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) is probably my favorite German Expressionist movie. Unusual for its being shot outdoors in real wilderness locations, Nosferatu is the main progenitor (along with Caligari) of the sound horror film. The influence is direct: Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic novel Dracula (1897). which also provides (legally obtained) story material for Universal Studios' Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi.

Plus legendary Expressionist cinematographer Karl Freund, who lensed The Last Laugh for Murnau and Metropolis for Fritz Lang, was Tod Browning's cinematographer on Dracula.

Count Dracula sez: "I may be Transylvanian, but my cinematographer is a German Expressionist!"

Either The Last Laugh (1924) or Faust (1926) could stake a legitimate claim to being F.W. Murnau’s greatest German Expressionist film masterpiece. (His greatest film ever, Sunrise, was made in Hollywood so I'm not counting it here.)

Of the two, Laugh is more intimate, the tale of one humble (yet proud) doorman's downfall into old age and despair. Laugh's dynamic camera work and insistence upon the visual -- it uses a mobile, "untethered" camera style and eschews intertitles -- makes it stand out in the German Expressionist film canon. (Again, you'll have to see Sunrise if you want to see Murnau top himself in this area.)

Then there's Faust, the highest-budgeted Expressionist film Murnau worked on, grandiose in scale and breathtaking in its use of lighting and special effects. Frankly, for its startling imagery alone, and for Emil Jannings' insane performance as Mephisto, Faust might be my tied-for-favorite Murnau film.  In any case, if you want a succinct one-two punch of some of the most provocative, dark, and beautiful German Expressionist cinema ever made, you can hardly go wrong with either of these mid-career Murnau masterpieces.

Mephisto sez: "Watch German Expressionist cinema or I'll incinerate your SOUL!!"

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) is the one other German Expressionist film -- besides The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and at least one of Murnau's -- that I urge everyone to see. Metropolis is a grand, dystopian adventure story, told on a big canvas with lots of eccentric weirdness to enjoy along the way. All the Dr. Rotwang stuff is great, as is the havoc wreaked by the Maria robot once she's set loose. Metropolis is the ur-text of urban sci-fi / dystopian horror -- pretty much all later science-fiction owes a debt to Lang's epic film. So carve out some time -- Metropolis is long, two hours and thirty three minutes -- and see the damn thing. Hell, we're lucky to even be able to see it in its (mostly) complete form at all.

Sunrise (1927), subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," was made in Hollywood but still rivals (and possibly surpasses) any of the Expressionist masterpieces Murnau made in Germany. Released in the year "silent films reached perfection and then disappeared," Sunrise, according to Roger Ebert, "was not a box-office success, but the industry knew it was looking at a masterpiece." Turner Classic Movies' Bret Wood goes even further, boldly claiming that Sunrise "represents the artistic pinnacle of the cinema as a purely visual medium." In other words, go see Sunrise.


M. (1931) is Lang’s proto-noir masterpiece about a manhunt for a serial killer. The suspenseful, spooky, brilliantly edited and sound-designed M incepts the serial-killer thriller, and is the most obvious Expressionist antecedent to Hitchcock's 1930s work and to film noir in general.

Scarlet Street (1945), a classic Hollywood film noir directed by Lang.

Nosferatu (1979), Werner Herzog’s amazing color and sound remake of Murnau’s original, silent Nosferatu. I highly recommend Herzog's uniquely updated take on the vampire myth, with a freakishly edgy Klaus Kinski playing the title role. (I discuss Herzog's version glancingly here.) 

Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948).

German Expressionist Cinema also inspired Jean Vigo's Poetic Realism, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Welles, and possibly Gordon Willis' low-exposure work on The Godfather. Not to mention Batman's most enduring nemesis, the Joker.

German Expressionist film star Conrad Veidt sez: "I'm the original inspiration for the Joker, Batman fans!"

--
* Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film (Camden House, 2010) p. 43, 50. Brockmann's introductory overview of Weimar Cinema on pp. 43-57 is essential reading if you are interested in the history of Expressionist cinema.
** Intriguingly, Brockmann also mentions Caligari as example of the cinematic uncanny (p. 65), a subject I will take up at length in a separate, forthcoming post.
*** It dawns on me that I will need to write a whole separate post (or two) on film noir, perhaps in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly's #27 film, The Maltese Falcon (1941).
† Fritz Lang is a key figure here -- the great Expressionist director left Germany for Hollywood after Hitler took power and subsequently made several American noirs including Ministry of Fear (1943) and Scarlet Street (1945). Indeed, Brockmann calls Lang "one of the transmission mechanisms by which German Expressionist sensibilities influenced American film noir" (p. 84).
†† Borde and Chaumeton's 1955 essay is reprinted in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader (Limelight Editions, 1996) pp. 17-25.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Prometheus (2012)


Here's the verdict: Prometheus rocks!

Writing about Ridley Scott's 2015 film The Martian last December, I commented that
despite its coherence and high entertainment value, I did not actually like The Martian as much as I liked Prometheus, another recent sci-fi thriller by director Ridley Scott. I know many folks dislike Prometheus, finding it anywhere from mildly to exceedingly disappointing, but for me it is a key example of a noble failure: a film that is incoherent in many of its particulars but falls short of the mark because it makes a bold attempt to be something truly distinct and thought-provoking. For all its imperfections -- which mainly boil down to a few erratically motivated characters, a derivative and predictable plot, and some confusing ambiguity about how exactly the black oil works -- Prometheus really sticks with me, and its highs -- like the initial foray into the facility and the automated surgery sequence late in the film -- reach much higher than anything in the much tamer The Martian.
 
Prometheus' artificial man David (Michael Fassbender) is up to something vile.

Having just re-watched Prometheus for my fourth or fifth time, I swear the movie gets better every time I see it. Sure, there are unanswered questions and some character decisions that feel ill-motivated or at least ill-advised. But particularly given its visual, tonal, and thematic debts to 2001: A Space Odyssey (same opening shot, David's similarity to HAL, the idea of humanity making contact with a vastly superior alien species), I find its somewhat distant, "kept at arm's length" tone to suit the material rather well.


Prometheus' opening shot is quite similar to the first shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here AV Club's Tasha Robinson sums up the Alien prequel's strengths: 
From a technical standpoint, Prometheus is an unqualified success. The design is gorgeous, to the point where much of that slow-paced exploration seems designed solely to let the filmmakers show off their accomplishments and their imagination. It’s the first Alien franchise movie to imply that the technology of its future can be beautiful and artistic, not merely worn and weary. And it’s the first in the franchise to work at making humans feel tiny to the point of cosmic insignificance, rather than merely physically fragile.
She concludes that "Until that frantic last act, Prometheus is essentially an abstract remake of Alien for contemplative grown-ups." Indeed, despite some minor differences Prometheus mainly copies Alien's plot, reskinning those familiar structures with awe-inducing visuals and a contemplative, even spiritual tone. As A.O. Scott writes of Prometheus' first half,
the shudders of sublimity only grow more intense as Mr. Scott elegantly lays out a series of overlapping conceits. You might also call them science-fiction clich├ęs, but the amazing thing is that, at least for a while, they don’t feel that way. The visual scheme is sufficiently captivating, and most of the performances are subtle enough that whatever skepticism you may arrive with quickly turns into happy disorientation. The 3-D is unusually graceful — your gaze is absorbed rather than assaulted — and you are pulled into a world of lovely and disconcerting strangeness with plenty of time to puzzle over the behavior of its inhabitants.
Prometheus takes its tonal cues from Alien and, just as importantly, the aforementioned 2001. As Scott observes, in the end "Prometheus kind of spoils itself with twists and reversals that pull the movie away from its lofty, mind-blowing potential." By the third act, Prometheus sacrifices its lofty, 2001-like thematic aspirations for plot-driven, more Alien-like twists and scares.

Yet despite its grander ambitions, Prometheus falls well short of its 1979 counterpart. As Robinson writes, the prequel fails to adequately develop and motivate its non-Shaw, non-David cast members: "for much of the film, the mission rather than the people is the star, which makes it hard to connect emotionally when things fall apart for some of those people." I agree with this. Charlize Theron's Vickers works but is distant and hard to read. (Fassbender's David is also enigmatic and hard to read, but that is as it should be -- he is both an artificial man and duplicitous. Plus Fassbender is so great and is given sufficient screen time in which to fully develop such nuances. Theron gets jack -- maybe only four or five substantive scenes?)

Truthfully, all the Prometheus scientists and crew are under-developed, even Captain Janek, played by extraordinary screen presence and fine actor Idris Elba.* By comparison, the original Alien does an amazing job fleshing out each and every crew member, making their relationships and dialogue feel natural.

Plus, in Alien much of the tension springs from knowing (or not knowing) who exactly is in charge of the vessel Nostromo at any given time. Dallas is in charge until he leaves the ship, then Ripley is supposed to be in charge yet Ash overrides her when he breaks quarantine procedures to allow Kane back on board. Thus, before the alien even shows up, there is conflict, a power struggle. In Prometheus, there is verbal talk about who outranks who -- Peter Weyland's hologram says Dr. Shaw is in charge, then Vickers firmly asserts otherwise -- yet nothing concrete comes of this. Vickers never really challenges Shaw and Holloway nor forbids them from doing anything they want. The one thing she explicitly forbids -- using the surgical pod -- Shaw does anyway.

To be fair, Alien is a remarkable achievement it would be difficult for practically any film to match or replicate. Yet it is Prometheus' curse to forever be compared to its superior predecessor, for obvious reasons.

However, any movie that, like Prometheus, successfully combines the plot of Alien with the tone of 2001 is going to score major points with me, since those are two of my very favorite movies.

Many critics and Alien franchise fans have responded quite negatively to Prometheus, finding its plot ridden with holes and its characterizations flimsy. Forbes' David DiSalvo writes that "the film’s ultimate failure is that there aren’t any real characters to invest in." Ouch! I wouldn't go that far, but I probably represent a minority view.**

In any case, this guy definitely wins the "biggest dipshit in the movie" award.

DiSalvo correctly notes that director Scott is a "gifted world-builder and an excellent shooter" but adds that "the success of his films has always hinged on the quality of his screenwriters." So true! Many folks including Meredith Woerner and J.F. Sargent have penned breakdowns of what controversial, no-ending-having screenwriter Damon Lindelof specifically brought to the project. Lindelof was brought on board to revise an earlier script by Jon Spaihts, and whatever brilliance or flaws the earlier draft may have possessed, we know the final Lindelof screenplay leaves a few strands dangling -- most notably, any hint of what actually motivates the Engineers. Indeed, DiSalvo specifically faults the writing for the film's failings: "in the case of Prometheus, what’s responsible for the vacant barbarism of the aliens is merely the limited imaginations of their authors."

I agree that Prometheus' writing is inconsistent and sometimes illogical from story structure and character motivation standpoints.† For example, as this piece points out in item number five, Holloway's helmet removal moment seems out of character for a scientist, plus it lowers the stakes for the whole "deadly planet" setup. And speaking of the strangely crackpottish Holloway, his choice to get drunk mid-movie, while understandable -- he's suffered a major disappointment, he thinks all the Engineers are dead -- is nevertheless odd. As Woerner points out, in the unfilmed Spaihts screenplay Holloway "doesn't pout and turn into a giant drunk baby."

To me, however, both Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David (Michael Fassbender) are compelling, fully developed characters, which is fortunate since they are the two main drivers of Prometheus' narrative. Shaw and David both wish to make contact with the Engineers, but for very different reasons. Shaw sees the Engineers as creator-gods and wants them to tell her about the origins and meaning of human existence. David starts the film seeking the Engineers mainly on his master's behalf, but by the end it seems that David's curiosity about and connection to the Engineer pilot, and his decision to seek the Engineer homeworld with Shaw, is wholly his own. 

David muses: "Hey, doesn't this same exact thing happen to Ash and Bishop?!"

What I'm saying is that whatever flaws Prometheus possesses, they are not outright deal-breakers. I like this movie very much. I enjoyed it the first time I saw it, and my appreciation for and enjoyment of it grows with each revisit.  

To conclude, as J.F. Sargent opines, "as much as Prometheus sucked (for some people), it’s also pretty clear that the ghost of greatness is lingering just beneath the surface." For me, that greatness is just close enough to the surface to shine through clearly and palpably. I highly recommend Prometheus.

Captain Janek sez: "Come on, guys! We non-white men have got to sacrifice ourselves for the white woman and the Aryan-looking robot!"

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* Idris Elba should definitely be the next (post-Daniel Craig) James Bond. Please, cinema gods, let that happen.
** I have, in similar fashion, defended the notorious "flop" blockbuster John Carter (2012), stating that it "will age well, and will be regarded more highly once the hubbub over its big budget and small theatrical returns have died down." I would still call John Carter a good movie but it hasn't been a heavy re-watcher for me: I've only seen it once since I saw it in the theater. By contrast, I have returned to the (much better) Prometheus several times, with increased appreciation for its merits each time.
UPDATE 5/20/2016: Check out Film Crit Hulk's sharp rundown of post-Spaihts screenwriter Damon Lindelof's specific contributions to what Prometheus became.