I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.
This is #5…
In the year 7510,
If God’s a-comin’, he ought to make it by then.
Maybe he’ll look around himself and say,
“Guess it’s time for the Judgement Day.”
In the year 8510,
God’s gonna shake his mighty head.
He’ll either say “I’m pleased where man has been”,
Or tear it down and start again.
-Zager and Evans, In The Year 2525
Faith is a funny thing. If you don’t have it, it’s impossible to explain. If you do have it, it needs no explanation. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus feels a little bit ham-strung by the “Alien DNA” that it carries. As a prequel to the iconic film series, it’s hardly the most successful endeavour. Indeed, the film’s references to everybody’s favourite chest-bursting extra-terrestrial feel almost forced. Like the discussion about the Scientology influence on The Master, focusing on the instantly recognisable xenomorph tends to obscure the unique strengths of Prometheus as its own film.
Interestingly, the strongest connection to Alien is thematic rather than literal. Like Ridley Scott’s first science-fiction masterpiece, Prometheus postulates a cold and uncaring universe, one that is inherently alien, incomprehensible and hostile. The human condition causes us to question, but Prometheus suggests that there can be no answers – no satisfactory answers at least.
The sizeable proportion of people who were disappointed with the film would suggest that Prometheus deliberately avoids offering answers to its audience, forcing characters to make a series of poorly-conceived actions in order to drive the plot. I can understand this criticism, even if I am a little more tolerant of those sorts of problem. There’s still the odd moment that feels a bit forced – Fifield and Millburn getting lost in a cave system they’d just mapped, or Millburn not running in terror from the mutant!worm thing – but I actually like most of the stupid mistakes that the cast make.
After all, Prometheus is about flawed creators and flawed creations. It’s about people in important positions making stupid mistakes. The entire plot occurs because the “engineers” – beings that are effectively gods and described alternatively as “makers” – weren’t able to contain their own biological and chemical weapons. As such, Janek’s ill-timed booty call seems like a minor oversight, and Charlie is repeatedly characterised as so arrogant and borderline anti-social that his poor judgement feels like a conscious character trait.
However, where Prometheus is most interesting is the way that it tackles faith. Faith and religion are issues that big-budget cinema are traditionally too terrified to confront head-on. You’ll draw all manner of protest from people who disagree with what they consider your message to be, and criticism of or probing into such beliefs is prone to attract the wraith of zealots. I like to think I’m relatively open-minded on matters of religion, but there’s no way that rational discussion should provoke that sort of fanatical response.
I’m surprised that so much of the content of Prometheus managed to slip in under the radar, to the point where the only major controversy arose when a “concerned” cinema staff member warned cinema-goers that the movie featured a “self-induced abortion” scene. To be frank, I am incredibly concerned about anybody who would advocate that Elizabeth does not have the right to terminate that pregnancy. However, I am frankly amazed that this is the only aspect of the film that drew that sort of attention.
After all, Prometheus is essentially about “meeting your maker” to quote Fifeld. The “engineers” of Prometheus are all but gods. In fact, they might be God. The film is hardly subtle in its application of Christian imagery, even if it never forces the issue. The “engineers” are our creators. Asked what they engineered, Shaw replies “us” – but the religious imagery doesn’t stop there. Prometheus leans rather heavily on aspects of the Christian belief systems, reinforcing the obvious points about the hubris or daring to speak to God.
The film unfolds in the narrow gap between Christmas and New Years. Shaw references “the year of our Lord”, a convention that is somewhat archaic even today. Shaw’s crucifix and belief system are clearly some variation of Christianity, but it runs deeper than that. The film’s aforementioned “abortion” sequence is the result of a pregnancy that is physically impossible, and one that unfold around Christmas time.
More than that, though, there’s a more subtle point the movie only alludes to. It’s clear that the “engineers” didn’t just seed life on Earth. They actively guided its development – hence the scriptures and the sculptures of the creatures inviting the humans to eventually come join them. This suggests a bunch of gods that were not only satisfied with human development, but actively encouraging it.
And for some reason, they stopped. At some point, for reasons that the film doesn’t articulate, the aliens stopped sending their emissaries. Instead, they decided to build a launch base at the designated rendezvous point, with the clear intent of wiping us out. “I need to know why,” Shaw pleads, confronting an engineer. “What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?” The film never explicitly explains why they suddenly changed their minds. I have a theory, and it ties into the use of Christian imagery, but I like the ambiguity.
The universe of Alien is a vast, empty and indifferent one. There are no grand reasons, there are no definite answers, no easy solutions. Bad things happen, but they don’t happen for a good reason, they don’t happen according to just or rational criteria. Prometheus is a horror story about the dark places that a leap of faith can take us, the demons it can awake. It’s an existential tale of terror about waking up a bunch of gods who are unknowable and unanswerable.
Charlie complains that the quest offers no answers to his philosophical quandaries, but that is the type of universe that Prometheus inhabits. As such, the idea that gods are arbitrary, flawed and operate on a logic that is either beyond our comprehension (or they simply have no interest in sharing) is a powerful, thoughtful notion. It’s a bold science-fiction premise, and a clever one at that. I think a large part of my fondness for Prometheus stems from the fact that it is good old-fashioned science-fiction with big ideas and high concepts.
Still, the film invites us – like Shaw – to wonder why the engineers have changed their minds about us. I have my own theory, building off the movie’s heavy reliance on Christian iconography. (The creature from Alien even appears in a pose that evokes crucifixion, or – perhaps – DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. David washes his “father’s” feet.) Asked to date the corpse found in the hallway, we’re told that it has been there for “two thousand years, give or take.”
So we’re presented with a divine presence that has been active on Earth throughout our history, seeding life and guiding our social and cultural evolution, only to suddenly disappear 2000 years ago? I’m surprised that no morally outraged individual has reached the same conclusion I have – perhaps an indication of how far I have wandered off the reservation. Then again, it’s always fun to imagine that you’ve over-thought what had been a relatively entertaining piece of pulpy fiction.
The active period of the “engineers” would have been the period covered in Christian theology by the Old Testament, which features a righteous and angry (and reactive) Yahweh who was ready to commit genocide if humanity transgressed enough. The absence occurs during the New Testament, when God became a much less active figure in Christian theology. One wonders if these “engineers” might have been involved in the birth and life of Jesus Christ.
And, perhaps, rather than the death of Christ serving as an altruistic gesture that redeems mankind, perhaps the execution inspired the “engineers” to effectively wipe out mankind and start again. It would be a bold twist on conventional theology, and the movie only hints at it in the most obtuse manner possible. The imagery and the dates match up and – if one is looking for a reason why the “engineers” suddenly changed their minds – the movie hints that we should look to Christian imagery for the answer, and to a major event in Christianity 2000 years ago.
Ridley Scott himself has all but acknowledged this himself, in an interview with movies.com:
Movies.com: You throw religion and spirituality into the equation for Prometheus, though, and it almost acts as a hand grenade. We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?Ridley Scott: We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him.
More than that, a connection has been made between Prometheus and J.G. Frazer’s theory of “the Dying God”:
The ethos of the titan Prometheus is one of willing and necessary sacrifice for life’s sake. That’s a pattern we see replicated throughout the ancient world. J G Frazer wrote his lengthy anthropological study, The Golden Bough, around the idea of the Dying God – a lifegiver who voluntarily dies for the sake of the people. It was incumbent upon the King to die at the right and proper time, because that was what heaven demanded, and fertility would not ensue if he did not do his royal duty of dying.
I think that’s an interesting aspect of Promtheus‘ central moral outlook. As Vickers states to her father, “A king has his reign, and he dies.” More pointedly, David all but acknowledges that he wants his “father” dead, asking, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” There comes a point when children need to stop looking after their parents, and that parents need to move on to allow their children to evolve.
Prometheus hints that the best thing the “engineers” ever did was to leave us to our own devices, and that our inability to get off the loss created by their absence is a fatal character flaw in the human condition. It’s Shaw’s inability to get over the loss of her own father and her curiosity about her creators that leads to a situation that almost wipes out all life on earth. As Charlie states, neither he nor Shaw find the answers they are looking for here, and they inquiries almost lead to the extinction of mankind.
It’s a strong atheist subtext, the idea that the best things gods can do is to die. It was, as the prologue illustrates, the death of an “engineer” that gave us life. It was the resurrection of an “engineer” that almost brought death. Indeed, describing the craft lifting off, Shaw gasps, “It’s carrying death!” At its core, Prometheus is a bold cautionary fable about the dangerous of religious belief carried to its most radical extreme, the result of attempting to find some inner peace by attaching yourself to some external mumbo-jumbo.
The most balanced member of the crew, and the one who instantly knows exactly what is going on, is the one who is least interesting in validating his own beliefs by some abstract external factor. Janek is comfortable in his own skin. he isn’t looking for some magical “engineer” to “fix” him. Weyland wants to be “fixed” physically, while Charlie and Shaw want to be “fixed” emotionally, to find some missing part of themselves on some barren rock half way across the cosmos.
Vickers points out the irony in looking for some sense of peace in such a foreign location. After Janek jokes about her wanting to get laid, she replies, “I could. I could say that. Right, but then it wouldn’t make sense why I would fly myself a half a billion miles from every man on Earth if I wanted to get laid, would it?” It doesn’t make sense for Charlie and Shaw to travel that far to come to peace with themselves, but then humans are inherently irrational creatures.
In a scene with Shaw, Janek pretty much explicitly explains what is going on here. He offers what could effective pass as a plot synopsis:
You know what this place is? Those uh- Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that sh!t is in those vases. They made it here. They got out. They turned on them. The end. It’s time for us to go home.
There’s no inner peace to be found here. No magic answer to the problems of mere mortals. All Shaw and Weyland have done is to wake an angry and vengeful god who could care less about us. Janek is at peace with himself, and that peace gives him clarity – which is interesting.
To be fair, religion gets a nuanced portrayal here. Where Shaw’s need for validation pushes humanity to the brink of extinction, her faith is treated with respect. It gives her strength, and she doesn’t abandon it simply because she finds an answer she didn’t expect. Rather than portraying faith and religion as inherently destructive forces, Prometheus instead suggests that they can be corrupted and lead to dire consequences, when unchecked.
It’s a bold and powerful message, and quite weighty for a big budget blockbuster. I’ll be the first to concede that Prometheus is far from perfect, but it is a lot more ambitious and a lot more intriguing than virtually any other film this year, and that goes a long way.
Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:
10. Room 237
08. Moonrise Kingdom
06. The Master
Filed under: On Second Thought | Tagged: alien, Alien (film), Alien DNA, arts, British Isles, christianity, damon lindelof, DNA, god, Ireland, Jon Spaihts, Lykke Li, Movie, Prometheus, ridley scott, Scientology, Shaw |