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Why movie studios don’t understand Sci-Fi.

I had the opportunity when I was in L.A. a few months ago to talk to a ‘reader’ for Fox Searchlight Pictures. She was a friend of my family there. I asked her how it was possible that talented and creative people, masters of their craft working with hundreds of skilled technicians and artists could find at the end of years of planning and months of hard work with a film that didn’t stand-up to a few moments of critical analysis? Her answer was simple, and frankly I should have realised it… Ego.

An artless executive producer needs to make a name for themselves: They get convinced by a concept, without a script; they scope about for names that will carry the project; they find Directors looking for work or inspired themselves; they look for A-list actors; they scope the money, they scope the filming schedules; they build momentum around the project; and all the time a script writer is feverishly trying to make sense of it all. Meanwhile the vision — if there was one — gets clouded by spur of the moment, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ thoughts that bear nothing to the look and feel of the original. And no matter how murky and befuddled the script and the storyboard end up, the project reaches a tipping point whereby something must be made, even if anyone looking at it would say it was chaos, because that executive producer needs to make it. — John Carter Q.E.D.

I really liked Aliens. I thought it was great at the cinema, I watched the original cinema release many times. It was an altogether great film. Then I saw the director’s cut. Now there are many things that could be said about certain choices of things that worked better in the original cinema release, or were better in the director’s cut, but of them all, I am the most perplexed about the scene with the Autoguns. In the original release, no autoguns, only an oblique mention of some equipment that would be handy. Then I saw the director’s cut and for the life of me I could not fathom why the cinema release edit would have cut them out. It’s an action film, the sequence is exciting, nail-biting and expensive. After the director’s cut can you even imagine not having the autoguns? Why leave them out? I can only assume that somebody wanted time shaved of the cut to make the film distribution cheaper, or to pack more sessions into cinemas… Or maybe madness had ensued. Anyway if they can make the decision to film an expensive, action packed sequence and then carefully edit it out, what hope has a little nuanced bit of character exposition, or personal motivation got.

I guess for movie producers, Sci-Fi is more of an unknown quantity because (and I will be hideously stereotypical here) to get to the stage where you are a wealthy and influential executive producer of movies, you are not likely to be the geeky, insightful, sci-fi novel devouring person that understands the difference between fantasy in space, and futurism. Hence they green-light projects which if left to themselves might actually be faithful to their vision, but then meddle them into mediocracy or worse — or they never even consider projects which would be awesome such as http://forms.theregister.co.uk/poll/?id=28

I guess there is a lot of back room politics in movie making, I imagine the directors of films that I feel make the grade have a way of being politely persuasive, or insidiously belligerent when their vision is challenged. Or perhaps they just got a great team behind them and it all panned out.

So, what about the sci-fi greats. The films we look back on and think - brilliant! I think they all have an aspect in common: simple, faithful, and driven by a director with sufficient clout to tell the money men to back off. So hurrah for the few that do seem to sneak through. Fortunately the producers still keep thrashing about the woods looking for a film to make, and by random chance, sometimes we, the audience, get delivered a gold mine.

So to Prometheus: I think it characterises all the problems of the tussle between studio and director. I think it is borderline. At its heart it is a story about curiosity, and the need to understand the ‘why’ of who we are, and what life is. The film sticks by its guns of being philosophically focused, perhaps at the expense of detail and completeness. It would have been so easy to have parked the big questions about where we came from and why we live on the archive disk array (the new-fangled editing room floor). So credit where it’s due that those elements were still full force in the film, nevertheless Prometheus was hampered by trying to be an action film, and by having too much plot.

It’s hard to mix real probable science and technology into a film format. It is worse when the film needs to have action - people under threat. After all, if I had paid a trillion dollars for a deep space mission, and had lots of staff, and a robot, and a massive spaceship and I was dreaming and not deteriorating in cold-sleep, then I sure as heck would make sure my crew made it damn safe first before waking me up. But then where’s the tension. Where is the stress if all the things that the humans did (and frankly all of them could have been done by current technology — let alone probable future tech) were checked out by robots first. The sensible thing would be to put your space ship in orbit and scan the ground. Forget the interference atmosphere nonsense, Venus has a pretty dense and interference laden atmosphere and we have still managed to map the surface to very fine resolution. After you’ve found something interesting, send down an aerial probe. We call them drones these days and we shoot people in Yemen or Pakistan with them, but they have a great video camera on them with satellite up-link and everything. Then maybe send down a rover, Opportunity, Spirit, we have a job for you. But hey, they had those pod things… did they seriously need to carry them into the complex before switching them on… seriously?

But if you did all that, where’s the tension for a simple audience trying to be entertained for less than two hours?

So the action occurred at the expense of probable technical capability — OK I forgive them. Maybe they did all that in the edited out section, or maybe given the main story is about curiosity it wasn’t necessary. Let’s assume the story is the driver and the story says the characters rush in headlong where robots fear to tread.

Then, there is the issue of story: If you are going to tell a tale about Elizabeth Shaw, David the android, and an old man seeking to know why he ‘is’ then leave out the extraneous characters, of which Prometheus had many. In fact try this experiment: They said there were 17 people alive aboard the Prometheus, I can only think of 14, or fifteen counting the robot. I certainly can’t think of how they all died. I’m sure some of them didn’t say a word. OK so why have them all?

I expect there was a detailed story, something for all those actors, but the producers wanted a shorter film. I expect as the film became more focused on Elizabeth Shaw there may have been things that were going on that Elizabeth simply didn’t see and so we (as the audience following her) shouldn’t know either. Perhaps there is a whole other set of threads to the story that we didn’t get. Sometimes less is more.

Despite some of the issues, which I parked for most of the film assuming that it would get tied up — the overall impression I got was one of a universe too big to fit into a film. It was constrained and squashed, and that to get around this Ridley Scott just left open, unanswered questions, many of which were pretty interesting questions. I don’t need everything explained to me, I can infer, or deduce, guess or simply be prepared to not need to know… and I would far rather have an interesting story not quite complete, than a dull story all neatly wrapped up.

The problem with interesting sci-fi stories is just that they usually don’t fit into 2 hours. Often you need to start with a short story, and not a novel. Or with an original screenplay which the producers are content to leave alone (which they don’t) or trust their script-writers to get right (which they would, were they trusted). The compromise made, leads to dull stories. Oh sure the spaceship sequences, and the massive explosions can be gripping, the misunderstood or impenetrable aliens can add pathos or mystery, but it’s only the same pathos or mystery as the last poorly defined aliens — film it in teal and orange, have an A-Lister in the cast, add unnecessary 3D and some mass effect swarm of something and I’m sure it will be very exciting, but only the script makes it interesting. Irrespective, I’m sure it will tick the box of this studio’s sci-fi blockbuster for 20??, so it has to be filmed. And because the producers don’t read geeky sci-fi books, they wouldn’t know a good sci-fi script if it hit them. Managers pay less attention to the things they don’t understand and focus on the things they do: the effects, the cast, the crew and the money. Sadly, enough people are happy with the action, square-jaws and gore and pay to see dull films that it doesn’t matter about the script… and you can’t start filming without a script, so it gets rushed, and isn’t properly understood before the whole vehicle starts to roll, and once it’s started it’s too late.

Never mind, every so often a gem is made, and I only need a few. Let’s hope the Prometheus diamond in the rough gets the director’s cut it deserves.

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