Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Prometheus Demystified: Why I still think this is a one in a million film, and worthy of a 9/10

I think Prometheus works on two levels. Firstly, as a seriously intelligent film filled with symbolism and metaphor. And secondly, because it stands on its own. Scott paints as spectacularly as we've seen in the cinema. His creative visual paintbrush feels incredibly real whilst asking a series of very open ended questions. And not easy questions either. The second aspect is probably the reason why some people have not enjoyed this film; I'm speaking about those who didn’t get Ridley Scott’s Memo: THIS IS NOT A PREQUEL before they walked into the cinema.
I also think Prometheus isn’t a film you enjoy, nor are you supposed to but that doesn't mean it isn't excellent cinema. Do you enjoy reading the Bible? Do you enjoy thinking about the possible answers to some uncomfortable questions?

I suppose it’s to be expected that some folks would be disappointed – the slasher-film-in-space folks. But on a sci fi level, and as a space yarn, Prometheus is exceptional for its visuals, its creativity, its vision, its boldness and its mission. Vision and mission are not the same thing in this sense. Vision in film is the use of scale, and style,and tone and everything else in the execution of your mission – and the mission in this film was to set a much higher bar in terms of movie programming. What questions are we asking ourselves? Can they be answered? And this theme of unjustified beliefs is hard to live with. On Earth as it is in cinema – well, Prometheus in any event.

Let’s get down to the symbolism. I can’t get past the brilliant use of metaphor. The various ways in which the makers have demonstrated how we are part of the process that makes the monster. That all things are connected, and thus, we are connected (responsible) for the consequences. The theme of accountability and miscalculation in the future is I think, a very important one. Look at the world’s economies – it all started with some of the world’s most expected companies and banks facing bankruptcy, now we’re seeing entire nations facing the same. There is great irony in Greece – one of the world’s greatest civilisations, struggling to remain relevant in Europe (as part of that economy). Very quickly, Italy too, the heart of the Roman Empire, and other Empires (Great Britain and the United States) are seeing their fortunes fade. Do we know exactly why their fortunes have changed? I’m simply saying the current confusion, and state of alarm, matches so some extent the fatalism that we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott’s adventures in space. Hence I feel a slasher in space would have been a wasted opportunity, there have been around 5 aliens films and this one needed to go in a different direction. Away from gratuitous violence and cliché, and towards something infinitely more sensible. It has.

The introduction of the ‘Engineers’ says a great deal about the filmmakers view of man and our beliefs. We see a reflection of man in these large, powerful, human monsters. They are also ghostly pale, bald and mute. Is this a reflection of our belief in God – someone personal, more powerful, unfathomable (and not necessarily in a good way) and at the same time impersonal, powerless and silent to all our concerns. Yes, silent to our concerns despite being intimately involved with them.
Intuitively the sense people have of ‘unanswered questions’ in this film seems to me to be the sort of childish ranting that faithful congregations suffer, but choose to ignore. If you don’t have an answer to your question, the movie seems to implore, then get the fuck off your butt and go and find it. Put in some blood and sweat. We seem to have become spoiled with all our conveniences – having all we need at our beck and call, at the push of a button or turn of a key or press of a pedal. And beyond these contrivances – will we make an effort to find out what troubles us?

I think it was the director’s motive to make audiences writhe a little (perhaps a lot) uncomfortably at around two third through the film. It is about seeing an outcome unravel in very unexpected ways. Where what we believe and what comes to pass, what is later evident, are discouragingly disparate.

The scene where Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) covered in blood and banadage-like clothing, places a ring on her finger, clasps her hands so together, and summons up her will whilst looking at her perspiration-lathered self in the mirror – that scene speaks volumes of the sort of determination that has been necessary to face uncomfortable challenges in the past. One of them is ordinary survival. Another, is facing up to the reality of death, and possibly no afterlife beyond that.
There are other aspects that bolster this imputed sense of disappointment and despair – that life isn’t quite the happy place we thought it was when we went out to play, and explore. It is the deceptions and secrets of the father figure, the man who has, after all, funded the trip for all on board. It turns out the reason all players are on board is merely part of a personal and selfish plan. The android David suffers similar disappointment when Dr. Holloway, somewhat inebriated, informs him that people created him (built him) “because we could.” David responds, “Can you imagine how disappointing that would be for you to hear.”
Of course the reason David was made is both because we could and because of his use to us. Our use to God, according to the Bible, is after all not far different – “to glorify God”, in other words, to make God feel good about himself. Although no hint whether that implies anything far beyond words to that effect.

But even within the ALIEN/PROMETHEUS mythos is always this reflection within a reflection. We see the monsters devouring humans apparently at random, but some certainly appear either to deserve it or pay a clear price either for arrogance or some other implied failing (as occurs in life on earth). But we also see two other creations, made by man, that are possibly more intriguing, and simultaneously, more monstrous. We see robots made in our own image, by men, but with secret agendas, and sinister (often harmful) purposes hard wired. At the same time, these machines provide their comrades with useful intelligence and often decisive and vital aid. The other creation which is somehow worse than the ambiguous motives of the android, is the Company. The company is amorphous and all-powerful, eventually even more powerful than the monster (which it seeks to enslave towards its own ends). But at its heart, the Company, while the product of human endeavours, appears to be its antithesis. It appears – certainly in Scott’s series – to be evil incarnate, devious, greedy, ambitious, and immune to either the emotions or the predicaments of society. It’s sole mandate though, corresponds neatly to the premise that runs choc-through this series: which is survival.

The question that Prometheus explicitly asks (and explicitly doesn’t answer) is “if the Engineers created us, why did they change their minds.” From a philosophical perspective, also an excellent question, and a great platform from which is launch a franchise, a second instalment etc. If I may be so bold, I have a suggestion. If one looks at the resentment felt towards David (by Vickers, by Holloway, even by Shaw, though somewhat toned down), his stated view that “every child wants to kill its parents”, and his understated resentments to his charges (whom he admits he must role-play to keep them comfortable, and one he directly infects, albeit with Holloway’s implicit permission) then we see similar possibilities emerging between the Engineers and their creation. After all, would you be discomforted if you’d deposited your DNA in a remote galaxy only to be awoken from a 2000 year stasis by a mewling collection who had developed the technology to reach their creator. In other words, did the Engineers decide to destroy us in order to assure their own survival? Isn’t survival, after all, the theme running through the entire flick – survival of aliens, androids, humans, machines, installations, spaceships, planets, transmissions...

If Prometheus can be accused of serving up a dish filled with life’s cruel disappointments, it must also be praised for remonstrating that in spite of incomplete beliefs and unassailable odds, fighting for survival is what we must do. David might dispassionately quote from a film: “There is nothing in the desert; and no man needs nothing.” In fact, David is wrong. The nothingness, the emptiness in the desert is something vital that calls to man and reminds him who he needs to be. In other words, in the consciousness of an absence, there is an involuntary desire to add, to fill, to enter. Perhaps this why we have created a God. Perhaps, also, that dissatisfaction with the desert (the physical vacuum of space), and the desert of the real (a mental and spiritual construct), is why our species has survived as long as we have. It is rare for any film, or any story, to take us this far out of our comfort zone. This is what makes Prometheus a classic – for the questions it bravely asks, and leaves us to ponder as we continue on our way through the heavens, lonely but not unassisted.

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