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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.