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Some thoughts on Prometheus

On Friday night I caught a preview of Ridley Scott’s much anticipated Prometheus, and since despite the slightly OTT security they didn’t make me sign anything agreeing to an embargo, I thought I’d record my thoughts about this flawed, frustrating but intermittently brilliant film.

The first thing to say is that you should ignore the misinformation about it not being a prequel to Alien, because it is, quite explicitly (and sometimes to its detriment). Indeed if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve probably got the basic idea: trail of archaeological clues lead humans to distant planet, hope turns to terror, horrible secrets consume them.

The film opens on a suitably epic note, with aerial images of a stark, volcanic landscape. The sense we are watching a sort of creation is powerfully evoked, partly by the stirring music, partly by the manner in which the landscape itself echoes the deep structure of biology. Eventually the camera moves in on a figure, which then casts off its cloak to reveal a figure both alien and familiar: a luminously pale, bald, over-muscled giant, who then decoheres, and is absorbed into the thundering water beside him.

In a way it’s a moment that sets the scene for all that follows, combining as it does the visual majesty and brilliance of the film as a whole and the disappointingly unadventurous set of ideas at its centre. Yet the viewer has only a few moments to think about it before the scene shifts to an archaeological dig on the Isle of Skye 70 years from now, and the discovery of what is revealed to be the latest in a series of ancient paintings depicting giant figures gesturing to a particular celestial formation, and then again to a ship en route to a moon orbiting a ringed planet around the stars shown in the painting.

It’s a narrative sequence that explicitly invokes 2001, a reference that is underlined both by the design of the ship and by the scenes of Michael Fassbender’s android character, David, moving through the empty ship, as Keir Dullea’s David Bowman and Gary Lockwood’s Frank Poole do in Kubrick’s film.

These scenes with Fassbender are masterly. As David moves restlessly through the ship, bouncing a basketball, monitoring the crew in cryostasis, studying ancient languages, we glimpse both his solitude and his slightly unsettling self-containment, a combination that is made the more disturbing by a pair of scenes in which he watches the dreams of Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist, Elizabeth Shaw and rehearses the voice of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia.

As ever Fassbender is completely magnetic. Given his capacity to project complexity and intelligence yet remain opaque, he is perfectly cast as the amoral David, yet in a way it’s his physical performance, from the oddly off-kilter squeaking of his slippers on the spaceship floor in the opening scenes (itself a playful reference to the sticky slippers of the space hostess in 2001, as well as a piece of pleasingly Kubrickian weirdness, I suspect) to the way his bleached hair and stick-insect delicacy seem to channel not just O’Toole’s Lawrence but David Bowie’s performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth that are most memorable.

Yet like much else in the film, and the brilliance of Fassbender’s performance notwithstanding, David is a creation that gestures towards greatness without ever quite achieving it. Partly that’s because despite several great scenes (one in which he asks whether the humans might be disappointed to discover their alien creators, the “Engineers”, made them for the same reason they made him – because they could – is particularly impressive) his intentions and agenda are never really clear.

But it’s also because like so much in Prometheus it’s difficult not to feel we haven’t seen this before. Despite the brilliance of Fassbender’s performance, David feels like an ambulatory reworking of HAL, or indeed any number of unreliable, out-of-control androids in fiction and film.

Archaeologists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) explore the alien installation with the android, David (Michael Fassbender).

This sense the film is reworking extant themes is partly deliberate. As the title suggests it is a film grounded in other texts, some classical, some filmic. As well as the repeated invocations of the story of Prometheus (the story of the expedition, the story of the fate of the alien Engineers, the creation of David and David’s quest for knowledge) there are references not just to Old Testament sources and other religious sources (and indeed the work of Erich von Daniken, which draws upon both), the now-extensive mythology surrounding the original Alien and its sequels and spin-offs, films such as 2001 and finally to Scott’s own oeuvre (the opening scenes of the film, together with the brooding reminders of the mystery of the afterlife seem to speak to the scenes of the wind on the wheatfields and Russell Crowe’s monologue about the same in Gladiator).

This sort of textual overdetermination is common in SF, helping underpin not just the sorts of strategies of estrangement it employs but the extremely fertile and generative ways it  relates to reality. Yet in Prometheus it often seems to do exactly the opposite, suggesting not new understandings but gesturing towards old ones, whether in the form of the repurposing of the plot of 2001 (ancient artifact, trip to stars, crazy computer, impossible secrets), or the reminders of Blade Runner, Alien and Aliens (psychopathic androids, greedy corporations etc etc). Even the soundtrack keeps sounding like it’s suddenly going to break into ‘The Flying Sequence’ from Superman: The Movie or the opening credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This is a pity because so much of the movie is so good. Not only is it visually stunning, there are moments of pure horror (the first alien death isn’t something you’ll forget in a hurry) and – perhaps more importantly – a real sense of wonder and transcendence lurking between the banal debates about faith and origins (the scene in which David watches Elizabeth’s memories of a Hindu funeral is particularly well-judged in its subtle reminder not just of fire and death, but the many-faced nature of belief). This combination of genius and muddle (and indeed the preoccupation with death and transcendence and the afterlife) is present in a lot of Scott’s films, even the more successful ones like Gladiator, but it’s particularly evident in Prometheus.

But the real problem is that the ideas at the centre of the film just don’t measure up to the filmic firepower brought to bear on them. It’s not just that many of them aren’t very well-developed (I was fascinated by the suggestion all human languages were rooted in an alien tongue we could track back to, for instance). Or even that when you think about it the plot doesn’t make much sense: (comments invisotexted to hide spoilers – just highlight to read) why did the Engineers build the Aliens? To destroy us? But if they’d created us surely there were easier and safer ways of doing that? And why point us to the moon in the film if they only meant to destroy us? And more importantly, if the facility on the moon was destroyed 2,000 years ago, why are they pointing to it in 35,000 year-old paintings? Surely it didn’t take the Engineers 33,000 years to create the Aliens? Instead it’s that the set of questions the film is investigating are so utterly banal. 

It’s a problem that’s obvious in the whole conception of the Engineers and our reaction to them. We’re told several times over the quest to find them is about understanding where we came from. But is that really the most interesting thing about discovering we are the products of an alien genesis? The film might be making a point about human solipsism here, but surely the most important thing about aliens is that they’re, well, alien? Isn’t contact with another species a more important and transformative possibility than discovering we are their progeny?

More deeply though, the alien Engineers aren’t very alien. Some of their tech is incredible – the navigation device David triggers in the starship is a remarkable creation – but there’s something both banal and slightly dispiriting about the fact the Engineers, once we see them, are basically large, over-muscled soldiers of some kind.

I assume this is partly about reinforcing the notion that they’re Titans in a Promethean sense (presumably the presence of Saturnian rings around the planet the moon orbits is meant to reinforce this as well), as well as some kind of Old Testament, Giants in the Earth kind of thing, but it also reveals a real paucity of imagination.

In a way this isn’t surprising to me, especially given the film was written by Damon Lindelof. Lindelof – who together with J.J. Abrams created Lost and helped produce Star Trek – is one of the wunderkind of contemporary Hollywood, not least because he’s revealed over and over again he, like Abrams, has a real knack for creating the sort of mind-bending situations that made Lost so tantalising, at least in its early stages.

I think it’s fair to say Lindelof, like Abrams, is an artist of the ephemeral. His worlds are ungrounded and ultimately meaningless because they don’t seem to connect with deeper images and archetypes. It’s a problem that’s very apparent in Lost, although perhaps more obviously in a film like Star Trek, in which an entire planet is destroyed and it barely resonates, either with the characters or the audience, but it’s also very evident when one compares a show like Fringe to The X-Files and sees the way the latter drew so much of its power from its capacity to tap into deep anxieties about surveillance and the uncanny. Time and again, in both Lindelof and Abrams’ films and shows, we see worlds that are constructed out of secondary sources, geektastic assemblages of gimmicks and references to other films that never exceed their source material (Cloverfield Super 8, a film that is designed not just to mimic the plots but the look and feel of E.T. and Close Encounters is particularly guilty on this score).

Equally important is the fact that Lindelof is much better at creating situations than resolving them. Almost every show he’s been involved with, from Lost to Once Upon a Time, has a brilliant set-up that is gradually revealed to be considerably less interesting than it promised to be (I’d exempt the unfairly-maligned and rather brilliant Cowboys and Aliens from this argument).

I’ve written before about this problem, which is at least partly a function of the way conventional narratives demand resolutions that are at odds with the possibilities they create, something that’s very true with Prometheus. Here the problem is compounded by the need to connect the film to the original Alien (and set up a new franchise) and the manner in which that connection’s explicitness undermines the film’s resolution by locking it into a plot-driven resolution. But it’s also a function of the film’s inability to find a deep, archetypal foundation for the sorts of questions it wants to explore.

This isn’t a problem for Prometheus alone. American film and television seems increasingly to fall back on asinine arguments about faith and belief when confronted with big ideas. “It’s what I choose to believe” the characters in Prometheus say more than once, as if this somehow answers any challenge to their beliefs, or is a meaningful answer to the somewhat sizeable question of what happens to us after death. But quite aside from the question of whether any scientist worth their salt would say something so stupid, this sort of declaration reveals the inanity of the sort of faith-based solutions being proposed. Belief isn’t enough on its own, and neither are the unanchored ideas of spirituality that recur in American film and television.

I suspect this inanity is partly about the manner in which consumer capitalism has decoupled culture and traditional religion. Despite its religiosity American culture has largely given away the symbols and narratives that underpin traditional religion. This might seem an odd thing to say given the rise in fundamentalism, but in fact the two aren’t incompatible: what matters isn’t the narratives but belief, not just in God but in America. A threat to one becomes a threat to the other.

The culture of Hollywood may be less religiose, but in many ways it’s part of the same phenomenon. Severed from the traditional narratives of religion, writers and filmmakers fall back on the inane language of personal growth and faith, a language and discourse that is incapable of plumbing deep because it’s essentially ungrounded. In place of the deep symbols of religion we have exhortations to belief and faith, as if these were ends in themselves.

It’s not helped by the weight of expectation and marketing behind Prometheus. I sometimes think there’s an argument to be made that SF, especially on film, works better when it’s essentially subversive: certainly films like Alien work at least partly because they’re so unexpected, a quality that is much rarer in the lumbering, carefully calibrated studio SF produced by contemporary Hollywood.

But either way it’s difficult to escape the feeling that unlike a film like Alien (or indeed Aliens) which remains fresh today at least partly because it’s so spare and direct and uncalculated, Prometheus pretends to a significance it doesn’t possess. Not just because when you strip away the brilliance of the craft and visual imagination that’s been brought to bear on it the ideas are, frankly, a bit naff, but because it’s so obviously a vehicle designed to set up a sequel, and to connect to the existing films. In doing this it certainly doesn’t damage the originals in the way George Lucas’ horrible and horribly misjudged Star Wars prequels did, but it does make the viewer uncomfortably aware that what they’re watching isn’t really a work of the imagination but the central plank in a vast marketing machine, and, because of that, essentially hollow.

Light

Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.

There’s a short interview with Parker at The Atlantic.

The Hobbit

The trailer for The Hobbit has been released …

Two of the most extraordinary things you’ll see this week

I’ve not seen Oceans, the most recent documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the creators of Travelling Birds, but after seeing the two videos below I think I need to. The first is of sleeping whales, and is just luminously beautiful, while the second is of one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Blanket Octopus (while we’re on the subject of octopi, you might also want to check out Sy Montgomery’s fabulous piece about octopi in Orion).

And in case it’s driving you crazy, that very sexy voice you can hear is Pierce Brosnan’s.

Thanks to io9 for the heads-up.

 

 

Face Off: Breaking Bad and the liberating power of violence

As I’m sure many of you did, I spent yesterday evening watching the season finale of Breaking Bad. As season finales go it was one of the great ones, not least because it managed the often difficult trick of concluding a long and suspenseful narrative arc without either seeming too neat and convenient or fumbling the ball at the last moment. But it also contains one of the most gruesome – and the most exhilarating – scenes I’ve seen on television in a long while.

What follows is going to be at least technically spoiler-free, since I’m not going to describe the scene, but if you’d like to go into the episode completely free of information you should look away. But basically it’s a moment of sudden and surprising violence involving one of the central characters.

The scene was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One was how brilliantly orchestrated it was. Despite all the scheming and mind games part of the strength of this season of Breaking Bad has been the growing sense of chaos surrounding Walt, and the manner in which his actions have disrupted the operations not just of his family but Gus and the cartels in increasingly dangerous and unpredictable ways. Certainly it’s been difficult not to be aware of the steady escalation of the risk to Gus and his operations as the DEA (or at least Hank) gradually became aware of the possibility that Gus might not be quite what he seems to be.  Yet as the final episode revealed, the season has also been incredibly tightly plotted, not just in the narrow sense of Walt having a plan, but in the larger, narrative sense of tracing out arcs and story lines that converge in a manner that’s both inevitable and surprising (to borrow Cocteau’s formulation).

But what also struck me was the sheer delight of the moment I’m talking about. When it came I quite literally jumped in the air and cried out, not once but twice. And despite the absolute horror of what had happened my reaction wasn’t disgust, it was exultation.

It’s a reaction you only normally get in dramatic forms like film, television and theatre (although there’s a scene in Deborah Moggach’s novel, Tulip Fever, which tends to generate the same response). There are several such moments in The Sopranos (Tony picking the tooth out of the cuff of his pants while talking to AJ’s psychiatrist, Paulie’s mother’s friend catching Paulie in her house, Ralphie’s head falling out of his toupee), but there’s also the lawnmower scene in Mad Men and any number of such scenes on film (oddly the one that come to mind immediately is the moment the shark grabs Samuel L. Jackson in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, but there’s also the much-imitated scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy shoots the swordsman by the plane).

What’s fascinating about all of them is that they’re moments in which the violence or grostesquerie comes as a surprise, and is often designed to elicit something like humour. Yet the sort of surprise they depend upon is often one that goes beyond the surprise that comes with the revelation of something unexpected: instead it’s the sort of surprise that subverts our expectations about the conventions of the genre. We don’t expect that shark to grab Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea because he’s in the middle of giving the big “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech every action movie needs (and the fact Jackson is a big star and a major character). Likewise the lawnmower scene in Mad Men doesn’t just involve the eruption of violence in a show that’s largely about the workplace, it involves the maiming of a character we’ve been led to believe will be significant. And while the scenes in The Sopranos are less overtly subversive, they exist within the framework of a show which often used violence to remind us of the randomness and chaos of the world as a whole.

But they’re also fascinating because they’re not just about doing unexpected or unpredictable things. Just maiming people at random simply doesn’t work as storytelling, however subversive it might seem. Whether it’s the scene from last night’s Breaking Bad or the shark chomping on Samuel L. Jackson, such scenes tend to jolt our expectations and assumptions within the narrative as well, by revealing the plot is not quite (or not at all) what we’d been assuming.

It’s this part of the process that’s particularly tricky. The director of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh, is also a playwright, and the author of a series of remarkable (and remarkably violent) plays which depend at least in part upon eruptions of violence that are at once shocking and hilarious. Of these the second in his Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara, is particularly interesting. The plot centres on a gravedigger charged with clearing out an overcrowded graveyard, and involves a subplot about his murdered wife, although as becomes clear later on, none of this is really the point. Instead the point is the bones – and more particularly the skulls – the gravedigger keeps accumulating, and the question of what is to be done with them, a question that’s answered very graphically towards the end of the play when, in an explosion of violence, the gravedigger begins to smash the skulls to pieces with a mallet.

It’s an extraordinary scene, and an incredibly liberating and exhilarating one. The sheer anarchy and release of it is hard to describe. But part of what makes it so exhilarating is precisely that sense of release, of knowing, at some intuitive level, that whatever you may have assumed this moment was the point all along.

The scene in last night’s Breaking Bad shares this quality, because it’s also the moment you realise things have not been what you’d assumed. Yet by releasing the tension that’s built up over so many episodes in such an unexpected way, it transforms something that should be horrible into something that’s exciting and even grotesquely funny. Anthropologists talk about liminal moments, points in time when the assumptions that govern our interactions are suspended, and we enter a state of possibility, and change, and I suspect that beneath the gruesomeness there’s an element of that at play in these moments too, a sense in which the ordinary rules are suspended, and we glimpse something of the possibility of change and transformation that is embedded in the heart of all narrative. And, paradoxically, where our extremely sophisticated awareness of the cultural conventions of genre and narrative (because without that awareness the subversion couldn’t work) also makes it possible for us to encounter the most uncritical feelings of wonder and release that narrative depends upon.

(Diehard Breaking Bad fans might like to check out the first part of AV Club’s four part interview with the show’s show runner, Vince Gilligan)

The Rules of Genre

Apologies for the late notice, but if you’re a NSW Writers’ Centre member, you’re in Sydney and you’re at a loose end tonight, you could do a lot worse than heading out to the NSW Writer’s Centre for tonight’s Writing Genre: is it all about the rules? which features Margo Lanagan, P.M. Newton and myself kicking the genre can around. The event is members only (though I’m not going to claim to know how rigorously that rule is enforced) and bookings can be made by emailing the Centre.

New Richmond Fontaine!

The new Richmond Fontaine album, The High Country (which interestingly seems to be a single narrative, thus further closing the gap between Willy Vlautin’s songs and his fiction) is due out in September, but in the meantime, live versions of two of the tracks have popped up, together with the news Willy’s first novel, The Motel Life, has just been turned into a motion picture directed by the Polsky Brothers and starring Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson.

Thanks to Jane Palfreyman for the heads-up.