Scott’s Prometheus

Warning: So-called plot spoilers lie ahead. Why knowing the ending of novels and movies upsets people or diminishes their enjoyment of the book/movie makes little sense to me—a good novel or movie rewards the time invested in it with far more than a plot. If plot is all you’re after, I’m sure more entertaining ones are to be had by eavesdropping on the conversations of mildly drunk people at bars.

Most critics and reviewers seems confused by Scott’s Prometheus (2012). Some think it is about intelligent design or panspermia. Neither one of those has more to recommend it than the other. As others have pointed out, the movie, if anything, is more about the various creation myths—of dying gods begetting life—humans have told themselves for millennia than ID or panspermia. Both of those explanations are too convenient and too narrative for a movie that seems not to really need its plot (which is not a bad thing). Adherents of ID simply disguise the Judeo-Christian god as an anonymous designer (or perhaps engineer) who curated life. Actual scientists—as we understand the term in English and among whom I would not count two of ID’s main proponents, law professor Phillip E. Johnson, and mathematician William Dembski—understand that ID is teleological, theological reasoning masquerading as science, and conservative Republican Judge John E. Jones III agreed when he ruled against teaching ID to students in the Dover Area School District in 2005.

Indeed, the only so-called true believer is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who assumes (i.e., believes) the creatures she dubs “Engineers” started life on Earth and then left invitations in the form of star charts, so that wee humans could find their home world. She readily admits they’re not the Creator, but they are a good step along the journey to find him/her/it, for she constantly replies to skeptical crew mates that someone/something must have created the Engineers. The irony that a believer needs proof and would indeed trek light years from Earth to find proof of what she ardently believes is just one subtly reminder the movie gives us that faith is not its the main concern. Indeed, Prometheus constantly undercuts this saccharine belief in a chain of being by having Shaw answer her skeptics with the paradoxical phrase “That is what I choose to believe.” The phrase isn’t even hers and comes into the movie before she even regains consciousness. The android David (Michael Fassbender) views Shaw’s dreams of childhood much as we are viewing Prometheus (except that the neural link’s pixel resolution isn’t as good). Shaw as a child asks her father why he believes Paradise is pleasant and joyful, and he platitudinously responds “That is what I choose to believe.” Shaw simply repeats her dead father much in the same the movie will repeat in innumerable theaters the actors movements and digitally constructed landscapes. Unlike the technical media in the theater, however, humans tend not to repeat and remember things with great fidelity. Choices, especially human ones, tend to be wrong, so we shouldn’t be surprised that by the end of the movie, Shaw is groaning “We were so wrong!”

The movie plays with this tendency to choose the wrong interpretation and to justify it either with belief or tenuous logic, neither of which dissolve until actuality hits you—or, in this case, the benevolent creator Engineer rips off your head and prepares to douse Earth with a black ooze that transforms humanoid life into a certain, destructive monster from the 1970s. “What did we do?” laments Shaw standing before the Engineer. Her question is ridiculous (or as David’s head tell her “irrelevant”), doesn’t have an answer, and isn’t really what the movie cares about. It’s just as hubristic a question as Shaw’s and Hollway’s (her lover/husband who has the distinction of being equally grating while sober and intoxicated—fortunately Vickers torches him to death) desire to understand why the so-called Engineers created human life. The question supposes that these aliens followed some grand purpose in creating human beings; perhaps they were religious fanatics whose suicidal creation rituals made as much logical sense as fundamentalist Christians who believe in the supposedly literal interpretation of the Bible while consuming their masses via iPads. Just before infecting Holloway with the black ooze, David teases out the other, less grand, possibility when he asks Holloway why humanity created him. Holloway’s response: “Because we could.”

This interpretative ambivalence has been present for most of the movie. Anyone familiar with reading and producing written and printed texts should be painfully familiar with this interpretative dilemma—what exactly does a particular word or phrase mean? That problem of interpretation emerges at the movie’s very beginning as the viewer tries to decide if the mostly barren world on which the alabaster Engineer dissolves himself is primordial Earth or some other planet. The problem begins in the movie’s story world when Dr. Shaw and Holloway stand before the Prometheus’ crew and cannot agree on what the astronomical configuration reproduced on various ancient artifacts means—Shaw sees an invitation (how upbeat of her) but Holloway more skeptically calls it a map. Peter Weyland (the capitalist monarch and expedition bankroller) doesn’t care—he just wants eternal life. If Prometheus doesn’t provide some of its critics with sufficient answers to the supposedly deep questions it raises, it’s because those questions are now absurd, and because the movie ultimately does not need them to be great.

They are absurd not because they are not excellent questions, but because they are the questions that solitary writers and readers ask themselves as they sit by themselves and contemplate the text they are writing (typing) or reading. Such questions have little import for a movie produced by two script writers, even more camera operators, cinematographers, visual effects artists (i.e., computer programmers), and a director. Nor do those questions motivate the captive audience sitting silently and watching the action projected on the screen. Indeed, all the critics agree that the film is visually stunning, that it grips the viewer, and that it creates, so to type, an impression, even if those critics cannot agree on the plot’s logical coherence and whether it adequately addresses the profound questions it announces. Why should we expect such coherence from a movie? It is not a carefully laid out philosophical text that can juxtapose points and counterpoints. The movie is an immersive experience with all the careful crafting done with the help of computers and other technical media. Logic is not what it strives for.

In fact, Prometheus sketches an alternative creation—the making of a new world from digitally manipulated bits of information. It is less the word made flesh than the flesh made information. I’ve deliberately avoided calling Prometheus a film for that very reason. It is not just a film—a strip of celluloid run through a projector—but rather a digital simulation that was likely never recorded on any medium resembling film. Perhaps some cinemas show it by feeding a strip of still images through a projector apparatus, but that film isn’t celluloid (i.e., based on cellulose), it’s polyester (and therefore completely synthetic). Indeed, most film stock for theatrical showings and storage have been polyester based since the late 1990s. I suspect most cinemas show Prometheus by plugging an hard drive containing an encrypted Digital Cinema Package into a digital projector. Let there be digitally encoded photons, indeed.

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