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.☕