God is A Kachina Doll: Prometheus

An animal more like the gods than these,
more intellectually capable
and able to control the other beasts,
had not as yet appeared: now man was born,
either because the framer of all things,
the fabricator of this better world,
man out of his own divine
substance—or else because Prometheus
took up a clod (so lately broken off
from lofty aether that it still contained
some elements in common with its kin),
and mixing it with water, molded it
into the shape of gods, who govern all.

-Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book One(Trans. Charles Martin)

The first scene of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) resembles Ovid’s creation myth, particularly the description of Prometheus in these lines (and given that Martin’s translation is one of the more popular versions of Ovid, I would not be surprised if Scott had read them). There are important revisions as well. The Promethean figure we see in Scott’s sequence – member of a humanoid race called “Engineers” – is more clod than god, and it is “he” who get thrown in the mix when he falls into water, poisoned by a black liquid that rewrites his DNA at an alarming clip and dissolves him into..into what, exactly? Scott may be making a bad pun here: as the figure dissolves, so too does his film, and Prometheus is off to the space races.

I just saw Prometheus a few hours ago and I wanted to jot down some preliminary thoughts, and I figured there’s no better way to revive a blog called “So Fake It’s Real” than via a discussion of an artificial man who’s unconvinced of his artificial nature. In lieu of a polished essay, here are some rough bullet points. The short of it is that Prometheus is My Kind of Movie, but I can understand the mixed reviews, and I don’t think these comments will necessarily change anyone’s mind on the film. Here we go. Spoilers, for real:

-Let’s spend a few more sentences on that opening scene, because more than anything, Prometheus is an examination of storytelling and the particular mode of storytelling that Scott knows best: filmmaking. It’s difficult to interpret the opening scene until you’ve sat through the rest of the movie. I’d emphasize the fact that we’re not entirely sure why the Engineer drinks the black liquid. If we find resonances between his act and the decision made by Janek (Idria Elba) and his crew, then the Engineer may be making the same choice they made: death is preferable to placing the rest of the world in danger. I don’t necessarily buy that, but I like the idea that both moments, taken together, demonstrate the power of that particular narrative arc and the weight of such a belief system. The power of belief, and the specific power of a belief in particular stories, seems to be the engine that drives Prometheus. If that sounds cheesy to you, then I don’t know what to tell you. Except that it’s a movie, not a fortune cookie.

-I can see why some folks think Scott’s film is anti-science, but I’d blame the game, not the player. Scott conjures up some clearly-drawn battle lines between faith and science, but he doesn’t necessarily condone either side. He’s more acknowledging that we live in a world that continues to fund both Wal-Mart-sized churches and the career of Richard Dawkins, and he reminds us why those two segments of the global population don’t always play nice with one another. I liked Dawkins when he was more interested in examining the power of narrative and less interested in taking cheap shots at people with different sets of belief systems: pre-punditry, he seemed more interested in helping scientists take the power of storytelling more seriously than in railing against mullet-heads to earn the adoration and the wallets of the kinds of people who loudly applaud Jon Stewart whenever he thinks about rolling his eyes. Where did this sentence go? Right, faith and science. It seems like Scott is rejecting these divides in favor of a more complex dynamic, one that emphasizes the faith we place in science and the mechanics of myth.

-In Scott’s sci-fi parable, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is driven by belief. When my high school religion teacher told us that the existence of God relied primarily on faith, not empirical evidence, Shaw must have been listening outside (I went to an all-boys’ school). But belief in what? Again, I think that people looking for a one-Tweet summation of this movie should try not to be disappointed when the movie doesn’t slide neatly into place. And I think Scott is more interested in describing the value of belief in an abstract sense. In the same way that David treats Elizabeth’s cross like an object of scientific analysis (keeping it in a specimen jar), so too does Scott run belief through a series of tests.

-When David (Michael Fassbender)refers to Shaw’s “survival instincts” after she makes it out of some particularly dicey circumstances, it’s important to remember that this is also a remark made by a robot about a human being. Is the narrative of humanity ultimately the narrative of survival? Of adaptation? David certainly seems to think so.

-But not survival at all costs? Or not survival for the so-called chosen ones, the ones whose checks have cleared. Speaking of Dawkins, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce on Halloween) is definitely suffering from The God Delusion. Then again, what makes Elizabeth Shaw so special? Maybe “the narrative of survival” isn’t messier than I first let on. Shaw is clearly driven to take drastic measures because she believes that she’ll survive if everything goes according to plan. But real people have accidents. How many accidents occur in Prometheus? The death of the first Engineer? Meredith Vickers? David’s entire character arc suggests that his creation was an unhappy accident for Weyland. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time (his scene with David is a clever riff on the trope of the last temptation of Christ / almost a parody in microcosm of Scott’s entire belief-centered film). Lots of other dead bodies who probably didn’t plan to go out that way.

-I think it’s important to note that David and Elizabeth both survive their experiences, but the clear-cut views they have of the universe have been changed, changed utterly. Scott is not shy about using physical transformation to reflect emotional and psychological transformation, but you knew that.

-Elizabeth Shaw? Herman Melville’s wife. The search for the meaning of life is just another white whale?

-The Alien mythology stuff was some of the least interesting bits for me, but the cinematic DNA is important, at least in the sense that these stories and images resonate with lots of moviegoers. But this movie seems less for the diehard facehuggers and more for Scott, as he revisits his most popular franchise to reassert his faith in storytelling. Was Scott experiencing a crisis of faith prior to Prometheus? I liked Robin Hood OK, but apparently I was the only one. We can’t say for sure. But the important thing is that he keeps telling stories on film for as long as he can.

-It seems like the perfect ending for a filmmaker like Scott is not closing with every loose end wrapped up but rather insisting that the world depicted onscreen will live on after the cameras have departed (and Scott is better at this than, say, James Cameron in Avatar, where the planet seems explicitly designed to service the set pieces and plot of the particular narrative the world’s architect is interested in depicting for two hours). While the bodycount is pretty high in this film, there’s still one ship out there (and there are many ships, as David notes, as many as there are movies waiting to be made). Naturally, the ship is powered by art. I am pretty sure Scott wants us to think of these ships as films, and their crews as auteurs. Sure, a ship can be loaded with biological warfare in the wrong hands (and I think Scott is careful to acknowledge that certain stories are worth telling and worth revisiting, like, say, the Prometheus myth and its attendant warnings [as seen not in the Ovid lines cited above but in pretty much ever story where reservations are made about hubris, artistic and otherwise]), but he’s got a hopeful, idealistic streak and a belief that his contemporaries (and their wake) will go on adventures worth documenting.

-The next-to-last scene in Prometheus? Beautiful. How Scott probably wishes he’ll be remembered, perhaps. The very last scene? An acknowledgment that this earlier story is the one he’ll most likely be remembered for when he dies.

-David. What a character. It’s important that David stands alone at the start of the film, as it seems like a cue that we’ll be meditating on our mortality for a bit here. Belief will only propel you across space for so long. If you can create something that lives on to the tail end of the twenty-first century (looking at you, Lawrence of Arabia), you’ve done something pretty remarkable. But don’t expect your creations to love you back. More importantly, don’t expect to have any control over them. Do you think Ridley Scott thought in 1979 that he’d be revisiting Alien in 2012? It’s interesting that he decapitates  his creation, grabs Shaw, and heads off (pun intended) for greener pastures. Is there some meta-commentary on Alien going on in its creation myth? Has Scott acknowledged the two most compelling aspects of his earlier work: the “brain” behind Alien and its beloved female protagonist?

-I liked this movie a lot, and I wanted to say more than one tweet about it for now. David Brothers has some cool words on the images of family present in the film. I’ll probably throw some more recommended links up here when I read more about the movie. Any comments would be cool, so long as you realize that these are first thoughts, not Words I Live By.

-Last thought. What if the ship was named Ozymandias? Ridley Scott probably wouldn’t have made it.


2 responses to “God is A Kachina Doll: Prometheus

  1. Faith versus Science: I have to admit the theme itself falls flat for me, and I just didn’t see Scott doing anything new with it here. Too bad.

  2. Pingback: “Who Are You Pretending To Be?” John Blake and The Dark Knight Rises | So Fake It's Real

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