It just happens. I doubt that Tolkein or Asimov, were they just starting today, could sell what we know to be The Lord Of the Rings or I, Robot to a modern-day publisher. However, by the same token, were they to write those books now, I think they’d look very different because of how their respective genres have changed.
I’m not talking about marketing trends, but rather how fiction as a whole is forged. It’s more prevalent in SF because of the leaps we’ve made in science and technology, but we also have to consider other elements of fiction: character, plot and so forth.
This is the reason for my growing disappointment with Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s pseduo-prequel to Alien. I will say this, Scott is right in saying it’s not a prequel — the events in Prometheus are not a direct tie in to those in Alien, although they are effectively in that continuum. The problem I have with the film is that I wonder if Scott ever looked at how SF has changed since 1979.
Now, allow me to sidetrack to clear a couple of things up.
First, Alien is a horror film, but it also qualifies as SF in my book, and not just because it’s on a space ship. Both genres have a mode of conflict in common. I call it Man vs. The Other. The movie effectively combines elements of both SF and horror to tell the story, and I call that a good thing.
Second, I know Ridley Scott didn’t write Prometheus. Jon Spaiht (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) were behind the screenplay — but from all accounts they collaborated closely with the director, so I hold all three accountable. At the same time, I understand they were trying to stay true to the vision of the future presented in Alien, but let’s be honest, the genre now doesn’t exactly fit the tropes used in 1979.
Charles Coleman Finlay has his own take on the film — say what you will but I will agree with him on one major point: nobody on the ship actually does their fucking job.
The first huge break in my suspension of disbelief was the geologist. All he does is let loose some drones to fly down passages to map everything out. Simple, easy thing, right? Then he gets lost on the way out. This is the guy that mapped the place — okay maybe you could argue that that he didn’t have the capacity for a full map in his suit, but I’d think a mini map would suffice. Heck, he could have called back to the ship and asked where the hell he was. Let’s not forget the biologist, who tries to pet the “pretty” xeno that’s reacting to him like a cobra.
Let’s not forget the fact that, upon encountering a breathable atmosphere in a cave on a planet where the CO2 levels are known to be toxic, everyone takes off their helmets. Honestly, this is the most lackadaisical science mission I’ve ever seen. In Alien, only Ashe took the deliberate act to violate quarantine, but he had a hardcoded reason to do so.
When it comes down to it, the characters are so shallow in development they can’t do anything except what the plot tells them to do. Every action is by writer’s fiat because that’s what he wants to happen. One could argue that “people/characters make mistakes.” They do. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (a surprisingly decent flick), Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) pulls a few major boners, but in his case the errors are character driven as opposed to plot driven.
I think the reason why the crew of the Prometheus are the way they are is due to the writers drawing influence from the people on board the Nostromo. Starfleet these guys were not — they were blue collar workers with the necessary skills to keep the ship together. Ashe was the abnormal one, being the rigid Science Officer and android. I would expect the crew of Prometheus — being a bunch of scientists with a bonafide captain to be a little more disciplined.
That all said, this film might have worked if it were made around the time period of Alien — anywhen from 1977 to 1985. Why do I specify such dates? Well, closer together the aesthetic would have been more compatible, but SF in the visual media changed when Star Trek: The Next Generation aired in 1987. From then until 2005, Trek was a regular sight on the small screen, but it was also supported by Babylon 5, Andromeda, StarGate (including Atlantis and SG:U), Farscape, Space: Above and Beyond, Battlestar Galactica and whole host of shows and films* that had different takes on interstellar-level SF.
Yes, film and television are two different mediums. However, the amount of volume is very different. Even without looking at what’s on the bookshelves, it’s clear that concepts of starfaring vessels — and the crews on board them — have changed. Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelhof could have done their homework and observed this while writing the screenplay. Unfortunately they didn’t, and a visually wonderful film has to suffer as a result.
*Movies include but are not limited to: the Star Trek films, 2010, The Last Starfighter, Enemy Mine, Event Horizon, Starship Troopers, Solaris and Moon