Monday, June 11, 2012

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be scientists....

I was going to comment on the comments below, but then I saw "Prometheus."

You know, the science fiction movie that's about religion because one character remembers talking to her father about heaven and she wears a cross because she "chooses to believe" and she's challenged by meeting her "makers" because now how can she have any faith in God since it turns out....

Oh, well, I won't get into spoilers.

But really, honestly, truly, has our public discourse on religion still not advanced beyond the mid-19th century?  "Choose to believe"?  What kind of lame excuse for a discussion of faith (which is merely trust, not "believin' what you know ain't so") is that?  And what is discussion of Christianity doing in a movie so obviously trying to reference Greek mythology?

And a pretty suck movie, too.  It's like they started out intending to make a very interesting story, and halfway through they got bored.

Alright then, I will get into spoilers.  You have been warned.

First, this has to be the most self-conscious Ridley Scott movie ever.  The building J.F. Sebastian lives in is the "Bradbury," an odd allusion to a writer as unlike Philip K. Dick as any writer could be.  But that's as much allusion to other works as I can recall from the Scott films I know.  This one is shot through with them, to the point it looks like someone took a shotgun to the story, and left it rather full of holes.

Yes, this is "2001:  A Space Odyssey Goes to Hell."  Aliens left behind a calling card, and two scientists interpret it as an invitation.   Big mistake.  They are the pure, selfless souls whose only interest is knowledge and understanding; and one of them wears the cross around her neck and "chooses to believe."  Which is an idea worthy of the early 20th century, at best, and always brings to mind Eliot before he became fully committed to Christianity:  "Consequently I rejoice/having to construct something upon which to rejoice."  As Lisa Schwarzbaum says of the character Elizabeth Shaw:  "She declares herself a woman of faith, although faith in what we don't know, because heaven forbid the script get theologically specific."

Heaven forbid, indeed.

There are references to almost every "Alien" movie in existence (absent the "Alien v. Predator" series).  Ridley Scott has said he was angry about not being chosen to to the sequel to "Alien," and he may have seen this as his chance to get back some of his own.  There's a basketball court on the "Prometheus," just as there is on the ship where Ripley is cloned back into existence in "Alien Resurrection."  But the only person who uses it for something besides a big room for meetings is David, the android/cyborg/robot/call it what you will.  And he makes a perfect, nothing but net, dunk, while riding a bicycle; just as the cloned Ripley does, sans bicycle, in "Alien Resurrection."  David is also HAL from "2001,"  the only member of the crew always awake while the crew slumbers through the 2 years of the journey.  But unlike HAL, David is not homicidal; he's just sociopathic.

Which is inevitable, given that he has the intelligence of a human being, but none of the emotions (aside from curiosity.  Why is it that intelligence is curious, without being emotional?  Anyway, it makes him a perfect sociopath, so perhaps he's fully human after all).  One could almost think it's no accident David is named David, as that's the name of Haley Joel Osmet's character in "A.I.," a young boy robot who does have emotions and longs, like Pinocchio, to be a real boy.  It's not clear David in "Prometheus" wishes for humanity, but there are the inevitable jokes about Pinocchio which indicate another twist in this tale is Spielberg's collaboration with Kubrick (who directed "2001"!).

David is also an insert in keeping with three of the four "Alien" films:  in the first film, the robot is wholly indifferent to the fate of the crew of "Nostromo," determined only to bring back a creature for the company's study as a weapon.  The murderous "artificial person" is redeemed in "Aliens," where he actually saves Ripley and Newt.  Winona Ryder's robot is determined not only to save humanity by destroying the aliens, she is also religious.  David presages the lethal indifference of Ash and combines it with the cold-blooded plotting of Carter Burke from "Aliens:" both characters want to infect (or infest) the female lead with an alien, then put her to sleep until the return to earth.  Burke's motivations, however, are a bit clearer than David's.  It may be he is as indifferent to the fate of humanity as the Engineers are, and as happy to see them wiped out.  Or it may be that he's just endowed with insatiable curtiosity, and an indifference to human life to match; a sociopath, in other words.

But back to the film's allusions.  There are, sadly, no memorable lines in this film, unlike the sequel to "Alien" which made Scott so angry.  Say what you will about James Cameron, but at least once upon a time he had a real gift for dialogue.  Scot picks this up in one scene where David is summoned to leave the building they find on the distant planet's moon:  "David, we are leaving!"  Which echoes, intentionally or not, the famous cry "Marines!  We are leaving!" during the marine squad's first encounter with the "bugs" in "Aliens."  A faint echo, but hard to ignore it as an echo, given the context.

There's another, even odder one one, which I can't help think is a weird inside joke.  You've heard, by now, of the "C-section" scene, which my daughter found intense but I thought was both overly dramatized and also so slow in coming you could predict the outcome minutes ahead of it (as with many of the "twists" in the plot of this story; none of them are really surprises at all, unlike the horror that tears out of John Hurt's chest and rampages through the "Nostromo.").  What is procured from that emergency surgery is a squid; or something very much like a squid.  Which immediately made me think of the roadside delivery scene in "Men in Black" (the first one; the funny one), where Tommy Lee Jones ends the scene telling the new father:  "Congratulations, Reg. It's a... squid."*

And yeah, there's the "black goo," which is the "weapon" before it takes any form; and it's more than slightly reminiscent of the "black oil" that plagued Mulder and Scully through several TV seasons and more than a few movies, without any real explanation of what it was (its effect shows up in the eyes, which is where Shaw's lover first realizes something is wrong with him after David spikes his drink).  On the other hand, black is just a good, all purpose color, especially (traditionally) for death.

Lastly, there is the ending of the film, one everyone says clearly leads to yet another film in a brand new, Ridley Scott sanctioned, series (even the aliens in "Aliens" don't look quite like the alien in "Alien," if you look closely).  That much is clear, and this time it echos "Alien," almost down to the very language used in the voiceover.  What is more interesting, though, is the drive to leave the moon and seek out the home planet of the "Engineers."  Elizabeth Shaw, the woman who "chose to believe," wants to know why the "Engineers" engineered a life form so virulently destructive, and why (okay, here comes the serious spoiler) they wanted, 2000 years ago (!), to take them to earth.  But the answer is obvious, starting with the movies title, and running through the many references to the Titan's gift of fire to humanity.

The film opens with a large white (sepulchral white,  not pink) humanoid standing by a raging waterfall, drinking a brew from a silver container, and then decomposing as he falls into the water.  The extreme closeup (on the level of DNA strands) makes it clear:  this is the beginning of life on earth.  Not that Shaw knows that, but we do (and there's the other "2001" connection.  There's no black slab, but there is a shadow over the landscape as the film opens, and a flat teardrop shape disappearing into the clouds as the alien downs his lethal cocktail.  Next comes the "invitation," which isn't an invitation at all.  In "2001" it was, but we so easily misinterpret what we really don't understand....).  It's impossible not to connect that act to the Prometheus myth, and to conclude this was a rogue act, not a planned one, and that it took the Engineers a few millenia to notice, and longer still to devise a bio-weapon response, and then to find out (as we have) that bio-weapons especially are a poor choice of offense, since there isn't much defense to them even by the people using them.

All of which explains why the Aliens are so lethal and so determined to destroy human life; it's what they were made for (although they undergo something of an evolution, thanks to that squid Shaw removes from her womb.  That may, or may not, be another matter.).  But it also explains why the Engineers wanted to return to earth with a bio-weapon:  to undo what should not have been done.  The Greek Gods couldn't take back fire, but they could punish Prometheus.  There is no Prometheus for the Engineers to punish (he dumped his DNA in the water), so they must undo what was done.  Unfortunately for them, that's not as easy as they thought.

The scientists do realize there is a connection between humanity and the Engineers, as they discover our DNA is exactly the same (though there's got to be some difference, since they are humanoid but not human.  Then again, the "Prometheus" is shown traveling through space with its engines firing, something "2001" had the sense not to do, as there is negligible friction, if any, in interstellar space. Hard science fiction this ain't, in other words).  And that explains why the Engineers are so...well, human.  Of course, it may be they are jealous; or it may be they are afraid.  One thing is certain:  it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Not that God really plays a role here.  The giant head in the cave is just a carving of the Engineer's head.  Maybe it's their scientist who discovered how to create the material from which the Aliens will come.  Maybe they just admire their brains a lot (to that, see below).  There is a Giger mural on the opposite wall, one showing what appears to be the original Alien, although a creature like that doesn't make an appearance until the very end of the film, and then only after a series of plot twists end in its creation.  But the clear implication of the film may be best understood by reference to Genesis 2, and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.

Because there is evil enough in the human world, but the greatest evil known today is genocide.  There were mass slaughters in human history; whole cultures have disappeared, nations have gone to their graves at the hands of others,  leaving barely a trace in the historical record; but genocide, and the deliberate mass slaughter of people just because you can, is the great horror of modern existence.  The clear point of the "weapon" found on this moon is that it was meant to destroy all life (aside, I guess, from the plants and bugs) on earth.  Certainly all human life, anyway.  The knowledge of that kind of evil is life changing for Elizabeth Shaw.  It is why she leaves the moon behind, not to return to earth, but to find the Engineers, to find out why they would unleash this kind of horror, why they would be the worst criminals humanity had ever encountered.  She isn't exactly leaving Paradise, but she can't stay there, and she can't go back to where she came from; any more than Adam and Eve could.'

And where is your God now?  Maybe this is the best place to ask that question, one David puts to Shaw at some point in the film where it feels entirely contrived.  As I say, however, David is a sociopath as a human being.  He is the reason Shaw gets "pregnant" in the first place, because he experiments with the "goo" (the familiar slime Aliens leave behind) and gets it into Shaw's lover's drink.  (Why?  Time thinks it's because David is doing all he can to resurrect the Engineers, but that's too generous by half.  Why should this goo recall the Creators?  No, David is merely curious, and he's as happy to experiment on human beings as human beings are to experiment on lab rats.  He's no more human than the Engineers who created us, and now want to destroy us.  David doesn't want to destroy us but, being unable to die himself, he has no sympathy for those of us who do.).  The goo, by the way, alters the DNA of the poor lover, who impregnates Shaw before he realizes he's contaminated.  Thus, she gives birth to a....squid.

Which squid is ultimately instrumental in creating the first familiar alien at the end of the film.  Or almost the alien; again, the morphology is not quite right, and that can't be an accident.  But from David's experiment comes Shaw's squid which attacks the last surviving Engineer (whom David awakened; David is instrumental in every important plot twist in the story) and implants what emerges, fully grown, as an Alien.  David, unlike the Engineers, is not playing God, and unlike Shaw and her sponsor, is not seeking God.  He's just curious; and wholly indifferent to human concerns as he makes things happen.

Knowledge is the great danger here, but the knowledge of good and evil is actually not the core of the story (any more than it is in the Prometheus myth).  The scientists find the Engineers because they are seeking knowledge; and because they imagine knowledge is good, and the signs left behind are an invitation.  They are however, like David, wholly inhuman messages, and an invitation to meet their creator is not one of those messages.  In fact, the very non-humanity of the Engineers raises other interesting questions.

The scientists find a structure on the moon, and in it they find records of the beings that created it (thanks to David, who understands enough of the language and controls left behind to activate them).  They find one Engineer with a severed head, a head they can artificially restore to life.  Unfortunately, when they do so, the head shows signs of agony, and then explodes.  This does not seem to be the result of the effort to restore it, but a mark of something long dormant what would have killed the Engineer if decapitations hadn't gotten there first.  This may, or may not, have been the first purpose of the "weapon" the Engineers were creating.  When it attacks two humans, one dies and the other becomes an animate corpse hell-bent on death; a zombie, if you will, who is extremely hard to kill.  Or perhaps the weapon attacked the brains of the Engineers because they would gestate there, as Venus sprang from the brow, not the loins, of Zeus.  It's hard not to think about that in a film named "Prometheus."

Still, the first answer seems more likely in the context of the film; the second is simply more interesting.  When the fully developed alien rips out of the Engineer's chest at the end, it is clearly a perversion of the act of birth, a change accorded by mixing human DNA with the weapon's DNA.  The weapon stops going for the head, and starts going for the heart (and here it's worth remembering the punishment of Prometheus:  the constant destruction of his liver, thought by Greeks to be the seat of emotions.  Today the vulture would tear out the Titan's heart.)

Did the original weapon attack the head in order to gain a body?  Did it attack the head because the Engineers eschewed the virtues of the heart?  (Their monument to themselves is a hieratic head).  Does it attack the heart because it is now a mockery of human birth?  I dunno; but the questions are more interesting than the movie they spring from.

And what about that 2000 years ago?  The head is dated to that time, meaning the Engineers died 2000 years before "Prometheus" lands to reawaken them (curiosity killed the cat!).  So were the Engineers 2000 years ago plotting a Second Coming that would indeed bring an end to human history?  And 2000 years later, we almost make sure that can happen?  "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...."  It's no accident Yeats titled his most famous poem "The Second Coming."  Yeats understood history as going in cycles, or more precisely as gyres, intersecting cones that made history run back and forth from one end to the other, from anarchy to order and back to anarchy again; and he figured it would happen in roughly 2000 year cycles.  There is a touch of that here, too; of history moving its slow thighs with a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun;  or as the surviving Engineer, who seems as hell-bent on killing humans as the Aliens are.

Hmmmm....maybe they hate us for our freedom.

One last bit in the movie:  human life begins with the sacrifice of an Engineer.  It is saved with the sacrifice of the crew of "Prometheus," as they crash into the last piloted ship attempting to take off and deliver its deadly cargo to earth, 2000 years late.  The Second Coming is aborted, and it's a good thing, too.  But it's a second coming almost started by the very humans who end it, and it is prompted by a very human, and as I've noted before, very religious idea that all of human history has led to a particular moment; a moment for which some human being is usually responsible:

Notice, first, the resilience of the idea that all human history was meant to lead to this moment. That is, I must say, a very religious idea. It is the idea that some force, call it God, call it history, call it the zeitgeist or the gyres or what-have-you, is impelling human existence in a direction, and that direction is forward, and this point in time is the zenith of that effort, and if it wasn't inevitable that it led to us, it's a darned lucky thing it did because, well, we are so deserving! That's not a Greek idea, not at all. Read a Greek tragedy: all "progress" by the tragic hero inevitably ends disastrously. There is no progress, there is only survival and taking responsibility for your errors. That's the best we can do, according to the foundational culture of Western civilization, according to the supreme rationalists that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and modern thinking admire. Any idea that we have moved "forward" to this magic moment in time is entirely non-rational.
Which conclusion Elizabeth Shaw is more or less forced to.  "I'm sorry," she sobs, "I'm sorry," as she realizes her innocence and naivete and certainty that she was solving the riddle of human existence has led to nothing but death and destruction and the loss of everything that mattered to her.  It is, indeed, a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living god; except she hasn't.  She hasn't fallen into the hands of God at all; she has stumbled on hubris.  The Greeks would recognize this as tragedy; her hubris is her hamartia; on her, ultimately, depends the fate of the crew of Prometheus, and even the fate of humankind.  Her hamartia leads to her tragic error, everyone but her dies, and she lives to know her error and take responsibility for it.  She assumed she was important, that she had been placed her for a purpose.  She found out she was wrong; horribly, frighteningly,tragically wrong.  She thought seeking knowledge was an unalloyed good; she found out it could be an almost-unalloyed evil.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bears bitter fruit, indeed.

So is there a lot more to "Prometheus"?  I'm not quite sure.  There's certainly less than was intended.  Most of what I've found there I freely admit I put there.  Perhaps the most interesting speculation prompted by the film is that David is the only one who can communicate with the Engineers (for which he gets his head ripped off), and he is, like the humans are to the Engineers, a human creation and ultimately as alien to the humans (albeit created in their image!) as the humans are to the aliens (also created in their image!  Though some slight deviation in the DNA makes us as much like them as chimpanzees are like us).  Without David, none of the true action of the plot occurs; with him, the worst possible consequences occur.  Which is sort of like the Alien at the end, created by David's actions but hardly with his intention, as it is entirely accidental that squid + Engineer=Alien.  What is not accidental is that Alien is as inimical to human life as David is indifferent to it.

And what does it add up to?  I dunno.  But I do think the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.  Because, in the end, the parts here...are just parts.

Addendum:  I have to add (because I just came across it) that Scott said this about his own film and the sequel (apparently this was originally planned as two movies!):

Ridley Scott intends to stay on as director. “I enjoyed it so much, I really want to do the sequel to this. It’s interesting to do a sequel because this leaves the door so open to some huge questions. The real question to me is – the more mankind discovers in science the more clear and helpful everything becomes, yet we’re very bad at managing ourselves. And one of the biggest problems in the world is what we call religion, it causes more problems than anything in the goddamn universe. Think about what’s happening now, all based on the very simple idea that a Muslim can’t live alongside a Catholic, or a Catholic can’t live alongside a Protestant…”
 And it would be safe to say, based on what I've said above:  "Huh?  What movie did he watch?"  And not only that, but what planet is he living on?

On the other hand, as that link points out, Scott is 75 and working on two movies already (a sequel to "Blade Runner" and a Cormac McCarthy legal drama (two more reasons to go on living!  or not...), so directing the sequel may be postponed long enough to give us all a reason to believe there is a God.....

Further tedious addendum:

For no good reason I grabbed my copy of Greek Myths by Robert Graves off the shelf, and got the lowdown on the Prometheus and fire business.  It seems Prometheus tricked Zeus (it takes too long to explain) and Zeus' response was to deny fire to humanity.  "Let them eat their flesh raw!," Graves quotes (from various ancient sources).  So Prometheus brings us fire.  This story goes in two directions, interestingly.  One is toward Pandora, who is married to Epimetheus, Prometheus' brother.  She opens the box Prometheus had warned his brother to keep closed, and out come "all the Spites that might plague mankind; such as Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion."  But that direction, and the original possession of the box, stem from the other direction, from the reason Prometheus gives humanity fire in the first place.

Prometheus is the creator of humankind.

Final addendum because I'm walking away from this now!  NO!  I REALLY MEAN IT!

Whenever I feel like I've read way too much into a movie, I'm always comforted by finding someone else who's gone much further than I would.  Viz.  Jesus Christ as an Engineer?  Uh, wouldn't they notice he wasn't exactly human?  The Annunciation to Mary?  A birth on Christmas Day?

Well, okay, I have to give you the last one.

But Dr. Who?  Really?  Because of an old TV episode and one of the Doctors and one of the companions?  That's an even bigger stretch than connecting it all to H.P. Lovecraft. And all that abdomen opening adds up to what, exactly? I mean, did you see the first movie 33 years ago? It's kinda part of the territory.**

Absolutely no mention of Kubrick, though.  Nor of Jiffy Lube.

Which I think are pretty serious omissions.

*If you really want to see it, or see it again, don't say I don't cater to ya.

**The idea of the king ruling and then dying is pretty interesting, though it's got bugger all to do with Christianity.


  1. To understand what he’s alluding to, we have to look at the big question at the end of Prometheus – Why did the engineers want to destroy us? one of the links.

    Having come here from You Know Where, where I blasphemed by pointing out that the sacred scientists sometimes do things like producing nuclear weapons, conventional weapons, tar sands oil and underseas oil fields, phony safety reports on food, chemicals, etc. I've got a few ideas on this topic. *It's all the bad, evil engineers fault and not the good, virtuous scientists* was one of the things actually said You Know Where.

    The superstitious, undifferentiated adulation of science and scientists on the liberalish-libertarian end of things is a topic that's interesting me more. I don't think adulation of the clergy is as rigidly observed in the Catholic church. Even in the face of evidence of many scientists getting paid to do those things that lefties are supposed to hate, it is forbidden to mention that. Maybe if there's enough rain days this week and I can't garden I'll do some research and write it up.

  2. Caught some of that; loved the distinction between "real science" and "junk science." Obviously nuclear physicists who helped build weapons would disagree....

    And I recently realized (not for the first time) that most of the adulation of science as a source of "Truth" is because we only teach science in schools; and not even philosophy (much less theology).

    So all other forms of knowledge ("science" was originally a Greek word meaning "knowledge," as distinct from "wisdom") are irrelevant. I mean, once you've been taught the true way to reason, no others need apply.

    Or something.

  3. Thanks for the run-down on Prometheus. On the whole I'm a pretty squeamish about movies where squid-like things are born by caesarian, and I don't think I'll be taking it in this summer.

    Re the innocence of scientists, I remember, a few years back, a documentary on, I think, Robert Oppenheimer, where he talked about what a paradise for research the Manhattan Project was--the best scientists, engineers, technicians in the world, working together, making advance after advance, in a mountain resort setting, all necessities of life taken care of, until the night they traveled to the Journada del Muerto, to see if the thing worked, and it was only then, seeing the bomb go off, and imagining its effect in the middle of a city, that he, for the first time, felt a wave of horror, and suddenly asked himself, "What have we done?"

  4. "Prometheus" wasn't as bloody as I expected, Rick. The C-section scene is probably the worst, and it's not all that bad.

    Mostly, it's just a nothing-burger. I was disappointed more than anything.

  5. As humans I think we are often looking for a place we can operate free of responsibility and consequences for our actions. Science is a good one, we can place the idea of science above the human consequences and absolve ourselves of responsibility. I can do these things in the name of science and maintain a clean conscience. So to, business or capitalism are also good places to operate free of resonsibility for consequences. The only goal is to maximize profit. If I undertake negative actions for my employees, even customers, "it is only business!". Business ethics focusses on really only two items. The first are negative actions that will hurt profits (for example, cheating my supplier is bad because they won't supply me in the future.) The second is compliance with outside rules (the law says you must do X or we will be fined or shut down). There is no internal ethic. If there are no environmental laws preventing me from exposing my employees to a dangerous chemical, and that maximizes profits, then there is no internal mechanism that says this is wrong. Back to science, the end of acquiring knowledge trumps the means to acquire if because the knowledge is pure (or for the beleiver in science, always good). If that means implanting a squid in a women, or allowing minorties to suffer for decades from curable syphalis, then end of knowledge justifies the action. To have a real faith (not one someone chooses to believe, but exists in the warp and weave of their life) means to have responsibility for all the consequences.