Our nightmares always seem to burst from deep within, taking the shape of monstrous desire. An odd sensation, an uneasy pang, a low rumble, and suddenly the entity emerges from beneath; it is Hamlet’s beast that roars from the fathoms.
And we, or I, cannot seem to get enough of those nightmares.
So, it was with that dreaded anticipation, I decided to celebrate the approach of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus by watching the first Alien on DVD at home, alone, on Monday and then Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production of Frankenstein on Wednesday at The Elmwood Theatre. In other words, I watched not only the Prometheus to Prometheus but also the seminal Prometheus as well. It was my own version of the long, low rumbling build to a midnight eruption of Scott’s latest foray into science-fiction at The Elmwood’s IMAX. I was a man in search of an origin, a trajectory, and a good scare.
I got them all, and it made for a week of fitful sleep. Commonalities abounded. Monstrous artifices were constructed to dwarf the fragility of man. Whether decaying castles on British seasides or floating ships in silent space, all three works pointed to man as an island of microscopic defiance in a vast malevolent universe, full of horror, terror, and mystery. Nature was presented a seductive entity that tempts us only to either irrevocably alter our essential identity or obliterate our existence from its very fabric. And finally, inescapably, our psychological terror of what lies beneath that which is visible was corporeally manifested in the disruption from within: the grotesque springing to life from our seemingly stable flesh.
But despite much to recommend, the ultimate reason for constructing the mini-marathon, Prometheus, did not hold up to the first two offerings. Certainly, there is plenty to praise about the new movie. After all, watching a horror film made for adults where the sets are actual locations or elaborate to-scale constructions rather than having been digitally realized at The Skywalker Ranch is cause for celebration. Furthermore, any exercise in horror that uses silence and build to create its shocks feels both refreshingly vital and nostalgically old school in its construction. Finally, I was quite pleased with the sense of wonder infused into a film so grounded in horror. Few films today can make the viewer feel simultaneously terrified and awestruck as Prometheus does. There are moments, particularly inside the Alien installations, where you do not want to look away but still try to avert your eyes. It is a sense, I suspect, aided and abetted by the aforementioned reliance on building the thing in which the actors stand. It is worth noting that Star Wars stopped being fun when Lucas stopped building Millennium Falcons and started adding them to green screens in post production.
All that being said, Prometheus is, at its most basic, a case of too much. It is an eruption ideas where the lack of satisfactory answers pile up as fast as the slaughtered crew. Whereas Boyle’s Frankenstein and the seminal Alien leave much unexplained, Prometheus surfeits us with unending information. But it has the unintended consequence of only further obscuring the clarity of its tale. It is a writing lesson in reverse, because we get to witness first hand an example of where more is actually less. Its most terrifying moments come when it simply shows people in action responding to unexplained horrors. However, the more it explains, whether it is a double dose of its lead scientists’ theories of the origin of man or Idris Elba’s Captain’s sudden insight about the purpose of their sinister destination, the more unwieldy and less plausible its script becomes. It feels like all of the cool deleted scenes that would normally show up on the special edition Blu-Ray are contained in the product, there for all to see.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but often a script can be tightened, air sealed, by removing explanation. In Scott’s 1979 science-fiction-haunted-house, we never leave the company of the crew, are not given a god’s eye view, and are merely the first to awake from our slumber in the silent ship Nostromo. We live in a now with them and are given a sense that all is unfolding in real time. That condition feels mundane at first, made bearable by the organic give-and-take of the crew, a creeping sense of isolation and the staggering design of Scott’s collaborators. It slowly gives way to a building sense of dread as the unexpected mission becomes a string of horrors.
Late in Alien, Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas simply disappears from the movie after a split second encounter with the monster in the air ducts. The scene jump cuts to Yaphet Kotto slamming Dallas’ flamethrower down. Kotto then intones, “no blood, no Dallas.” And that is that. It is never discussed, his absence is potent, and the disappearance lingers for the remainder of the film. We feel Sigourney Weaver’s loneliness from that moment on. A deleted scene on the extras explains the void, but it removes the agonizing mystery of what happened to Dallas. Furthermore, the answer to the mystery would have simply created more questions rather than keeping focus. By removing the answer, Alien keeps the forward motion going by never losing the principle of the objective: defeating the monster on the ship. Yes, there is no tidy explanation for what has happened to Dallas, but it in no way hinders good storytelling.
So much of good horror is dependent on the audience wondering “what the fuck was that?” but not being given time to answer the question. The problem with Prometheus is that, after scaring the shit out of us, Scott keeps stopping along the way to explain what we just saw. Once you realize you are having a nightmare, it ceases being scary.