Friday, August 31, 2012

Appraising, Spoiling, and Playing with: “Prometheus” (2012)

This is one of those films in the vein of “2001” or even “Tree of Life.” Those highly symbolic, almost poetic metaphorical tales that may or may not have a cohesive message, but lending themselves to many an interpretation. Of course, in the examples above, the former is a bit more “Emperor’s New Clothes,” so not every one of these types of films is smart, they just enable some critics to pretend to be and dare the rest of us to challenge.

In the case of “Prometheus” there is a bit more plot than poetry, but the real takeaway is not the story. The visuals, the atmosphere, and the dread all linger more than the characters or what happens. Since this is something resembling an “Alien” prequel that is appropriate to a degree; but that film also had a new story to tell. This one feels like a bit of a retread.

Not that there is not an intension on the part of the filmmakers here. They seem to want to say something about the whole “Aliens had a hand in intelligent design” theory; they just don’t come across as though they know what it is that they want to say.

As long as we are saying that these films can be played with, here is an interpretation to try on for size:

This is a story about the new, postmodern Scientism that knows it can’t grasp or understand everything and that a lot of what it “knows” is based on belief. Consider the conversation at the start of the mission between our “heroes” and the crew:

Geologist: So you're saying we're here because of a map you two kids found in a cave, is that right?

Elizabeth Shaw: No. Not a map. An invitation.

Geologist: From whom?

Elizabeth Shaw: We call them Engineers.

Geologist: Engineers? Do you mind um...telling us what they engineered?

Elizabeth Shaw: They engineered us.

Biologist: Okay, so uh...do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look, if you're willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that's...whoo! But how do you know? Hmmm?

Elizabeth Shaw: I don't. But it's what I choose to believe.

Great, right? Science has its limitations. We can’t understand everything we see. We need answers and the obvious source of answers in such a well designed universe should be available from the designer.

The only problem is the universe of this story has no designer, or at least the aliens that our crew has discovered are not them. They never find confirmation for their theory, or those facts that they do find do not have enough context for an accurate interpretation. That the “Engineers” end up having the same DNA does not imply creation but rather relation.

(And for those who point to the opening pre-credit scene as proof of Elizabeth’s faith are (1) forcing literalism onto a highly symbolic opening and (2) assuming one interpretation of that symbolic opening. In fact, in the third act of the film we never confirm humanity’s creation, but rather that the aliens are indeed out to destroy their sibling species. That is hardly confirmation of the hypothesis Elizabeth believes in.)

It is significant that Elizabeth is the one who stays true to the faith, even as that faith is constantly challenged and even disproven by facts, because she is the one who survives. Her faith has been shaken, but she holds to it and sets out on a new quest which is likely to be a repeat of the trip she just lived through.

To the filmmakers, and this viewpoint in general, the reality of a belief—the object of faith—is irrelevant, belief itself is a power. Belief is the goal. In this postmodern confusion, as long as you believe genuinely, you will succeed. You could believe that chocolate chips are the cure for cancer—and be proven wrong—but as long as you truly believe it will be “true” for you.

The problem with this sort of belief is that it is consistently revealed to be arbitrary and based upon suppositions about observations. There is no revelation. No outside voice to provide statements to be accepted. It only exists in narratives, and only then in narratives where the author is as arbitrary and inconsistent as the internal logic of the worlds they create.

Thankfully, reality does not appear to be governed by such a capricious God. (Incidentally, that is what makes real science—the kind based on observation and facts—plausible for knowing certain things about this universe.)

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