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.


(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.

(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 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Suspiria - Movie Review

I bet your school didn't look like this

Sorry I haven't written anything in a while - I'm working on a big project to do with Guillermo Del Toro - the first proper literary analysis thing I have ever written. Here's a review I started a while back and then never finished - so enjoy!

Like a lot of people, I find a lot of modern American horror to be rather drab, dirty, artless and ultimately nihilistic (ooh, check me with the big words). The Saw and Hostel franchises are probably the worst offenders in terms of this, and as a result are rather difficult to watch, even for a fan.

Today I will review a film that is the exact opposite of all of those words, including 'modern' and 'American'. Suspiria (Latin for 'sighs') is an Italian film directed by Dario Argento and released in 1977. It regularly appears on those lists of 'scariest movies' that pop up from time to time and is one of those films that lots of people have heard of but few have actually seen. Even less people actually like it (it is very weird) but I love it - it's everything that is great about Italian horror.

First things first. I am a great believer in separating the art and the artist as a matter of course, but I believe it is important to point oiut that Dario Argento is a bit of a strange man.

I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don't have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don't care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.
Yep. Moving swiftly on.

Anyway, Suspiria is the tale of Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) who has enrolled in a dance academy in Freiburg. Arriving during a storm, she meets another girl fleeing the building. Later on, the second girl having fled the school, plus friend, are brutally murdered by supernatural means. Meanwhile Suzy is slowly realizing that there is something very wrong with the school - possibly in the form of the unseen Director, rumored to be a witch...

The plot sounds absolutely ridiculous in black and white, but the real story of the film is of the terrifying kaleidoscope that fills every frame of the film, and the cacophanous soundtrack. Here, even the blood is too bright. Daylight is rarely seen, instead there is night, and an endless array of blues, greens and reds. The effect is both beautiful and nauseating. 

In addition, the school itself makes no architectural sense - attempts to reconcile the exterior and the interior will come to naught, as well as any attempt to plot out the layout. Subtler things are off too - the door handles are all too high, the rooms are all too large or too small, the ceilings are all way too high. It's incredibly disorientating.

Suzy is not the average movie protagonist either. Whereas others have something to cling onto (even if it's a shadow of something, like the mall in Dawn of the Dead) she exists cut off from all but her most basic possessions, trapped in the school, in a terrible waking nightmare.

"This sucks."
Even the camera (and by extension the viewer) betrays her occasionally. Sometimes we see things from her point of view, sometimes we watch impassively, sometimes we prowl around or watch, voyeurs, from some vantage point, like a terrible entity waiting to strike.

That in the face of all this, she is brave, resourceful and intelligent enough to fight back at all makes her one of my favorite horror protagonists. I think I'd have been gibbering in a corner within the hour. She doesn't even scream!

To say much more would be to say too much, but suffice to say that this film is an absolute assault on the senses, a perfect storm of colour, sound and shocking violence. As a standalone film or as an introduction to the weirdness of Italian Horror, it is unsurpassed in its ability to drag nightmares from you into the cold light of day. You probably won't like it as much as me, but you might see something you like.

Sweet dreams...