Limitless impatience: the Prometheus cut rate

Over at The Review Diary, Satish Naidu opens his critique of Prometheus with a discussion of its editing: specifically, the way that its shot lengths convey a feeling of impatience and aggression.

Here, it is blunt harsh cutting coupled with classical composition, reducing emotion to information, and destroying any hope for cosmic rumination. What the aesthetic rather inspires is the familiarity of the daily grind of life. As in, the industrial-reality/ structural-philosophy of everyday existence as against the mythology of our cosmic significance. […] Consider the opening moments, which do not present a patient temporality of the earth ala 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Darwinian nature, in all its forms, is primarily temporal over and above spatial, and where it waits with limitless patience. As opposed to Mr. Kubrick, whose composition is from the nature’s perspective, Mr. Scott aligns himself with the aggressive instincts of the human, both in their quest for knowledge and survival. He flies over mountains and valleys and rivers, and reaches just-in-time to bear witness to the point in our genesis where a humanoid drinks some black liquid from a vial and disintegrates and falls into river.

This is about the best articulation I’ve yet read of one of the little things that niggled at me during and after the film. I’ve only seen Prometheus once, and I will likely see it a few more times, but it would be very illuminating to compare the shot lengths and editing choices made by Scott in Prometheus against the decisions he made in Alien, and then to further contrast them with 2001. Jim Emerson did an excellent comparative post about these three films, in which he highlighted similarities in production design and composition, and what how those technical choices impact the thematic reception of the films. However, he does not really discuss shot length, which is a shame, given what he says about a single frame from Alien in a follow-up post:

This shot is a beautiful example of the antithesis to what I have labeled “one-thing-at-a-time filmmaking.” The basic composition (roughly symmetrical with an opening in the center) is repeated throughout the movie, as befits a movie about violation, penetration and passages of birth and death. It also gives your eye places to wander, details to soak in. It allows you room to breathe. Throughout, “Alien” gives you ample opportunity to look around and admire the industrial/organic design of the Nostromo, and it entices you to notice nooks and crannies where threats might be lurking.

My question is this: does Scott really give the viewer ample opportunity (in Alien) to look around and admire the design and contemplate the nooks and crannies where threats might be looking? My recollection is that he does, more often than not. But what about Prometheus? Are the shots lengths in that film a bit longer than those of the average summer blockbuster? Probably. But how much time are we actually given? Much of Prometheus felt rushed to me, which seemed at odds with the metaphysically contemplative ideas that were being bounced around. And the way Satish describes the impact makes a lot of sense to me. What is especially surprising is that, based on my potentially inaccurate impressions, the approach Scott takes to many of the scenes in Alien bespeaks more patience than the approach he takes to many of the scenes in Prometheus. The much more lean, nihilistic first film is accorded more awe in its technique than the more expansive, self-consciously spiritual latter film. I wonder if this is a deliberate choice, or if Scott’s impatience to unbind Prometheus after decades of development led him to cut faster and deeper than he should have. For a film about the human exploration of the most profound questions of existence, it seems that Scott doesn’t give his viewers very much time for that exploration.☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

8 responses to “Limitless impatience: the Prometheus cut rate

  • David

    I’ve only recently seen Alien and Aliens for the first time, but haven’t yet seen Prometheus. This is an interesting discussion because it’s one of the biggest things I’ve noticed between the movies I like best (which tend to be older) and the ones that don’t leave much of an impression. Faster, shorter cuts throughout an entire film can be entertaining, but tend to leave the film as a weak, disposable impression in my mind, and often they can seriously frustrate the experience for me. What I appreciated most about Alien was indeed how contemplative it was. Slow not in a boring, “not-getting-anything-done” sort of way, but in a “let’s really take stock of our surroundings and notice things” sort of way, which I find appealing and satisfying. So it’s sad to read that Scott seems too influenced by modern trends that he can’t go back to the really quality pacing that made his earlier film so effective.

    • mjschneider

      Older films do tend to have slower cut rates, and that’s often as much a function of the technology as it is technique. After the sixties, quicker cut rates became much more common, though I’d guess that they weren’t the norm until much more recently. There’s a place in my heart for both fast and slow cut rates, as long as whatever the cut rate is, it serves the material. Which is to say that I wouldn’t make a general claim that faster, shorter cuts make a weaker, more disposable impression on my mind, though I’d say that a lot of the more recent mainstream films to make extensive use of faster cuts have been disposable. A lot of that is probably due to the material, though Prometheus seems to me to be a case of material that has been given short shrift by this particular technique. It’s exactly the kind of film where you’d want to go slow and take stock of the surroundings, and that chance is denied the audience. And it’s particularly ironic that the slower cut rates were such an effective factor in the earlier films, but not utilized here.

      If you liked the first two Aliens movies, I’d heartily recommend checking out Prometheus in the theater. Or, at the very least, on Blu-Ray.

    • David

      It’ll have to be Blu-Ray or television. I only see a few movies in theater throughout the year, and I’ve used two of my slots for the Avengers already, and another one will go to Brave very soon. There are others I might like to see in theater, but I doubt I’ll get to them in time.

    • mjschneider

      My list of films I plan to see in the theater is also relatively short. I simply don’t have the money to spend on one-time-only viewings of films that may or may not be worth the cost. I’m definitely going to see the new Batman movie and Gangster Squad. Later in the year, I’ll try to get to RZA’s kung fu flick and Django Unchained. Brave is my next priority, and if I can swing it, I’ll probably even (foolishly) go see Expendables 2, because there are ‘splosions and 80s action heroes. Even with the disappointments, I was very glad to have seen Prometheus in 3D on the big screen.

  • Satish Naidu

    Thanks a lot, Matt!
    I’m with you on Prometheus. The film-making was coming in the way of my experience. It was frustrating, and I cannot say I could completely let myself “immerse” in those architectural details.
    I was recently scanning through Alien, and the average sequence length (as opposed to the average shot length) was significantly higher than that of Prometheus. We can invest more. There is a little less of “narrativizing”/”plotting”. Here, it’s a lot more about developments, about symbols, about themes, about theorizing. I mean, almost everyone here’s an archetype. I felt, Mr. Scott was clear in his head what his beliefs are, and the running time was mostly his power-point presentation. And his aesthetic, even in Alien probably discourages a metaphysical reading, and has a feel of documented fact to it.
    Also, here’s the thing. Alien was a universe where it felt everybody knew about the existence of other-world species. Here, first contact was not yet made. Still, because of his blunt aesthetic, the first contact, of that of the dead humanoid near the gate, is completely informational in tone, without any degree of wonder to it.

    • mjschneider

      It really did feel like the Power Point version of a movie, didn’t it? Not without merit, yet not nearly as evocative as the ideas would seem to suggest. I felt even more cheated once I read Emerson’s post, with all those screen shots, because I now have more of an inkling of what Scott did not give me the chance to immerse myself in. Such a shame.

    • Edward

      Hi, mjschneider, David referred me to your blog, and I’ll have to thank him, because I’ve already bookmarked it.

      I see that you and he talked about seeing Pixar’s Brave, but I don’t see any write-up on your blog. If you did see it, I’d be curious where you fell down on it.

      I want to pick out this phrase that Satish used: “completely informational in tone, without any degree of wonder to it.” That is an excellent quote that expresses very neatly something thematic to Prometheus.

      I should say that I saw the film twice in theaters, and I rather enjoyed it both times, but it does have some serious problems. One is inconsistency in characters’ motivations. Another is not answering some of the questions that it ought. Watchers have rightly declaimed the film for deferring answers until a sequel.

      The theme comes into a bit of dialogue between Shaw and her lover. He says that they now know who created us, and he asks or says it as if asking whether she was disappointed. She asks in reply who created the Engineers.

      It’s an obvious point: “So what if aliens created us? Who created the aliens?” But not everyone seems to find it obvious. But more insightful is the point that nothing “completely informational” will ever answer the questions that we ask with wonder. I don’t know whether Scott or Lindelof ever had that insight, and perhaps they didn’t, but sometimes the art surpasses the artist.

      In any case, the film makes a bit more sense if you can see the deferring-of-answers as a consistency with the insight. Again, I don’t know whether it’s an intentional consistency, and even if it is, there are several other serious problems, but it affects my view of the film.

      The limitless impatience of the cut rate could tie into the same theme. Scientists want their answers, but do they know what to do with them when they find them? If they completely turn wonderful things into information (like the black goo turns living things into horrors?), then the answers will never satisfy.

      I don’t know whether the film’s message is that we should do away with science, that we should accept that science is an irrational craving for rationality, or that we should accept that human beings are essentially scientific in this sense. Maybe the film doesn’t have any coherent message at all.

      My takeaway from the film, perhaps illegitimately, is that scientists, in my own words, need to become philosophical, or as you say, spiritual, or as Shaw says (but not in great dialogue), believers-by-choice.

      Not as a person turns from doing one thing to doing another thing, but from doing one thing with one tone to doing the same thing with another tone.

      What do you think of the score? The men that I saw it with thought it was bad. They called it heroic in a film without heroism.

  • mjschneider

    Thanks for reading, Edward! I appreciate the comment and good discussion.

    I haven’t yet seen Brave. I hope to do so this week, along with the new Batman.

    The way you frame the notion of scientists (in general) learning to seek information with a sense of wonder is intriguing, and it may tie into the film’s approach, but it’s hard to reconcile it with what I know of scientists in scientists in the real world, all of whom seem to have a highly-developed sense of wonder. Not all of them may be seeking answers within a theological framework, but I would characterize the viewpoint of many of them as nearly “religious” in a very abstract sense. Maybe Ridley Scott does not share this perception, and so his film features a bunch of oblivious materialists stumbling over discoveries with obvious theological implications, but I think he was simply more interested in exploring what happens to a worldview of faith when it’s confronted with information that challenges it.

    Along those lines, I (again) find your notion of the impatient cut rate as being part of this theme, and that perhaps the way that the editing mitigates the sense of wonder could be a commentary on the rationalist worldview being challenged… I’m not sure I can subscribe to that theory, but it is a generous one, which assumes that the cut rate is not a filmmaking flaw but a deliberate choice intended to heighten thematic impact. I would be more inclined to side with your hypothesis if it weren’t for the crappy handling of things like character motives and plotting.

    The deferring of answers doesn’t particularly bother me if it’s deployed in a manner consistent with the theme, and since one of the themes of this film is the inadequacy of the (rationalist) human perspective, preserving some mystery is something that I kind of appreciate. On the other hand, as with the cutting, I’m skeptical as to how much of this is really masterful, deliberate calculation, as opposed to slapdash storytelling, in light of things like the maddening presentation of motives etc. But I’m still on the fence; just skeptical.

    I don’t remember anything about the score at all, good or bad. Which probably means it wasn’t terribly memorable, though repeat viewings may improve my opinion on that. :)

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