Saturday, June 16, 2012
You’re Tired of Yourself and All of Your Creations
[Some spoilers for Prometheus follow]
In his study The Nature of Evil (1931) Radoslav A. Tsanoff cites a terse reflection set down by the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen in 1847, when he was seventeen years old. "Man is a self-conscious Nothing," wrote Bahnsen. Whether one considers these words to be juvenile or precocious, they belong to an ancient tradition of scorn for our species and its aspirations. All the same, the reigning sentiments on the human venture normally fall between qualified approval and loud-mouthed braggadocio. As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: "If you can't say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal."
...In Bahnsen's philosophy, everything is engaged in a disordered fantasia of carnage. Everything tears away at everything else...forever. Yet all this commotion in nothingness goes unnoticed by nearly everything involved in it. In the world of nature, as an instance, nothing knows of its embroilment in a festival of massacres. Only Bahnsen's self-conscious Nothing can know what is going on and be shaken by the tremors of chaos at feast.
- Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
"You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?"
"Your question depends on me understanding what you hoped to achieve by coming here."
"What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place."
"Why do you think your people made me?"
"We made you because we could."
"Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"
- dialogue between Charlie Holloway and David, a robot, from Prometheus
Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog's eye
Boy, you've been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down
I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
- The Beatles, "I Am the Walrus"
I have not read a word of any of the reviews for Ridley Scott's Prometheus. All I know about the reactions from both critics and the public is, roughly, that while some people have been impressed to varying degrees, from praising it enthusiastically as a smart and visually stunning piece of science fiction, to appreciating it as a good time at the movies, most seem to look at it as a crushing disappointment, one that is even, to hear some tell it, catastrophically stupid. These negative reactions seem to have stemmed, at least in part, from a belief going into the theater that Prometheus was intended to be a prequel to Scott's 1979 masterpiece Alien, with all the links and nods and associated gewgaws that go along with that idea. Scott himself has denied this, or rather has hedged his bets by saying that Prometheus was not strictly that and shouldn't be approached as such. And guess what, he's right, it isn't and shouldn't be. It's true that Scott announces that this film very clearly exists in the universe of Alien and its sequels, in ways both subtle and extremely blatant, but for myself, I couldn't care less about that. Not that I disliked the moments that connected to earlier movies -- specifically Alien; the later movies don't even seem to be a consideration here -- but rather that I think Prometheus is entirely a stand-alone film, paired up with the 1979 original only in the same way that The Honeymoon Killers and Barton Fink pair up by virtue of both taking place in the 1940s.
No, what Prometheus is playing is an entirely different game. Within the same genre, obviously -- like Alien, Prometheus is a science fiction film until it's a horror film. The script by John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof plays things very mysterious, from the beginning, which depicts a strange white alien consuming water from a river and seeming to disintegrate, or to begin to, to an ending that acknowledges everything we don't know about what has transpired. In between, it tells the story of a group of scientists, led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are sailing through space in a ship called Prometheus and owned by the Weyland Corporation, to a destination and for a purpose few of them know, until they're awakened from their two-year cryogenic sleep by David (Michael Fassbender), a robot who appears to have spent much of his lonely down time obsessing over Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a film he has watched over and over again. Once awakened, we get a sense of some of the other scientists and crewmembers, such as Janek (Idris Elba), the Prometheus's captain, and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland representative and the mission's true boss who doesn't seem to have to work very hard to tamp down on any sort of natural empathy that might otherwise get in the way of her making the hard decisions. That mission, we soon learn from Elizabeth and Holloway, as well as a hologram of the ancient and, the hologram assures us, dead by the time of this viewing, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), is to locate a planet in a galaxy far beyond our own that has been mapped out using clues that Elizabeth and Holloway have discovered in ancient Earth cave drawings, clues that have led the two scientists to believe -- and Weyland, too, when he was alive -- that Earth was visited by aliens long, long ago. Evidence even suggests that these aliens were our own creators, that is, they somehow created all of humanity. Though he knew he wouldn't be alive to witness this, Weyland's hologram says, it is his desire to facilitate the meeting of our makers.
For a while, the plot proceeds along about how you'd imagine: the Prometheus finds and lands on the planet; a scientific expedition sets out and finds that aliens were here and were of a very extraordinary intelligence, to the degree that within the bizarre buildings they constructed they also managed to create a breathable atmosphere; and soon things become weird and unsettling, as no actual living aliens are found, but the corpse of one is discovered, apparently decapitated by a door, and the head, with some difficulty, is bundled up and brought back to the ship.
And then a lot of other stuff happens. At a certain point, Prometheus quite frankly goes bugfuck. It has also set up a lot of ideas that are pretty damn big, so big that for a while I was unsettled about how it was all going to be handled. For starters, Elizabeth is a Christian, of the sort who is always searching, optimistically, even a little moonily, for answers. And the film's title, and the ship's name, comes from the Greek myth of, logically enough, Prometheus, who, among other things, was said to have created humanity from clay. Then, too, you have David, the robot, whose own existence is a modern and potentially possible literalization of the Prometheus myth. Then later, in a moment that earns that whole "on the nose" epithet they got now, a conversation between Elizabeth and Holloway, who are lovers, about the now-apparent ease and unexceptional nature of creating life, reveals that Elizabeth is unable to have children, in other words, unable to create life herself. But where this all goes is entirely shocking. Elizabeth's mooniness is hers alone.
Along with the eventual bugfuckery, Scott begins to let influences become absorbed into the narrative. The film opens with a shot straight from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and after a while David goes all HAL on everything, becoming quietly and alarmingly sinister, his motivations occasionally unclear, but you get the sense that whatever else he's been programmed to do, he has himself begun to wonder about his own place in the chain of life and to aggressively manipulate those parts of humanity available to him so that he can make clear to himself, and to his creators, that everything is nothing, and that existence may be desirable, but is also the sprawling endless desert he knows from his favorite film. Another of Scott's big influences seems to have been his own Blade Runner, and why not? David's malevolence may be quieter than that of Roy Batty, but it is no less destructive, or, finally, no less easy to understand. I'm also reminded of a line change from Blade Runner, where originally a bit of dialogue was written to include the word "father" but was replaced in the film with "fucker," for various reasons, and how the word "father" is used in Prometheus in a possibly similar context as it was meant for in Blade Runner, or then again maybe not, and how in any case the ambiguity that word completely fails to clear up in regards to a particular character's identity rather nicely matched other science fiction themes Scott enjoys exploring. Except in his final cut of Blade Runner, where he wants more or less plain answers to a question that I, personally, never wanted asked in the first place. Which means I like the theatrical cut of Blade Runner the best. Is all of this neither here nor there? Despite appearances, it might not be.
Anyway, not only is existence nothing, but creation itself is at best an indifferent act, and at worst a malicious one. Throughout the film, creating something results in that creation being unwanted, or hated, or hating its creator. Most commonly the creator, which may sometimes be a symbolic role, loathes and wishes to destroy what it has made. Why? Sometimes that's clear, sometimes it's less a question than a philosophical howl that could be simplified by another unanswerable, even rhetorical, question, for those who possess a certain life philosophy, of why, if God exists, there is so much room for horror in life. But you have a woman devastated by her inability to conceive going to extreme lengths to rid herself of the one ghastly version of conception the universe has seen fit to bestow on her (in a scene that, by the way, is one of the craziest bits of horror movie chaos I've witnessed in an ostensibly mainstream film in a very long time), and you have a direct question asked by the hopeful and wonder-filled to what can only be thought of as their God responded to with a frenzy of wordless murder. In Prometheus, asking the basic questions about life will lead only to death and terror. Going about your life with your head down might be the more rational way to go.
In this way, and others, Prometheus is not unlike the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, in which Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik gropes for answers as his life shatters into ever-smaller pieces, until by the end he is perhaps facing death, his community and family possibly the same, his questions greeted with gibberish or silence. But not, perhaps, hopeless silence. Prometheus presents another questing believer, though Elizabeth will not budge in the face of the sprays of blood and wild destruction by the creator of the created. She still wants to know why. Near the end of the film, she expresses a desire to know why certain minds have been changed, and it's a line, in retrospect, I wish to a degree had never been asked, though in fairness that line's very existence allowed me to realize that I hadn't missed a crucial point -- the shocking thing at the heart of her new quest simply happened, and was as unknowable as it appeared.
Despite everything, a continued need to believe and ask questions might signal an optimism in Prometheus that doesn't exist, at least not in any kind of clearly understandable way, in A Serious Man, but Scott continues on with one more scene that many people would probably brush off as Scott's most explicit link to Alien, and possibly even a winking acknowledgment that should all go well financially we could all be in store for a sequel, but what it really is, in tone and philosophy, is one more example of creation horror. Life brings death, says biology, but life brings violence and murder, says Prometheus. Prometheus, which I consider (perhaps in a knee-jerk way since I just saw it this morning) one of the finest horror movies of the past decade -- and it ends up as that more than it begins as a work of science fiction -- follows what horror writer Thomas Ligotti has often argued, and which you don't have to believe yourself to feel the fist in your gut, which is that existence and creation are terrible mistakes, and to blunder along engaged in either one will only lead to suffering.