Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

On The Seventh Art In The Age Of The Digital.

Editorial – Ambiguity Apathetic

 Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is out on video tomorrow. My own relationship with the film is a complex one. Having never drawn an affinity towards any of the films in the Alien franchise, nor having ever really gotten on with the work of director Ridley Scott I approached the film with some trepidation.

And I really enjoyed it.

The “big ideas” housed at the centre of the film, coupled with a lavish set design (itself almost old fashioned in this age of the digital everything) elevated it above many of the other blockbusters of the season. yet, when it came to placing together my half-way-thru 2012 best and worst of lists Prometheus found itself firmly rooted in the latter, due largely to a number of disparaging and spineless interviews from Ridley Scott. I began to think that I’d given the guy too much credit with my firm analysis of a work ground in some pretty out-there fare, with the director’s own explanations somewhat downplaying the bigger picture of which I had assumed. For me the director is the figure of responsibility on any picture, and Scott’s unwillingness to defend or protect his movie sullied the whole affair. His notorious inability to stick to a cut is particularly infuriating: if the director of an Oscar-winning Best Picture isn’t willing or able to make a stand for his vision then what hope does anyone else have? (And while a director/extended cut of Prometheus has yet to be announced I’ll be shocked if one doesn’t come along sooner rather than later).

My own appreciation/conflict with the film aside, it’s fair to say that the film struggled with a general audience, a large portion of which brought with them certain expectations of a Ridley Scott movie, and especially one which was drawn in the science fiction tradition, a genre of which the director helped to define with his Alien and Blade Runner. This widespread and vocal disappointment has led to an unusual advertising campaign for the home video release, which plays as a further insincerity to a movie plighted by obnoxious marketing and the lack of a clear public author. 

The advertising campaign in question boldly declares that “Questions Will Be Answered”. It adorns the print posters, the television spots and even the casing of the disc itself, while the packaging also leads it’s synopsis with a statement that reappropriates one of the films key thematic slogans in to a cheap statement of empty promise concerning the extra material (How Far Would You Go To Get Your Answers?), with the promise of both an alternate opening and alternate ending leading many online commentators to speculate on what hadn’t been re-devised. The most unusual aspect of this whole affair is that while the film does have it’s fair share of undeniable problems, “missing” information isn’t one of them. In our review of the film we actually praised the ambiguity with which Scott leads the movie, with the lack of overt contextual emphasis working in favour for the tale at hand. Somewhat ironically it was the hype from the initial lead-in marketing campaign that was the film’s greatest enemy, not a perceived vagueness, with the unfair guarantees of an Alien 0.5 made during the run in to the movie destined to prove disappointing by the time the picture opened. The alternative opening on the Blu-ray goes some way to proving this point, by offering a dumbed down version of the mysterious ritual which opens the film, the whole thing made more recognisably “ritual-like” by the presence of a bunch of priest type figures orchestrating the whole affair, while elsewhere the disc confirms that the opening scenario does in fact play out on Earth, which is again unnecessary exposition (One would argue that the ambiguity of the sacrifice maintains an alien feel towards it: why would a ritual by a race not human mimic human conventions? While the latter point about the planet not being spelt out as Earth widens the canvas considerably, and states that “this old be anywhere, anytime”. In short it feels bigger). 

The criticism and dumbing down of Prometheus, which itself was later echoed in similar complaints levelled at Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises leads one to ask the question “Are modern audiences not attuned to ambiguity?” Do we really need everything spelling out and wrapped up with bows on? How might a mainstream audience might react to a contemporary equivalent to the ending of The Passenger or the unfinished mystery of L’avventura. Or the beach bound finale of The 400 Blows, which, in spite of the four sequels that followed that closing freeze frame remains enigmatic to this day? Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen online film criticism levelled at the magnificent closing scene of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which having been declared unsatisfyingly ambiguous in some quarters is nothing of the sort (it’s a punchline, to a joke that’s been 90 minutes in the telling) while Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, David Chase’s Not Fade Away and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors have also been pulled to one side and tarred with the disappointing stick thanks to moments not spelled out. The whole ambiguity vs. common sense argument was epitomised no better than with the case of the Batman film, as level-headedness and logic abandoned legions of commentators keen to rag on the Nolan film, with declarations of “PLOT HOLE PLOT HOLE PLOT HOLE!” filling the discourse for weeks in the wake of the films release (which followed years of hype from the very same people), with some displaying an incapability to either a) use their acumen, or B) pay attention to the film at hand, and only too happy to brag about it with ill thought out and hastily constructed lists and rants asserting that the sky was falling via blockbusters being blockbusters.

Adam Batty - Editor-In-Chief 

Further Reading

Holy Celluloid Versus Digital Passion. An interesting read on the continuing battle between digital and film.

Prometheus As Sequel To Blade Runner?. A nice easter egg from the Prometheus Blu-ray. 

Also…

My entry for last weeks IndieWire Critics Survey On The Most Wanted Criterion Editions.

5 Comments

  1. I think there needs to be a line drawn between deliberate ambiguity and a writer or director leaving something out for time or efficiency, which is what I think happened in both the case of Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t think either film actually traffics in ambiguity much, if at all (there’s an argument to be made about the end of the Dark Knight Rises, but even that seems fairly cut and dry), but in both cases their creators leave out information that is implied – but doesn’t need necessarily to be said – as a way of cutting to the chase. So when people talk about plot holes, they’re not complaining about ambiguity, but confusing holes in the narrative with shorthand employed by the writers to keep things moving.

    The reason why I think that people complained about this non-existent plot holes is that both films handled these shortcuts rather clunkily. The moment when, for example, Bruce Wayne goes from outside a prison back to Gotham is not a plot hole because there are plenty of explanations for it. The problem is that the sudden shift is incredibly jarring since Nolan doesn’t give a sense of time having past (apart from the fact that when he in the prison he has a beard and when he gets out he doesn’t). It’s not a fatal blow to the movie, since it barrels along at such a pace, but that also doesn’t mean that the writing itself isn’t noticeably clunky, and by being so it takes people out of the experience.

    With Prometheus, again, the problem lies less with whether the plot has holes but with the writing of the characters, who act in ways which are counter-intuitive both to the story and to how many of them have been established. (To cite a well-worn example: the biologist who freaks out upon meeting a dead alien, despite having apparently trained for the entirety of his life for just such a moment, then later being fine approaching a living, fairly scary looking alien.) For a film that has some very weighty themes underpinning it, to see characters running around acting like extras from a Friday the 13th rip-off is incredibly distracting and, again, takes people out of the experience. This is probably a result of the re-write process leading to an inconsistency between the film’s themes and the basic mechanics of what needs to happen for the plot to move forward, but it creates an awkward and stilted experience that, for me, completely undermined the grandeur of the visuals and ideas of Prometheus.

    I don’t think the problem lies with modern audiences being unable to take ambiguity – despite its subsequent sucess and legacy, L’avventura was infamously booed when it premiered at Cannes (besides which I think there is a false equivalency in comparing The Dark Knight Rises to L’avventura in the first place) – so much as it is an issue with elegant storytelling. The question isn’t whether people are okay with ambiguity, but whether they are willing to accept shortcuts in storytelling that are in service of a greater aim, even if they are not terribly well implemented. In my case, the experience of The Dark Knight Rises justified the occasional moments of weak or ungainly writing, whilst that of Prometheus ultimately was not.

    • Although the ideas presented by Mr Davies are perfectly warranted. They read like someone who has read a few popular articles so they can come on here an attempt an informed argument. The article below, although more in depth, does seem to be some of Mr Davies inspirations (the whole ambiguity VS proficient storytelling angle). Even the Friday the 13th comment comes from a review the article below links too. It is fine to agree with these ideas but selling them as your own well thought out ideas is annoying.

      http://badassdigest.com/2012/06/17/film-crit-hulk-smash-the-damon-lindleof-intervention/

      • I assure you that it was not my intention to repeat the points in that article without attribution. I have read that article before, and am a great, great admirer of Film Crit Hulk, but when I wrote my reply I was merely articulating my own opinions on the films in question, and any similarities were unintentional and subconscious.

        However, with regards to the Friday the 13th comment, I had not read the review cited in that article until right now, so it is pure, unfortunate coincidence that the same reference was made by both myself and the original reviewer. In fact, I likened the film to the actions to those in a slasher film in my original review, published back in June:

        http://www.a-mighty-fine-blog.blogspot.com/2012/06/film-review-prometheus-2012.html

  2. “To cite a well worn example: the biologist freaks out upon meeting a dead alien, despite having apparently trained for the entirety of his life for just such a moment, then later being fine approaching a living, fairly scary looking alien.”

    Ok, there are a number of uncorroborated assertions and assumptions made here – 1. Milburn specialized only in snakes and similar creatures (as confirmed by Ridley Scott) which explains his fascination with the snake-like creature, which is quite different than a decapitated corpse. He’s wasn’t a pathologist and most importantly he’s a human being. 2. Freaking out over a decapitated ALIEN is a perfectly reasonable and HUMAN reaction to have if your entire career was based on working in the confines of established science (remember Milburn was entirely skeptical of Shaw’s thesis and cited Darwinism in defence). 3. Later when they took precautions of keeping their helmets on, Fifield and Milburn find a huge pile of dead Jockies and their curiosity gives way (morbid curiosity is not uncommon in the face of threat or fear) and Milburn is fascinated by them and investigates their burst chests, which establishes that it wasn’t so much the corpses that had them freaked but what might have killed them.
    Humans have a complex range of behaviours thus Fifield’s and Milburn’s behaviour is totally consistent with this, not to mention Fifield was a stoner which explained his erratic behaviour and he is seen inhaling marijuana in the film. These are purposeful character flaws that on simple analysis are there to move the plot but on a more thematic level they represent hubris and the ironic, stripped bare immaturity of an advanced future mankind despite all the technology in the world.

    Prometheus has to be one of the most criminally misunderstood films of all time and for every well worn assertion of inconsistency or supposed ‘plot hole’ there are equally well worn rebuttals based on evidence implied or plain in the film. Not to mention the commentaries clarified virtually every alleged issue raised, and the commentaries were recorded before the film was officially released. Not all the pertinent mysteries were resolved, however the fact that the film lends itself to a future sequel release leaves me baffled why leaving unanswered questions was ever the issue it was. Impotence at investigating the plot both literally and allegorically, connecting the dots and an impatience with purposeful ambiguity are the demonstrable issues here, as history attests.

    Show, not tell and ambiguity are making a come back in films and it’s about time. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

    • All very good points, but they underline what for me is the key issue with Prometheus, or more accurately the debate around Prometheus and so-called plot holes. As I said, I don’t think there are any plot holes (or, for that matter, much ambiguity) in Prometheus, at least not in the sense that people who use the term mean it, but rather that Scott and the screenwriters chose to leave out information and scenes to better move the story along. Nothing wrong with that: Hitchcock used to do it all the time and there are lots of good or great films that do the same thing. It’s not essential for a film’s plot to be perfectly fitted together or entirely logical if it serves the narrative.

      The important thing with that approach, however, is that the audience needs to be carried along in such a way that they don’t notice the stuff that’s been left out, or that if they do but don’t care because they’re enjoying the experience so much. From my perspective, the film was not engrossing enough to allow me to make that leap, so when, for example, Noomi Rapace’s character performed that Caesarean on herself, which was a great scene, then the film moved along as if it hadn’t happened, it felt jarring because I wasn’t invested in what was happening. The film had some terrific moments, but its narrative drive was so leaden that it left me unengaged. (It also may be that I was taken out of the experience by the 3D, which I always find to have a distancing effect.)

      By contrast, if you look at Looper, a film which has similarly descended upon by people who feel the need to pick it apart, I didn’t care that elements of the time travel dynamic didn’t bear up under scrutiny because the film’s narrative barreled forward at such a speed that it didn’t matter to me. Whereas with Prometheus the film failed to grab me as good sci-fi or good horror, and whilst I found its themes (particularly the idea of searching for God and finding a hostile one) fascinating, the experience surrounding it was desultory that it was scant compensation.

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