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Monday, June 11, 2012

"Building Better Worlds": Hyperreal Visions in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"



One of the several memorable trailer-friendly tagline moments from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus features a precocious and fascinated android, David (Michael Fassbender), looking closely at a contaminant DNA-filled vial and whispering, “Big things have small beginnings.”  It’s a knowing declaration applicable not just to the evolutionary potential of the gooey alien material, but to the progression of movies throughout Scott’s career, from his mainstream breakthrough in 1979, the original Alien, up to this highly anticipated “prequel” to the Alien franchise. We’ve seen Scott, the art director with humble beginnings directing commercials, moving from 35 mm film and fashioning Alien with the deepest of blacks in the cramped and claustrophobic quarters of the Nostromo ship where passengers are picked off one by one by H.R. Giger’s nightmarish phallic/fetal xenomorph monster, and now, 33 years later, shooting in digital 3D and showcasing his already masterful wrangling of computer generated imagery with no expense spared.  As if to deliberately distance itself from the franchise it spawned, the opening images of Prometheus display a limitless and fertile natural environment.  Scott seems to promise a magnificent mural of unbounded preternatural creation such as we’ve seen in other Scott epics of the deep past, as in 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Robin HoodAlien, on the other hand, was a tightly controlled horror film of suspended silences; its terror is intimate.


Whatever the flaws of Prometheus are, they have little to do with its cinematic approach or technological ingenuity.  The film’s disappointments are not what we have in a comparison of the new Star Wars films to the old ones, for example, where fans of the originals complain how special effects “progress,” the increasing digitalization of cinema, remains inferior to the solidity and real-time/real-space quality of the original pictures.  Rather, as with other Ridley Scott films, it’s likely that stages of a broad concept's roughly handled rewriting are the seeds of its undoing (and – again with Ridley Scott films such as Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner – it’s possible that a “director’s cut” may help remedy the short-comings). 

 Prometheus, as Scott’s first foray into 3D, may also be a very personal film. It’s the work of an aging artist (Scott is 74) facing the anxiety of his limited time while pressed to continue “creating worlds” in the service of big and impersonal corporations that are cynically in conjunction with technological development or gimmicks (for this film it’s the most infamous of suspect media corporations, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox).  Prometheus' corprate mogul Peter Weyland may be an amalgamation of Scott and Murdoch, a fascinated seeker existentially running out of time, whose talent and money run into the brick wall of nothingness.  As a director with an endless number of films in development, Scott's age and mortality is an afterthought for the viewer. Few filmmakers work as well with new technology as he does. Prometheus, taking cue from Scott’s idol Stanley Kubrick (who died at age 70) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, features technology as an unstoppable contagion, always changing and growing, and finally becoming the undoing of its master and creator.  This idea, working alongside the picture’s execution as a special effects summer blockbuster marvel, gives haunting dimension to a film that stumbles during its rushed final act.

The “aliens” are both the engineers and the engineered – us and them, humans and androids, viewers and CGI-generated motion picture; as cinema viewers, we are experiencing whole geographies and landscapes, and finally intimate memories, as the product of mechanical construction.  David (whose name and mannerisms remind one of Kubrick's collaboration with Steven Spielberg, AI: Artificial Intelligence - the name from Haley Joel Osment's loving mecha, the manner and appearance from Jude Law's Gigolo Joe) mimics Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the film pointing out how our everyday reality is guided by cinema or images, which is to say technology.  In 1979, watching 2001’s visual effects progeny of Alien, Star Wars, Superman, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, could we have presumed that the otherness of fabricated worlds (visual effects) would become so ubiquitous?  I believe this is something Sir Ridley is wondering about in Prometheus, his futuristic haunted house story.
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The brutal and beautiful landscapes that begin Prometheus are interrupted by the shadow of a perfect circle hovering and clashing with the wild anthropomorphic shapes we might read into the rocks and valleys.  The atmosphere is not science fiction but archaic mythology.  Instead of the flashing environs of Alien and Blade Runner, both of which carry their share of mythological reference, Scott is touching the fairy tale quality of Legend, the dark ages of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, or perhaps the ascending Renaissance of discovering new worlds in 1492: Conquest of Paradise.  Instead of the end of time, Scott takes us to a beginning. 

A monk-like figure stands by the water and unrobes himself.  With the deliberateness of a priestly ritual, he drinks something. His body contorts and then begins to fall apart, disintegrating into the water which is now soiled with his contaminated blood.  The computer generated camera eye takes us into the blood vessels, and then the DNA, the microcosm equaling the macrocosms of the geography with which the film opened.  

It’s a puzzling and maybe maddening introduction for a picture people have been waiting some time for, its reversal of Alien’s silences indeed deliberate.  The blue humanoid creature of pure muscle, a demigod, looks like the construction of computer generation: a perfect creature engineered by filmmakers and graphic artists, who in the context of this story is the engineer for our species and intelligence.  It is a humanoid version of Kubrick’s benevolent, mysterious monolith from 2001, the guide for humankind’s evolution four million years ago.  But there is a strychnine, hopeless edge to Scott’s vision of the alternating eons, in contrast to Kubrick’s detached and sublime enigma that culminated in the famous “Star-Child” looking back at us.   Scott is making a commentary on his medium of filmmaking, and his flirtation with abstraction – like Kubrick and later Terrence Malick – might ensure Prometheus’s fate as a disappointment that fails to catch fire with fans; unlike Kubrick or Malick, Scott steers headway back into his over-plotted narrative at the end, concretizing his abstractions to the point of irritation.  Plot gets in the way of poetry.

--At least in relation to existential questions (faith and science; beginning and end; human and alien; human and god).  Prometheus works as a meta dialogue:  a science fiction special effects film working against its predecessors in its bid to enter the canon – Kubrick, Cameron’s Avatar, and Scott’s own Alien and Blade Runner.  In the film’s present, 2089, we see archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Green) exploring 35,000-year-old cave drawings in Scotland – setting the narrative in motion as other cave drawings reveal how our ancestors are pointing to a cosmic map, “an invitation” to meet our makers when the technology is ready.  These drawings might make us think of Werner Herzog’s observations in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where the renderings of animals under flickering fire suggest animation.  For Herzog, the caves are the most primitive form of cinema, as lifeless creations are given a soul (“animism”) complementing the dreams and craft of their makers, the artisans. 

Four years later, the spaceship Prometheus, named for the fire thieving demigod who was punished for aiding humankind, is preparing to encounter the destination pinpointed on the ancient star-map.  The passengers, including Shaw and Holloway, are hibernating.  David oversees day-to-day operations, his curiosity leading him to explore all facets of human knowledge and language, being tutored by holograms.  In his spare moments, he not only appreciates Lawrence of Arabia but also the digitized memories of Prometheus’ passengers.  

In other words, our memories are cinema. And now, pixelated as they are, they are digital.  Cinema is digital; so is Alien, on DVD/Blu-Ray or as a big budget 3D prequel.  The masterful design of the ship by production designer Arthur Max, alongside Scott’s perfect orchestration of images, immerses us in a sense of complete hyperreality, of screened images and holograms displacing and dismantling our definition of “reality,” or hard-space and memory storage.  In an information age, our memories are not private.  Like on Facebook, Elizabeth Shaw’s remembrances of her late missionary father (Patrick Wilson) are accessible to anyone, and as David watches, Shaw’s memories are colored with quick dissolves to images related to what is spoken about: the memory is even edited like a movie.  The videoscopic theme finds interesting, if purely coincidental, reference in the casting of Prometheus' chief medic, played by Kate Dickie, who portrayed the CCTV surveillance woman in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 noir  masterpiece Red Road, manning government cameras that flirt with the private lives of citizens.


The illusions/images so dictate our framing of the “Real.”  In Shaw’s memory, her father’s sense of heaven and God are sculpted by what he “chooses to believe.”  He knows that there are alternative images of God and the afterlife, but he has selected the image that fits him – a Christian one.  The android looks to Lawrence of Arabia and sees his double in T.E. Lawrence, who runs his fingers through flames, even decisively coloring his hair to match Peter O'Toole.  “The trick is not minding that it hurts,” David repeats Lawrence's line in reference to putting finger to flame. The truth, which in Scott’s universe may be unbearably cthonian, brutal, monstrous, parasitical, etc, is deflected by the images we hold up as sacred: Christ’s passion, or a David Lean epic.  The movies won’t save us any more than Jesus Christ will (and Shaw’s father would die from the same Ebola that ravaged the people to whom he preached), but we absurdly choose to believe them anyway.  The illusions point to a desire to transcend what Lawrence calls “only flesh and blood.”  The movies are escaping from meat-space, much like the ascetic and gnostic believer or Platonist seeks another world.

The digital immersion of easily accessible “worlds” weaved by technological wizardry (which have long replaced special effects “trickery” – a theme pertinent to Ridley Scott enthusiast Christopher Nolan and his Prestige) unlocks convenient treasures and marvels, but also steals away our sense of time, holding the immediate problems at bay: family, death, and hideous monsters that want to eat you.  Two conflicting forces on the ship are the Weyland Industries steely corporate head, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), at times more robotic in her disposition than David, and the captain, Janek (Idris Alba), an earthy, well-humored practical skipper who doesn’t have any illusions.  Vickers spends most of her time in a special module (described as a “lifeboat”), with a manufactured environment, a “separate world” of walls that have earth-set frontiers displayed. She can be psychologically buffered from her present environment.  She exists out of time, helpful given a troubled relationship to her past (Peter Weyland is her father, and apparently not a good one, preferring the android David).  Janek comes out of hibernation and sets up a Christmas tree, because the crew needs a holiday “to show time is still moving.”  It’s Janek who inquires if Vickers is an android (something about which I wondered throughout the film’s first half), while also insinuating that perhaps the two of them should have sex.  Her attitude to sexuality is very automatic: she gives him a specific time and place, without the slightest hint of carnal expectation or appetite. 

David is seen as something present purely for utilitarian purposes.  For the crew, or even his maker Weyland, he has no soul.  These are the stakes of technological progress and ingenuity aligning the corporation to Hollywood: Weyland Industries is, according to its slogan, “building better worlds,” and even building better people (special makeup effects - and not CGI - creates the humanoid that begins Prometheus; Weyland gives the android David). The "ghost world" of hyperreality and simulation is on equal footing with the real world.  This idea is conveyed when the crew finally sits down and evaluates their mission.  They are guided by a hologram of Weyland (Guy Pearce), who interacts with his viewers as if he was actually there, introducing them.  Weyland is, apparently, dead, and so Holloway says after being introduced by the hologram, “I never had to follow a ghost before.”  

This dialogue goes beyond Weyland’s death and touches concepts of the hyperreal and digital, where everything is “ghostly” in its screened rendering: what’s not alive is increasingly encroaching on real spectators, something reinforced by 3D cinema.  Later on, the Prometheus astronauts and archeologists will explore the caves – or tombs – of the alien planet, and be startled by holograms of the long-dead hosts running through them: a memory caught on “film,” awaiting interpretation and anticipating bad things to come, much as our memories of 1979’s Alien, built into our cinematic memory as we walk into the theater to see Prometheus, make us anxious for what Ridley Scott has in store this time (and, like the Prometheus passengers, many viewers have been disappointed by what they’ve seen).  The real world is "manufacturing" air.  The "organic" nature of things is discounted, and so the film's two first casualties are the men fascinated by real and organic matter, the geologist and the biologist. 


The machine, David, grapples reality and emotions better than we can, again taking Lawrence as his model.  The machine is creative, while people, domineered by the corporate Weyland structure that renders everything holographic in “building better worlds,” are stuck playing a zero-sum game. The scientists, Vickers reminds Shaw and Holloway, are now merely employees.  We notice how the most interesting of camera POVs in the caves is taken from David’s vision.  He is the one most insistent on seeing things.  The machine sees all, and everything in this brave new universe is mapped out (by “pups” that traverse through the alien corridors, recording space), while Janek and his first mates watch a myriad of screens like a captivated audience. David is the most captive of viewers, sitting himself down in the central alien module and watching a hologram recording from two thousand years ago, our extraterrestrial “engineers” readying something before their stock of WMDs gets out of hand and destroys them, followed by a magnificent interactive display of the galaxy, communicating the intentions of the Engineers for the planet Earth.

David also has the agency to create links between his existence and what he sees in films like Lawrence of Arabia – though his words (“There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing”) are not quotes of O’Toole’s Lawrence, but reference the keen observations of the “Other,” the Arab Prince Feisal who admonishes Lawrence for thinking so simplistically about the desert-dwelling Arabs, just as the Prometheus crew overlooks the possible feelings and motives of an android (or the similarly desert-dwelling aliens).  The full context drawn from the film that David describes as a favorite focuses on Lawrence voicing his loyalty to the English and to the Arabs.  “You are an Englishman,” Feisal says. “Are you not loyal to England?”  “To England and to other things,” Lawrence answers.  “To England and to Arabia both?” Feisal responds. “And is that possible? I think you are another of these desert-loving English. Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There's nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with? Because we are little people; a silly people; greedy, and barbarous, and cruel.”  Perhaps David senses a futility in the Prometheus mission, which is, we come to understand, a mission for the fountain of youth, eternal life (another interesting coincidence is how Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, from which the spaceship in Alien gets its name, was to be David Lean's follow-up to A Passage to India, until he fell sick and died in 1989). It is the enthusiasm that colonialists have for discovering new worlds, not realizing the problems that will ensue with indiginous populations. Lawrence doesn’t understand the Arabs, just as the crew doesn’t understand the Engineers, or how the Engineers possibly don’t understand the humans, or how the humans don’t understand what they’ve created with David.  As with T.E. Lawrence, what the characters find in the desert drives them mad, tearing the veneer of stability away.   

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Kubrick’s ghost of 2001 (and The Shining) haunts Prometheus from its first image to its last.  Scott opens with the camera overlooking a planet silhouetted by a sun, recalling 2001’s symmetrical row of spheres; the beauty of this introduction, further evoked in a friendly epic score complementing the planet's terrain, is juxtaposed against the ending.  Whereas Kubrick’s use of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra suggests symmetry and an order, one step in evolution connected to the next, Prometheus isn’t about “straight” lines (Kubrick's alignment of planets) but how nature is cruel, hungry, and carnal; the feeling of two parasitical attacks suggest forced oral sex with either gender: a python creature (whose appearance first is strongly vaginal) rams itself into an entranced biologist’s mouth, eating him from the inside; a resurrected Golem-like Engineer alien is forced by a tentacled beast to have its face rammed into a toothy vaginal mouth (an almost hilarious channeling of a male fear of cunnilingus).  Sex (creation) is messy in the Alien universe, and Scott’s lush beginning is greeted with the antithesis of Kubrick’s Star Child at the end – the familiar, H.R. Giger-designed alien, newly hatched; not a new creation of infinite possibilities, but a harbinger of pure destruction, consumption, rape, hatching, and blind parasitical infestation. 


Is the marvelous technology displayed in Prometheus also a warning? Scott, like other filmmakers (Scorsese, Mann, Wenders, Bertolucci, and of course Cameron), beams positively about 3D, but the captain (director) of the ship is overridden by the automatic drive for profit that motivates Miss Vickers.  Why did humankind make androids, and why do filmmakers use 3D or computer generated imagery?  Because we can, as Holloway says to David after the android inquires why humans made him. This is the fear of 3D and digital filmmaking: the raptors from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park have gotten out of hand, and eaten all the real people (and places) in the park.  The holograms are running the show.

Meanwhile, the convenience of streaming with images of convenience displayed at the viewer’s call, as in Vickers’ “lifeboat” module, keeps us away from any historical link to the past. David is enthralled by memories and old images, while Janek, the most human of the crew’s passengers, appreciates the symbolism of a Christmas tree and a musical instrument once owned by Stephen Stills.  He is able to see the big picture, unlike Vickers (who hopelessly grapples for life until the future quite literally descends and crushes her in the form of a spaceship).  He altruistically flies the Prometheus into the spacecraft heading to earth for a biochemical attack, a moment in Prometheus that is a little hard for an audience to accept.

Yet the act of altruism chimes in with the key motif of the film--which clueless high-minded viewers seem to recklessly overlook, making themselves look much like the hubris-laden scientists in the story. The gaps in logic in Prometheus are there for a reason, and though we love to think progress is inevitable, the film shows how this isn't so: people still absurdly follow religion. They altruistically give themselves up without much thought (for one thing, think of suicide bombers). The geologist gets lost. The biologist is playful with an malevolent looking creature. The most enlightened people engage in unprotected sex (here after they've been in the presence of alien bacteria), just as intelligent educators and politicians are lured into hopeless sexual indiscretions (Anthony Weiner). At the conclusion of the film, there is an act of forgiveness between two characters -- something which critics have also poked fun at, but isn't forgiveness the cornerstone of Christian theology and, as Freud pointed out, isn't forgiveness simply absurd? It doesn't make any sense. This is what Prometheus is about, and it's a little maddening to see how it's ten steps ahead of the smug condescension  of its critics (and I say this as someone who's still on the fence about the movie as a whole). 


History stalks the tightly-enclosed lifeboat modules of the present moment. It’s another clever twist then that Scott alludes to The Shining, as his film is also a “haunted house” story.  In the final paces of Prometheus, Shaw has her axe in hand (like Jack Torrence, though acting more like Wendy Torrence), and nervously walks through the Vickers module with its stately music (I think I heard the melody to “Put on a Happy Face”) and d├ęcor, evoking the gala ball occurring at Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel.  Like Vickers, Jack Torrence wants to exist in his own little world (the Overlook), safe from the outside world’s intrusions or family responsibilities.  The way that David watches Lawrence of Arabia shows that art – images – may keep history alive for us, an idea further reinforced when the two unfortunate scientists – the geologist and the biologist – come upon a heap of Engineer corpses and compare the site to a “Holocaust painting.”

The contagion of technology alters vision and how we process images.  After David has malevolently poisoned Holloway with the alien bacteria, the archeologist perceives the contaminants moving in his eyeballs.  Afterwards, Holloway collapses in the haunted corridors and repeatedly demands Shaw tell him what she sees in his face.  Back on the ship, Shaw – impregnated by Holloway’s “disease” from a sexual encounter 10 hours before – wants David to let her see what is rapidly growing inside of her.  Scott will soon challenge our capacity for “seeing” with the next scene, a stunning and grotesque caesarian-section in a robotic surgery pod.  Creation – of which the infertile Shaw mourns that she cannot contribute – is colored as something vile and fearful.  Pulled out of her abdomen is a tentacled embryo, which will soon later be the gigantic toothy-vagina monster. It wriggles above her in the steady hands of surgical robot arms, as she is stitched up and rolls out of the pod.  

We have just seen an elaborate and horrifying sequence of unbelievable CGI ingenuity, so disgusting that we should ask ourselves if the technology was worth inventing.  It is the most memorable of virgin births, relating to how we may read a Christ allegory into the film (the Christmas tree; the fact that the Engineers on this planet were wiped out 2,000 years ago; Shaw’s barrenness making her something of a Virgin Mary; the surgery is referred to as a caesarian, and never as an “abortion”).  Prometheus prepares the way for the anti-Christ; when we look upon the Engineer mural and shrine, there is a sculpture – I think – of the familiar Giger-designed xenomorph alien: this is prophecy.  The new creation, as alien weapon or technology, is a savior, as we see David reflexively rescue Holloway and Shaw from a brutal sandstorm and in the following moments poisoning Holloway. The savior is also the destroyer.

Certainly a troubling element in Prometheus that has several viewers shaking their heads relates to the religious questions of Scott’s astronauts, when I think a great deal of Alien franchise fans probably share Janek’s disposition: he doesn’t care about the questions: they want action, not theology. It is hokey when Shaw talks about her choice to believe, or her declaration at the film’s conclusion, when her will to be absurdly curious is identified as a trait of her “human-ness."  As with visual effects and hyperreal digital worlds in cinema, there is no return to earth in Prometheus, but a constant and stubborn flight from reality.  What would the elderly Weyland, in bad movie make-up, hope that his “Engineer” tell him?  His day is at an end, and now old-age "makeup" will be the work of graphic designers.  At this juncture, who cares “why we are here”?  I feel Scott may be on to the hokey and hackneyed starry-eyed deep questions posed, as when Holloway says to Shaw, “One small step for mankind,” and she responds, “Seriously?”  There may be several clunky lines of dialogue here, but perhaps they’re appropriated from other movies and culture (much like David takes lines from Lawrence of Arabia, or colors his hair). 

Behind the debates, long-winded questions, and the theology, there is silence.  The trillionaire Weyland lies dying after his creator has struck him down and rendered him in a state of Stephen Crane-like despair.  “There’s nothing,” he says, suggesting what he senses lies on the other side of the existential door.  The android David replies, “I know.  Have a good journey, Mr. Weyland.”  Weyland's lines recall what we hear toward the end of The Wages of Fear, another classic film about an absurd journey--aspiration as nightmare. The journey is black, and after the abundance of things we've seen courtesy of Ridley Scott and his design team previously, that's sad.


Movies and religion inspire us and keep us safe from that black nothing descending on Weyland.  The viewer gazes, fascinated, and wants to see more.  The engineer, Ridley Scott, wants to create and show more.  The plot holes of Prometheus, working to mar the experience, may be remedied by the possibility of sequels: a new trilogy.  But I suspect that a divisive R-rated big budget science fiction movie, aiming high (unlike The Avengers, which gets on base by aiming low), will only be moderately successful, and so not enough of a studio priority to ensure growth for a franchise. We are left, nevertheless, with the filmmaker’s ode to seeing, which evolves with the creative/destructive tools of his craft.  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) famously says at the close of Scott's best film, Blade Runner, shortly before his imminent death.  “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”  For Scott, "Nothingness" equals a lack of vision; for as Kubrick’s Star Child turned to us with open eyes and gazed, the Giger alien bears destructive teeth but has no eyes. The best cinematic technology can open our eyes, or it can make us merely consumers with dulled vision.  Whatever its flaws, Prometheus wants our eyes to be active and to seek through its dimensions and impeccable engineering.  In its layers, I suspect, there is something worthwhile.