Arguably the best part of Ridley Scott’s latest film Prometheus is its production design, and a great sampling of that particular aspect of the film can take its place on your coffee table or your book shelf right next to the reissued The Book of Alien, Alien: The Illustrated Story and Colonial Marines Technical Manual (all published by Titan Books). The book Prometheus: The Art of the Film is beautiful, dark and mysterious in the best ways, filled with exquisite visuals and production art (both hand drawn and computer rendered), storyboards, exclusive interviews, behind-the-scenes material and an introduction by Scott himself. Like the original films Alien and Aliens, and the production design elements in this book (like Prometheus, itself) work best when they leave some things to the imagination, creating slightly vague impressions. (I should probably note here that I’ve been admiring the hardcopy edition, which is quite handsome, and while I assume any paperback version would be just as beautiful, there’s something substantial about the hardback that seems fitting with the film itself.)
Mark Salisbury, former editor of Britain’s top-selling movie magazine Empire and author of movie books such as Alice in Wonderland: A Visual Companion and Burton on Burton, has created an impressive companion to the film, evidently the only official book tie-in with the film. Whether you liked the film or not, you were probably wowed by the visuals, and you will probably enjoy this book. The added bonus is that the book reveals certain backstory information or assumptions about events that may have been a bit too vague in the film. I know, I know, it sounds like I’m first saying the film is too literal, too direct, and then noting that certain things were too vague. Exactly.
Despite the strength of its evocative visuals, the film’s story seems to alternate between being simplistically literal and being unnecessarily obscure: having the main character wear a cross to stand in for statements about faith and religion is undergraduate filmmaking 101, especially when the android removes it from her and then she later takes it back; the opening scene’s notion of how the engineers create life may create more of a “huh?” response than form the foundation for a progressive and cumulative understanding of the larger story as the film unspools.
If it were just one or the other, the film might be easier to assess. Too simplistic or too literal, and we have a film that assumes we’re need everything spelled out – a film that fails because it spoon feeds us. Too obscure and inconsistent in its presentation of narrative information – juxtaposed with production design elements and the audience’s knowledge of the story and aesthetic elements of the Alien films – and you end up with a film that fails because of its own incoherence.
A masterpiece lies somewhere between these two extremes, but Prometheus doesn’t find that balance, sadly. And this book helps you begin to figure out why, to identify the ways in which the film succumbs to too much slavishness to the original Alien films’ set pieces (flamethrowers! Chest bursting!) and not enough slavishness to the original films’ story elements that add up and make sense in the audience’s mind. For example, and spoiler here, the final alien we see in Prometheus seems as if it’s the precursor to the aliens Ripley will eventually encounter. But then, if that’s the case, how do we make sense of the Giger-inspired crucifixion relief carving the crew finds in the pyramid before that type of alien even existed. I could better accept that Scott is deliberately challenging the audience to figure things out (such as what the Engineer actually says to David before ripping his head off), if those things we figured out didn’t seem at odds with other information we get either through character development, other story events or most noticeably in the production design.
I’ve seen some really great analysis of the film on both sides of the equation (basically, the trainwreck – masterpiece dichotomy), and Prometheus: The Art of the Film surprisingly helps clarify some of the film’s narrative details (or confirm their meaning), but careful study and you can see how the film is trying to pull in two directions at once. The book probably best exemplifies this in Scott’s final quote – speculating on what he could do in Prometheus 2, in effect destroying any argument that Prometheus is a masterpiece, where its ending is not about launching a franchise but about demonstrating humanity’s tragic inability to accept the answers they get. The book tips Scott’s hand, and is consistent with the fact that the original script is in effect two different scripts, each with different goals and intentions.
Somewhere in here, there was a film that could have been as powerfully mind bending as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Tarkovsky’s original Solaris, a film that could have blended religious literature and science fiction in all the ways it has the potential to do. What we’re left with is a film that has a lot of interesting ideas that don’t quite come together because it owes too much to its Alien DNA (as Scott loves calling it).
Where the film does succeed is in its look – the ways in which set, art direction, costuming, lighting and all the elements of mise-en-scene work together to create a mood and tone that can almost standalone.
Prometheus: The Art of the Film gives us the chance to dive into those elements wholeheartedly. The visuals and production design are exquisitely documented in this book, and they are effective because certain details almost seem to fade into the dark monochromatic elements of the production design (and the book’s design). Some set elements seem as if they have been weathered by time and others seem more pristine, but all seem just a bit beyond our vision, our ability to perceive them clearly. For the visuals, that is evocative and mysterious. For the film, not so much.