So yes, Prometheus is in many ways a huge disappointment. Yet I find it stays with me in potent ways, and not just through the cheap horror thrills. (I call them cheap because they are presented outside any coherent psychological frame; in a word, they are gratuitous. That doesn’t make them any less powerful, especially for someone as squeamish as I am). The disappointment stems, I think, from its really being two movies – the first, a compelling story about the extraterrestrial origins of life on earth and the radical dethroning of human exceptionalism; the second, also an origin story, but really just an excuse for a gory schlock-fest that awkwardly attempts to shoehorn into the first narrative a shallow justification for rebooting the Alien franchise. Basically an exercise in brand promotion, this second storyline makes it clear that the real hero of the film is the alien itself. As it rises from the corpse/incubator of the Engineer in the film’s ending, Scott can’t resist investing it with a Gotterdammerung-like pretentiousness. Hail the conquering beast! Or, as a friend waggishly put it: “I have a mouth inside a mouth inside another mouth…” The implication of this story arc carries an ersatz resonance – humans and the monster carry strands of the same DNA.
(I’ll just note here that my knowledge of the whole series is rather spotty. Scott’s inauguration of the franchise was a slickly crafted, if cynical, film – and yes, it scared the shit out of me when I saw it. The third installment was forgettable and of the fourth I profess total ignorance. The true gem in the series is the second, directed by Cameron. That said, Stephen Mulhall, a British philosopher who writes on Heidegger, has done an excellent job of thinking through the Alien Quartet and the questions it raises in his compact and excellent book, On Film).
Mixed into the murk of Prometheus – its insulting violations of verisimilitude, its shabby internal consistency and logic, its weak characterizations and dialogue (just a collection of attitudes, really), and its cynical exploitation of the audience – are some truly stunning moments of spectacle: images that linger on after the queasy creature fest has faded. Though the film overall is emotionally dissonant, the scenes of wonder that punctuate it go a considerable ways toward saving it from collapsing under the weight of its own morbidity.
But before I go into that angle, a few words about horror.
In her essay, “Reading Like an Alien” (in Posthuman Bodies), my old professor Kelly Hurley smartly dissects the first two films in terms of the rise of so-called “body horror” films in the 80s (a response to AIDS, among other cultural anxieties?). Body horror is all about revulsion – about the polymorphously perverse desecration of the human body and finally, as she writes, about an utter lack of investment in nostalgia for the human as “a discrete and stable category.” This is a kind of Lovecraftian gnostic horror, in which the scale of the universe is not only older and vaster than we can conceive, but more significantly, where the human is dwarfed by biomorphic monstrosities, hybrid organisms whose shapes alter with the environment and whose logic is either that of the hive, or something even further outside mammalian social structures. It’s as though human bodies were designed to be penetrated, suborned and consumed by alien life forms; and indeed, this horror seems like an extension of what we currently know about our own bodies – that they are not truly ours, in the sense of sole proprietorship, but are always already colonized by millions of bacteria. The real horror in body horror comes from the way the body is shredded, not of the body, but the very idea of identity itself.
So why am I spending so much time writing about this film, trying to puzzle out its irresistible inanities? Partly by way of scratching an itch. Largely by way of putting off the far more difficult labor of revising pressing and important academic work. But beyond that, I fear I’ve been infected with what I’ll call the Geoff Dyer virus. For as I write this I’m also working my way through Zona, his madly charming, exasperating and compulsively readable book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film I’ve finally got round to seeing. Dyer claims, quite rightly I think, that by the time you’re 30 you’ve already seen all the films that will mark themselves as Truly Great for you. This is not an argument about intellectual sophistication. Quite the opposite – Dyer cannily perceives that the master works (not canonically speaking) of our souls are those we receive at our most emotionally porous. (This echoes, for me, a line from Yeats’ Autobiography, which is that by 20 a man will have been fully formed by what he has read). Thus, for Dyer, The Italian Job (original Caine version) and Von Ryan’s Express. Thus, for me, Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain and 2001 and The Big Heat.But also, Five Million Years to Earth and The Valley of Gwangi. The Dyer rule is not hard and fast. I didn't see John Ford's cavalry trilogy till well into my 30s and those films now hold pantheon status for me.
Since Dyer and I are roughly the same age, the mention of Von Ryan's Express gave me a warm glow of reminiscence. I recently revisited it, with great pleasure. The first time I saw it was at drive-in in South Bend, sitting in the back of my parent’s paneled station wagon. I hadn’t seen Bridge on the River Kwai yet so of course couldn’t know that Ryan was a cheap knock-off in the WWII prison escape genre. Yet Ryan affords visceral pleasures that remain beyond the stuffy “genius” of David Lean. I’d take Frankie improbably sprinting around in his sweaty khakis any day over Alec Guinness struggling in his actor’s soul. Termite beats Elephant yet again. But the thing here is – two things, really – a) that Stalker is, as Dyer avers, cinema itself, compared to which the collected works of Ridley Scott are so much chaff; and two, to read Dyer is, like reading Lawrence, another Dyer talisman, to find oneself thinking aloud inside like Dyer. This is perhaps the highest praise for style that can be made. The same phenomenon occurs when reading Woolf, for me. This is not to say that Dyer is on the level of DHL or Woolf. Far from it. Dyer can be vastly annoying, with his always playing down High Art while loving it mode; it's as if his love of Rilke, DHL or Tarkovsky must be mitigated by some common sense midde-class truism. And it's hard to find, save for the exquisite But Beautiful, a single sentence that sings. He's almost melodo-phobic. Maybe that's his secret. But it is to say that what makes a style itself is a certain confounded inimitability that is, perversely, deeply imitable. It gets inside your head and makes you see the world through it.
End of Interlude
But finally now, to return to the way Prometheus stages wonder. Despite its title, it’s really a film about the past. Its gorgeous opening sequence – gorgeous, but problematic, because it immediately raises the question of “Really? this is the best way a superior race could think of to seed a planet with DNA?” – makes this an archaeological detective story, which is another way of saying, it’s a ghost story. And the ghosts do show up. First, in the marvelous hologrammic sequences where we see the Engineers fleeing from something unseen (of course it’s unseen). And then when the final Engineer implacably implausibly arises from his crypt after a 2000-year nap and bemusedly tears the head off David, the android (who is the liveliest character in the whole motley crew, stealing every scene he’s in) the way a child might twist off a doll’s head.
The centerpiece of wonder – which we know from Suvin, Clute, et al. is the trope of tropes in SF – occurs when David presses “Play,” as it were, in the Engineers’ cockpit and the whole space lights up with an orrery. (Orrery is a fantastic word, I will note here, ala Dyer. I first came across it in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, about which I’ve written here before – see above, or below). But as with so much else, perhaps everything, really, in this film, the scene of writing is contaminated from the get-go.
Side-note: the hologram display in the cockpit of the Prometheus is pretty fancy, too, revealing the interior of the pyramid, and eventually, the buried starship. It's both prelude and lesser companion to the Engineers' orrery, a bit of foreshadowing or paralleism. But this raises another one of those annoying questions that drags down the film, the way its script is outpaced by its fx. These Engineers have been around for millions of years, right? And they're still using what, given the scale of time involved, seems like primitive technology. Visually awesome, for sure -- and therefore, necessary for a movie. But why are they still mucking around with their toys at this stage, their squids and bipeds and so forth? Seems like they would have engineered themselves to some new level Quite Beyond Us and left all that in the dust, rather the way elder races in Iain Banks' Culture novels grow weary of matter and go Sublime. Or maybe they're just bored.
For the orrery is not merely a chart that connects the now with the then, the life of humans on Earth with its moment of inception, an overview of Creation itself. It is also a blueprint for corporate management, the scene of wonder as filtered through the map of conquest. (I really ought to see this again, but will wait for the DVD so I can skip the gory parts). The orrery is a kind of speculum – a mirror in which we think we discern our true and original design; almost Wordsworthian, in a way. Except that poor William’s been upstaged or outflanked by HPL.
Wonder in this scene is signaled by several things: by scale and recognition; by circular camera movement; by the abstract becoming tangible (the glowing sphere of the earth hangs like a luminous fruit to be plucked, as it is), and by David the android’s complete rapture with the entire tableau. This kind of visual cueing is effective, but dishonest. As David responds so the audience responds – with a gaze of fixity and a slight smile. Whence this smile? This is perhaps the most sneakily uncanny moment in the whole film since David’s silky responses, we can presume, are in line with our own engineering of him, designed to make humans feel assured, even if the android itself is incapable of real emotion. And indeed, the script plays this angle up quite smartly with its “we made you because we could” line.
But that orrery – it’s not just a map. It’s a representation of a representation – in Dyer-speak, a special effect, i.e. a contrivance of what Scott Bukatman calls "the artificial infinite," about a map about a plot to dethrone human exceptionalism. And while we marvel at it, because it induces a sense of awe mixed with vertigo (there's center, yes, but the camera keeps spinning, keeping us off balance) it also gives us, or should, a deep interstellar shiver. As in, Stephen Hawking's gloomy pronouncements on nasty ETs, AKA the Fermi Paradox (elaborated on in Greg Bear's diptych, Forge of God and Anvil of Stars). Or maybe it comes down to me paraphrasing Dyer quoting Herzog from Grizzly Man: nature is totally indifferent to us.
Does this mean I think Prometheus transcends its flaws? I'll get back to you on that.