What is the worst film I’ve seen this week?
June 7, 2012 4 Comments
This post contains spoilers for Prometheus, ill Manors and how much I hate Toby Young.
This has been a good week for stumbling out of cinema screenings, sighing deeply, and calculating how many episodes of The Sopranos I could have just watched. Friends of mine, because they are weak willed and easily succomb to hype, and because my company is so valuable to them, took me to see Ridley Scott’s new Alien prequel Prometheus and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew’s two hour Tory party broadcast ill Manors. Let me be quite upfront in saying that they are both very bad films which you do not need to see. If your friends are as eager to buy you cinema tickets as mine are, insist on seeing something else. Endured on consecutive nights, though, I couldn’t help but wonder which is worse.
Prometheus poses fundamental questions about life and existence, such as ‘Is it really worth living when art has become this uninspired?’. Alien does not have the most nuanced or ambiguous subtext: images of maternity, gestation, birth and rape are strewn throughout the film, prompting us to consider the truly traumatic nature of sexual reproduction. It’s not a particularly feminist film, but it does do something to challenge male complacency around these processes and its thematic narrative is compellingly handled. Prometheus’s themes are bizarrely episodic as it struggles to extrapolate backwards from Alien to consider what must proceed conception. Early in the film we are shown a variety of cave paintings from ancient cultures which had no connection to one another but all show the same star constellation; not a map, but an invitation, the ambitious scientists breathily proclaim. That’s about as much as this notion of ancestors and cultural heritage is elaborated, but off the characters set for the stars. Later there are chunks of the film which deal with creationism, evolution, pregnancy (in which some of the better ideas of Alien are recycled, badly) and the over-reaching ambition of science (as the title perhaps made inevitable). Notions of faith are considered throughout, by which I mean every twenty minutes or so one of the characters says she still believes in God. No sooner are any of these ideas firmly foregrounded and demanding our attention than they are abandoned, unresolved, leaving no overriding indication of what this film was really meant to be.
There’s a lot more that could be said about Proetheus: the actors do a great job with a terrible script, the music is cliched and instantly forgettable, the introduction of the various kinds of aliens is clumsy and will probably only impress people obsessed with franchise continuity and the production design lacks charm. What’s really disappointing though is how unambitious the whole thing is, and how lacking in urgency. Going in I was sceptical that a prequel was necessary or could offer much but suspected that it might be an excellent film. I was not necessarily looking for another film in the vain of Alien and Aliens (though that would have been nice); if this had been radically different, a romantic-comedy, a work of gritty social realism, a silent movie, a children’s cartoon, anything, anything that demonstrated a spark of ingenuity, a fresh take on the subject matter and an intention to think critically and offer something new, I would have been satisfied even if it had been awful. As it is, it’s a fairly generic sci-fi flick that offers nothing of any substance. There were a lot of unrelatable characters doing implausible things for a period of time while some vague philosophy was kicked around with no resolution, then I left the cinema. I enjoyed it even less that Stavvers did, and she felt the need to rewrite the whole story. Scott gives the impression of having turned up, assumed that Prometheus would be excellent, and put no effort into making that so. Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew seems guilty of the same lazy arrogance.
In its opening narration ill Manors unironically describes itself as ‘harrowing’ and it was at this point that my heart began to sink. It is a film devoid of depth, humanity and wit which simply stacks up unpleasant experiences for its duration in an attempt to be taken seriously. It’s overbearing earnestness becomes faintly embarrassing to watch and it is juvenile in the extreme in its handling of of its subject matter.
ill Manors is an overtly, painfully, unwatchably misogynist film. Women are pushed into increasingly horrific situations for no real reason other than to define the male characters by how they react to them. It does pass the Bechdel Test, when a heroin addicted prostitute asks a battered single mother if she’s an illegal immigrant, but it’s not a moment to be proud of. Any hope that it might just be the characters who hate women, and not the filmmakers, rapidly evaporate when the po-faced raps kick in and explains to us the awful fate of the bitches and hoes on the street.
What’s really noticeable is what’s missing from the film. In this hip-hop oriented film about gang culture there is not even the vaguest discussion of race (beyond a laughable National Front skinhead sieg heiling for all he’s worth early on). This might be because the cultures and communities being depicted here are so thoroughly integrated that race is not an issue or it might be because Plan B is a white guy making a fortune off of them; I guess we’ll never know. Similarly, no mention of class or even wealth inequality ever comes up. Everyone who commits crime for money does it through greed, a desire to be cool or to feed their crack habit (or, for the prostitute, because she was sexually abused as a child). The government, the economy, the whole political class go unmentioned except for one reference to “David Cameron’s Britain” in the rapped narration. The film is bizarrely uncritical of the police (perhaps because race and racism aren’t addressed) which, especially in the wake of the 2011 riots and with the increased police presence in recent months, seems a gross omission. Certainly, any film which wants to discuss the lives of criminals would benefit from considering this antagonism. The police do come in at the end as all the really bad characters who didn’t get their comeuppance from their lives of crime are, one way or another, arrested. This sense of karmic justice is the film’s worst feature, contributing to pernicious moralising and presenting us with a sense of determinism which is nothing but propagandistic.
I will now delineate the entire narrative of one of the characters: A timid boy of about 15 tries to buy weed from a local drug dealer for the first time and is instantly inducted into gang life where, in one day, he beats up a former friend, helps torture a hostage, is forced to murder someone and accidentally kills another. The next day he’s shot dead out of vengeance. Another character: A girl of about 15 foolishly goes to an older man’s house and smokes crack for the first time. Moments later a stranger walks in and shoots her dead. KIDS: SAY NO TO DRUGS.
At the end of the film, all the characters we were supposed to feel sorry for escape their awful circumstances by turning up (literally) on the doorstep of a social worker who takes them in and offers them care, and that’s that. All the bad people end up dead or in custody. I absolutely agree with Toby Young’s analysis, that “the central message of the film is actually a very conservative one”, that “Ben Drew is probably a Tory and doesn’t know it” and that the logical conclusion of the film’s events is that “the best way to address broken Britain is to support the police and the criminal justice system”. I hated it for all these reasons, almost as much as I hate Toby Young.
So, to the question I am left with: of these two very disappointing and yet very different films, which is worse? Prometheus is a film of nothingness. All its attempts at high minded philosophy fall flat and and leave the action empty. ill Manors on the other hand attempts social critique and to deal with genuinely pressing issues which have no clear resolution. That is so staggeringly fails to offer any progressive insight is potentially dangerous, as it propagates some thoroughly noxious views, but it does at the very least force an audience to consider something important. So, would we prefer that self indulgent film makers with nothing of value to say deal with very real problems and run the risk of presenting really bad conclusions or instead with abstract nonsense where they can’t create anything too hateful but also do nothing to provoke discussion? Or should I just start watching better films?