Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Non-Western: Prometheus

Note: This is not a review of the movie Prometheus, I only discuss some aspects of it

No need to mention the name of the director, year of making, etc. Prometheus is Prometheus. The movie everybody was looking forward to. Me too. Anticipation causes frustration. A couple of friends told me that I wouldn't like it for very specific reasons. I trusted them and therefore avoided the film when it was shown in theatres, but now it was released on DVD, I could no longer look the other way.

Let me tell you first what I did like, apart from the glorious look and production design. I liked the presentation of this interdisciplinary research group, in the beginning of the movie. Everybody who has ever worked with (or within) such a group knows scientists are small children: put five of them in one room and what you get is a kindergarten. And nobody will be able to tell you who is the android. They look weird and often talk with funny accents. One of the crew members even talked with the same Scottish accent as a physicist I once met at the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Philips Physics Laboratory) in Eindhoven. She even looked like her (same nose). So far, so good, but one element was very dubious. One of the members, the geologist Fifield, seemed mentally unstable. The mission those people are sent on, is a long, dangerous, and above all very expensive one, and no doubt the crew members were screened meticulously. A company like Weyland wouldn't ever take the risk of sending a mentally unstable person to another galaxy.

I also liked some of the performances. Rapace is no Ripley but otherwise she did her job very well as Shaw. Fassbender was a good android, and I wonder if he dreams of electric sheep. But the nicest surprise was Idris Alba, who plays a no-nonsense commander who tries to talk some sense in the egg-heads he's saddled with. It's a pity they killed him in the finale. He would have made a fine couple of explorers with Rapace in the inevitable Prometheus 2. In these films the wrong people tend to get killed (too soon). In the beginning of Alien3 they killed a child, at the end of Prometheus they kill a giant.

I had the idea Prometheus would've worked better as an independent fantasy movie, without this burden of being a prequel to an existing series, and without the religious, quasi-philosophical and quasi-scientific bombast. The alien series didn't need any 'explanation' (who cares where the aliens came from) and religion and science don't mix very well together. The narrative opens (let's forget the scene with the tumbling enactor) with a couple of archeologists discovering some paintings and carvings in a Scottish grotto, matching similar illustrations elsewhere. The illustrations show a stellar map of a galaxy far, far away, so the archeologists draw the conclusion that they were made by aliens, who must have also created us. It's the Von Däniken explanation: the Gods were cosmonauts. A large step for the Gods, but a small step for these scientists. When one of them is asked why she absolutely needs God for her explanations and why she believes in Him in the first place, she answers: "Because I want to do so." Nothing wrong with that answer, fine for her, scientist have the right (like any other people) to believe what they want, but in scientific discussions, personal beliefs or convictions are better neglected. "I chose to believe in God" is a religious argument, not a scientific one.

"What is your proof?" one of the scientists asks when Shaw and her partner explain their beliefs. Science, at least the experimental part of it we're talking about here, is not about 'proof'. A scientist collects data and tries to formulate a hypothetical theory, a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis must be refutable (falsifiable), so we can test it by empirical experiments. The philosophical debates are often ridiculous. I don't know if there is a god after all, there might be one, but not for the reasons they come up with in this movie. The argument used in Prometheus, is the over-familiar one of the watch and the watch maker. It has popped up again and again in the course of the last few centuries; Richard Dawkins went through it again (once and for all, he hoped) in The Blind Watchmaker. The argument of 'who-created-us-and-who-created-our-creator' goes back as far as Aristotle and his 'unmoved mover' (the one who sets things in motion but isn't set in motion himself, has become the 'enactor' in this movie); it's a very dubious theory, basically linked with the Greek misconception that pure reasoning inevitably leads to the truth and their struggle with infinite progression.

If you read (or listen to) some of the Ridley Scott's recent interviews, you'll notice that most of his struggles with God and the Universe originate in similar misconceptions. For one thing, scientists are not so arrogant to think that we're alone in the Universe. This could all be pardoned, Scott is no scientist, he's a film maker, and he used to be a very good one. Some of this is still visible in Prometheus. As a horror movie it may be a bit slow, but some of tension-filled sequences are beautifully executed; the cesarean scene (those who have seen the movie know what I mean) will nail you to your chair. Unfortunately most of the dialogue is as lame as it is stupid, with Alba's commander being virtually the only one who talks some sense.

Bad science, bad philosophy, decent horror. What about the religious ideas in the movie? I read several articles written by a communicant Christians who were moderately positive about the movie. Some of them think it's offensive, but most of them also think of it as thought-provoking. As one of them, Daniel Thompson, explains: 'the film does not show God as the creator, but does make a strong argument, not only for intelligent design, but also for believing in something bigger than one's self'. I didn't notice these 'strong arguments', but then again I'm not a communicant Christian. Scott doesn't think of himself as a Christian either, but he's definitely influenced by Christian symbolism. What I personally interpreted as 'typically Christian' was this idea of the enactors wanting to destroy their own creation, and even more so the horrible method they have concocted for the occasion. They clearly want the human race to suffer, death by an alien is not a clean, quick death, but a painful one. According to the Christian faith God had his own son nailed to the cross to save mankind. Crucifixion is a horrible death; victims could live for days, hanging in the blistering son, suffering terrible pains, only to be released from their sufferings by carnivores gnawing their bleeding bodies. "What have we done wrong?" Shaw asks the surviving enactor. We'll have to wait for Prometheus 2 to get an answer to this burning question. It wouldn't surprise me if this horrible death of mankind serves a higher aim.

2012 - Dir: Ridley Scott - Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Idris Alba (Janek), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway), Sean Harris (Fifield) Rafe Spall (Millburn)