Thursday, 15 December 2016

Cynthie


Every year, my wife asks me to write her a short ghost story for Christmas, and this is this year's. I may have gone ... slightly outside my remit.

Enjoy!

When I received the telegram from Sir Walter Hawthorne, I must confess I was surprised. We had had some short acquaintance in during the Great War, both serving on the staff of General, now Viscount, Byng, and as far as I had remembered we had shared little in common, despite our roles as medical professionals in a war that made a mockery of such.

There was one thing, however. Both of us had expressed an interest in so-called spiritualism - although as I recalled, his studies had taken a far more occult bent than my own more casual dabbling. It was to this his telegram alluded.

My dear Julian (our acquaintance had obviously meant more to him!)
I have reached a critical point in my studies and require some help to make the next stage a success. Please attend as soon as able.
Walter.

I considered his request carefully, but having no patients in the immediate future, at least none that could not be put off. I packed my suitcases, left instructions for the housekeeper, and headed up into the wilder reaches of the Annapolis Valley.

As the motor car rattled northwards, I tried to remember what little I knew of Sir Walter. He was married, certainly, and I remember distinctly the impression that she was a foreigner of some kind, due to vague references he had made. More definite was his daughter - his face had lit up when he talked about her and he had even had shown me a wrinkled browning photograph of a stern looking girl in a floral dress.

The girl stuck in my memory because of a peculiarity of her features. She was not an ugly child, but a certain elongation of her face leant her eyes a strange look. I would have put it down to her foreign parentage if I had not seen mixed race children on my travels. If her mother was some form of foreigner, I had no idea from where she came.

The other oddity was the picture itself. It was the fashion in those days for the picture of a child to be fully in the picture, or else a close-up of the face. This was neither, and instead there was the upper half of the child in the lower half of the picture and an eternity of brown space above her head. This was more easily explained, however. Sir Walter had clearly taken the picture himself, and as an inexperienced amateur, had not framed her in it correctly.

Eventually the road gave way to a rutted track, and then a sharp right turn up a steep driveway brought me to Sir Walter’s abode. It was a handsome house of Georgian vintage, with high windows and a certain solidity of structure houses of that era possess. After passing dozens of farmsteads that could be described as little more than shacks, the house was a reassuring sight, and I at once pictured a roaring fireplace and a hearty meal.

When Sir Walter answered the door himself, something felt amiss. He was a man of considerable means, and therefore answering his own door must have been an eccentricity rather than a necessity. There didn’t appear to be any other staff around either.

As I stepped over the threshold, I was immediately hit by a wave of heat. Instead of the relief I expected, I almost staggered and gagged. This was not the heat of a fire - it was a wet, almost tangible thing, that stifled the air and filled it with a smell not unlike rotting fruit. As I stepped into the kitchen there seemed to be no source for this miasma. It was foul.

It even seemed to bother Sir Walter a little, and he mopped his brow as he led me towards an armchair. When we sat, I properly examined my old wartime companion for the first time.

He was a stooped, quiet man, who owed his title more to ancestral fortune than to any merit on his part. A shock of grey hair shot out from each temple, and to my astonishment I noticed he was wearing rubber boots. He was nervous, and avoided eye contact with me. Instead he removed his spectacles, repeatedly rubbing at them and putting them back. After a few minutes of this - he standing, I sitting, to add to the awkward atmosphere - he seemed to focus on me properly for the first time.

“Well, Julian, shall we begin?”

At this a certain degree of anger hit me. He had dragged me up to his house with little to no explanation, and now was expecting me to proceed in a matter I knew nothing about!

“Look, Sir Walter (he waved his hand at this as if the title meant little), I have driven a long way with little to no rest, and I believe the very least I am owed is an explanation for why I am here.”

He crumpled at that. He suddenly looked very old, and very tired. He indicated towards the mantle.

“I…” He stopped and composed himself. “I wish to see Cynthie again.”

On the mantle was a copy of the same photograph I had seen years before, beautifully framed and lined with black velvet.

I regretted my anger immediately. My own spiritualism had withered in the face of too many frauds, but obviously his had not, He had contacted me in the hopes of conversing with the dead.

“I’m terribly sorry, Walter. I had no idea.”

“She’s with her mother now.” he said, and there was a strange hint of malice in his voice as well as grief. “But with your help, I hope that tonight I will see her again.”

He had become distant again, so I stood and indicated that he should lead on.

He led me down into a cavernous basement. It was from here that I realised the smell was coming from, as some glutinous mixture of enzymes covered the entire floor. He indicated that I should put on another pair of rubber boots he had at the top of the stairs.

Down at the bottom the smell was almost intolerable. I had spoken to a handful of people who had the misfortune to inhale mustard gas and this was similar to how they described the sensation. It seemed to cling to my very clothes, and penetrated into the furthest reaches of my sinuses. There was something else to it now, something worse than rotting fruit. Something … burnt.

In the centre of the room a small platform was raised, and on it, arcane symbols had been carefully drawn out in chalk. I had seen some of them before, in books I dare not mention, but others were unfamiliar to me. I examined them for a few minutes, before Sir Walter busied me away from it.

“Nonono. You stand here.”

He indicated a spot on the far side of the cellar. Here I was far from both the platform and the curious array of equipment that Sir Walter went back to adjusting. He switched on an electric spotlight above the platform, and plunged the rest of the basement into pitch black.

“In a moment,” he cried out, “I will run a current through the substrate on the floor. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”

I affirmed that I understood, and he flipped the switch. There was a buzzing of an enormously powerful generator, and around the platform a sickly glow, lit by flashes and sparks, spread from the liquid. It glowed, to the extent that I could see Sir Walter’s grim face by his machinery, concentrating intently on the centre of the room. This went on for what seemed like several minutes, and I was just about to yell that Sir Walter had better power down or risk burning out his equipment, movement caught my eye at the edge of the illumination.

Into the spotlight stepped Sir Walter’s daughter. Cynthie had grown into a young woman, with thick black hair cascading down her front. Her eyes were closed, and I thanked god in that moment that they were, for as she stepped forward again, the rest of her body came into view.

From the waist up she was normal, or at the very least, human. She was naked, and her long hair preserved her modesty. Her hands were clasped in front of her in a mockery of prayer. From the waist down, there was something … else. She had not come fully onto the platform yet, and I could only see a hint of a scaly blackness below her waist.

Two giant arachnid forelegs came out in front of her, and pulled her snake-like rear fully onto the platform. I shrieked in that moment, and she opened her eyes and stared at me curiously with fully human eyes. Below her waist her limbs moved again, and four insectile legs clasped the edges of the platform, supporting the bulk of what was behind. Dear God! No wonder he had taken the photograph in such a way!

She turned from me and looked at Sir Walter.

“Father.” she said, silky smooth and without a hint of affection.

“Cynthie!” he said, stepping forward.

The final horror came as a shadow detached itself from the wall behind me, and moved around the edge of the room with inhuman speed. I never saw it clearly, but as Sir Walter reached towards his daughter, something foul and insectile reached around and lifted him clear off the floor and spun him around.

A dozen eyes glittered in the darkness. Thus far I was rooted to the spot, but the final thing that sent me careening from that house of horrors was when the second creature spoke. It was a raspy, cooing noise, and infinitely horrible and alien, yet also undeniably female. Sir Walter screamed at what she said, and as I ran up the stairs there was a ragged, tearing noise and the screams died.

However, it was the words themselves that would keep me from sleep for countless nights to come. I would play them over and over again, and marvel at the nightmare I had narrowly escaped:

“Foolish Lover. Did you really think that someone else could pay the price for you?”

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Quiet Ones - Movie Review


God damn it. I was really hoping to be able to recommend this one, given my well documented love of Hammer and given that it seemed to have such an intriguing set of ideas.

The set up is an interesting one. A professor called Joseph played by Jared Harris* believes that mental illness is merely a manifestation of negative energy, and that it is possible to draw this energy out and...capture it? Dissipate it? This part is a little vague. To this end he has enlisted the help of two feisty (read: irritating) undergraduates, a camera operator, and a very disturbed young woman called Jane Harper. His mantra, of "cure one person, cure humanity" actually makes a kind of sense, given that anything they can do to prove that his idea is correct will open up an entirely new area of beneficial research.

Couple of ibuprofen, she'll be right as rain.

Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as that. Jane has an invisible friend named Evey and it becomes increasing obvious that Evey isn't exactly a manifestation of mental illness, but something else entirely. Exactly what she is can be guessed at around the halfway mark. 


The film overall has a major problem that I will discuss towards the end of the review, but I am going to digress at this point and talk about jump-scares. These are all well and good when used sparingly, but while they make the viewer jump, they can also dissipate tension. They should be sprinkled lightly over the horror movie pie. This film backs a truck up and dumps a load onto the pie, and some of them are so well telegraphed you switch off waiting for something to go OOGA BOOGA. Not good.

The dynamic between the Professor and his patient is by far the most interesting part of the film It is implied to be a co-dependent relationship, but also a mildly abusive one, and Jane is well enough developed as a character for her 'treatment' scenes to be uncomfortable viewing. As the experiment fails to produce results, Joseph pushes ever harder in his 'treatment', even burning her skin. There comes a point at which you wonder if Evey is less of a danger to Jane, let alone everyone else. 


The cameraman acts as a foil to all of this. He is not the believer that Joseph is, but is sympathetic towards Jane to the point of romantic feelings. His journey from being the skeptic to being the first to suggest the supernatural is a thing I feel the film could have developed more. He also adds in a more practical and interesting angle: the ability to use found footage techniques in a non-found footage film. When the camera's rolling, you know bad things are going down, but after watching The Borderlands last week my bar for found footage has been set very high, and despite it being an original idea, I feel that found footage is an all-or-nothing.

"Dude, this thing's heavy. Can we go to an exterior tracking shot or something?"

The problem with the film, the big problem, is that the plot doesn't really go anywhere. Sure, there are creepy moments (a scene in the attic is unbearable) but every time the plot has an opportunity to do something interesting, it shifts back into familiar grooves and into neutral. There is nothing original here and a lot that is guaessable, and the film isn't good enough for it to carry off a story we've seen a hundred times before. On the way home, I listed in my head the ways the plot could have gone which would have re-engaged me, but ultimately I left the theatre disappointed when I wanted to be terrified. After the triumphs of Wake Wood and The Woman in Black, sadly, I would give this one a miss.

Also wins a prize for the most hilariously awkward shoe'd-in title-drop in cinema history.


__________

* AKA Professor Moriarty from Game of Shadows, and the only person I recognized, although one of the others was apparently in the Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Borderlands - Movie Review


I realized as I looked back through my archive the other day that I seem to have reviewed a lot of 'found footage' films - some of which were very good indeed - but what was properly missing was one from Old Blighty. So imagine my surprise when I bought The Borderlands on a whim and discovered not only was it a found-footage (or FF, which I'm sure will catch on as an acronym) it also wasn't crap! Hoorah!


Even though this might give you that impression. Worst. Box Art. Ever.

The plot concerns three men - a team sent by the Vatican to investigate a potentially miraculous event. I have no idea how accurate this is to how they actually go about investigating miracles, but it's plausible enough for the movie to work. In an interesting twist, it is the priests who are the most cynical: they have uncovered too many forgeries and people misguided by 'faith'. It is the third, an annoying techie, who really buys into the fact that the church and it's resident priest that they are investigating are not quite what they appear to be. All of the cast are pretty much unknowns but expertly cast and acted, which goes a long way to making them feel like real people.

The first thing that this film has going for it is that it provides an excellent justification for the same question that dogs every FF - why do they keep filming when bad stuff is happening? The simple answer provided here is that everything has to be documented for the Vatican. Hence, everyone wears headcams at all times, and several remote cameras are put up in both the church and the house they all stay in. 

The second is that it spends a lot of time establishing its characters and exploring their world-views. Most FF characters are essentially meat on the hoof, impossibly attractive audience foils to whom Bad Stuff Happens. All four of the leads here, however, feel like real people, with real histories, sometimes with each other, and personal demons that can never really be overcome. One is presented unsympathetically as a functional alcoholic, for example.

The set design is wonderfully claustrophobic. The mounted cameras cover the whole church, it seems, but still don't seem to cover enough of it. The dark corners in which something could be lurking, the terrible noises coming from...somewhere and the glitches in the recording all add up to moments of unbearable tension. Watch this late at night with the lights off, and you'll soon be creeping yourself out. 

This is the church DURING THE DAY. You'd better believe it's worse at night.

It is a bit of a slow burner, however, so if you put it on during the day or half-watch it I imagine it's effect will be diminished. There are long conversations on the meaning of faith, along with things like the church records and previous incidents. I can see this being a film that bores some people. I, however, loved it and would recommend it to anyone who is a horror fan.

There's another reason I would recommend this - the ending. Without spoiling anything, I had to rack my brains to think if I'd seen anything like it before, but if so, I'm 100% sure this is the first time I've seen someone do it 100% right. Oh maaaaan. Sequel please!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Horror At Sea, Or Andy Watches Terrible Movies Again

I do enjoy championing sub-genres. Whether it be the rash of crappy monster movies that came out in the late 90s (which is definitely something I want to write about at some point) to the amazing variety of Night Of The Living Dead knockoffs, I am always happy to go digging in the crud to find the gold. Recently, having once more savored the sumptuous feast that is Jaws, I felt an overwhelming desire to find other sea-based horror movies. Having watched Deep Rising so many times a fear the disk is wearing out (and fearing that my fiancee might suspect I loved it more than her) I struck out to find horror in aquatic form. Here are the results of my search.

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Virus


Set-up: An abandoned Russian research vessel is found adrift in a hurricane, with no sign of the crew. The intrepid crew of a tug boards in the hope of claiming salvage. Instead, what they find is apparently the Borg from Star Trek. Hijinks ensue.

Star Power: Kiefer Sutherland and Jamie Lee Curtis, who should both know better.


Opinion: Yeah, no. Even as a fun romp this isn't very good. The monsters are creepy and kind of icky, being cyborgs, but also seem really slow and ponderous. The fact that a couple of the crew die in non-cyborg related ways and none of them seem very bright makes them seem even less threatening. Also, in case you haven't worked it out yet, The Virus Is Man. Yawn.

Best Moment: Undoubtedly the part where they get into contact with the 'intelligence' behind the cyborgs. They ask it what it wants and it starts listing body parts.

Worst Moment: "Wow, that is a really, really large pile of explosives in the middle of the room. And look! They are attached to some sort of rope that is running out. Maybe I should do something abou-" *BOOOOM*.

Sink or Swim?: Probably not worth bothering with. There are much better films that do the same thing. 



Leviathan


Set-up: A sunken Russian vessel (sounds familiar) is found near a deep-sea mining facility, with a sealed safe containing the Captain's Log. Said Captain's Log describes a virus that was genetically mutating the crew before the ship sank, and you better believe he's included a free sample in the safe. Basically, it's what would happen if you blended Alien, The Thing and The Quatermass Experiment in a blender, and then doused it in seawater.

Star Power: Peter Weller, aka Robocop, and the criminal from the Home Alone movies who wasn't Joe Pesci.

Opinion: This one doesn't have an original thought in it's head. Which is a shame, because while the setup is interesting, it constantly reminds you that there are better films you could be watching. You can also pretty much point out the survivors from the first ten minutes onwards. Having said that though, it does get points for knowing not to show its creepy monsters too soon and in too much detail and has lovely set design.

Best Moment: The one moment of true original creepiness comes when one crew member tells another to get well soon, having seen him move under his blankets. Of course, we know he's already dead...

Worst Moment: Any time the company rep appears onscreen it stops the movie dead and kills off any potential atmosphere. She needs to be cut out.

Sink or Swim?: Sink, unless you like deja vu.


Ghost Ship


Set-up: A deserted cruise ship turns up in the Bering Sea after 40 years adrift and a crew sets out to salvage her. After arriving, they decide to not actually, yknow, salvage the ship, and instead wander the corridors having spooky things happen to them.

Star Power: Gabriel Byrne and Karl Urban (the other Robocop). Also, a very young Emily Browning.


Opinion: Hoo boy, this is a dumb one. This ship has been floating the high seas for 40 years in a shipping channel and nobody noticed. Also, nobody noticed a bunch of other salvage crews going missing in the same area. Not to mention the fact that the crew never does anything with any urgency. They all have a serious meeting about the ship sinking at one point, plan a course of action, and go back to wandering about. BUT, it does have a sense of fun, which is a first for this list.

Best Moment: The opening scene, set 40 years in the past, is so over the top it actually makes the rest of the film feel like a let down.

Worst Moment: The ending makes precisely zero sense.

Sink or Swim?: Swim, if you're in the mood for a trash. It's not scary, but it is kind of dumb and fun in the same way something like Python is.



Below


Set-up: A US submarine picks up three survivors of a sunken hospital ship during World War II. Meanwhile, the new commanding officer is struggling because the "old captain just fell off the side" story is beginning to sound a tad unconvincing. And then creepy things start happening...

Star Power: Probably the greates concentration of "Hey it's that guy!" guys in cinema history. Bruce Greenwood, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Flemyng, Zach Galifianakis...


Opinion: At last! A proper creepy, well plotted, thriller, with enough spooks and tension to keep you on your toes. Also, being in such a cramped environment means there's a lot less scope for people wandering off and a lot more claustrophobia. Also has one of the best uses of sound in a horror movie - I can only imaginw how much creepier this would be in a cinema or with half-decent surround sound.

Best Moment: Two scenes are unbearably tense. The first is when a depth charge fails to detonate and it bounces veeery slowly down the hull. The second involves a reflection in a mirror, and is audaciously simple and brilliantly sinister.

Worst Moment: The ending seems a little anti-climactic, but then again, some big effects-fest wouldn't be appropriate either.

Sink or Swim?: Swim. The only one on this list that really creeped me out and the only one I recommend unequivocally. 

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So there you have it. If aquatic horror is your thing, the smorgasbord is mostly smeared with dung, but there is the occassional vol-au-vent. What a foul image, I do apologise. Anyway, until next time. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Prometheus Explored Part 3

Fathers and Sons: Prometheus and Family

"Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?"                                                                                    - David, Prometheus 
Perhaps the most fundamental relationships in Prometheus are the familial and adoptive bonds that exist between them. In fact, it is almost possible to relate all of the major characters together into a pseudo-family tree of Elizabeth Shaw, Meredith Vickers, David, Peter Wayland, and of course the Engineers and their creations - each person in various degrees of dysfunctional relationships to the people around them.

The irony of this situation is that there is only one 'true' family bond within the crew - Peter Wayland and his daughter Meredith Vickers. This relationship is shown to be cold in the extreme; Vickers is rejected in several ways by her father. Professionally, she hasn't been 'trusted' with this mission alone, despite being an accomplished businesswoman. She is reminded in company that she is a daughter, rather than a son, and rejected in favour of an artificially created 'son'. At the most fundamental level however, the rejection is much more psychologically personal. 

One of the major themes of The Odyssey is the idea of Odysseus rejecting other potential forms of immortality in exchange for the limited form offered by his family. Peter Wayland is an inversion of that, as he actively seeks immortality, thus denying his daughter the inheritance and freedom that could potentially be hers. He has rejected her by disinheriting her at the most basic level imaginable. Vickers states "A king has his reign, and then he dies." but this is not acceptable to Wayland. In some ways he is the most child-like of all the characters, demanding of his substitute parent the Engineer that the rules be changed for him and only for him. He will live forever. It is almost certain to deduce from his character that he would then do his best to rise above the Engineers as well. It is not difficult to see why David would express the sentiment at the top of this page if he had been created by Wayland.

This relationship is counterpointed to the brief glimpse we get of Elizabeth Shaw's relationship with her father. He is clearly a warm, loving man, spending time with his daughter and answering her difficult questions about life and death. He has of course orphaned Shaw by the time the film begins, however, and many of her actions are characterized by efforts to find a replacement father figure in the form of the Engineers. Her other tragedy, of course, is that she cannot become a parent herself, a subject I explored in the previous essay (1).

David is also somewhat rejected by Wayland, his 'father' figure. He is told, indirectly, that he has no soul, and it is clear from the look on his face that this is an idea that troubles him. In the context it is given, it is also a petty and mean thing to say, even if those are things which wouldn't necessarily upset him. He is, however, incapable of the same level of resentment that Vickers shows towards Wayland, but is also incapable of grieving his death at the hands of the Engineer. It is left ambiguous how much David actually 'feels' but it is almost certainly more than he lets on. The sibling rivalry he shares with Vickers, which is exacerbated by the fact that they even look a bit alike, seems on first glance to be all one way, with him calmly reacting to her aggression. On closer inspection, however, it appears that he tries to poison her, suggesting a far higher level of resentment that his exterior suggests (1).

The target for his poisoning 'experiment' is Shaw's partner Charlie Holloway - the one character who is shown to repeatedly insult and belittle David. However, there is something else at work here. David is one of the most interesting characters in this family dynamic - everybody else is seeking reconciliation with a father figure; either the Engineers or Peter Wayland. There is a hint that David is seeking something else in the person of Elizabeth Shaw - not a mother figure exactly, but a softer presence (2).  Poisoning Holloway is an attempt to gain Shaw's undivided attention. It is interesting that at the end of the film, not only are they the only two still alive, David is also completely dependent on her. 

The final parental and child figures are the Engineer and the final emergent creature. The Engineer, as discussed in the previous essay (4) is a mix of religious icon and father figure, and in a human sense, fails at both. He rejects his 'children' out of hand, and doesn't appear to share any of the 'family values' the humans display and search for. Finally, the alien creature that emerges from his stomach at the end is the ultimate embodiment of the philosophy expressed at the top of the page. It literally kills its parent in a grim parody of birth, and does not seek another. As a final coda to a film rife with corrupted family relationships, its impact cannot be overestimated. 

__________

(1) Gods and Supermen: Prometheus and Religion
(2) In one scene Vickers pushes him up against the wall and threatens him. He responds by inocuously asking if she wants tea. In the next scene, David poisons Holloway by droping hte black liquid in his drink. It's subtle and very creepy. 
(3) His attributes of reserve and calm, a 'stiff upper lip', in other words, are traditionally male qualities, and the parental figure he seeks is therefore maternal as opposed to paternal. 
(4) See (1)


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Prometheus Explored Part 2

Gods and Supermen: Prometheus and Religion

"They aren't what we thought they were. I was wrong. We were so wrong."                                  - Elizabeth, Prometheus
There are many religious threads within Prometheus. Here, I have chosen to focus on, what I believe, are the three most important, the allusion and ultimate subversion of the Greek myth of Prometheus and the origins of man, the hellish parody of the Christian Nativity played out through Elizabeth Shaw and the continuing faith she displays despite this, and the ideas of the Übermensch concept expressed in Peter Weyland and the Engineers themselves.

The mythical figure from who the name of the film and ship is derived from is famous for stealing fire from the Gods of Olympus and giving it to man, incurring the wrath of Zeus. As is true with all Ancient Greek myths, there is no one definitive retelling of the story, but the most widely known is that for this transgression, Prometheus was chained to a rock for all eternity, and an eagle was sent daily to feast on his liver.

Less well known is the fact that he was also credited with being the creator of humanity out of clay, with the goddess Athena breathing life into Prometheus' creations. Overall he was seen as a benefactor to mankind, one who represents striving for a better existence and, in more modern traditions, scientific inquiry (1)

The 'creation of life' seen at the beginning of Prometheus is one of the scenes most difficult to interpret. Firstly, the sweep of the camera reveals that there is some life on the planet already - we see grasses, but no animal life - so already it isn't a creation, merely a 'seeding' of specific gene sequences into the existing ecosystem. There is no date stamp for when this occurs, and in fact no indication that this could be Earth at all. It merely looks like it probably is.

Secondly, the way the 'seeding' is accomplished is highly strange. The Engineer is left on a planet at the top of a waterfall (2) and drinks a black liquid that attacks his DNA. Clearly in a lot of pain and rapidly mutating, he falls from the waterfall, before completely dissolving in the water at the bottom. His 'remains', the now broken up parts of his amino acids, 'seed' the water, leading to cellular development that rapidly propagates over the title screen, implying that these will survive and rapidly mutate into new life forms - possibly even us.

Later, the cave paintings imply that to a certain degree the Engineers return to Earth at intervals to communicate with early man. The fact that David is apparently able to learn to communicate with one suggests they also gave us the gift of language.

The difficulty comes in interpreting what the Engineer is doing. Is it a scientific experiment? A religious ceremony? Ritual suicide? Many of the difficulties of Prometheus arise from interpreting the Engineers' actions, and characters in the film misinterpreting them. There is an interpretation that I consider to solve many of these questions, and it is certainly one that is implied throughout the film. I will return to it later in this essay.

The whole opening, and the implication that they have been communicating with us since, ties in to the myth of Prometheus beyond the creation of man in important ways. The first is that if we substitute it for fire, language in many ways is a form of technology, one that has been 'gifted' from the Engineers. The opening, up until the arrival of the ship at LV-223 is essentially a modern retelling of the myth. The fact that the other Engineers are shown to be clearly not benevolent also ties into the Greek Pantheon - the Gods of Ancient Greece were often actively evil compared to human moral standards.

The second religious aspect of Prometheus is the Christian aspect - particularly the faith of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and the parody of the nativity that occurs through her. Elizabeth is one of the key figures of Prometheus, essentially the protagonist. She is a Christian, albeit one who's specific denomination is never expressly stated. She also engages in premarital sex and clearly believes in an ancient Earth so is clearly not a devout fundamentalist or biblical literalist. In fact, beyond her attachment to her father's cross, there is little that we see her do that could be described as 'Christian behaviour'; she doesn't ever pray or say grace before eating, for example. Despite this, she is still treated by much of the crew as a strange anachronism rather than an object of ridicule. David seems curious about this aspect of her, but then David is curious about everything. Her early characterization is interesting, in that her ideas about the Engineers reflect her religious identity - vague, naive and underdeveloped. What she expects of her God and what she expects of the Engineers are never made clear and clearly she has little idea herself. She has faith, but it is initially the faith of a child.

One of the early scenes that seems almost like a throwaway is the charismatic Captain Janek putting up a Christmas Tree. Along with Elizabeth's closing monologue, these are the only to indicators of time and time passing during the whole film (3). However, this almost acts as a symbolic foreshadowing of Elizabeth's fate over the next few days and the parallels it draws with the Christmas story. Elizabeth amalgamates two women from the bible, Elizabeth (4), the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Elizabeth is implied to be infertile in the Gospel of Luke, and is gifted a child by the angel Gabriel. Another, more obscure parallel is that in one of the apocrypha, her husband Zechariah is murdered. The parallels with Mary are, again, an impossible pregnancy, being informed of it by non-humans, in the case of Prometheus' Elizabeth, David, in the case of Mary, Gabriel, and a Christmas birth of an unearthly child.

Here, the similarities stop and Prometheus slips into a horrifying parody. The Christmas story ends with the birth of the savior of mankind, the celestial being that will lead us out of the darkness into the light. Dr Elizabeth Shaw instead births a hideous, tentacled monster, a foul, corrupt creature that she immediately tries to kill. It's birth and survival is essentially a failed abortion. It is a visual representation of the failure of her assumptions about the Engineers and the universe.

However it is interesting to note that this creature does in fact save Elizabeth's life by attacking and killing the enraged Engineer. She has given birth to a hideous creature, but it is, in some way, her own personal savior.

Ultimately though, her failure to kill this initial offspring leads to the birth of something far worse - a creature that appears to be a prototype of the creatures in the Alien franchise. Rather than birth a savior, she has done the opposite - given birth to a destroyer and a monster (5). In the dome where the black liquid is first found, an Alien creature in a crucifixion pose is shown clearly above the head in the center of the room, reinforcing these ideas.

Despite all this, she never loses her faith, and as the sole human survivor sets off to find further answers. Her faith is implied to have somewhat matured - no longer does she hold the same naive ideas as before about the Engineers. She still wants answers, of course, but perhaps has a better idea of which questions she should be asking.

Dr Elizabeth Shaw provides an interesting contrast to Peter Weyland. Whereas the former wishes to 'meet her makers' in order to 'worship' them, Weyland seeks to place himself on their level and possibly even usurp them. He sees himself as superhuman, an Übermensch, who has gifted humanity with huge amounts of technology (6). However, he is a cruel, vindictive and morally bankrupt man for whom the mission is simply to fulfill his selfish purpose. To this end, he indirectly causes the deaths of several of the crew of the Prometheus and is ultimately killed by the awoken Engineer. As he dies, he whispers "There's nothing." His philosophy, in an ironic twist, to merely extend a meaningless life, is what kills him.

The most complex and mysterious religious elements are those displayed by the Engineers themselves. The information we are given is very thin on the ground - we essentially have what we see of the opening sequence, covered earlier in this essay, the pyramid structure itself and the behavior of the live Engineer after it is revived from stasis. A lot of criticisms aimed at this film are aimed at the behavior of this Engineer and of the plan to wipe life out on Earth that it tries to enact.

The first, simplest explanation is that we are simply a science experiment that has run its course, and that we are essentially being 'reset' for the next experiment. However, there are hints that the true motivations of the Engineer are more complicated than that. The 'experiments' that the Engineers carry out are either vast, multi-generational affairs, or the Engineers are extremely long-lived. Given their similar DNA, the former is more likely. In addition, the room where they first find the black liquid contains a giant sculpture of an Engineer head in the center, and the canisters arranged almost like offerings. This is clearly not a storage room - we see one of those later - or a manufacturing plant, and the presence of the head and murals suggest some very interesting conclusions. What we are looking at is a temple.

As well, the Engineers we observe in the film never display any sort of fear of death. The Engineer in its final duel with Elizabeth's offspring struggles, to be sure, but even at the moment he knows he's lost he is angry, rather than scared. The Engineer at the beginning clearly feels pain in its suicide, but unflinchingly drinks the liquid and succumbs (7).

All this leads to one possible explanation for the Engineers that fits with everything that we see, even if it is never fully spelled out. The Engineers, unlike Weyland, are true Übermensch. They worship an idealized vision of themselves, a self-sacrificing, productive member of a society that transcends even a fear of death in the pursuit of the betterment of his species. Symbolically, they are much larger than us and extremely muscular - literal supermen.

This theory explains to important decisions made by the Engineers during the film. The first is to wipe out humanity. We have clearly been educated by them in the past, but as we know from human history, ideas about an afterlife, gods and ultimately God emerged instead and we may have simply been a failed experiment to create 'intelligent' life - at least as they saw it.

It also explains the extreme violent reaction the awoken Engineer has to the humans that surround it. A creature asking for it to give it more life is not just impertinent, it is absolutely antithetical to the Engineer's world view. The request for more life is, in this Engineer flavored version of Nietzche's philosophy, tantamount to heresy. Having killed the humans immediately surrounding it, it then proceeds straight away to continue the attempt to destroy Earth, convinced of its moral obligation to do so by the actions of the humans it's encountered.

This philosophy, beyond an abstract, is something very strange to humanity as well, including those in the audience, rendering his actions the actions of an evil being. It has a morality, to be sure, but it is one that is alien to our own. It is the most subtle and difficult to grasp philosophical strand in the film, and can be missed on multiple viewings. The idea that an alien being can be so different in thought as well as appearance is one that makes Prometheus one of the most interesting science fiction films of recent times.

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(1) Prometheus also figures prominently in other stories, particularly one involving an attempt to trick Zeus with the remains of a cow. The best sources for his myths are Hesiod's Theogeny and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which can be read online here.
(2) The enormous spaceship is clearly leaving. He's been left alone to die. 
(3) This puts the time-span of the film over about a week. 
(4) The name is a coincidence. The Prometheus character is named after Dr Elizabeth Shaw, a companion of Doctor Who from the Jon Pertwee era. 
(5) The only other film to equate the Alien creature with a demon or the Devil is Alien 3. In it, a doomsday-like cult of monkish violent ex-prisoners attempt to kill an Alien in a semi-abandoned lead foundry. The parallels with a biblical hell are pretty obvious and it's the best original idea in what is generally regarded as a weaker entry in the series. 
(6) According to the background material, virtually everything from David the Android to interstellar travel is implied to have come from the Weyland Company. 
(7) The only scene which may contradict this is the Engineers running from something in the hologram David activates soon after they start exploring. However, if there had been a black liquid spill as is implied by the head the crew finds, then of course the Engineers would move to get away from it and contain it. They may be fearless, but they're not idiots.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Prometheus Explored Part 1

In the Shadow of a Monster - Prometheus and Alien

"You don't know what you're dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. It's structural perfection is matched only by it's hostility."                                                                                      - Ash, Alien 
Prometheus is a film that has garnered a rather mixed reaction from critics and viewers alike. It is thematically a very complex and rich film that doesn't spell out easy answers to questions the viewers might have, and is open to interpretation in a lot of instances (1). This series of essays attempts to address these themes and offer a few interpretations of the events of the film, as well as explore the two main themes of the flaws of human-centrism in a non-human centrist universe, and parental abandonment.

However in order to do so, one must first move Prometheus out from under the shadow of its predecessor Alien. A lot of the advertising for Prometheus was focused around the connection of both the in-movie universe and Ridley Scott to Alien, and the film itself is filled with callbacks, allusions and out-and-out references to the 1979 film. Unfortunately Alien is a very high standard to set, as it is widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (2). This advertising campaign backfired, however, as inviting comparisons to Alien did the film no favors as it was then seen as an inferior product (3). Prometheus is by no means a perfect film, but it is a very different beast to Alien, and criticizing it for not being Alien is to criticize it for failing to meet that to which it does not aspire. However, there is some merit to comparing the two thematically, and also placing Alien relative to Prometheus in terms of what they contribute to each other's respective mythologies, before examining Prometheus and its themes on its own.

To summarize, Alien tells the story of the crew of the starship Nostromo - an absolutely enormous intergalactic refinery tug, crewed by seven people who spend most of the journey in stasis. The crew are awoken by what is initially assumed to be a distress signal on a nearby planet and set down to investigate. There, inside a gigantic  alien spaceship they find a very ancient corpse and hundreds of eggs, one of which opens, unleashing a creature that impregnates one of the crew members. Later, back in space, the offspring is 'born', killing the crew member, before rapidly growing to an enormous size. The majority of the film is taken up with the remaining crew's attempts to trap and kill the creature as it slowly picks them off one by one (4).

The main, obvious difference with Prometheus is in the plot and the plot structure. Alien is a film with a simplistic plot and relatively straightforward characterizations - Ripley is developed more in the sequels, but here is merely a resourceful, brave woman facing down a monster - that has been widely imitated ever since. The characters never display any lofty ambitions other than to simply survive and get home. With one notable exception (5) their curiosity towards the creature is limited to "How do we kill it?". This does not detract from the film's effectiveness. In fact it enhances it, grounding this strange and nightmarish horror in a world in which people argue about paychecks and bonuses.

Prometheus takes a different tack, with more developed, more flawed characters, including a woman looking for evidence of the divine in an increasingly skeptical, humanist world, through to a man seeking to place himself on the same level as the Gods (6). It shows a group of people attempting to ask fundamental questions of human existence and meaning in an effort to understand their place in the cosmos. This makes Prometheus a vastly more narratively and thematically ambitious film than Alien. Whether it succeeds or not is something that shall be explored in later essays.

The other important difference is in the underlying themes of both movies. With these essays I will be exploring the main themes of Prometheus mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and while there is some overlap in some of the themes explored, the dominant theme of Alien is very, very different. At its heart, it is a film about rape and sexual violence. The initial journey into the alien spaceship is through an opening shaped like a labia, where there is a room full of eggs. The creature inside attacks and orally penetrates an unfortunate crewman, parasitically impregnating him. The alien, when it emerges in a grim parody of birth, has a penis-shaped head, and when it kills throughout the rest of the film it does so by violently penetrating the head of the intended victim with a rapidly protracting tongue (7). Despite it appearing utterly alien, it is identified by most viewers as male, and the last two crew men alive are the two women. It is even implied that one of them is (fatally) sexually assaulted by the creature. The last survivor, Ripley, is forced to strip down in order to put on a space-suit and finally blow it into space. 

While there is some overlap with the themes of parental abandonment in Prometheus, there is no parallel to the overt sexual imagery present in Alien - it is virtually absent from the sequels as well. It is the unique cosmic horror that Alien brings to the genre.

Having broadly covered the themes and intents of Alien with regard to Prometheus and noting the important thematic and narrative differences, what can we say they contribute to each other's respective mythologies? Firstly Prometheus solves some fundamental mysteries of the origins of the Alien creature. The quote I used at the top of this page is a description given of the creature in Alien. It is indeed a very highly developed organism - it has acidic blood, grows to maturity very quickly and in a deleted scene in Alien is implied to have a life cycle that only requires more hosts and not additional creatures (8). While it is possible that a creature like this could evolve with a parasitic life cycle, the idea that it was bio-engineered makes them make a lot more sense - a parasitic lifestyle allows the Engineers to control numbers, for instance. This also explains why the area of the alien ship in which the eggs are located looks more like a hatchery than a nest. The fact that the Engineer itself in Alien appears to have fallen victim to this creation is an irony, apparent in retrospect after viewing Prometheus.

Secondly, the alien itself dovetails nicely onto one of the main themes in Prometheus. One of the main and most interesting themes of Prometheus is parental abandonment and neglect, and our inability to overcome these obstacles as individuals and as a species. The creature in Alien (as well as the similar creature that emerges at the end of Prometheus) is the ultimate embodiment of a sentiment David the android expresses in Prometheus about all life forms wanting their parents dead. The creature kills both of its 'parents' as part of its reproduction - the life form that attaches itself to the host dies after impregnation - and therefore it cannot be abandoned or neglected by them. This is a theme that I shall explore more fully in the essay on parental abandonment in Prometheus.

Lastly, both contain androids that appear human but have wildly different moralities and agendas than the human crew. However, they are used in different ways. David in Prometheus is always clearly an android, repeatedly abused by those around him, affecting humanity almost like a coat. He manages to be both sinister and comforting at the same time, a curious, childlike figure, unaffected by the horrors around him and instigating more than a few of them. His 'evil' is the evil of a child pulling the wings off of a moth to see what will happen to it. Ash in Alien on the other hand, is assumed to be human until a shocking revelation halfway through that he is both not human and has been working to keep the creature alive, a double betrayal that signals his end as the crew turns on him. He is evil in a different way - David is curious and independent to the point of endangering the crew, whereas Ash is merely following orders at the expense of those around him. Ash also reveals he knew some things about the nature of the creature in advance (9) but kept it to himself, whereas David starts from roughly the same position as everyone else.

However, overall the two films are different enough that to compare the two would be to compare two things that have fundamentally different themes and narrative arcs. Prometheus explores themes on its own that have no real parallel in Alien, and having noted the overlaps and differences between the two, we can move on to discussing Prometheus' themes on its own merits.
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(1) Many criticisms of this film are aimed at its 'plot holes'. No story is immune from these, but most of the things pointed out in Prometheus tend to be areas left open for interpretation, rather than actual inconsistencies. In terms of the most famous 'actual' plot hole - Vickers didn't run to the side and got crushed by the spaceship because she panicked. We are used to seeing characters in films behave with a cool head in danger, and she didn't, and she died. This one is more to do with audience expectations of character behavior than actual bad writing.
(2) The AFI ranks it at #7 in the sci-fi genre and Empire puts it at #33 on their list of 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Links here and here. However, it is important to note that it received mixed reviews at the time of its release - Roger Ebert called it "basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a space ship" and a "real disappointment".
(3) For what its worth, I believe Alien to be the superior film, insofar as it achieves more of what it was trying for than Prometheus and maintains a far more even tone. It's also much, much more frightening.
(4) This rather simplistic retelling misses out several key subplots and twists, but (to paraphrase Lars von Trier) ultimately Alien is a film that isn't about what it's about, it's about how it's about it.
(5) Ash, the crew member quoted in the header, who is later revealed to be an android and therefore probably immune from the creatures's attentions - he is the only one not attacked by the creature and is instead killed by vengeful crewmates.
(6) The place and use of religion and religious imagery in Prometheus will be explored more in a later essay.
(7) This is all entirely intentional on the part of the film makers. See here.
(8) The scene in question concerns Ripley discovering that two of her fellow crew have not been killed by the creature, but that they are instead being slowly turned into eggs similar to those found in the alien spaceship (while still alive), closing the end of the life cycle. This scene (available on special edition DVD releases) was cut for pacing reasons and then seemingly ret-conned out of existence with the introduction of an Alien Queen in Aliens by James Cameron, turning them from the self-sufficient organisms of Ridley Scott's imagining into something more akin to a bee's nest or termite hive - a different but equally terrifying concept for anyone who isn't a fan of bugs...
(9) Precisely how much is never made clear