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Age Before Beauty

Other than that they are both actors, what is the connection between Simon Pegg and Mat Fraser? Pegg, you all know. Fraser, if you don’t recognise the name you will certainly recognise his photo. On account of him not having any arms. We’ve all seen Pegg in Shaun of the Dead and we’ve none of us seen him in recent Kula Shaker-directed embarraso-flop A Fantastic Fear of Everything. Not that Pegg cares; he’s a nerd who now plays Scotty in Star Trek films. Living the dream doesn’t begin to describe it.
     Mat Fraser’s mother took Thalidomide and as a result he was born with, effectively, wrists growing from his shoulders. Which isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor when considering his acting talent. As with all disabled actors, while it may effectively bar him from certain roles ("Your right leg I like. I’ve got nothing against your right leg.”) it ensures that casting directors remember him. Fraser’s three horror credits are Julian Doyle’s uproarious crowleysploitationer Chemical Wedding, unreleased anthology Dreaming of Screaming and Alex Chandon’s magnificent new you-ain’t-from-round-here feature Inbred. He also starred in a little-seen martial arts gangster thriller called, ahem, Kung Fu Flid. (Also released under the only slightly less politically incorrect title Unarmed but Dangerous.)
     So what connects these two gentlemen? The answer is that I have stood next to both of them at the bar. Pegg was at some SFX magazine bash in London (I think I was there plugging my Douglas Adams book). Fraser was at Nottingham Playhouse, probably some arts funding launch event thing because, after leaving SFX, I worked in arts funding (which is as ghastly as it sounds). Simon Pegg will have no more relevance in this particular essay. However, we shall return to Mat Fraser by and by. But for now I want to talk about Prometheus.
     If you haven’t yet seen Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic, be ye awarned that there be spoilers ahead, matey. But assuming that you have watched it, here’s what I think. Prometheus has many good points in its favour and a couple of things that it gets absolutely monumentally wrong. On the credit side, it is well acted by a talented and attractive cast, and it is well-directed by Sir Ridders himself. The production design is generally very good, even if most of its highlights are secondhand Giger-isms. The special effects are terrific, you can’t fault the photography or editing, and I had no problem with the music. On the whole, a thoroughly fine and credible production.
     But like a house built on sand, this production falls down because it rests on a frankly awful script. Not the worst script ever written. Not bad in the same way as something like Battleship, but much, much worse than it could or should have been. If you watch an obviously crappy blockbuster you expect a crappy script. No-one minds putting their brain in neutral to watch some bollocks by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. But when one has paid seven quid to see the new Ridley Scott prequel to Alien, which has been advertised as a serious, thought-provoking, powerful piece of cinema that Explores Big Ideas, one cannot help but be hugely disappointed on discovering that it has been written by a ten-year-old.
      Much debate has raged, and continues to rage, across the interwebs about Prometheus. And you have to think: if it was genuinely good, there simply wouldn’t be this much debate (although the reverse is not necessarily true - films with little debate are not automatically good). The Alien fanboys and Ridley Scott apologists counter criticism of their film with the expected straw men - ooh, you just don’t like it because... - but the problem is not plotholes or unanswered questions, nor is it nitpicking. The problem with Prometheus lies in fundamental flaws to the essential building blocks of a screenplay: narrative and character.
     Basically, everything in a (good) film has to happen for a reason. A reason within the fictional world (ie. based on what has gone before) rather than a reason dictated by narrative imperative (ie. based on what is still to come). Stories are driven by the actions and speeches of the characters on screen, and everything that any character says or does must be exactly what that character would say or do in that situation and those circumstances. In fact, exactly what any of us can imagine we would say or do in that situation and those circumstances if we were that character. I mean really, this stuff is so basic. But a script like Prometheus would be rejected by any agent or producer if it was submitted on spec and would receive poor marks on any scriptwriting course because, to be blunt, it is utterly stupid and makes no sense.
     I could sit here all day pulling it to pieces but I’ll just cite a few examples because there are already plenty of places on the web where people are creating shopping lists of its narrative flaws. Here’s one that sticks out like a sore thumb: don’t go to the trouble of establishing that your characters are in radio contact with someone who is monitoring their position on a 3D map, then later have those characters whine that they are lost. Or there’s the helmets. Almost everyone has pointed out that taking your space helmet off just because the air is breathable is a monumentally stupid thing to do. Even more stupid, surely, is for everyone to then leave their helmets somewhere and go off exploring. What if a door closes behind you? What if the air is different in other chambers of the building?
     Lots of people have pointed out that, while the self-cesarian is one of the few, effective bits of horror in the film, its effect is then nullified by (a) Dragon Tattoo Girl’s ability to run around immediately afterwards and (b) the fact that no-one mentions it, at all. She fought against people who were trying to restrain her (but didn’t bother to follow her when she ran off because, you know, who could outrun a pregnant woman?) and next time they see her it’s just hi, how are you. But to get back to (a), it should be obvious to even the dimmest Hollywood hack that if something slices through your abdominal wall you can’t even turn over in bed for several days and certainly can’t stand upright and walk and run and sprint across rocky ground escaping a spaceship which is cartwheeling after you like a Great Panjandrum (run to the side, you stupid woman!). Oh, and I did like the idea that the female commander has a high-tech medical device in her private quarters which is programmed to only be usable on men. Think about it (which is more than the writers did): why would a company even make something like that? "This is our super new, vastly expensive auto-surgeon. Press these buttons and you can reduce its ability by 50%, ensuring that half your patients are unable to use it.”
      When you come across idiotic stuff like this in big, expensive movies, films which have clearly not been made up as they go along, it really does make one’s head itch. This stuff is so basic and obvious, and was spotted and criticised and mocked by so many people who were on the internet within minutes registering their disapproval, that it simply can’t be the case that no-one noticed it beforehand. Lots of people, including Ridley Scott himself, approved that script and decided it was exactly what was needed to make a serious, thought-provoking sci-fi movie. They must have known that it would provoke not thought but savage mockery on YouTube, surely? So the only conclusion is: they didn’t care.
     Ridley Scott, a man who has made some absolutely superb movies in the past, must have taken a cynical view and said: you know what, if we have a good enough marketing campaign with lots of teasers and viral videos, we can count on the Alien fanboys to give us all their money and claim on the web that it’s the greatest film since Indiana Jones and the Sliced Bread. So lots of time and money went into the effects and the design and the cast and so on, while the minimal effort required to rewrite a stupid scene of a spaceship flying straight down to a planet and immediately finding what it’s after is deemed extraneous. ("Put her in orbit. I’ll be in my cabin.” cut. "Captain.” "Uh-huh?” "I think we’ve found what we came for.” cut. Spaceship descends towards surface. - there, how long did that take?)
     But all this aside, there is one thing about Prometheus which is even worse than the script. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m referring to. That’s right: Guy Pearce’s old-age make-up. What on earth was going on there? Has no-one involved in the film ever actually met an old person? Do they all spend so much time in LA that they have to guess what non-plastic-surgeried 90-year-olds look like? It really was, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst old-age make-up ever shown on screen in a major film. Just risible. Stick Guy Pearce in half a Dalek and poke his eyes out and you’d have a dead ringer for Davros.
      And I’m not the only person to ask: why was Pearce even cast in the first place? He’s a fine actor (despite starting out in Neighbours) but he can’t emote through something that looks like it was bought off the back cover of Famous Monsters and you can’t even see it’s him. It’s not like a film with Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender and Whatserface needs extra name value. Look, if you have an old character, why not cast an old actor? There’s plenty of them about. The very best suggestion I have seen is: why didn’t they use Peter O’Toole? There’s a superb, name-value actor who now looks like death warmed up, and casting him would have given whole new levels of meaning to the android’s obsessive rewatching of Lawrence of Arabia.
      It may be that there are cut scenes of the character as a young man, played by Pearce out of make-up, but it is entirely possible to cast two actors in the same role. Remember The Green Mile? The whole story is a flashback told by Tom Hanks’ character as an old man but when they tried making up Hanks as a geriatric it just looked awful. So the casting director found an elderly actor, a lovely old geezer named Dabbs Greer who had been in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and they put a few bits of make-up on him so he looked a little more like Tom Hanks (a few dabs on Dabbs). And it worked fine.
     Mat Fraser has done a lot of stuff around disability rights and he coined the phrase ‘blacking up’ to describe the casting of non-disabled actors in disabled roles. The reference of course is to the now discontinued practice of casting white actors as black or Asian characters. There are admittedly times when an able-bodied actor is required. For example, in the excellent new British vampire feature Harsh Light of Day, the main character becomes paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, but later he can walk again, so an able-bodied actor was cast. But if a character is permanently in a wheelchair, or is blind, or has cerebral palsy - well, I can tell you from my arts funding days that the world is not short of disabled theatre companies. The same basic courtesy should be extended to old people. If you have a 90-year-old character, Mr Scott, cast a 90-year-old-actor, not a young actor ‘blacked-up’ - especially if your prosthetic make-up guy is that incompetent. While you’re at it, ask the 90-year-old to point out everything that’s wrong with your lousy script. See you in the bar.




MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.