Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Last Picture Show

I saw Prometheus again earlier this week. I was again impressed and came out of the screening with an even deeper appreciation for the movie and the ideas on display. And again, I was also profoundly disappointed by the tepid reaction to the film. Having seen the film twice now, having spent a great deal of time thinking about and defending the movie for two weeks, I have to say that the vociferous negative reactions I have seen across the internet are simply beyond my comprehension. But it's more than just the fact that I like something that a large percentage of the audience seems to dislike - it's that they are extremely vocal about their dislike. Something about the movie just rubs people - many people - the wrong way, and I don't just mean a little bit, I mean a lot. Furthermore, the antipathy towards the film has even spilled out into strange political dimensions that I can't even begin to fathom.

It's like the film is sounding out dog-whistle noises that only a certain percentage of the audience can hear. Anyone whose ears can pick up the noise are driven barking mad, while those who can't are left scratching their heads as to just how the film could possibly elicit such a strong negative reaction.

I'm not about to say that the film is perfect. There are a number of problems with the film, but to my mind they're small problems, hardly deal-breakers. But for the most part the criticisms I see leveled at the films aren't really reasonable criticisms - they're criticisms that require a fairly strong act of bad faith in order to muster. Most of these nerdish critiques seem predicated on a willful inability to suspend disbelief, and require either a shockingly literal ability to ignore subtext and implication, or an even more shocking ability to ignore / discard explicitly stated plot points. As in, many common critiques are based not on problems with the movie itself but the fact that some viewers don't believe the movie, or choose to ignore the movie when it says something that explains whatever lapse in narrative they think they've spotted. (For instance: the reason why the geologist and the biologist can become lost in the pyramid is that the storm is messing with their instruments, the same reason why they can't stay in contact with the ship. This is explicitly stated in the film and yet consistently ignored.)

This is one of the more egregious examples of nerd-herd mentality I've seen in quite some time. The problem is that nerds - and I use this term in a very literal sense, the people who have been consuming these stories for their whole lives and have become de facto experts in genre fiction - have literally seen it all. Chances are that they've not just seen all the Alien films but they've seen every other science-fiction film made in the last four or five decades, read the books, played the video games - have all the ins-and-outs of the genre committed to heart. So they go into a movie like Prometheus with expectations, and therefore will base their enjoyment on the movie less on the actual quality of the movie, but its ability to simultaneously meet and fail to meet the expectations of its genre, in addition to the expectations leveled upon specific creators. When you're dealing with an audience of fans who are hyper-literate in your genre - perhaps even better versed in these stories than yourself -  the expectation that every new story will completely remake the wheel can be crippling.

For instance: there's been a lot of flack thrown in the direction of Damon Lindelof over perceived problems with the script and story. A lot of this appears to be a hangover from the generally poisonous reaction to the last season of Lost. I've never seen Lost - it never interested me during its run, and the negative reaction to the finale cemented my general disinterest - so I'm as close to being completely agnostic towards the man as possible. But what appears to have happened here is that a number of people who still resent Lindelof for Lost went into Prometheus with a huge chip on their shoulder already, willing and able to read their prejudices against the man against the film even when the text doesn't really support their reading. The moment they saw a character holding a cross on screen - well, shit, there we go again, Lindelof is putting his religious agenda into our sci-fi, game over. (The whole "space Jesus" thing didn't help - but it's worth pointing out again that that particular plotline did not make it into the film, and even if it did, it wasn't nearly as dire an idea as these film's detractors would have you believed - again, you need to remember that the quote-unquote "space Jesus " would have been an evil alien, and therefore hardly a message to be welcomed with open arms by the devoutly religious.)

Yes, Prometheus was a film about the nature of faith and belief. But contrary to much of the criticism I've seen - and certainly contrary to that absurd "Tea Party in Space" article I linked to above - Prometheus does not talk about faith in glowing, uncritical terms. First of all - and this is a huge detail that seems to have passed over the heads of many people - every character who proclaims any kind of "faith" or "belief" is let-down. At every turn throughout the movie, faith is rewarded with death and disillusionment. Shaw and Holloway both believe that their discoveries will have profound positive consequences, and will change human history for the better. Holloway in particular believes he'll be able to speak to the aliens and learn directly from them. Vickers believes against all conceivable evidence that her fealty to her father's scheme will somehow give her the approval she desperately craves. Weyland himself believes that the aliens are going to be able to help him live forever, a belief he is willing to follow to its most absurd ends, even when it means burning through his company's resources on an ill-fated whim and ensuring his heir inherits nothing, a decision which seems to have been motivated almost purely out of spite. (There is a reason, I suspect, why the company we see in Alien is Weyland-Utani.) In every case, these characters make decisions and devote their lives to following faith over facts. In every case, their "faith" is answered in the most perverse and unpleasant fashion possible. I don't know how that can in any way be interpreted as an argument in favor of faith - when in every case blind faith is the wrong decision.

Also, in the specific case of Elizabeth Shaw - the movie never explicitly states that she is a Christian. She never says "I believe in the literal truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ." She carries a cross as a symbol of faith, yes, but faith in what? She carries that cross as a reminder of losing both of her parents as a young child. I know many non-Christian people for whom the cross is nevertheless an important symbol. There's a lot of subtlety associated with that kind of religious symbolism - and the large cross-section of types and varieties of human faith - that is simply effaced by a knee-jerk conflation of faith and religion. Because - and here's the clincher - faith is not synonymous with religion. It just isn't, and pretending that it is, is simple ignorance, and betrays a distinct lack of imagination. (I'd say that people need to read more Hume, but let's not get carried away here.)

Another thing that really bugs me is how many of the plot critiques seem to focus incessantly on the fact that the expedition in the movie is a terrible science expedition - bad scientists acting stupidly. This despite the fact that numerous characters say repeatedly throughout the film that it's not a scientific expedition. Obviously, the scientists themselves believe it's a scientific expedition - right up until the point when Vickers says clearly and without any ambiguity whatsoever that it's not a scientific expedition, which is a scene it appears many, many people slept through. At that point, of course, our expectations take over and we just assume that the movie is really a story about an evil corporation trying to exploit things it doesn't understand. And, certainly, there's a little bit of that, but the movie veers to the left by refusing to give us anything as simple as a reiteration of the central conflict from the earlier Alien films. Any "science" in the film is simply a byproduct of the fact that the whole thing is a giant ego-trip for the world's richest man - you definitely get the feeling that everything else on the periphery of the mission is just Vickers' attempt to salvage some value out of what became the most expense archaeological dig in history. This is hardly a pro-business film, despite the fact that the anti-corporate message comes in a different flavor than Paul Reiser twirling his dastardly mustache throughout Aliens.The fact that one man can throw away a trillion dollars on a massive craps-shoot for the sole purpose of finding personal immortality is a pretty damning critique of a system that would allow one selfish man use his significant personal resources - and the historical opportunity to make first-contact with an alien civilization - for the express purpose of making himself feel important. Again, this is hardly a "conservative" message.

Is the movie, at its most basic level, an anti-science film? Does it devalue curiosity in the name of a conservative reluctance to explore the fundamental mysteries of human existence? I really don't think so: again, if we want to pluck out concrete themes, the theme of blind faith as a destructive force is prominent, as is the idea that capitalism allows strong-willed individuals to exercise monstrously disproportionate control over societal resources and values, as is the idea that children always resent their parents, and the corollary that parents always somehow manage to fuck up their children. I don't think telling a story about the negative consequences of curiosity is necessarily conservative unless you're already hardwired to see any suggestion of reasonable diligence and caution in the face of potential danger as "conservative." A lot of the old myths are, unsurprisingly, quite conservative in design - the Garden of Eden, Pandora's box, even Prometheus himself - but they stay hardwired into the culture for a reason, and it's because the idea of exploring the negative consequences of curiosity is a basic story that never seems to lose its ability to scare us. Like any good story, it also opens itself up to prolific revision and reinterpretation - and I think, the unique combination of sci-fi and horror in Prometheus's DNA makes the film an especially effective meditation on this theme. It's an explicit attempt to rewrite 2001 from the position that the universe is filled with scary monsters instead of benevolent higher intelligences. That's an intriguing idea.

On that note, one thing that almost no one has discussed is just how deep a debt this film owes to H.P. Lovecraft - except Guillermo del Toro, oddly enough. In any event: if you've read At the Mountains of Madness, there is a pretty strong resemblance. Specifically, the idea of the black ooze is a good evocation of Lovecraft's shuggoths: physically amorphous, powerful, created by unknowable beings for sinister purposes, and prone to revolt against their dark masters. Structurally, the film also owes a lot to Lovecraft's novella, right down to the mysterious murals detailing a half-understood secret history and the fixation on strange religious objects. If you've read Lovecraft it adds a lot to the film. The idea that the universe is filled with great and terrible creatures to whom we are essentially unimportant and who even actively plot our demise is quite powerful, and inasmuch as Lovecraft has a terrible track record of filmic adaptations, Prometheus may very well be the best cinematic exploration of his themes and ideas. 

Also, can I just throw one more random observation out here? Something I didn't realize the first time I watched the film but was really obvious on the second viewing: the reason David puts the goo in Holloway's drink is that he's got a crush on Shaw. Weyland told him to "try harder," he sets out to prove himself to his parent the only way he can think of, and it just so happens that there's someone in particular he has reason to dislike. Pay attention to the fact that of all the people on the ship - including, most prominently, Mr. Weyland himself - the only person to speak kindly to David is Shaw. Holloway is especially a dick. Add that to the fact that, for all his acumen, David has the emotional wherewithal of a child. He has to deal with the passive-aggressive abuse of his "father," as well as the constant rejection from the one person who could be his "sister," and his only actual role model is a character in a 140-year-old movie. Of course he falls for Shaw. He risks his life to save Shaw in the storm. He sees Holloway treating her like shit and he does what any child would do in those circumstances - something really mean and spiteful, the consequences of which haven't been completely thought through. And when it comes out that Shaw has been hurt and impregnated with something weird, well, he tries to protect her the best way he knows how - keeping the knowledge from her and putting her into suspended animation as fast as possible. Because he's a robot, he just doesn't know how these things are supposed to work. I believe, rewatching the scene in the infirmary, that there is every chance he is trying to comfort and reassure Shaw, and not freak her out, but because he's essentially a powerful computer with the lived experience of a small child, he can't really do that very well. (Also also, another cool thing: did you notice that in the scene where David cracks open the jar and looks at the goo, you see a close-up of his fingertip, and his fingerprint has a big "W" logo stamped on it? This is a man who, every time he looks at his hands, has to be reminded of the fact that he hates his father.)

Perhaps the most notable problem with the film is the fact that a good many characters are pretty blatantly "red shirts." This is a fine complaint except for the fact that I've seen more than one critic use Aliens as a stick with which to beat Prometheus in this regard - because, you know, all those Colonial Marines in Aliens had such marvelous personalities. Like Hicks and Vasquez, and, uh, the drill instructor Sergeant guy, and um, lady pilot with sunglasses? Those characters felt real not because they were all so well defined, but because Cameron really created a fantastically vivid military milieu aboard the Sulaco. The attention to setting and lived detail is one reason the first two Alien films pop so well, and Fincher's attention to the detail of the prison milieu is perhaps the single best thing about Alien 3. Prometheus, for a number of reasons, lacks that kind of distinction: partly because the ship itself is new and shiny, partly because the characters themselves lack any kind of unifying bond other than having been hired to work on an ambiguous science-ish mission. The first Alien is about coworkers in a cramped and contentious workplace. Aliens is about soldiers in high-stress combat situations. Alien 3 is about prisoners locked away and forgotten by the rest of the universe. Prometheus lacks this kind of unifying milieu - and while you can certainly make an argument that this is an intentional affect, predicated on the fact that the audience is supposed to be able to figure out that this mission is strangely vague and ill-defined on purpose - it nonetheless subtracts some from the dramatic tension that so many of the characters are utterly disposable. 

But that's hardly a deal-breaker. I still love the film, enough to sit through it twice and feel satisfied both times. Let's be frank: I love the Alien films, all of them. I'm inordinately invested in the mythos. Prometheus was a movie I had waited decades to see, and therefore I felt a not inconsiderable degree of dread in anticipation. It would have been so easy to fuck it up. My enjoyment of the film was doubled by the relief I felt that they hadn't screwed it up, that they had - against whatever odds you want to calculate - succeeded in making a big-ideas cosmic sci-fi film of the kind that I just did not believe they made anymore. And of course, the reaction has been muted - after the fans came out on the first day, the movie has slumped along at the box office. Respectable, not great business, far from ensuring a sequel in today's marketplace despite having made back twice its budget in international ticket sales. I'd give anything to see another movie like this set in this wonderful universe - but if Prometheus isn't deemed sufficiently successful, I'm sure the message they'll take away is that they need to produce more cheap spin-off material like the two quite profitable and quite mediocre Alien vs. Predator films, and less in the way of ambitious, ambiguous think pieces.

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