Monday, July 9, 2012

Prometheus and the Vile Offspring

Last night I overrode my inherited inhibitions against going to see "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's revisitation to the "Alien" universe some thirty-three years (and six movies by six or seven directors) after its creation.  And I am very glad I did, for while the film has its problems (a few problems, not the overwhelming lot I was instructed to expect) the stunning cinematography of the film was itself worth the price of admission; and the themes raised are just as complex and compelling (if, oddly, less horrific in their execution) than the original "Alien".  

Right off the bat "Prometheus" dives into the implications of empathy on our possibility of survival in a mysterious and dangerous universe.  As in 1979's "Alien," Scott plays with the potential for deep horror in the figure of the ungrateful or 'vile' offspring.  Using the imagery from deep-set human rites and relationships, he reconstrues offspring in the harshest darwinian light to raise the terrible question: does what we think makes us special and good, our capacity for empathy, actually make us weak?

Just an aside, I'll try to cluster spoilers as footnotes and mark them with an &.  If you intend to see the movie soon, do avoid them.  That being said: onwards!

The film opens with a sequence of grand vistas over a fertile but unpopulated planet.  The score and images generate a feeling of expectation and discovery, rather than foreboding: an unexpected tone, after the sinister portrayal of the movie's trailer.  Even as the film descends from this expectation into the murky unfolding of the plot, this tone of the glory of exploration continues to recur throughout - even to the very end, which surprised me.  (I wonder if some of the poor reactions from the fan community stemmed from broken tonal expectations: they may have expected it to be more classically a horror flick.)  Into this landscape, a lone, robed humanoid is shown to sacrifice himself.(&1)  We are meant to infer that his rite seeds the waters of this planet for life, and that our ancestors rose directly because of it.

Here already is hidden the terrible theme of life in the Alien universe: the new is born out of the sacrifice of the old, and the vile offspring supercedes and destroys its progenitors.  When we later see the sanctuary of these "Engineers," its contents(&2) and its sacred imagery(&3) underscore that for them, the struggle for survival is the primary sacrament and its outcomes good, whether parent or offspring wins.  As Charlize Theron's character states later in the film: "A king has his reign and then he dies: it's inevitable."  The Engineers have accepted this as the moral truth of the universe - their messiah figure is thus not that which saves, it is that which destroys and replaces them.

This inverted philosophy, wherein the child consumes the parent, is utterly abhorrent to our sense of humanity, and therein lies the source of horror for the tale.  The human crew (especially the faithful heroine Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who 'chooses to believe' that the Engineers created us and are inviting us to meet them) came in search of answers about our larger purpose in the universe from those that might be able to supply it, our cosmological parents.  And yet as the Prometheus' crew explore this sepulchre it becomes clear that while it is somehow related to us, its principles are utterly alien.  Any opening of the self to beauty or the other in this strange world is an invitation for infestation and death(&4).

At the same time, it is clear that the Engineers themselves are dedicated to this worldview, and while they fought for their own survival, it seems to be without terror as we know it.  The Engineer species(&6) seem to have accepted that, should they fail, they deserved to fail; their battles to survive are as devoid of higher emotions as a lion tearing down a gazelle(&7).  We, who grow up with loving parents and supportive social networks, believe that love and empathy are valuable in their own right, and that our relationships help us to grow as individuals.

The centerpiece scene of the movie digs into this conflict and rides it for all its worth in its horrendous implications for the mother/child relationship.  This scene pits Elizabeth's maternal and survival instincts against each other, and the result is by far the most intense sequence in the film.  Though the personal conflict that informs these events was introduced late and clumsily, the sheer level of tension and terror that it evokes leads me to forgive its lack of a better setup.

By the end, I am rather impressed by this character.  From her beginnings she is rather naive and breakable for an Alien movie heroine; but she rises to the high survivalist bar set by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley(&8), and in some ways above it.  What sets her apart, and I think what places its lingering mark on the tone of this movie, is her continued desire to meet the engineers face-to-face and receive an account from them for their actions.  Even after all this the hope burns on in some of the crew that any living Engineers will welcome their return as prodigal children, and will depose gifts of knowledge and everlasting life(&9).  Of course, this belief is a terrible error - for to Engineers the children are a threat to destroy (if weak) or be destroyed by (if strong).  In the face of the results from their final gambit, the Elizabeth's dedication to uncovering the truth requires a level of faith that may border on sainthood.  Any more rational actor would high-tail it back to the safety of Earth(&10); I cannot imagine Ripley, after her experiences, consciously choosing to go back just to understand them.

Oddly, although the visual cues underscore the connection between this film and the others of the Alien franchise, I feel it is thematically rather similar to another beautiful, somewhat flawed science fiction film: Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."  This muted tale, told simultaneously in an uncertain present, a poetic future and a storybook past, explores the grief of loss in the face of the fight for survival, the denial of death and, ultimately, its acceptance as a necessary seed for new life.  Where "Prometheus" underscores the terror of abandonment in an amoral universe, "The Fountain" seeks to show that the cycle of life and death is indeed good and the proper order of the universe(&11), and finds a redemptive ending.  The latter movie rejects the idea, however, that love and growth may be meaningless if ending in death, that survival is the only good.  This is, I imagine, a somewhat easier story to sell in a world without chest-bursters.

There are a couple of choices that prevent the movie from reaching its full potential.  For one, the crew is too large - you shouldn't get to the final  action and wonder who that one guy is.  The production team probably felt they needed more people to kill off, but if you don't care about them then it's just pointless action, not horror.  For another, much of the character development felt rather clumsy; and mostly came too late, feeling shoehorned in just before it became relevant.  Again, that undermines our caring for these people and what they're going through.  But on the whole, these are minor quibbles about a successful film - and, I'll put a plug in here, a stunning use of 3D, which unfurls and gives substance to the intricate world of the ship and the claustrophobic alien ruins.

So if you have the stomach for a bit of body horror, I strongly recommend both Alien and Prometheus - and for different reasons.  Alien, because it's a tight, gut-clenching journey of terror, that pays off in spades; Prometheus, because it's a gorgeous and thought-provoking assay into a possible moral universe; oh, and The Fountain, because it's lovely and terribly sad, yet cathartic.

oh, caveat emptor: Prometheus is silly, at times.  There's a pretty collection of plot-points that just don't pass physics muster - blatant disregard for conservation of mass, travelling 50x faster than light speed - and smart characters occasionally act weirdly stupid.  But who knows - if I was beseiged on an alien planet, maybe I would forget about angular momentum too!

By the way, I stole the phrase 'vile offspring' from a comparable treatment in Charles Stross' brilliant and exuberant chronicle of our future singularity, "Accelerando."  In his treatment, we old-style meatspace humans are simply to limited to keep up with our increasingly rapid artificially intelligent offspring, who... well I don't want to ruin that for you!  It's a great book, zany, thoughtful, and hilarious.  Give it a read!

Spoilery Footnotes!
&1 In this parody of the rite of holy communion, he drinks the black chrism which destroys him down to the molecular level.  Thus his 'body and blood' feed the world and give rise to life - but at the dreadful cost of himself, and without a merciful god of empathy that will raise him from the dead after three days.

&2 The 'vases' filled with the black oil that creates new life, by devouring and repurposing the living material of its host.  As mentioned before, this provides a twisted take on the wine of holy communion (in which we physically partake in our messiah; rather than it physically partaking of us) and the baptismal waters (in which the baptised are reborn; in this case, quite literally).

&3 The Xenomorph (or 'Alien') is depicted in cruciform at the green alter behind the giant head.  This iconic figure holds a position of adulation, a messaianic role for the Engineers - for it is revealed at the end of the movie that this form emerges from the Engineers themselves when they are implanted from the xenomorph species.  The Alien is a perverted Christ, that saves by destruction, god from man, replacing the Engineers with a more perfect being: itself.

&4 The biologist, fascinated with a newly-discovered life-form, approaches and reaches out to touch a pale serpenty thing out of an admiration for its uniqueness and beauty - despite its downright creepy viper/penis/toothy vagina vibe (well done, design team!)  For his troubles, this gets him horrifically killed, his body implanted, and his parter melted, infected and... turned into a zombie caveman, maybe?  That bit was unclear.

&6 Though outwardly and genetically a match for humanity, the Engineers' philosophies are foreign enough to all human cultures to qualify them as a different species.

&7 The death of the last surviving Engineer at the hands-- er, tentacles-- of the squid-baby shows this: we see tension and possibly anger on his face as he struggles against his noodly demise, but I did not recognize fear.  Somehow once the heroine's out of the way, the terror of that scene vanished as well, and the rest was just a law of nature unfurling: the strong survive.

&8 Cutting out the alien squid-baby growing inside your own womb - the last terrible gift of your dead infected husband and research partner, with whom you never could conceive a true offspring - is a terrifying physical and psychological prospect, even with the aid of state-of-the-art surgical tools.

&9 The ancient Weyland's hope for continued personal life oddly mirrors the Engineer culture's own worship of survival.  He will not accept death, it seems, until it comes at the hands of a fitting adversary.  His expectation that the Engineers would wish to save him, however, contrasts rather ironically with his own disfavor for his own biological daughter, and favor of his (soulless) android son, who places curiocity above the life of his fellow crew.  Weyland's conflicting beliefs kill him just as surely as the blow from his presumptive 'heavenly' Father.

&10 as David suggests to her.  I think it's no accident that he winds up decapitated, just like the ancient Engineer, whose head is carried back to the ship and so uncannily recalls the giant sculpture that is the movie's icon.  Both the Engineers and David are rational, if brutal, actors, vying for ascendancy; they lack the emotional connections (the 'heart,' right Planeteers?) that make us human.  Quite the opposite of losing their heads, they 'lose their bodies' and David reveals his utterly cognitive nature.  This also contributes to the hopeful tone of the end of the film, as only the last complete human is physically capable of controlling her own destiny.  Wow, I got kind of Comp Lit there.

&11 The black oil of the Promethean rite is in function quite similar to the white sap of the Fountain's Tree of Life: both consume the celebrant and create new life from his body, though in one case predatorial and in the other, botanical.  The choice of palate betrays how in one case this is played for terror - and in the other, as a noble self-sacrifice.