Monday, May 08, 2017

Mama, don't let your babies grow up to write prequels.....

The origins of this post was a long disquisition (now lost to posterity!  O, the humanities!) about the problem of exposition and the danger in science-fiction/fantasy of the "need to explain."   It morphed into what ultimately got published, but I cut down trees to make that, and the stumps stayed behind.

I grew up on  science-fiction and fantasy fiction, and I quickly decided the best work didn't explain what happened (like Bradbury's story "Chrysalis," where a man bursts out a a cocoon he's spun 'round himself, only to emerge apparently unchanged.  When the friends who've been watching him for weeks during this unexplained metamorphosis leave him alone, he walks out of the building he's been in all that time, tests his wings, and takes to the air.  End of story.  Those looking for an explanation, in Mr. Twain's felicitous warning about morals in Huckleberry Finn, will be shot.).  Better to let the story happen, in many cases.  It's not, after all, a murder mystery.

And so my praise for Alien, in the lost original and in what got posted, was for its failure to explain.  The movie title said it all:  the creature was "alien;"  not us, inimicable to us, a perfect killing machine.  What else did you need to know?  Where it came from, why it existed?  Why the pilot?  Why that ship?  The universe can contain frightful mysteries, and we aren't going to solve them all.

Certainly not what "Prometheus" had to tell us.

I based my critique on the trailers I'd seen, and the experience of "Prometheus."  Sadly, it appears I was right:

And while the characters might realize they made a mistake relatively quickly, the film is not quick in getting to that point. "Alien: Covenant" is criminally backloaded, with almost an hour going by before the crew lands on the planet and another half-hour or so after that before the thrills start to really kick in. In that long slog of exposition, you spend a lot of time with the new characters but still manage not to learn much about them.

Now there are two different problems here.  A Shakespearean tragedy doesn't up the body count until Act 5.  "Hamlet" moves things along with the death of Polonious, and then of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (albeit offstage, in that case) and then the death of Ophelia (off-stage again), but the corpses don't pile the stage until the final scene.  So leaving the action to the end it not, per se, a narrative no-no.  But too much exposition dulls the story, and taking 90 minutes just to set up the victims of the slaughter is, well, bad story-telling, to say the least.

Everything that follows pads the mythology about the title xenomorph, driven primarily by an oddly unmotivated and slightly confusing plot involving Michael Fassbender’s android character from the first film, David, and a second android on the Covenant, named Walter. Fassbender is great in both roles, but the character’s stories demystify everything that made those aliens so terrifying in the first place. So "Alien: Covenant" gets rid of everything good about "Prometheus" and takes all the mystery of "Alien" away. It basically makes both films worse.

Well, you can't make "Prometheus" any worse, but taking the mystery of "Alien" away is a crime against art.  Still, kinda what I expected from "Covenant."  Oh well, at least we have "Guardians of the Galaxy 2."  And "Wonder Woman."  Even if all the good parts of that are in the trailer (and I refuse to believe that; Gal Gadot stole "Batman v. Superman" away from the titular characters), there's always the Wonder Woman theme.

An instant classic.

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