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Films By And About Space Aliens

Prometheus is almost its own genre. In one sense, it’s a space-horror movie, a fairly venerable tradition that is epitomized by the first Alien. But it’s also hilarious. So it’s sort of a horror-comedy. That, too, is an established, if not venerated, tradition. But the horror-comedy is usually goofy, like Scary Movie. Prometheus is clearly not aiming to be broadly funny, nor to telegraph the fact that it’s a comedy in the manner of Scary Movie. There are no jokes, and the actors don’t flail about, nor are there the sudden changes in tone that punctuate intentional comedies. There are just ridiculous moments that are seamlessly integrated into a serious-seeming story.

So in a sense it’s a “bad movie,” that genre of films that is accidentally hilarious. But it’s simply unlike most bad movies: they tend to be low-budget affairs with egregious production values.

Which is what makes Prometheus so interesting. It’s utterly visually arresting and visually inventive. It looks like the most serious of serious movies, with every figure and background not only perfectly rendered, but strikingly apt. The walls and corridors of the space ship, the black goo, the giant stone head, and the “engineers” are all gorgeous constructs, certainly coherent with the aesthetics of the first Alien movie, but hardly derivative. Rather, they’re thoughtful, beautiful elaborations of the designs that founded the series.

And this, I think, is what sets Prometheus apart: its world is so well-realized, the acting is top notch (especially Michael Fassbender’s turn as the android), the cinematography, lighting, design, etc., all show not only a high budget but successful execution of an aesthetic ideal. And yet the actions of the characters are unbelievably stupid. As in most horror films, you’re left wondering why don’t they get out of there? But unlike most horror films, they have tracking devices and weapons and a space ship that would get them right out of there if they’d just (1) talk to each other and (2) turn that shit on!

So it becomes hilarious. Unintentionally, I think, bad-movie hilarious. It’s loaded with ridiculous bad science like the dumbest of low-brow sci-fi, but it keeps hitting you with high-brow visuals. It’s an incomprehensible amalgam only because it’s such an unprecedented conglomeration of high and low. It’s also, for my money, tremendously entertaining. It’s the rare movie that you laugh at while simultaneously admiring. It’s a, I dunno, horror-comedy-art film-bad movie?

The inability to name it is why I think it’s a great film. It’s as though it came to us from another culture, one where films of this genre are as common as action films in American cinema. We watch it as baffled as space aliens from a peaceful, serious culture would be were they to watch The Expendables or 2 Fast 2 Furious. But it’s easy to imagine that somewhere in the universe there’s a planet where Prometheus is an artistic ideal, the paradigmatic realization of its genre, a genre that attempts to perfectly realize one aspect of a work while simultaneously flubbing to the point of parody another aspect, as though the goal were to split our consciousness into a simultaneous appreciation of the great skill involved in the work and our own cleverness in laughing at its utter incompetence.