Charles River

Charles River
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Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prometheus Bound

Ridley Scott’s new SF extravaganza reverses the premise of 1979’s Alien. Instead of the action unfolding on a haunted space ship, it takes place on a haunted planet. There’s not much difference, though. Scott has always been a filmmaker with extraordinary visual gifts, a cold eye for humanity and a flair for theatrics. Unfortunately, he has scarcely an actual idea to his credit. A highbrow vulgarian, his films often produce admiration, but they’re incapable of inspiring love. He’s a visionary without a vision, someone in search of a sentiment, as the quip goes, to match his vocabulary.

Prometheus is a very uneven and finally quite disappointing mix of sublime grandeur and crass, cynical manipulation. Despite the film’s dazzling spectacle and powerful sense of scale (eons and light-years are spanned), its obsessions finally come down to a set of stale horror tropes involving bodily penetration and disgust. I’ve never cared much for this mixture of SF and horror. To me, the latter dilutes and impoverishes the former, reducing its potential for transcendence and strangeness to self-indulgent japeries of the grotesque. SF is primarily about invoking a sense of wonder and functions as a potent expression of secular theology – see my earlier blogs on postmodern space opera and Solaris. If horror is about the betrayal of the body – its decay and failure – SF is about transforming it into an avatar of the technological sublime.

Scott’s chief concern seems to be with trying to out-revulse revulsion by topping the chest-popper scene from Alien. The scene is gripping enough in itself, but nothing, including Noomi Rapace’s dogged efforts otherwise, can ever surpass the rude surprise of that moment. What the gruesome auto-Caesarian does make plain, though, is Scott’s utter contempt for the female body, turning natural reproduction into demonic possession. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Scott’s logic here is of a brutalist Darwinian order – nature, on the interstellar scale, is nothing but a series of fanged and tentacled paroxysms. Yet there’s no real logic to these scenes or to the theological baiting and red herrings the film pretends to offer in good faith. They exist purely to generate huge, bowel-wrenching shocks in the audience. These shocks are symptomatic of the film’s larger failure, which is the absence of a coherent moral point of view.

The film fails on two other levels. One is dramatic; the other conceptual. Dramatically, Rapace’s character is a dull, humorless hump. With her crucifix the sign less of devotion than a daddy complex, she plods through the film with the grim determination of a Zoombot. There are no edges to her character, no wit, nothing to make us root for her, and not the remotest trace of moral complexity or growth. She never once doubts herself. She seems to be a bystander in every scene, passively reacting, rather than initiating action. Even the climax doesn’t place her in serious jeopardy. Instead it stages a grim duke-out between the Giant Engineer and his erstwhile pet, the Land Squid cum vagina dentata (I’m still trying to cleanse that image from my brain).

The conceptual failure is more intriguing. As Norman Finkelstein has noted (on FB), Prometheus is something of a Gnostic creation story. The callous indifference and outright malevolence of the Engineers makes them Archons of bio-tech design. I only wish they’d been more indifferent and less malign, since the latter reduces them to the scale of puny vindictiveness. But the film’s skirting of alien motive doesn’t render their motives more alien, that is, more truly gnostic; it only makes them over into ridiculous figures of cartoonish villainy. The filmmakers propose something colossal, then squander the opportunity it presents them with to imagine alien otherness, the kind of alterity that tests our anthropocentric bias with the limits of the commensurable.

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