Friday, June 29, 2012



Fuck that shit, let's talk comics.

The problem with AvX is not that it's terrible - really, do we expect better than terrible? why would we do this? - but that it's terrible in a really repulsive way. As in, I feel dirty reading the thing because I think the "ideas" on display are really, really (can I say "really" anymore? I really mean it this time) ill-thought. It's not that the story presents a legitimate difference of opinion between rival squads of superheroes. That's what Marvel would have you believe the story was about (at least at the outset), in much the same way as was Civil War. I was about to type something relatively complimentary about Civil War here by way of using that faint praise as a club with which to bash AvX soundly across the head and shoulders, but that's not really helpful. Civil War was bad for a myriad of reasons but at its core was the germ of a good idea, and some semblance of thought was given to charting how individual characters would react to a line being drawn in the sand on a matter of deep principle. I may not have believed every minute of it, and any number of characters acted "out of character" according to the experiences of people who have been reading about superheroes for longer than the five minutes it takes to read the back of a DVD box (I'm assuming that is how long it takes you to read the back of the DVD box for Iron Man 2 if you believe that the political commentary in Civil War was "trenchant") - but you know what, Civil War still took the time to attempt to justify most of the main characters' opinions throughout the narrative.

If you think I'm trying to compliment Civil War here, I'm really not. Civil War provided the bare minimum of narrative meat necessary to string together a series of "awesome" story beats. Seriously - pick up the collected edition and skim through it. It's one of the great examples of "momentism" in comics storytelling - the story isn't paced so much as defibrillated. Every time characters are talking to each other, the story sort of murmurs along and then BLAM they shout "CLEAR!" like we're watching E.R. reruns and, whoops, Spider-Man is ripping his mask off, whoops, here's the Punisher.

One problem with AvX is that it actually makes Civil War seem better in hindsight. If Civil War was a series of "kewl" moments strung together with bad exposition, AvX is nothing but bad exposition - with the actual meat of the series - you know, the part where the Avengers fight the God-damned X-Men - farmed out to spin-offs. Think for a minute about just how seriously fucked-up it is that a superhero comic event series actually has to have a spin-off specifically dedicated to fight scenes, because there's no room for these fights in the actual series itself.

I'll let that sink in for a minute.

People don't talk a lot about decompression anymore, but I think it's fair to say that the war has officially been lost. They at least make an attempt now to make the comic take longer than five minutes to read - at last six, six-and-a-half if Bendis is writing a scene with Luke and Jessica talking about their relationship - but they don't pace these things right anymore. They don't know how to write fight scenes. You know how it used to be that writers would have to spend time thinking about how characters would use their powers and teamwork to defeat enemies, and we'd see the give-and-take of individual fights and different characters ding different things and the plot would actually be pushed forward by actions characters committed during pitched battles? You know? No, of course you don't, because if you started reading superhero comics anytime in the last ten years all you know is the artist drawing a bunch of characters ramming into each other for a big two-page spread and then some random characters have ironic asides and the plot grinds to a halt, then they stop fighting and the plot moves forward again. Some are better than others, true, but the vast majority of these things are written so unimaginatively that the superheroes are just cogs in some paramilitary law-enforcement fantasy, with endless ranks of colored action figures being pushed up against each other at random. But the point is that the fights aren't important anymore - the fights themselves are so perfunctory in the series itself that you almost get the feeling that the people writing this book are ashamed that they have to put them in there. So much easier to write characters talking to each other about their feelings - or talking to the President, there's a lot of talking to the President.

(And the worst part is that most of the fights in the AvX: VS spin-off haven't been that bad - fairly imaginative character pieces with decent-to-good art. But man, how weird is it that the book devoted to showcasing two groups of superheroes fighting has to outsource the actual fighting itself. I just can't get over this.)

The major problem at the heart of AvX, if we're being honest with ourselves, is that the central conflict is completely stupid. As in: one side of characters is so obviously right and the other so obviously wrong that it sort of demeans them all to come to blows. If we didn't know that the X-Men were actually supposed to be superheroes - a perhaps erroneous assumption predicated on fifty years of previous X-Men comics - then we would have no idea that they were supposed to be in any way sympathetic. To put it as plainly as possible: the X-Men take actions that endanger the safety of the almost seven billion people on Earth because they think the gamble might pay off. The Avengers point out that this isn't really a reasonable thing to do, regardless of the possible positive consequences, because the potential negatives are just too high. The X-Men, instead of realizing that they are in fact endangering the lives of every man, woman, and child on the planet for something that could charitably be characterized as a craps-shoot, get all defensive and start calling the Avengers bigots. You know, the same Avengers being led by Captain America.

The problem with someone calling you a bigot is that, regardless of the merits of the particularly claim, it's just not something anyone wants to see deal with first thing in the morning. It's a bit like the old, "when did you stop beating your wife?" question. And it doesn't make sense because, as I say, we've got a good fifty years of (mostly) peaceful coexistence and cooperation between Marvel's mutant heroes and the Avengers. So it just doesn't make sense - and is quite off-putting - to see the mutants now turning on the Avengers and accusing them of being bigots trying to keep the mutant man down. It feels sordid. Especially since, you know, this is Captain America we're talking about, and we as readers know for a fact that anyone who calls Cap a bigot is just not playing with a full deck of cards.   

Now, based on the surprise twist at the end of issue #5 (I assume you've all either read it or don't plan to at this late date), it's become somewhat clear that the X-Men are being played as the villains here. The five X-Men who just happened to be possessed by the Phoenix force were the five most morally compromised X-Men - imperious and arbitrary Namor, ex-villain White Queen, unpredictable and occasionally evil Magik, Juggernaut-compromised Colossus, and bat-shit extremist Cyclops. (I do call shenanigans, however: the Magik vs. Black Widow story mistakenly asserted that Magik had no soul, when in fact they spent the better part of a year in New Mutants telling the story of how Illyana got her soul back - do these people not even bother to read the Wikipedia pages? Because folks, that's free.) It's fairly obvious that they're setting the X-Men up for a fall here, and that's fine, I guess. This last week has established that the X-Men have built a prison for the Avengers out of a chunk of Limbo placed in an active volcano - as in, an actual piece of Hell torn from the inferno and designed to torment Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

You can't even say that any of this is coming out of leftfield. One of the problems (one among many!) with Fear Itself is that the storyline emerged seemingly out of nowhere. It was actually a pretty good evocation of a truly "old-school" crossover, in that it presented a new threat that appeared fresh in the first issue and ran roughshod over everyone else's plotlines. It did so in such a haphazard, off-putting way that it came off as kind of desperate, a little bit of "old school" flop-sweat channeled through the market wisdom of the "dead cat bounce." But you can't say that AvX is in any way arbitrary or unplanned: they've fairly clearly been planting the seeds for this story since somewhere around 2004. I believe them completely that this story has been brewing for almost a decade. The same people in charge of Marvel then are the same people in charge now; the same people writing AvX are the people who wrote all the other stories that fed into this one; and - at least on paper - this does actually appear to be the culmination of almost a decades' worth of event storytelling. But in actuality - well, yeah, this does read like the kind of story that they've been building to since 2004, in that it is so clearly a set of bullet points put together to clear out eight years' worth of dead-wood continuity problems.

AvX makes a great argument as to why the X-Men franchise is currently broken beyond recognition. Everyone knows that the X-Men are based on a series of simple metaphors relating to prejudice and tolerance. The problem is that while this is a great thematic starting point from which you can tell any number of stories - and there have been many good X-Men stories over the years, let's not kid ourselves, there's a reason why the books were so popular for so long - there are also natural limitations to the kinds of stories the franchise can tell. Because you can only push the civil-rights metaphor so long before it starts to break down in the face of the fact that mutants are a substantially different kind of creature than black people or gay people, who are still always, you know, people. You can say, yes, irrational prejudice and hatred is completely wrong, but then you've got a story wherein the most vocal proponents of "mutant rights" are unilaterally making decisions with such far-reaching consequences that the death of the human race might be considered acceptable collateral damage - you've blown any sympathy for mutants as an avatar of real-world minorities out of the water.

Let's put it another way. Say for a minute that the United States government found out that the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was heading towards the planet Earth for unknown reasons. The only thing they know is that Dr. King's ghost has recently destroyed a number of planets with billions of people on them, and we have no reason to believe that Dr. King's ghost will behave any differently when it reaches earth. So the world unanimously decides to try and prevent Dr. King's ghost from reaching Earth, except for a small group of African-American activists who accuse the rest of the world of being racists for not wanting to risk getting the planet destroyed by the pissed-off revenant spirit of America's greatest civil-rights leader.

The preceding paragraph, in case you hadn't noticed, doesn't make any sense at all. The reason it doesn't make any sense is that the X-Men have gone so far off the reservation in terms of a clear adherence to their thematic core that trying to make sense of the state of the mutant race in terms of being an allegory for real-world prejudice is completely absurd. We're supposed to be sympathetic with the X-Men because they represent a repressed minority fighting for their rights, fighting for tolerance, cooperation, and acceptance. Now again: it has become patently clear that Marvel is specifically playing up the fact that Cyclops's faction of X-Men have essentially become Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil mutants in all but name. They're not fighting for acceptance and toleration: they were fighting for survival and now they're fighting for dominance because now that they have the power they have the right. A while back people figured out that the proper "new" valid metaphor for mutant rights in the X-books was actually early-to-mid-twentieth century Zionism. The problem is that this isn't really a productive long-term metaphor, because sure it's great when you get to retell Mila 18 and Exodus with superheroes, not so good when you try to figure out how to explain who the Palestinians are in this scenario, especially when your characters are owned by the Walt Disney Corporation and boy howdy do you not want to wade into that firestorm. All of which is to say: telling these stories in this way was a terrible mistake and it has already done great harm to the X-Men franchise. The X-Men don't make sense anymore. They are unambiguously villains, and it makes me feel all kinds of weird to say that.

So yeah, I see where they're going: in trying to save the mutant race, Cyclops and his coterie have in fact brought about the exact circumstances that will lead to even worse prejudice and oppression against mutants. Classic hubris, etc etc. Kind of like how they did the same thing with Iron Man a few years ago - only, you know, it took years to make Tony Stark an even vaguely sympathetic character after Civil War, and it only required giving him a partial lobotomy and erasing his mind in the process. But that's just one character, and one who always had a reputation as an asshole to begin with. It was at least slightly in Iron Man's character to act unilaterally on the belief that he's right.

What are we supposed to take away from AvX - it's OK to hate and fear minorities because if they had the chance and the power they'd destroy all us normal folk?

The slipshod nature of the crossover is such as to betray a reflexive contempt for their audience. The basic, bare minimum that should be required of any crossover is that the main series and the tie-ins fit together - this is one of those simple concepts that didn't used to be a problem. Go back and read Inferno or Acts of Vengeance  - not particularly well-regarded today, but I'll be damned if they don't stand up as marvels of crossover engineering. Everything fit, there was a definite reading order, characters weren't in two places at the same time indiscriminately. I remember I used to have a definitive reading order for Acts of Vengeance worked out in my head: it was so well-designed that you could fit the Captain America issues in between two pages of the Fantastic Four sequence. The key was figuring out that the two most crucial series for keeping track of the chronology were Solo Avengers and Damage Control - you could plot out the rest of the story with those two books as your spine. It was great fun, although I was sorry to see that the recent Omnibus did not go to such lengths to replicate the correct reading order. The point is, that type of consistency used to be the norm. It was fun to follow these things and see how they all fit together. That they fit together wasn't ever in doubt. These were fun stories and if you enjoyed them you wanted to read the crossovers to get more of it.

Now, though, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of care put into constructing a strong through-line. Characters show up in places where they can't be according to the chronology of the main series. The Avengers crossovers are stuck months behind the main series on a tangent with almost no relevance to the main series. Don't even try figuring out how the AvX: VS series fits into AvX - no care at all has been taken to fit these fights into the actual story. They are more . . . variations on a theme. There's no consistency at all. They may as well be taking place in another universe for all the impact they have on the main storyline. Even Civil War - again, I know I keep beating AvX with the Civil War stick, but damned if the former doesn't make the latter seem like Proust in hindsight - even Civil War exercised a fair degree of consistency with its tie-ins. Plot threads dropped in the main series were picked up in the tie-ins with a surprising degree of fidelity. Characters who were supposed to be on the other side of the planet didn't just appear in Manhattan for no reason. And there were no God-damned polar bears in Antarctica.

Am I belaboring the point? For a story that has been eight years in the making, there is a surprising amount of fucks not given in the production thereof. Are we just not supposed to notice these inconsistencies? Are we just supposed to not care? Isn't the whole point to get us to care, to get us to want to drop $3.99 American on these flimsy pamphlets, to be carried away on the wings of our child-like imaginations to a world of larger-than-life heroes and villains? Have the people involved in the making of these comics simply become so cynical in the making thereof they they literally cannot see how cynical these books look, how sloppy they read, how carelessly they are throwing out the most important facets of these beloved characters? I am going to extend the benefit of the doubt to the people involved in the making of this story that they're trying their best to create a good story. But this is so far away from actually being a good story that I simply cannot fathom the thought processes that led these intelligent people to make these creative decisions.

I've been reading Marvel comics since I was a little kid and I still feel a great attachment to these characters and their stories - but more and more the emotion I am filled with when I read these books is not affection or even nostalgia but contempt. It's certainly possible to write fairly intelligent superhero comics that can amuse and entertain intelligent adult readers. Marvel even publishes a few of these. But this is the jewel of their line, the big climax of a decades' worth of storytelling and promotion. This just feels exhausted, the product of lazy and incestuous ideas brought past fruition and into decay and fermentation, turned rotten and sour. How could they possibly have ever signed off on an idea that turned the X-Men from a metaphor for tolerance into an argument in favor of racism and xenophobia? If they didn't see that, how could they not have thought through the consequences of ideas that they've been building for eight years?

Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. Shit.

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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Remember the Titans

So, uh, yeah, if you haven't seen it, now might be a good time to go away.


OK, let's just lay our cards on the table right now: this was a pretty fucking awesome movie. I'm not even going to lie, or try to act cool, or pick out all the problems. Uh-uh. I wanted this movie to be cool, it is cool. It gave me everything I wanted, most of what I expected, and a bunch of stuff that was a complete surprise.

I am - how do we say? - a fan of the Alien films. The good thing about being a fan of the Alien franchise is that, and this should not be understated, the original films are really, really good. I rewatched the series in the weeks leading up to Prometheus and I was again struck by just how striking and well made the first three films actually are.

The first is a stone classic, universally recognized, no qualifications.

The second was just slightly less, but succeeded on its own terms by being in many respects radically different than its predecessor. It had different themes, different ideas, and succeeded in being almost as well-made a movie as the first.

The third is definitely not as good as the first two but is nevertheless still a very good movie, a mood piece with an entirely different vibe from its ancestors - and a few script problems - but which nevertheless manages to be a coherent and unique entry in its own right.

The fourth - well, I love the fourth even though it's kind of stupid. No, scratch that, very stupid. But the fact remains that it's a gorgeous film that manages to look fantastic without having a single brain cell in its head. I watch it every time I come across it on cable and I'm always struck by the fact that it is compulsively watchable. What that team could have done with a better script!

So anyway.

I don't just like the movies, is the thing - the Alien himself has lodged himself permanently into my subconscious in a way I can't quite explain. He's the best movie monster, period. The Alien tickles that same part of my brain that love Hellraiser and H. P. Lovecraft, although not necessarily in quite the same fashion. The intimation of cosmic horror, unknowable malevolent savagery lurking across the stars, gleaming, sexually charged. These guys pop up in my dreams from time to time. The perverse life cycle, predicated on parasitism, rape, and murder - is there a monster fantasy more effectively creepy than the Alien? Nothing comes close. The reason these guys have stuck around so long is that a lot of thought went into how to make the most intentionally disturbing monster conceivable. The monster doesn't just kill - it rapes, it violates, it takes over your body and makes it into an incubator for something even worse. And yes, ultimately, it does kill. 

We've had three decades to wonder about these strange beasts, where they come from, their purpose, their possible masters. There's been a great deal of ancillary material under the bridge. Some of the stuff has been OK - Dark Horse has published a great many Aliens comics, and some of them have actually been worth reading. Some of them, er, haven't. But none of it was "real." Fox gave Dark Horse free reign to explore the mythos, establishing concepts like an Alien homeworld, a prehistory, the motivations of the "Space Jockeys," their relationship with the Predators (a relationship that, in hindsight, would have been so much cooler if left solely to the fans' imaginations) - all very well and good, but none of it "real," any more than, say, Splinter of the Mind's Eye or Lungbarrow.

Of course, part of the appeal comes precisely from the lack of elaboration. If you watch the four Alien films - even Resurrection - they're all adamant in their desire to keep the focus of the stories on the characters (or, really, the character) at the expense of any cosmic shenanigans. You don't get space opera, you don't get big-picture consequences, you have one woman who keeps having to relive the worst day of her life over and over again, fighting the very worst embodiment of mankind's fears of the unknown wrapped up into on black shiny carapace. And there is something extremely satisfying in that: we get spoiled by too much information. Mystery is a very powerful tool. It works because our imaginations are almost always more evocative than reality. Mystery is all about potential - once you solve a mystery, once you reveal a secret, you have to be careful you're not losing something far more important in the process. Mystery gives the imagination lots of space in which to play: fill up those wide-open spaces with parking lots and don't be surprised if people go away. As much as I love the Star Wars prequels - and I do! - on a very basic level even the biggest Star Wars fan must acknowledge that the Clone Wars we actually saw on film and television could not compare with the Clone Wars that lived and grew in our collective imaginations since 1977.

So with that in mind - what gives? Why decide now to answer these questions? Do we need these answers?

As someone who dearly loves these movies, I am delighted with the answers we get. I like the fact that the answers we get are the kinds of answers that inevitably lead to even more questions. I love the fact that the movie essentially answered our questions while also telling us in no uncertain terms that we had been asking the wrong questions all along. I also like the fact that - despite the fact that there we no capital-A Aliens in the film (except for that one little cameo), it was still all about the Aliens. I've seen a couple people online who have asked whether or not the film would have been better without any ties to the Aliens films, and I have to say that that seems almost like an unintelligible proposition - what movie they would have had if they hadn't set out specifically to make a movie that explored the biological life cycle of the Alien creature? That's what the movie is really about, even though it's technically about other things: xenobiology. If you had told me just a few years ago that they would ever release a movie that was really just two hours about the life cycle and biology of the Aliens, I would have said you were crazy, no one would pay to see something so wonky on the big screen - as it is, that's exactly what we got, and I could not be happier.

So I'm going to do something I don't usually do. I would like to continue writing about the film, answer some of its critics, maybe get a little wonky regarding Alien biology. I've been a bit pressed for time the last few weeks - end of the semester and all that - but I'm currently strapped in front of my computer for long periods of time. So I'm going to keep updating this post with ideas as they come to me, or to answer questions as they appear in the comments. Because, frankly, I'm just really in love with this film and I would much rather talk about all the cool parts of this movie than grade a pile of student papers right now.

Questions from the comments:
1) How the Engineer dies via giant proto-facehugger in the remains of Vickers' part of the ship rather than in the pilot seat of his own, to later be find by the crew of the Nostromo

2) How, when Shaw's last message both a) is an actual verbal message and not just a distress signal, and b) so explicitly warns all comers away from the planet that the Nostromo only gets a signal and does not receive the message? I mean, at least in Aliens we could assume that if Weyland-Yutani got to it first they would just ignore/destroy it, but that doesn't explain how the Nostromo gets it; and finally

3) How, when everything we see is supposed to be setting up for what the Nostromo finds in Alien, does everything end up happening on a totally different planet than the one in Aliens?
I am going to discuss these questions en masse because they seem to be getting at the same kind of confusion. It's a question that, honestly, never even occurred to me as a problem until after I got home from the midnight showing and logged on to see what people were saying about the film. Sure enough, these questions or variants thereof appear to be the single most common problems people had with the film.

The reason why these questions never bugged me is very simple: the crew of the Nostromo in the first Alien land on the moon LV-223. The crew of the Prometheus land on the moon LV-426. Different worlds, different stories, same universe. 

So, the answer to the question "How, when everything we see is supposed to be setting up for what the Nostromo finds in Alien, does everything end up happening on a totally different planet than the one in Aliens?" is simple: it was never supposed to be setting up the first movie precisely. I don't know why so many people got the idea that it was. It never says or even implies anywhere in the film that this is the same planet, in fact, it explicitly says at the beginning of the film that it isn't the same planet. Now, you can't expect most viewers to know off the top of their heads that the planetoid in the first film was LV-426 and the planetoid in the new movie is LV-223. (I knew that because I had just rewatched Alien a few weeks ago and the number was fresh in my head, but barring that, there is always Wikipedia.) But if you thought that the two planets were the same, even though they looked completely different, with different climates and atmospheres, well, that's not on the film. That is strictly your own expectations which had nothing to do with any information that was or was not given in the course of the film. There was never any label on the movie posters that stated explicitly that the events of this movie would lead directly to the events of Alien

We know it's the same universe but it's a completely different planet. It's not fair to bring in materials from outside of the film, because I think we can all agree to the principle that any film that requires recourse to information outside the film in order to be understood has failed on a very basic level to communicate what it needed to communicate. Still, for the purpose of clarification, here's a quote from screenwriter Damon Lindelof, taken from Wikipedia:
If the ending to [Prometheus] is just going to be the room that John Hurt walks into that's full of [alien] eggs [in Alien], there's nothing interesting in that, because we know where it's going to end. Good stories, you don't know where they're going to end.
Again, from Lindelof:
A true prequel should essentially proceed [sic] the events of the original film, but be about something entirely different, feature different characters, have an entirely different theme, although it takes place in that same world.
So, not to belabor the point - it was never supposed to be a literal "prequel" to Alien in terms of it setting up the direct events of the (later / earlier) movie. The filmmakers were very upfront about this. And even if you had never seen a single interview or read a single press piece about the film, the film itself was very upfront about this. There was never any intention of producing a bait-and-switch.

All throughout the film's promotion both Scott and Lindelof were chary of using the word "prequel," and I didn't really understand why - since the film so obviously was a prequel. But I think now I understand the reason why: the word "prequel" appears to carry the expectation that the story is going to directly and literally precede the original. We have Star Wars to thank for that, I suspect, because those prequels were very much about filling in all the dots in the years directly leading up to the opening scenes of A New Hope. Would people have been upset if the Star Wars prequels had actually been about the founding of the Jedi Order five thousand years or however long BBY, with nary a Skywalker in sight? Or if the Star Wars prequels had been about another group of Jedi on the other side of the universe doing something equally (or even more) interesting but only tangentially related to the actual events of the Star Wars films? 

So: the events on LV-223 don't add up to the tableau of the first Alien because it's not the same world. Whatever happened on LV-426 prior to Alien, we don't know. And, despite rumors to the contrary, it is extremely unlikely that any sequel to Prometheus would answer that question, and there's one very simple reason for this: the derelict that the Nostromo found on LV-426 had been abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Although the eggs remained in working order (and given the hardiness of the aliens themselves, who knows how long they could halve remained in perpetual suspended animation? or even if, as some have speculated, that the eggs in the cargo hold of that derelict were held in suspension by the Engineers themselves, and so could have remained perpetually "ready" as long as the motion detecter around the egg chamber wasn't disturbed), the Engineer corpse was already halfway to petrification. The timeframe doesn't work at all. Whatever that story is, it's probably unrelated to the events of Prometheus - but now, having seen Prometheus, and having seen just what kind of fragile control the Engineers actually had over their weaponry, it's not that hard to speculate about what probably did happen.

As to the question of what happened on LV-223 after Prometheus? We don't know that, either. But what we do know, and what we've known since 1979, is that the encounter on LV-426 was not the first time humanity had encountered the aliens. If you recall, Ash knows what the crew are facing. He says, explicitly, when asked by the crew members if he had any prior knowledge about the alien, "I can't lie to you about your chances, but . . . you have my sympathies." Weyland-Utani knew what the alien was. They probably had access to all the information from the destroyed Prometheus . . . except (possibly?) for the contents of the bio-weapons themselves - given that one of the Engineer ships is partially destroyed and one of the ships is stolen by Elizabeth Shaw and David. (As for the surviving alien himself - without any food or living creatures left to breed with, he'd probably live a lonely life, assuming he could survive the poison atmosphere [which he probably could, at least for short periods, since we've seen that the aliens can survive short periods of time in total vacuum] and wasn't caught in one of those deadly shrapnel storms that scour the planet's surface periodically - all of which adds up to the idea that the Engineers knew what they were doing when when they built that cache on such a hostile world.) In any event, Weyland-Yutani would still know that some serious shit had gone down on LV-223, would undoubtedly have intercepted Shaw's last transmission,  and the knowledge that the universe was littered with potentially lucrative derelict spacecraft filled with incredibly potent biological weapons was probably all they needed in order to make the retrieval of any and all alien specimens their topmost priority.

J. asks a simple enough question:
Tim, what did you think about all the 2001 parallels? The old man sending holographic messages after he was "dead" reminded me of Foundation a little too.
Short answer? I noticed the 2001 parallels straight away while I was watching the film - I didn't get the Foundation bit, but I see if now. (Complicated by the fact that Hari Seldon wasn't a delusional old man who had thrown his money away on a boondoggle after, I guess, one too many viewings of Cocoon.) I don't think these parallels were unintentional and I don't think they detracted from the film at all.

On the contrary, I thought that the allusions were just that - allusions - inserted in order to highlight thematic parallels, and I think for the most part these were fairly successful. In regards to 2001 specifically, Prometheus is obviously intended to mirror that film. A ship of brave explorers set out into the great unknown at the ostensible bidding of higher intelligences who may very well have had a hand in the creation of mankind, only to have their expedition derailed by sneaky artificial intelligences? Which is sort of what happens, but isn't: the expedition in 2001 is clearly intended to be a completely benign mission predicated on multinational cooperation and scientific curiosity. At the onset of Prometheus, because the first human characters we meet are a pair of spunky scientists, we think that's what this mission is about, too . . . but as the film wears on we begin to understand that that was never what the mission was about, not even remotely. It wasn't even really about corporate greed. 

(Which was a great fake-out, by the way, predicated on our knowledge of previous entries in the Alien franchise and Charlize Theron's seemingly despicable Meredith Vickers. We see her and her attitude and we immediately think of Paul Reiser in Aliens, and we think we have the whole thing figured - but that's precisely not what happens, not at all. She is the real representative of the Weyland corporation's interests - not her crazy-ass father who liquidated his own company in an attempt to meet Space-God - and she is certain throughout the entire movie that the whole expedition is a terrible boondoggle. She is also precisely right, but she's doing it anyway because people do stupid things in order to try to win approval from distant parents.) 

It's about human megalomania and essentially one man's desire to live forever, and what happens when something that should be the most profound revelation in human history is boiled down to the most basic of selfish human desires. Putting this idea next to 2001 is an excellent use of foreshadowing - instead of some mind-expanding deus ex machina that takes humanity to the limits of evolution, the apotheosis in Prometheus is getting crushed like a bug by a giant space ship. It goes rotten because the motivations are all wrong, all rotten. 

Here's the biggie, from Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo:

I, too, liked the movie.  However, I felt like there were a lot of plot holes, specifically with regard to the biology and life cycle of the xenomorphs.  I can buy that the Hammerpedes are the chestburster / xenomorph equivalent of the mealworms or whatever that were indigenous to the planet, but what the hell was up with Fifield skipping the whole parasite / incubator step and becoming some kind of dang ol' zombie?  His head swells up to nigh-exploding-- like the reanimated Engineer head-- but that would seem to shortstop the whole "create an army of horrible monsters" function of the bioweapon, no?  Having the mysterious black goo act MacGuffin-like, imbuing it with the ability to perform different tasks based on the needs of the plot, seems ridiculous.  Why not just have Fifield's child-xenomorph attack the crew?
This would appear to be the $64,000 Question that has most bedeviled even friendly critics of the film. On some level I have to admire the courage of the filmmakers to avoid giving in to the almost certain temptation to just give us a minute or two of Star Tek technobabble in order to explain just what the fuck the black goo actually did, why it seemed to do so many different things according to the dictates of the plot, how it could possibly be understood to behave in a consistent manner. I didn't get around to asking this question first because I've actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about the question myself - I think I have developed some answers, but you are welcome to correct me.

I will begin by going backwards - backwards, as in the explication of a plot hole of a 20-year old comic book:

From <i>Aliens: Genocide</i> #1 by Mike Richardson, Jon Arcudi, Damon WIllis, and Karl Story.
From Aliens: Genocide #1 by Mike Richardson, Jon Arcudi, Damon WIllis, and Karl Story.

This is the splash page from Aliens: Genocide #1, from 1991. I believe this was the fourth Aliens series released by Dark Horse. The plot of this series picks up directly from the previous story, wherein RIpley had saved the Earth from an alien infestation by kidnapping the alien Queen Mother from the alien homeworld, depositing her on Earth and then using her as bait to lure as many aliens as possible to a conveniently nuke-able location. (As plans go, it was definitely something that could only have worked in a comic book. I would recommend Earth War based solely on the Sam Keith art, but the story itself suffers from the same wonky-ness that seems to have infected a large percentage of Dark Horse's Aliens series - the plots only work if you don't look at them too closely.) Anyway, Genocide picks up on that story by sending a new expedition to the alien homeworld for the purpose of procuring some royal jelly for some vague industrial purpose or another. Of course, things go pear-shaped, yadda yadda yadda, you can probably write the thing in your head.

Anyway: the problem with this premise isn't actually that hard to discern, and you can probably pick it up just from the picture above. We have a planet that's been completely overrun by aliens, on which the aliens appear to be the only surviving megafauna, and which even appears to have been largely deforested as well. This maybe works OK in a licensed comic book where the idea of a whole planet covered in aliens is probably the scariest thing imaginable, but if you think about it a minute you'll see the problem.

Have you figured it out yet?

What do the aliens eat? How do they breed? How are they even breathing oxygen if the planet has such a stunted ecosystem?

While the shape of the planet is definitely consistent with what we know about the aliens' behavior, the long-term consequences simply don't make sense. Aliens are incredibly efficient and unremitting alpha predators. While fiendishly cunning, they've never shown any capacity whatsoever for resource management - that is, they either kill or infect every other animal that could possibly be seen as a threat or inconvenience. Go back to Aliens: the hive in the power plant has successfully killed every man, woman, and child - except for Newt - in the entire colony. They did so in a breathtakingly short amount of time. It was only the arrival of the Sulaco that changed any of that - it's not hard to imagine a world where the Sulaco never came, or came six months too late, where Newt was already dead and there was no one and no thing left alive on the surface of LV-426 except for aliens. So - what would they actually do? The aliens are incredibly efficient predators, able to survive in the harshest conditions, able to coordinate attacks and use rudimentary but ruthless strategy in order to defeat their enemies - basically, able to do anything but look past the horizon of what happens the moment they run out of things to eat and other animals to impregnate.

Now, it's not hard to imagine how the aliens could have evolved naturally - and I don't think the fact that the Engineers have managed to weaponize these monsters naturally implies that they weren't also the product of natural selection. It's possible that the Engineers may have found the species on a distant planet and backwards engineered the most profitable traits from the species to fit their purposes. In biological terms, we can imagine another kind of environment where the aliens grew up in a balanced ecosystem, where they coevolved with numerous other fierce alpha predators who developed methods of defeating the aliens natural defenses. Say, for instance, a planet dominated by massive carnivorous theropods who evolved impenetrable scale armor and a strong base for a saliva in order to counteract the acid blood. You can let your imagination run wild. In any event, whatever environment the aliens may have evolved out of, taking such an efficient predator out of a finely-tuned ecosystem would only result in it becoming a dangerous invasive species, like zebra mussels, or Burmese pythons in Florida. When invasive species hijack and ecosystem, if the process isn't somehow halted, the indigenous ecosystem can be annihilated.

So: what we know about the aliens is that they are incredibly efficient killers and breeders. So efficient, even, that they could be used as a weapon - the ultimate invasive species, who when freed from the restriction of any natural predator, are able to hijack any megafauna using a parasitoid reproductive system that can also adopt salient features from host organisms in order to adapt to different hostile environments. Although this might seem like a tall order for any "real" animal, it is actually completely in keeping with the behavior of another type of animal species with which we are all very familiar: bacteria. Another thing about invasive bacteria is that they are mindless. There is no regulative mechanism to prevent bacteria from reproducing completely out of control and causing the disability and death of its host organism. This is why people have been dying from bacterial infections since the dawn of time: they're not "smart" predators, or they'd be symbiotes. They reproduce uncontrollably whether or not it's in their "best interest" to do so, because that's just what they do.

(Of course, whether or not the goo is a bacterial infection or a kind of virus - two completely different types of organisms, one of which is a living creature the other of which [if I recall my high school biology] is only technically "alive" - is a question that is probably too wonky even for me, Mr. Liberal Arts Guy. At some point even though I believe a great deal of thought has been put into describing how these organisms act within the constraints of familiar biology, you have to just admit that, A) the distinction between bacterial and viral infections is not a question the filmmakers will probably ever be interested in answering and, B) it's movies, let's just wave our hands and say something nonsensical like "bacterial virus." You can go online and find a description of the way the warp nacelles on the Enterprise "work" that makes perfect sense except for the fact that it makes no sense at all, if you get my drift.)

As wacky as it might seem, while I was watching Prometheus I became convinced that I had seen this idea, or something like it, before.

(Incidentally - is it true that kids these days don't grow up watching these the way we did? It is inconceivable to me that someone might grow up in the United State of America and not have the vast majority of Looney Tunes hardwired into their brains by the time they turned six.)

Fast forward to 3:52 if you don't remember exactly what I'm talking about. See the jar that says "10,000 INSTANT MARTIANS - JUST ADD WATER"? I think that's something like the idea here, goofy as it may seem. 

The "black goo" is an incredibly efficient bacterial infection that can hijack and kill host organisms with startling efficiency. A large enough exposure - what we see in the first minutes of the film - will almost instantly kill anyone exposed. What we saw in those first minutes was someone who drank a cup of the goo by choice and experience the infection take over his body with such brutal swiftness that he's practically disintegrated. (Similar in effect to something like the Ebola virus, although from what I understand the stereotypical, violent Ebola hemorrhages only happen in a small minority of all diagnoses - the virus "just" causes systematic organ failure, nerve damage, and circulatory breakdown.) But the infection itself is efficient enough that with just a little bit of raw material - like, say, those provided by a disintegrated corpse - the infection, when introduced into a resource-rich but sterile environment - with lots of sun, water, and oxygen - would adapt and reproduce wildly. Come back in 500,000 or 1,000,000 years, and you've got a brand new biosphere based solely on the introduction of a hardy invasive bacteria into a sterile environment. (I don't know if I believe that the scene at the beginning of Prometheus is supposed to be a prehistoric Earth - in order for that to be true, that would mean the Engineers had been doing this for 4 billion years. It's easier to believe they simply engineered humanity from preexisting raw materials, a la the Celestials - than that they've been doing this for 4 billion years without cessation. But - it's sci-fi. Who knows?)

But what happens when you don't just spatter some of the goo on the proverbial empty petrie dish - what about when you introduce it to larger organisms? One of the things the infection seems specifically designed to do is to hijack the reproductive systems of available fauna. So, sure, if you fall headfirst into a pool of the black goo, it's probably going to kill you - but it's probably also going to hijack your body in a process similar to that of the Xenos vesparum parasite, which effectively turns host wasps into mindless "zombies," whose life functions are taken over for the purpose of spreading the parasite infection among other wasps. It's probably going to take over your brain, push your adrenal and pituitary glands into the red, and turn you into a suicide bomber for the purpose of finding other members of your species and spattering black goo on them.

(As to why, in the first scene, the Engineer who ingests the cup of goo is destroyed whereas the crew member who falls headfirst into the pool is only made into a zombie - there are a two different possible answers. One, we could be dealing with different concentrations or different strains. The black goo that jump-started ecosystems could be a different type of goo from the weaponized variant that creates aliens. Two, the infection might be able to animate the dying for short periods of times, but unable to fully consume the organism after necrosis has already begun - remember, he took a face-full of acid, so he probably was dead or dying before the infection started to spread. These two answers aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.)

If you're only exposed to a tiny drop - say, a drop no bigger than the head of a pin, put in your drink by an unfriendly android - it's going to take a lot longer for the infection to reach a terminal point. Like, say, maybe a whole day. In that time, however, the infection will hijack your reproductive system and attempt to replicate itself, at which point it might very well interact with the natural bodily processes of the host organism to produce a larger version of the parasitoid, capable of interacting more efficiently with the biology of available fauna and infecting them with mutated eggs. Say you just happen to have some worms or maggots lying around - perhaps even placed near the goo for the purpose of jump-starting the process if the ship as ever compromised, or other unguessable reasons - the goo would probably have no problem whatsoever in mutating and adapting the reproductive organs of simple insects to create vessels for the infection to successfully jump species. And, crucially, this isn't some rare coincidence - this type of species-hijacking appears to be precisely what the infection was designed to do. If you were to expose it to any number of animals it would probably find different ways to reach the same results, recreating the infection-parasite-facehugger-chestburster-queen-egg life cycle in a myriad of different ways but substantively the same each time.

What the "black goo" does is reproduce. It is essentially life boiled down to its most efficient processes: infect, reproduce, kill. When it infects organisms it adapts those organisms to be the most efficient carriers possible: what it's going to do is to leap as far up the evolutionary ladder as possible until it infects the largest predator, infect and hijack the reproductive system of said predator, and then produce some kind of hybrid that will reproduce uncontrollably and assure the swiftest possible spread of the infection. The aliens themselves, therefore, are not "true" aliens: they're hybrids, products of host species's DNA unzipped and shaken with the incredibly potent genetic material of the bacteria. Whether or not this cocktail is a distillation of naturally occurring fauna from elsewhere in the universe, or it was created by the Engineers in a lab, the result is the same: the most potent bioweapon imaginable, but also under certain circumstances (different strains or preparations) an effective engine for biosphere terraforming, something much like the Genesis device in Star Trek 2 and 3, albeit a much more slow process.

It's not difficult to imagine that such a potent technology could have become the center of a race's spiritual or religious life, a solid manifestation of the duality of life and death, the potential to create heavenly oasis or demoniacal hells with a single cup of goo. I think, based on the evidence of the murals and the architecture of the main chamber, there there must have been some kind of religious observance built around the substance, or perhaps the thought process behind the Engineers's relation to the goo is something even more alien and inconceivable than that.  

Questions from Eric R.:

1)What did you think of the Space Jesus aspects of the film? I found it kind of off-putting until it was revealed that Space Jesus wanted to kill us.

2)Given that the Engineers created or seeded life on Earth but ultimately wanted to wipe out Earth do you think that a)they changed their mind about it, b)there are multiple groups of Engineers with different objectives*, c)they seed life only to experiment with the black goo or d)there's not enough info in the film to take a guess one way or the other.

*I didn't notice it at the time but someone pointed out to me that the ship in the opening is different from the in the rest of the film.

3)Do you think that Alien will hold up for people who saw Prometheus first, in particularly regarding the special effects(there are several points in the film where the alien is clearly just a dude in a suit) and how retro in the technology in the Nostromo is?
1) While I think on the balance I'm glad that the filmmakers chose to take the Space Jesus bit out of the film (although you can still see the outlines of where the idea would have fit) - and while my initial reaction was that it was a terrible idea - the more I've thought about it the less problematic I think the idea actually is. One of the biggest reasons I've come down on the side of thinking it wasn't that bad an idea is that in the week or so since the film has been out in the States I've read a handful of opinion pieces on the film, a couple of which seem to have been written under the impression that Prometheus was some sort of crypto-evangelical or veiled-Christian film. Because, you know, there's a character in the movie who is a Christian who is overtly (albeit non-threateningly) religious. And again, this is one of those instances where I just have to chalk the problem up to people who straight-up cannot understand the most basic aspects of subtext. 

I can understand why under certain circumstances that's the kind of thing that sends up the proverbial red flag for nerds. And I can sympathize - it's not like I've become religious or anything, but over the last few years I've also come to see that there are far more important contemporary political issues than the social status of atheism. (Like, you know, the looming heat-death of capitalism, ecological devastation, the fact that we're living in an honest-to-God police state, et. al.) That said, I still do believe that science-fiction at its core has to be an atheistic genre. Because of its speculative nature that also makes it a great platform to tell stories about faith and religion - sci-fi is full of small-"g" gods and cargo cults and "intelligent designers" and false prophecies and all that fun stuff - without actually, you know, being about Christian (or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever) apologetics. The moment you actually break that wall and provide confirmation of the existence of the Judeo-Christian mythology as the answer to the absolute questions of human existence, then you've stepped away from sci-fi regardless of whatever kind of spaceships you have in your story, because you've taken away the whole premise of the genre - i.e., that mankind is free to make his own way in an essentially materialistic universe and make his own mistakes for better for worse. So sorry, C. S. Lewis, but your sci-fi books are terrible. 

Anyway, there's nothing in Prometheus that violates that rule. In fact, anyone who wants to find "Christian themes" in the movie should probably remember the fact that the movie confirms that the human race was created by sinister aliens who want to kill us all. I don't see how that's any different from, say, a Flying Spaghetti Monster on the list of "things that seem to have been created for the sole purpose of pissing off religious fundamentalists." While this is still only the second best use of Erich von Däniken's goofy Chariots of the Gods in pop culture (the first obviously being Kirby's Eternals, which for all of its status as "third-rate" Kirby was nevertheless pretty fucking fantastic) , the basic idea behind the "ancient astronauts" theory is still a terrifically creepy piece of pop-culture ephemera. That's the problem with "intelligent design," right? The problem any sassy ten-year-old can see? The "intelligent design" proponents obviously have no desire to consider the possibility that the "intelligent designer" wasn't the big-G Judeo-Christian God, even though if you accept the premise that certain aspects of earth biology are "irreducibly complex," well, shit, there's no reason to believe we weren't planted by 500-foot-tall space gods in shining red armor, besides arbitrary prejudice, now is there?

 So, no, I don't see any problem with the religious themes of Prometheus. The whole damn point of the film is that a great many things we thought we knew about the world are complete lies. We aren't a special creation, we're an experiment created - why? Who knows. We certainly weren't ever important enough that they ever thought twice about sending a ship to annihilate us, or even important enough that they ever thought to send a follow-up when that mission failed. We have no reason to believe that LV-223 was anything more than a outpost - a military base, a scientific outpost, a frontier barracks - hell, even just a storage depot is conceivable. Whatever else the Engineers were doing, they don't appear to have been concerned with us at all, for better or worse, in anything but maybe the most abstract "let's make sure these animals don't figure out how to kill us" way. There's nothing at all wrong with the idea that somewhere vaguely around 2,000 years ago the Engineers looked down and saw a massive military build-up and a leap in technology and logistical capabilities across the planet (not just the Roman civil war and its after-effects, either - don't be so Eurocentric, that was also the height of the Han dynasty, if I recall correctly), and decided to give us a chance to clean up our act before they surreptitiously dropped some canisters of black goo into the Roman aqueducts. Or it's conceivable that one of their dudes got lost in Galilee for no reason whatsoever and ended up getting killed for no reason at all (although we have no record of Jesus being seven feet tall and translucent blue) - whatever. Off the top of your head I am certain you can think of half-a-dozen sci-fi stories that use that as the explicit or implicit premise. If we're dealing with ancient astronauts and the creation of life on earth as a glorified botanical experiment, I think we've already drifted pretty far south of any kind of "respectful" treatment of religious themes. And in any event, the movie never pulled the trigger on the idea to begin with, so unless they decide to devote time in the prospective sequel to exploring an  hypothetical plot thread that the filmmakers themselves already mooted, I wouldn't worry about it.

As for Elizabeth Shaw? She's an archaeologist who wears a cross because she has some kind of vague religious beliefs. The fact that we're supposed to be sympathetic to her character doesn't give the film any kind of hidden theological agenda. I don't think the franchise is building towards any sort of great religious revelation like Battlestar: Galactica. (That's assuming we even get another film, considering the fact that this one has done respectable - not fantastic - business, and the fan reaction has been decidedly - if inexplicably - muted.) As an atheist I find myself more and more sympathetic with Nietzsche's position as the years go by. He didn't just say, "God is dead," after all: he said, "God is dead, and we killed him." Certainly, he was our idea, our's to kill, but we weren't prepared to ask the question of what comes after. Based on the extremely poor state of our world, I'd say Nietzsche was more right than wrong: we should probably have spent more time worrying about what it meant that God was dead, than celebrating that fact - and this is a scary idea that I think Prometheus actually does a fairly good job of articulating. What do we do in a "post-God" world? Well, there's the rub, isn't it?

So when Shaw grabs her cross at the end of the film and puts it back around her neck, what does it mean? It doesn't mean that there is a God in heaven and all is well in the world, and if you think it does you need to go back to remedial English. It means, rather, that things are kind of fucked and that Elizabeth Shaw is the last (human) survivor of a poorly-planned ego-trip of a "first contact" mission that was basically a boondoggle from day one, so of course she's going to make sure she's got her cross - it's an object that reminds her of her father, for God's sake. It's not so much about capital-R Religion as keeping hold of one familiar talisman in an increasingly, terrifyingly unfamiliar universe. She doesn't have a lot else to keep her going at that particular moment.
2) My best answer is I don't know, but it will be fun to speculate as to the whys and wherefores for however long until (or ever) they get around to making Prometheus 2: Electric Bugaloo (and that is officially the 10,000,000th Electric Bugaloo joke ever recorded on the internet, folks). My personal feeling is that the Engineers must be dying off or depopulated, or something to that effect, for them to have abandoned an outpost like that for 2,000 years. Maybe Shaw will get back to their home planet and find nothing but ruins and the remains of terrible planet-smashing war machines - or a hive of millions of aliens. Or maybe they'll be an incredibly advanced pacifistic species who turned their back on weapons thousands of years ago and will see the return of a long-banished warship armed to the gills with the most dangerous biohazard in the universe as an unbearable provocation. Who knows!

3) This last question is one to which I honestly haven't given much thought. The original Alien and it's sequel are both such classics at this point that I don't think anything will ever be able to shake that, for better or for worse - people will still continue to watch these movies regardless of whether or not the technology "holds up."

Already, we've seen from the fairly mixed reaction that Prometheus has elicited - which, can I just say again, doesn't make a damn bit of sense to me? this was a fucking awesome movie, I swear it's like nerds these days just go in wanting to hate things - that most people agree it's not a patch on the original. And, you know, I love Prometheus - I'm planning on seeing it again tomorrow, actually, that's how much I love it - but it's not Alien, not even close. Nothing will ever knock Alien from its perch of being one of the best movies of its kind ever made. People who appreciate film will always be able to get what's special about Alien regardless of whether or not they've seen Prometheus, and if they have two brain cells in their head I don't imagine they'll spend too much time worrying about the technology level on the Nostromo.

I made the analogy earlier, but the Star Wars films still make for a good comparison: I'm That Guy who loved the prequels, but if we're being completely honest we all know that they could have been 10,000x better than they were and they still wouldn't have been a patch on the original trilogy. When you watch A New Hope, does it distract you that Jan Dodonna's video display looks like something they whipped up on an Atari 2600? If it does, you're probably not buying the movie anyway. I mean, nothing becomes more dated more quickly than future technology in sci-fi. Go back and read any book from the "Golden Age" of science-fiction - no one, or precious few people, appreciated just how big a deal miniaturized computers would be. Space opera writers for generations fetishized the slide rule as the means for spaceship pilots to do the calculations necessary to steer faster-than-light vehicles. Heinlein, Asimov - all the great grandmasters of the "Golden Age," none of them saw the impact that miniaturization would have on computer technology. So many classic sci-fi stories focused around the special status of "calculators" - guys who could do math in their heads so well that they were borderline supermen. (Special dispensation for Herbert, he actually invented some good in-story reasons for banishing computer technology from the Dune universe.)

Now we're all of us as we speak carrying around in our pockets tiny computers with more processing power than the machines that sent the Apollo 11 to the moon. How fucking weird is that, and just how much does that date any sci-fi made before, I don't know, at least the mid-70s? That was when pocket calculators first started popping up in the real world, right? Remember when the touch displays on Star Trek: The Next Generation were just inconceivably futuristic? Chances are that sometime in the previous 24 hours you played a game of solitaire or Angry Birds on a machine that would have made Commander Data green with envy, and maybe even while you were taking a dump.

So are people going to care that the sci-fi looks dated? Probably, it always does. At this point, though, that's just something you deal with. It's not going to take anything away from Alien. Ultimately, it's all just suspension of disbelief.  

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Laying Back in the Cut

I've been trying for a while now to figure out some kind of "in" to the idea of writing about Mad Men. I've mentioned the show here and there - occasionally in a disparaging context, true - but have never actually managed to write anything substantial about the program. It's not my favorite show, but it has grown on me.

I can't but admire the skill on display at all levels of the show's production. Although, check that, I'm not too fond of the acting. On a show like Mad Men, a period piece wherein younger actors are being asked to masquerade as members of their parents' generation, the seams are that much easier to spot. It would be one thing if the show were set 100 or even 75 years in the past, but as it is the show is set just far enough back that there are still a shit-ton of people still alive who remember very well what it was like to be alive then. Watching the program, I can never quite shake the feeling that I'm watching a group of kids playing dress-up in their parents' closets, trying on old fashions and playing lets' pretend. It doesn't help that so many of the actors seem so cloyingly insincere. Perhaps the high-kabuki stylization of the performances is part of the effect, but ultimately it only succeeds in pulling me out of the stories.

But again I would be lying if I said the show hadn't grown on me. I've been watching along with Violet for the past couple seasons - she quite likes it, I've been dragged along almost despite myself. Even if I've come around to acknowledging that it's not a terrible show, I've still never been able to understand exactly why it is as popular as it is - or, perhaps more precisely, I've never been able to understand exactly why it is as acclaimed as it is. It's as thoroughly middlebrow a piece of television entertainment as America has yet produced. It's quite clever, certainly, but it's clever in the way that only the best movies and contemporary novels are - running through the motions of late-nineteenth century realist narrative tropes with the sturdy confidence of people who have read all the Dreiser and all the Lewis and, yes, even all the Howells, and who were careful students and wrote down all the right tricks for instilling their petit bourgeoisie class avatars with the necessary modicum of feigned introspection through the precise deployment of thematically and stylistically appropriate affective technique. Never has the moral hypocrisy of the upper-middle-classes been so incisively and subtly vivisected!

And then I wake up from my frothy red rage and realize I've once again lapsed into the kind of deliriously hyperbolic and faultlessly elitist criticism for which I have become known - a special kind of rancid half-informed pseudo-Marxist hypocrisy all my own, I understand all too well. And yet, and yet, and yet. There's something about Mad Men that I just can't entirely get behind. I like the show, I think there are many good things about it, and yet for some reason it leaves me unmoved to the extent that it so obviously moves so many other people. I'm persistently annoyed by some aspect of the show - I don't know what that aspect is. Or at least, I haven't been able to articulate my dissatisfaction. Until now!

By sheer coincidence, last week saw the release of a long overdue career retrospective dedicated to the filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. (Yes, father of the Jr.), released through the Criterion Collection's Eclipse series. The unquestioned centerpiece of that set, and of Downey's career, is the 1969 media satire Putney Swope. Set in a late 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm - stop me if you've heard this one before! - Swope is a candid and excoriating critique of capitalism, race relations, black nationalism, politics, the counter-culture, the squares, women, men - basically, anything that moves. This isn't the first time I'd seen Swope, but it was long enough ago that I had forgotten most of the punchlines. It's one of those rare movies you come across that seems to have been broadcast in from another world entirely - not necessarily because it's weird, but because it's right about so many different things, in a way that doesn't seem so much prescient as precognitive.

And, not to put to fine a point on it, if we're comparing its efficacy as satire, it pretty much makes Mad Men look sick.

Putney Swope is about what happens when the token black (the titular Swope) on the board of a major advertising firm is accidentally elected chairman. He fires all the old white people and brings in his own crew of radicals and malcontents (and, of course, one token white left in the executive suite). The first order of business is that the firm needs to stop doing ad work for war toys, alcohol, and tobacco - does that sound familiar? Swope soon has the executives of the Fortune 500 eating out of his hand, and his "Truth and Soul" ads sweep the nation. He always insists on cash up front. 

As silly as it is in places, it's still so relentlessly spot-on that you can't help but marvel. One of the recurring jokes in the movie is how Swope's company succeeded by making advertisements that had nothing to do with the product itself - strange mini-movies that only tangentially relate to the products themselves. At the time this would have seemed incredibly weird, to have 30-90 second-long absurdist narratives with product placement as the ironic punchline, but that has since become more or less the default mode for high-ticket advertising. Making fun of the product itself through ironic juxtaposition - again, what was once biting satire is now old hat. (So I guess Putney Swope invented the 90s?)

My biggest problem with Mad Men has been the fact that, as satire, it's completely toothless. Such a big, fat target as Madison Avenue in the 1960s, smack in the middle of the greatest peacetime economic boom in our history, during the decades of capitalism's great, unstoppable ascent - and Mad Men consistently peters out at around the level of the traditional liberal critiques of consumer culture. Yeah, it's stultifying, you've got a generation of Men in Grey Flannel suits come home from the war with their heads screwed on too tight, you've got women and minorities who suddenly have the temerity to think they have rights, you've got the perils of suburbia and the generation gap and the Vietnam War and all that jazz. The problem with Mad Men is that it always stops short of sinking its teeth into these subjects, because it expects us to care about these characters - their struggles and their stories, their victories and their defeats. That's all well and good, but if we're completely honest, asking us to sympathize with advertising executives is simply absurd. Every time I watch the show I have to cycle through a mantra in the back of my head, "they're monsters, they're monsters, they're monsters . . ." Asking us to sympathize with Don Draper's great identity dysmorphia (and boy was there ever a plotline more tailor-made for wannabe internet academics) is a bit like that feeling we get in Psycho when Norman Bates can't sink the car in the lake - we become complicit in a monstrosity, we find ourselves rooting for the villain, almost despite ourselves. Because, dammit, by any conventional measure Don Draper is a fantastic villain.

Ethics as a category is mooted by the material conditions of industrial capitalism. Everyone is determined by this reality: one of the best things about Mad Men is the spectacle of seeing character after character forced to violate their most (supposedly) deeply held beliefs in order to get ahead - and, the corollary, that those who most willingly cross these lines find the greatest prosperity. It's hard, however, to root for (or against) these characters on a weekly basis, simply because the outcome is already given: either they succeed through corruption or they fail through impotence (an impotence often signified, as with the character of Pete Campbell, by their failure to be sufficiently corrupt). Their business is by definition immoral, unethical, one could even say evil and not feel that the words were unnecessarily heavy for the occasion. Persuasion, coercion, the pathology of object-lust bent to the will of the corporation - these ad-men and women had a hand in creating some of the most hellish aspects of the world in which we still live. I suppose they're just slightly less immoral than munitions dealers. And yet Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark has become one of the most popular and totemic characters of our modern moment not despite but because of his status as the archetypal alpha-male plutocrat asshole. We have become very comfortable identifying with the sociopath, be it Tony Stark or Don Draper.

We hate Pete Campbell not because he's a simpering asshole but because he's a less successful asshole. If that's not an indictment of where we are as a culture, I don't know what is. And, of course, I hate myself for having that same atavistic reaction to the spectacle of Don Draper, avatar of unreconciled alpha-masculinity, swinging his big impeccably tailored dick around those impeccably designed period sets. We want to see competent people succeeding at difficult tasks through skill and charisma, it's hardwired into our nature. It breaks our heart when success in this field requires a compromise in ethics - oh no, Joan, you don't have to sell your body to the night! But if there is one lesson we can take from Mad Men - albeit a lesson that almost no one who watches the program seems to actually take from the show - it's that ethical success in business is impossible. That the show never quite manages to stick this landing - that it never squares the circle that Swope circumnavigates - could be taken for a lack of nerve, but more likely it indicates that the men and women making the show are ignorant of exactly which questions they've been asking. I admit there is a chance that I could be mistaken, that the show could be leading towards the kind of anti-capitalist epiphany that its subject matter seemingly begs (let's see what they do next year when the show moves - necessarily - to 1968 and the downfall of western civilization). But so far there's simply too much emphasis on the soap-opera aspects of these characters' lives to make me believe that they could ever veer away from a position where the audience's implicit sympathy is assumed. Would the show end with the failure and disgrace of the main characters?

Putney Swope triumphs because it takes its critique one step further than Mad Men: instead of pussy-footing around the point, it acknowledges that advertising is inherently unethical regardless of the products it is put to the task of selling. Eventually the Powers-That-Be - including the President of the United States - put their collective weight on Swope and force him to accede to their demands, to finally get with the program and start selling alcohol, tobacco, and war toys. Swope assents - or at least, appears to assent - returning to his company and laying out new corporate policies. His crew, committed to the ideals of "Truth and Soul" advertising, reject the plan to start selling ads for morally reprehensible products. This is the climax of the movie, and it works because you can't really know what exactly Swope is thinking: was he being serious when he returned to New York with the resolution to upend the company and effectively "sell out"? When his board balks and refuses to compromise on their principles, Swope asserts that he had been testing them to see if they would budge. With that decision made, the firm is kaputt - with government and industry conspiring to corrupt "Truth and Soul," Swope swings a bag of cash over his shoulder and walks out the back door.

The message is clear: ultimately, there's little difference between writing ads for pimple cream and ads for children's flamethrowers. It's all about climbing inside people's brains and asking them to spend their money - and once you accept the principle that commercial coercion is acceptable, the content becomes secondary, it's all blood money, every single dollar of it. By the end of the movie Swope can't even pretend that it's anything other than pure hypocrisy to insist that one kind of selling is somehow more or less moral than another type of selling. It's all part and parcel of the same culture of suggestion.

He does the only thing any rational person would do in that situation, when put in the position of either violating his or her principles or accepting failure. He takes the money and runs.

This is the quandary of our modern moment, of course: we are all of us forced into complicity with an unethical situation, and furthermore, are not even guaranteed (far from guaranteed!) that our consent - our forced cooperation - will translate into success. In order to live and function on a day-to-day basis we have to consent to a situation that we know will eventually swallow us whole. We don't get a choice in the matter. I guess what frustrates me the most about Mad Men is that by telling the story it's telling, it begs these questions while never actually acknowledging that these are the logical conclusions to which these thought processes naturally trend.

For me, the unquestionable low point of the season to date was the episode, "At the Codfish Ball," which featured an appearance by Megan Draper's heretofore unseen father, the academic Emile Calvet. Now, again, I may be mistaken - they could have been setting up future threads that will be picked up in later seasons - but based simply on the evidence of this episode, Calvet's character appears to represent an enormous missed opportunity. Calvet is obviously supposed to be a satire of your stereotypical mid-century Marxist-leaning academic - your Sartre, your Adorno, insert any generic leftist philosopher, I'm sure few people watching the show would have the patience to be bothered with actually differentiating between existentialism and the Frankfurt School. Calvet is offered as a figure of ridicule, a graying old man whose criticism of Don's lifestyle and career is as toothless as it is irrelevant. My question is, has anyone on the writing staff of Mad Men actually read The Culture Industry? I can't answer that question, but I would guess from the evidence of "At the Codfish Ball" that the answer is a distinct no. Because otherwise they wouldn't be twisting themselves into such knots in an attempt to critique capitalism without actually appearing to critique capitalism, if you know what I mean.

They always fall just short of the kind of full-throated critique of ideology that you might desperately want to see the show deliver, and that you might think our current precarious moment in history might otherwise demand. But instead we're stuck once again essentially refighting the same tired culture war skirmishes that don't mean anything much anymore, if they ever did. That's Mad Men, for me, in a nutshell. I watch, but I'm hardly proud of myself for being sucked in.