Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Lottery" (November 20, 1976)



This week on Ark II (1976), the post-apocalyptic exploratory vessel and its crew head into an area called “The Forbidden Zone.”  The Ark II doesn’t find a half-buried Statue of Liberty there, but rather a primitive community that has “squandered its resources.”  Captain Jonah’s (Terry Lester) mission is to render aid to the community and help with the resource shortage. In particular, the society has run out of water.

As Samuel (Jose Flores) soon learns, the community in the Forbidden Zone is built on the ruins of an old, pre-apocalypse laboratory that once conducted experiments in "time and space."  Now, the community's authoritarian leader, Kane (Zitto Kazann) exploits that old old experiment, ordering dissidents to “face the lottery.”  If they lose the lottery, they are sent off across a plain…where they disappear into another dimension…a rip in the fabric of reality.

Ruth (Jean Marie Hon) volunteers to travel inside the pocket dimension – a zone of mist and darkness – to rescue the dissidents, while Jonah and Samuel deal with the despotic Kane and his trickery.

In short, “The Lottery” is one of the most enjoyable episodes of Ark II I’ve yet watched, and that’s a direct result of the fact that the episode (by Martin Roth) contends with a strong sci-fi concept: alternate universes.  For once, the matter at hand is not simply teaching some poor, cowed villagers a lesson (although that element is also here), but reckoning with a compelling sci-fi mystery.

As a Saturday morning series, Ark II boasted a low budget, and if you look closely, that low budget is very apparent here.  The “alternate” dimension seems to be confined to only two people, Ruth and the dissident Steven (David Goldmund).  And yet, the depiction is not entirely ineffective.  It’s actually frightening in a way, and the fact that we see so little of this "other world" contributes to the narrative's sense of anxiety, especially when it looks as if Samuel and Jonah can’t rescue Ruth.

The moral of the story – and Ark II remains incredibly didactic in nature – is that when faced with shortages, some planning is necessary.  Jonah delivers a lecture to the villagers that they “should have planned instead of doing nothing” when water first became scarce, while reminding Kane and his minion, Borg (Eric Boles) that they are not off the hook; that they set out to deceive and obfuscate rather than tell the truth about the lottery.  In fact, they discovered a new water source and were keeping it for themselves...

In some ways, “The Lottery” is a thinly-disguised remake of  an earlier episode called “The Slaves,” with the Ark II crew again seeing through the deceit of a tyrant (here Kane instead of Baron Vargas), but the addition of the overt sci-fi concept makes the episode a little more exciting, and adds a level of tension to the proceedings.  Often times on the series, the Ark II crew seems free from peril.  They have the technology and the vehicles and the know-how to always carry the day.  So the fact that Ruth is almost trapped in a dark dimension adds a new layer of danger to the storytelling this week.

Next week: “The Drought.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Dueling Banjos

Savage Friday: Deliverance (1972)


“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not.  I think it is necessary for him to know.”

-     - James Dickey, on Deliverance, in author David Zinman’s survey, Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s. (Crown Publishers, 1986, page 133).

Early in John Boorman’s harrowing and savage film Deliverance, a character notes, rightly: “You don’t beat it.  You don’t beat this river.

He is discussing, explicitly, the raw power of Mother Nature and a roaring river, but he might as well be communicating something significant about human nature.  You don’t beat it.  You don’t conquer it.  It is part of your essential make-up.  And when the situation calls for it, all those “evolved” senses of civilization and civility simply fall away by necessity.

Or else you die.

Deliverance asks its audience some pretty serious questions about human nature by forging a streamlined but illuminating scenario wherein four men -- each one symbolizing elements of modern American life -- embark on a recreational journey down a river, but conquer there not a new apex or summit.  Instead, they countenance a particularly personal brand of horror.  And these men live or die largely based on the qualities they bring to the river with them.

In terms of the film’s deeper meaning, one must consider what it means, precisely, to be “delivered.” “Deliverance” is the act of being rescued or “set free.”  A few of the protagonists in the film escape the river and its challenges, of course.  They are literally “delivered” from mortal danger.  But I don’t believe this is the deliverance of which the title specifically speaks.

For one man, Ed (John Henry) the terrifying journey is all about setting his nature free so he can survive a life-and-death contest and thus see his family again.  Now, this may sound trite, simplistic, or even unnecessarily macho.  A terrible ordeal sets one free?  A man can only test himself through violence, or by meting out death? 

That criticism misses the point.  For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free. 

Who is he now? How does he go back to his civilized life with the things he has learned about himself? How does he stuff the ugly truth back down, and go about facing a meaningless job, or living a life of polite domesticity with his wife and children?   The ultimate irony is that Ed needed his “dark side” to return to his family, but his dark side – now alive – has no place with that family.  Suddenly, Ed belongs in neither the civilized world nor the savage one.

So Deliverance reveals to its Every Man his dark side in living, breathing color.  Once knowledgeable about this hidden facet of his nature, there’s simply no going back to the innocence of paradise.  Ed ends the film suffering from traumatic nightmares of the experience, a changed man.  Thus Deliverance concerns a problem with our modern safe-and-secure lives.  Once forcibly exiled from the Garden of Eden, can a man or woman ever be a fit citizen to return?

“Don't ever do nothin' like this again. Don't come back up here.” 

In Deliverance, Ed (Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) brave the roaring rapids of the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia.  They do so because the river will soon be gone:  transformed into a placid lake by bulldozers and other instruments of man’s modern technology.

On the trip, the friends unexpectedly encounter belligerent mountain men (Bill McKinney, Herbert Coward).  These mountain men rape Bobby, and threaten to do something much worse to Ed.  But the city men kill one of the locals, and then debate their moral responsibility in the matter.  Drew wants to inform the police.  But Lewis is convinced that the police will view them as outsiders, as automatically guilty.  Over Drew’s objections, the group decides to bury the body and not inform the authorities of the conflict.  Soon this river will be at the bottom of a lake, and no one will ever find out what happened…

Unfortunately, one mountain man is still alive…and gunning for these weekend warriors.  When Lewis is badly injured on the rapids, Ed must scale a treacherous rock face to take out the threat.  But he’s never killed anyone before, and he’s scared to death…

“Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river.

Nature gets raped too...
Deliverance plays almost like some fiendishly clever and sadistic psychology or personality test.  You take four diverse specimens of 1970s manhood and then make them endure existential threats from nature, and from frightening mountain men.  How will they react?

Our first subject is Drew (Cox), the affirmed “bleeding heart liberal” of the foursome, and the man who attempts to make certain that society’s established laws successfully transition to the wild.  In other words, Drew’s response to the violent attacks is an intellectual or a cerebral one.  Therefore, he still views the law as a viable solution to the dilemma. “It’s a matter of the law,” he declares of the mountain man’s murder. 

Yet there is no law present in the jungle or on the river to mediate the matter.  Disillusioned, Drew grows virtually catatonic at this knowledge.  And accordingly, he’s the first to die. What do we glean from this information? 

Perhaps that the voice of society or morality has little practical value in a Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed universe.


Drew can’t adapt to a world without the artificial infrastructure that made and nurtured him, and so he dies.   Drew’s skill set -- abstract thinking and an artistic bent (he’s a musician) -- don’t permit him to tap into his primitive self.  He dies because he can’t access that crucial part of his nature.  He won't put himself above the law -- symbolically refusing to put on his life jacket -- and so he dies.

Of all the characters in the film, Drew is probably the one I most sympathize with; the one I imagine I’m probably most like in a crisis.  I’d like to say I’m like Ed…but who knows?  I tend to seek answers in consensus and spend most of my time debating art.   So nobody take me on a trip to a river, okay?

By contrast, Lewis (Reynolds) is undeniably a representation of American swagger, arrogance and authority.  He’s a macho man who believes that all life is risk, and who lords it over his friends about what a tough guy he is.  He’s not so tough, however, once badly injured.  In fact, deprived of his physical acumen, Lewis becomes a whimpering suck-up to Ed, who has by then established his credibility as a capable man.  The message here is that overconfidence, vanity, and arrogance don’t survive in the wild, either.  Nature doesn’t like excess, whether in terms of abstract thinking (like Drew) or in terms of reckless, over-the-top muscle-flexing (like Lewis).  If Drew was all brain, Lewis is all muscle.  Neither one strikes the necessary balance to survive the river experience intact.

Poor Bobby (Beatty) likely represents American cynicism…or flab.  He depends on everybody else to carry his considerable weight on the river, rescued both by Lewis and then by Ed.  Worse, he is condescending and cruel to the locals…simply because he can be.  But this cruelty and anger is not supported by anything meaningful, as he soon learns.  

In other words, he can’t back up his snide jokes with actions.  Once his friends are out-of-power, then, Lewis is left vulnerable…and a prime target.  He is the ultimate representative, perhaps, of well-fed, modern man, convinced of his intelligence and superiority, but without the actual skills or chops to back up those perceived qualities.  He is the fat of our society, suddenly put in a situation where there’s nobody to protect him.  And yes, the Mountain man’s designation of Bobby as a “pig” is probably inevitable.  Bobby is the overstuffed, soft animal hat could only exist in a society of extreme comfort and leisure.

Finally, Ed (Voight) is the cherished Every Man that I discussed in the Savage Cinema Primer earlier today. He’s a regular Joe, an average family man who holds down a job and is a good father and husband.  He has never really been forced to face too dangerous a situation, and therefore never had to reckon with his own, dark capabilities.  But the events in the film force this Every Man to reckon with the seemingly placid surface and look underneath it.

That’s actually the film’s central metaphor: a deliberate comparison between Ed and the soon-to-be lobotomized river.  Modern life has the same effect on both characters, in essence.  The raging, dangerous river will be replaced by a serene – but dead – lake.  And Ed has lived a life as that tranquil lake, never understanding the forces roiling beneath it. 

You can't drown human nature. It will re-surface...
One of the film’s valedictory images -- of a dead hand reaching out above the black, still lake -- reminds us of Ed’s situation.  He now understands that something violent exists within him, beneath the milquetoast exterior.  And under the right circumstances, it will rear up again.   Just like that hand – a representation of violence and conflict – could re-surface in the calm lake.

As I’ve also written before, I see a lot of parallels to The Vietnam War in Deliverance.  Here, a group of Americans leave behind their home territory and comfort zone for enemy territory, so-to-speak.  They greet the locals with disdain and disrespect, and with an air of superiority. They have the best tools (canoes), the comforts of home (a guitar), and an arrogant attitude.  Despite Lewis’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, he attempts to race the local guides to the river, because, he just knows better.  Once in alien territory, however, Lewis and the others realize they are outmatched, and that domination isn’t going to be as easy as they imagined.

Deliverance is notorious in part because of the extremely unsettling scene in which a mountain man rapes Bobby….on screen.  The scene unfolds slowly and lasts for some duration.  It goes on and on, without interruption or reprieve. There are few tactful cuts to relieve the audience of its burgeoning discomfort.  An air of suffocating desperation is crafted by Boorman in the process. Like Bobby, the audience starts the scene with a sense of disbelief that this violence could actually escalate so monstrously.  

Watching Deliverance for the first time, you can’t believe what you are seeing, and this slap in the face is part and parcel of the Savage Cinema's bracing alchemy.  It pushes right past the line of acceptability, and beyond the movie traditions and parameters of good taste and decorum.  In doing so, it makes the audience face that possibility that anything can happen; that all bets are off.  This is one of those movies where you feel vulnerable just watching it; like you might be forced to see things you had never really consciously considered before.

That’s fertile ground for a horror film to occupy.  In that place of extreme audience vulnerability, a good director has us exactly where he or she wants us.

Why would the mountain men attack Bobby in this brutal and bizarre fashion?  It goes back to the city folk’s disdain for the locals.  The city folk are arrogant and condescending, but the country folk – in their home territory – assert their dominance, their power, by raping Bobby and threatening Ed with another form of sodomy.  It’s not about sex for these mountain men, it’s about dominating the city people in the most degrading way imaginable.

The rape also reflects, in some way, the “rape of nature” theme in the film, specifically by man’s technology.  Bulldozers encroach upon the water, and dams force back the river’s edge.  The idea is that human nature is destructive, and seeks to assert dominance over the Earth, whether fellow man or Mother Nature.  The comparison between rapes extends to the dialogue, such as the assertion “we’re gonna rape the whole darn landscape…”

If the rape is the film’s most notorious sequence, then the “Duelling Banjos” scene between Drew and a local boy is, perhaps, the most widely remembered.  As you may recall, the scene finds Drew on guitar and a young, inbred boy on a banjo, talking the same language: the universal language of music. 

Who is looking down on whom?
This scene is the high point in the movie’s conflict between city and rural folk.  It’s clear that music could symbolize a common ground for understanding, if only both sides let it be so, but the gulf between the two cultures is too great to cross.  There’s too much suspicion, too much distrust to allow real communication or trust to occur on either side.  Therefore, this scene of would-be optimism instead emerges as one of further competition for dominance.  And to see who is dominant, you need only look at Boorman's framing.  Who is in the superior position here?

Cause and effect: In the foreground, the face of death.
In the background, animal instinct takes over.
In viewing Deliverance again recently, I came to the conclusion the film is not about manhood or machismo tested, but humanity tested.  One of the most unforgettable moments in the film reduces our four protagonists to thoughtless animals.  They desperately attempt to bury the murdered man in the dirt, but have no shovels with which to accomplish the task.  They sweat and claw at the ground feverishly as if primitive primates.  They have shed civilization entirely and returned to a basic, animal nature.  But again, gaze at Boorman's choice in terms of composition.  In the foreground: the face of death.  In the background: the animal response to danger.  It's a brilliant cause-and-effect image.  It reminds us that when threatened, civilization slips away.

No less an esteemed source than author James Dickey thinks Deliverance is about testing your courage.  I submit the film adaptation is actually about learning to deal with the things you keep buried and locked away.  Once you let the beast out, it doesn't drown easy.  It's always there, threatening to surface again, like that hand reaching up from the lake...

Savage Friday: A Primer on the Savage Cinema


Welcome to "Savage Friday," a new type of post I’ll be running from time-to-time here on the blog. 

The Savage Cinema, as I like to call it, grew out of a film movement that began, arguably with Bonnie and Clyde (1976).  You’ll recall, perhaps, that Arthur Penn movie’s frankness about sex (conveyed in ubiquitous phallic imagery…), as well as the film’s unbelievably bloody and downbeat ending. 

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the “New Freedom” arrived in full, and cutting-edge filmmakers began to vet stories -- horror stories, I maintain – about basic human nature. 

In tales of the Savage Cinema, resources are scarce, compromise is impossible, and two “sides” go to war.  The Haves and the Have Nots (The Hills Have Eyes [1977]), the lawful and the unlawful (The Last House on the Left [1972]), the male and female (I Spit on Your Grave [1978]), the liberated and traditional (Straw Dogs [1971]), even city folk and country folk (Deliverance [1972]) find that there’s no room for debate…only bloodshed and hatred.

And in each one of these films, for the most part, there’s an Every Man (or Every Woman) who is drawn or pulled into combat, and must consequently re-evaluate his or her sense of morality to contend with the sudden, often inexplicable outbreak of violence.  That Every Person rises to an unexpected challenge, but also – in some way – succumbs to the basest human instinct: to kill.

In the crucible of (unwanted) combat, the Every Person thoroughly tests him or herself.  Does he or she have what it takes to survive?  Does this character descend, finally, into bloody violence?  And what is the personal, mental, and physical toll of shedding civilization and established norms of morality, even for an instant?   Can you come back from that?  Do you want to come back from that?

Such questions intrigue and fascinate me, perhaps because I have always lived a sheltered and safe life.  I’m a largely risk averse person in terms of my choices and life-style.  I live in a world where there is ample police protection, no military draft, and remarkably little crime. But I admire the Savage Cinema films I’ve mentioned above because they force audiences to ponder, quite frankly: what would I do? 

Even better, these films echo their content to an extreme and remarkably pure degree.  If Savage Cinema film narratives involve shedding the shackles and protections of civilization and the norms of morality, their cinematic, visual approach involves a stylistic corollary: shredding established film decorum and conventions, and going over the edge into transgressive and taboo-breaking territory.

This territory is not for polite company, to be certain.

It’s a place of frequent female and male rape (Deliverance, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House), imperiled family members (The Hills Have Eyes, Last House), and brutal violence.  Often that on-screen violence is of an intensely personal and even animalistic nature: A woman bites off a man’s penis in Craven’s Last House.  Similarly, in Straw Dogs, we see a man’s foot blown off (by a stray shot-gun blast) in extreme close-up. 

So yes, these movies are explicit and disturbing, but also courageous in the sense that they follow through on their promise and premise.  Where some people and critics have stated that such films are gratuitously violent, I argue the opposite point.  These films are about violence, and the consequences of violence on families, and civilization as a whole. 

The violence highlighted in films of the Savage Cinema is of a type that makes you wonder about our human nature.  It isn’t depicted as heroic, but rather, in some instances, as necessary and human, but still awful.  If you gaze at the final freeze frame of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, you see a family destroyed by violence.  On the soundtrack, we hear the lyrics “the road leads to nowhere” and that “the castle stays the same.”  In other words, a civilized family has descended to the level of law-breaking criminals, and nothing has been earned or won through that violence.  Retribution or revenge may satisfy blood lust for a moment, but then what do you do – for a lifetime – knowing that you are the same thing, at heart, as the “monster” you slayed?

This is the morally-fascinating territory of the Savage Cinema, and the reason why it boasts artistic worth and social value.  And make no mistake: the genre boasts powerful enemies on both sides of the political spectrum.  Some religious right-wingers decry the violence of the Savage Cinema and want the films banned.  On the left, there some committed feminists who view the films as being overtly anti-woman. 

With respect to both demographics, they aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.  While it’s true that the films are brutal, and that women are among those who suffer in them, it is also true that the violence boasts a moral point, and that men and women are – largely – brutalized equally.  In the Savage Cinema, no one is immune from the human condition.  But it's easy to discern that these films are politically-incorrect and that if you just look at the images (and not the meaning underlying the images), these films appear...incendiary.

Even in terms of horror aficionados, there are those who decry these films.  Savage cinema films lack the "Gothic elegance," we might be told, of an earlier, more dignified generation of genre films.   Again, that's true from a certain perspective.  The horror in these films is more direct -- and blunt -- than we might be accustomed to if we grew up with Universal or Hammer.   Savage Cinema films arise from a different cinematic aesthetic and tradition than such efforts -- that "New Freedom" of the counter-culture, late 1960s -- and yet they still speak trenchantly and symbolically about the human condition.

We initiate our first Savage Cinema Friday with a look at one of the form’s most notorious and memorable films: John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972)...

Movie Trailer: Deliverance (1972)

Cult Movie Wisdom of the Week: Deliverance (1972)



"Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything."

- Deliverance (1972)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

They May Be Synthetic, but They're Not Stupid: The Androids of Alien and Prometheus


Now that we have Prometheus as our “small beginning” (!) to a “big thing” (the long-lived Alien franchise), there is an opportunity to gaze at the five films and chart new thematic or character connections.  Considering the critical role that David (Michael Fassbender) plays in Prometheus, Ridley Scott has given audiences and fans a wonderful opportunity to trace, specifically, the development of artificial life forms in the series. 

In fact, with a little imagination and analysis, can we actually track the full evolution of a sentient, android race in the Alien franchise films? And can we do so in the same manner we would trace the growth of an individual human being; from birth to maturity?

Prometheus’s David is the first or earliest android in the chronology, we now understand.  This, in a sense, makes him the first of his kind, or a newborn…a child.  Accordingly, we see in the film how David seeks out guidance -- and like a human son or daughter -- models himself on those around him…whether an adopted parent or a figure he sees in a movie he enjoys (like T.E. Lawrence). 

Also much like a young child, David seems to conform to no accepted rules of morality except those that are explicitly established for him by his Daddy, Weyland (Guy Pearce). 

And when David has the opportunity to test the limits or boundaries of his world – for instance, when he speaks something cryptic to the Engineers – he seems to do so without hesitation. 

So in David we witness a synthetic life form taking his first baby steps; reckoning with the world and attempting to determine his place in terms of a “family” and behavioral limitations.   In fact, David is the first android in any of the five films who is contextualized in terms of a standard, human family of origin, and here we meet not only patriarch Weyland, but David’s resentful “sibling,” Vickers.

In Prometheus, we also see David intentionally misbehave by opening a door in the temple when he shouldn’t, and by de-activating a camera feed to block his sister’s view. There seems to be something of the mischievous, capricious child in his demeanor.

Alien’s (1979) Ash (Ian Holm) is next in the chronology.  I’ve written about the intense sexual underpinnings of this Ridley Scott film before, but seen in the context of all the franchise androids, I now wonder if it’s possible to view Ash as the repressed teenager of the bunch

Ash is moody, difficult, sulky, and envious (of the alien and humans), and he’s apparently got an unhealthy obsession with Ripley.  Just watch that scene of enraged sexual aggression late in the film as he tries to jam a rolled up porno magazine into her open mouth.  He’s full of rage and, at the same time, unable to perform in the way he desires.  And then, of course, when Ash can’t succeed with Ripley, he shoots his wad, ejaculating white android fluid everywhere. 

Ash, clearly, is an android uncomfortable with his identity, and the way he fits in with the world around him.  He is frequently bullied by Parker and challenged by Ripley.  Nobody likes him, and indeed…he isn’t likable.  Sound like any thirteen year old kids you know?

No wonder Ash gazes at the alien with such wonder and awe.  The xenomorph is hostility personified, but also simplicity personified. It knows exactly where it fits in -- anywhere it wants to! -- and exactly how to co-opt other life forms to its (nefarious) ends.  Ash -- an adolescent seeking his place -- can’t say the same thing.

Bishop, portrayed by Lance Henriksen, appears in Aliens (1986) and Alien3 (1992).  Unlike his predecessors, this android seems to have accepted his role (and limits) in human society with grace.  This may be because Bishop is governed by new programming (not available for earlier models like David and Ash, ostensibly…) that prohibits him from acting in a way that allows human beings to be harmed.  Bishop is still child-like, much like David, but – importantly – is much more stable in temperament.    Again, part of the process of maturation in humans is observing limits and understanding that one fits in with a group, and can’t act on any and every impulse.

Thus Bishop seems like a young if still naïve man who has accepted the law of society (Asimov’s laws of robotics) and accepts that they protect everyone.  He may admire the alien, like Ash did, but Bishop’s adherence and acceptance of a law outside himself or a parent means that he can’t be swept up in this infatuation. 

Uniquely, Bishop also faces death with grace, realizing that it is better to die on Fury 161 then to linger in a state of half-life.   One of Alien 3’s greatest rhetorical reversals involves the Bishop character, and audience acceptance of him.  After two movies, our image of the kindly, even sweet Bishop android has erased the memory of the duplicitous and mad Ash.  So when the real Bishop – a flesh-and-blood human – appears to tempt Ripley with a life she can’t have, we want more than anything to trust him.  The android in the Alien series has thus gone from being a dangerous child and mad teen to a productive, trusted and beloved person…even in the eyes of humanity.

The last android we meet in the Alien series is Alien Resurrection’s Call (1997), played by Winona Ryder.  In a very significant way, she represents the final evolution of the android journey.  Not only is she stable like Bishop was, but she is able to look outward – beyond concern for herself or her immediate companions -- to the well-being of the universe at large.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Call is also the first female android we meet in the series, though the jury is still out on Vickers...  

For the first time in the series, an artificial person, Call, independently reaches the same eminently reasonable reckoning about the aliens that the human Ripley did immediately before her apotheosis on Fury 161: that they must be destroyed at any cost to assure the safety of all life forms. What we have here, then, is a synthetic being who sees life as worthwhile, and attempts to nurture and protect it. Is that one way to define maturity? Being able to see outside yourself, your desires, and even the law, and acknowledging some brand of connection among life forms?  Prioritizing life over selfish, financial, or military gain?

If we do get the much-anticipated sequel to Prometheus, it will be intriguing to see how David’s continuing journey fills in the rest of the gap, leading up to the fussy, fastidious, pent-up Ash.   Cannon, a reader here on the blog commented (with insight) yesterday that David is actually symbolic of the Prometheus myth himself.  Like Prometheus, he is neither man nor God (Engineer), but a Titan, and thus apart. 

The journey of the androids in the Alien series reflects that separation.  These synthetic beings start out (historically) as separate, disdained (David) and hostile (Ash), but become integrated into the human community and even trusted (Bishop), to the point that they finally -- at last (in Call) -- echo our finest values as a species.

Pop Art: Playmates Star Trek Edition










Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Death by a Thousand Nitpicks? Prometheus (2012) and the critical reception

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the ideas underlying Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012).  Today, I want to survey briefly some of the arguments I've seen leveled against the film. Now, mind you, there are criticisms, obviously, to be made of the film.  This post is not designed to suggest that all criticism of the film is invalid or wrong, only that some of the intense, oft-repeated criticisms seem...overwrought, and suggest a refusal to meet the film half-way.

1. Scientific Inaccuracy.  I've read several complaints about the opening card (over a view of Prometheus in space) that establishes precisely the vessel's distance from Earth (and also the time it took to travel to this point in space).  In short, apparently Prometheus traveled really, really fast.  So is this an error in science?  Perhaps so.  But does it disqualify the movie from a position of quality, overall?  Well, let me just say this: "You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."  Does that (cringe-worthy) and unscientific line make Star Wars (1977) a bad movie overall?  And let's not forget Star Trek: First Contact (1996) either, wherein the Enterprise travels from the Romulan neutral zone to Earth in time to join a battle with the Borg already in progress.  So this point about Prometheus actually reveals how critical standards aren't exactly being applied evenly in discussions of the film.

2.  The characters behave stupidly!  This is actually a multi-part complaint, and one I'm sensitive to on some fronts. But what I've read most frequently online is a variation of "what kind of dumb scientist is Holloway that he would remove his helmet in an alien temple?!"  Well, he's the kind of scientist who already confirmed that there is a breathable atmosphere inside the temple, and then explicitly re-confirmed it with the expedition's brilliant android, David.  It's not like he just gets to the surface of LV-223 and tears off his helmet during a silica storm.  Yes, Holloway's behavior is undeniably rash, and Shaw isn't exactly happy about it, either.  So, 1.) Holloway does make at least a cursory safety check before the rash move, and 2.) his rash move is duly noted by the other, irritated characters in the drama.  So what's the problem?  I'm old enough to remember the response to Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) when some folks complained that the Alphans acted too much like scientists; too reserved, too careful, too deliberate.  Where was their sense of risk?  Their sense of humanity?  Where was the drama?!  Prometheus takes the opposite tact, perhaps, but that choice doesn't invalidate the film.  Scientists are human beings -- replete with foibles -- too.

A.) The two scientists who encounter the snake alien don't show enough fear while facing it.  Well, they look pretty terrified to me.  One way to interpret their panicky behavior is that they are attempting to quiet the beast -- in case it is afraid of them.  It's like being faced with a wild tiger in the jungle.  Do you scream at the top of your lungs and scare it?  Run away suddenly, basically daring it to strike?  Or do you address the threat...soothingly?  "It's okay, it's okay...shhhh, it's okay...relax...we're not going to hurt you."  No, not a perfect response by any means, but an understandable and absolutely human one.  And one that ends badly, of course.  Is it so hard to believe?

B.) Holloway doesn't tell anyone he's sick.  Again, this complaint is absolutely true.  But in terms of movie conventions, how many zombie or outbreak-style movies have we seen in which a character fails to reveal to others in a timely fashion that he or she has been bitten or contaminated?  There are a lot of movies that we now must rule out as "good" if this element is going to be a disqualifying factor for Prometheus.  The truth is -- again -- that Holloway acts like a flawed, imperfect human being; a scared human being.  He makes a very bad judgment call.  When he has time to reconsider that call, he sacrifices his life rather than hurt Shaw and the others.  No, he's not perfect up front, instantly, upon recognizing his plight.  How many of us would be perfect in identical circumstances?  


C.) Captain Janek (Idris Elba) must not care about his stranded crew because he goes off to have sex with Vickers (Charlize Theron) while the marooned men are in danger.  If we gaze at Janek, his character arc is essentially one in which he goes from being "just the captain" (and indeed, not caring), to laying down his life to save the entire human race.  He comes to understand, because of the events on LV-223 that he can no longer remain uninvolved, or on the side-lines.  All that century-old music he appreciates from Earth's past (his parental figure or most important influence, it seems...) will be lost to the ages if the Engineers have their way.  If Janek had remained at his post all through the night, this character arc would be sacrificed. And thus his final act would be less meaningful, and less surprising.  And besides, Janek doesn't see the team, necessarily as "his" crew.  He's just along for the ride...until something he cares about is threatened.  Again, this isn't Captain Kirk-styled heroics; this is a very real, unromantic human portrayal.  


D.) Shaw blows up an Engineer head, willy-nilly!  Early in the film, Shaw recovers an engineer head, sticks some electricity in the thing, and blows it up.  I've seen a lot of folks complain about her behavior in this scene.  But if you look more deeply at the symbolism of this sequence, it doesn't seem so baffling.  The Engineers are clearly afraid of their creation, the humans, and exhibit A might be this very moment.  A human shows up and in a fever to gain "the ultimate knowledge"  she destroys that which she seeks to understand.  Could be a metaphor for the whole movie, no?  In trying to comprehend God, do we destroy God?  In finding God, do we destroy faith?  Similarly, look at the decapitation symbolism, specifically.  A decapitation can mean a number of things, like for instance that your head and heart are not connected.  Some scholars also interpret decapitation imagery in dreams to mean that the dreamer's beliefs are under attack.  In a very real way, this reflects Shaw's situation (and her character is already connected explicitly to dream imagery in the text of the film...)  Her chosen belief is that the Engineers are God.  She finds out that they are not.  The severed head is both a literal and metaphorical reminder that her beliefs are wrong. The Engineers are clearly as mortal and vulnerable as humans.  Finally, this scene functions as an eerie mirror of a similar scene in Alien involving a decapitated Ash, and attempts to communicate with the damaged android.   In any case, engaging with the film's mode of communication makes this scene less irritating, and more provocative.

3.) Implausibility.  One of the complaints I have read frequently vis-a-vis Prometheus is that Shaw gets surgery and then "runs around" for the rest of the movie like nothing ever happened to her.  Well, not exactly.  She does fall unconscious for an interval, after all.  And it's not as though she isn't feeling intense pain, either.  A moment that I found even more effective than the brilliant surgery scene in generating a sense of unease involved Shaw sucking in her gut to zip up her tight space suit.  It's pretty clear from her expression that she's in agony.  And again, let's return to movie history and movie convention for a moment.  In Die Hard (1987), Bruce Willis walked barefoot across broken glass but was then strong enough to go mano-e-mano with Alexander Gudonov.  So again, if this is a disqualifying factor for Prometheus overall, let's disqualify Die Hard from greatness while we're at it, too.

4.) Sloppy writing.  I read a complaint online yesterday that the alien Engineers just "left" their bio weapons out in the middle of an open room, for any unlucky soul to find.  But didn't we explicitly see a hologram sequence in which the door to the weapon room was sealed tightly shut?  And it was such a heavy door, in fact, that it actually decapitated one of the Engineers when it closed.  David must unlock the door to gain access to that room.  It's not just wide open, as some critics have insisted.   

Secondly, what kind of scientists are these guys to go in and start touching stuff in the temple? Well, if memory serves, David is the one who first touches the black goop, on the premise that, as Weyland explicitly states, he's immortal.  It's true that the presence of a breathable atmosphere impacts the vases and causes the leakage there.  But could the astronauts have known this leakage would occur ahead of time?  Don't they evacuate as soon as they do recognize what has occurred?  And besides, what fun would the movie have been if the scientists went all the way to LV-223 and decided not to go inside the temple because they might interfere with something?    Let's not forget that no movie is perfect in constructing its narrative.  To create tension in the final act of Alien, remember, Ripley returned to the bridge of the Nostromo to rescue a cat.   That's as questionable an act as any of the aforementioned nitpicks in Prometheus.  But of course, going back for the cat doesn't disqualify Alien as a quality genre film, either.

Other questions also boast relatively straight-forward answers if you engage with Prometheus and meet it half-way.  Why doesn't the Engineer ship in the prologue look exactly like the one in the finale?  Well, why doesn't the Enterprise look like the Reliant?  Same makers, different design.  Why doesn't Vickers roll to the side instead of being crushed by the falling derelict?  She stumbles and falls at the last second, but when she turns back over, it's too late.  At least she didn't outrun a fire-ball, a common convention in such films. 

Again and again, many of the complaints lodged against Prometheus are of the nature I describe here: easily explainable if you are willing to engage even a little.  These nitpicks are ones that -- if equally applied to other films -- would absolutely preclude enjoyment and appreciation of Star Wars, Die Hard, and other classics.  In short, there are ample reasons to find fault with Prometheus.  But these reasons? 

So, we must ask ourselves, why is Prometheus the target of such egregious and easily answered nitpicking?   My suspicion is that many folks are discomforted by what the film implies about family, mortality, and religion, and thus latch onto nitpick quibbles to build a case that the Scott film is poorly presented.  Rather than dealing with what Prometheus is actually about, they nibble around the edges. Again, I'm not declaring that Prometheus is above serious criticism.  But does this level of nitpicking qualify as serious criticism?   In the history of cinema, this isn't the first time such a thing has happened, either.  On original release, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Scott's own Blade Runner met with fiercely negative reviews too.  Time has revealed the error in those cases.  Will it do the same for Prometheus?  

Collectible of the Week: Sub Search (Milton Bradley, 1973)


It bombed at the box office, so I suppose we won’t be watching next summer the inevitable sequel to Battleship (2012): Sub Search! 

That’s a shame, because as a kid I always felt that Sub Search was a far more interesting and strategic game than the popular Battleship.  It was just unlucky enough not to have a memorable catchphrase (“You sunk my battleship!”) associated with it.

Milton Bradley’s Sub Search (1973) is a “three level strategy game” intended for ages ten to adult.  The object of the game: “Both surface fleets search out and sink enemy subs.” 

But there are hazards for the surface ships to face too, including “mines and torpedoes from the subs…”

One reason I always loved Sub Search as a youngster was the intricate and ingenious three level playing board. Atop the board is the ocean surface, but beneath it are three layers (marked 100, 200, and 300) of ocean “depth” where submarines can cruise and hide.

Each player gets access to a full, three-dimensional ocean in which to hide his subs, but also three strategic “grids” for hunting enemy subs.  This part of the board is called the “Flagship Status Panel,” and it reminds players how to code their grids: "A miss = white pegs.  Near Miss: red peg.  Direct hit: flag."

I can’t accurately calculate how many hours I spent playing Sub Search as a kid, but suffice it to say I played the game a lot.  The game was a gateway for me (along the lines of Risk or Stratego) to more complex, adult strategy games.  And whenever my family went away on vacation, my Dad and I would always spend at least one afternoon playing strategy games together.  So Sub Search was one of the key experiences that got me into that gaming world.

My Father’s Day gift present this year from Joel and Kathryn was a complete Sub Search game they found on E-Bay.  I have already taught Joel how to play it (even though he’s only five…) and so far he loves it.  We’ve had a blast playing it together.  The only thing: the first three times we played, Joel skunked me fair and square each time.  The last time we played, he pinpointed all three of my submarine locations in less than a two-dozen moves.  

I better bring my best game on…



Game Board of the Week: Space: 1999 (Milton Bradley)


Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Promethean Shark Boy Edition


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)



Director Ridley Scott has already given the science fiction cinema two of its greatest and most cherished films: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).  His new  genre film, Prometheus (2012) brazenly grasps for the same zenith in terms of quality…and largely succeeds.  The film features twice the symbolic imagery of Blade Runner, and many, many times the implications of Alien.

In terms of visualization, Prometheus is nothing less than staggering. And in terms of narrative and meaning, Scott and his controversial writer Damon Lindelof have forged an intricate puzzle box, one which remains available to multiple interpretations and deep analysis.

This high-minded, symbolic approach to silver screen science fiction has not pleased some of the more literal-minded critics and audiences.  Indeed, there is a fine line between creating an open-ended, ambitious work of art that provokes discussion and crafting a movie that is so open-ended and impenetrable that the narrative itself seems muddled. 

Although I remain sensitive to those who insist that Prometheus is so confused and cryptic as to be  meaningless, I remain delighted that Ridley Scott has crafted an elaborate, complex film; one worthy of multiple viewings, and which can be best understood through careful dissection and consideration of the text’s symbols and multitudinous allusions.  A thorough understanding of the film is gleaned not necessarily by following the 1-2-3 steps of the plot, but rather through interpreting the deliberate nods to earlier films (such as Lawrence of Arabia [1962] or Blade Runner), and reckoning with a consistently-applied leitmotif that contextualizes all the players -- including the alien engineers -- in a specific manner.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have long been concerned with the way that the modern genre film has determinedly eschewed sub-text, and spoon-fed us obvious answers to  mysteries and puzzles.  Prometheus flouts this convention, and practically begs for an engaged, active, thoughtful viewership.  I would be a hypocrite if I complained both about the lack of ambiguity in most contemporary blockbusters and then shouted down Prometheus for its commendable surfeit of ambiguity.  If the film errs somewhat on the side of being inscrutable, so be it. 


In other words, this is precisely the kind of film I hoped Ridley Scott would give us.  Prometheus largely exceeds my own sky-high expectations because it is provocative, challenging, infuriating, dense, and daring.  Some of the specific questions that fans have hungered to have answered, like “what’s the exact life cycle of the creatures we see in the film?” are ultimately held subordinate to the committed exploration of Scott’s chosen thesis: that all parents -- God included -- in some manner hate their children, and that children, equally, despise those who gave them life.  This the film's thematic terrain, and once you accept it (even if you disagree with the premise...), the film opens up and becomes infinitely more accessible.  

By charting the dynamics of the parent/child dilemma, Prometheus thus emerges as the ultimate “Generation Gap” film. The underlying, subconscious reason for this reciprocal relationship of apparent hatred involves our very mortality, a topic that Ridley Scott also explored meaningfully in Blade Runner.  Parents want to live longer and hold onto their supremacy until the bitter end.  And children -- symbols of a future that parents won’t live to see -- want to usurp established authority and become dominant sooner rather than later.

The problem with the human condition, Prometheus suggests, is that we cannot see ourselves simultaneously as both children and parents, and that this tunnel-vision regarding our self image provokes resentment equally in those we raise, and those who raised us. This central running motif about parents/children actually resolves -- albeit obliquely -- many of the problems I’ve read that people have with the film. 

Why do the Engineers hate us?  Why does Holloway hate David? What does David feel for Weyland?

All the answers – or at least most of them – can be excavated by comprehending the particularities of the parent/child relationship in question. If we go in search of our Creator, Prometheus warns, we must understand that our Creator may not like, let alone love, his creation. After all, we possess something he does not: an unwritten future…one filled with potential and possibilities rather than an already-inscribed history of regrets and mistakes. 

If you view Scott’s Prometheus through this lens of parent/child relationships -- and consider the imagery and symbols that support this reading -- you may begin to view the 2012 film as a work of art that asks some very important and pointed questions about our nature.  This is worthy intellectual territory for an Alien-related movie to explore, since so much of that franchise mythos has been about the pain and horror associated with “birth.” 

Beyond that painful physical experience, Prometheus suggests, the real horror awaits.  Birth is just the beginning of the pain.  Try living up to God's expectations...

“A King has his reign, and then he dies.  It’s inevitable.”


In the distant past and presumably on Earth, a white-skinned humanoid – an Engineer – consumes a viscous black fluid and promptly begins to disintegrate. He tumbles into a roaring waterfall and his decomposing body fills the water with his DNA…the building blocks of life.

In 2089 AD on Earth, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) put together the final piece of a strange puzzle.  In a prehistoric cave on the Isle of Skye, they find the sixth pictograph showcasing a star map; one pointing towards mankind’s destiny in a distant solar system.

In 2093 AD, Shaw and Holloway awake from cryo-sleep aboard the space vessel Prometheus, a ship under the command of Captain Janek (Idris Alba). With the patronage of the Weyland Company -- represented by executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and a polite android named David (Michael Fassbender) -- the two scientists explain their theory of the star map to a skeptical crew. 

Shaw and Holloway believe that mankind was created by a race of alien engineers, and that the pictographs in the prehistoric caves represent an invitation to seek them out.  Prometheus is now near its destination: a life-supporting moon around a ringed planet, called LV-223.  Here Shaw hopes to find evidence of man’s beginnings.

On the moon’s surface, an exploratory team discovers an Engineer construction: a giant earthen temple that generates its own breathable atmosphere.  Inside the temple stands thousands of vases which contain a viscous black fluid…possibly a life form, possibly a bio-weapon. 

When the containers start to leak, a chain of events is set into motion that will threaten not only Shaw and Holloway, but all human life on Earth itself.

“Don’t all children want their parents to die?”


Gazing deeply into Prometheus’s DNA, one can detect how the parent-child relationship is expressed up-and-down in terms of the dramatis personae and the central narrative.  In terms of the latter, man goes out in search of his “beginnings” or parents, the alien Engineers.  And man’s child, the android David (Michael Fassbender), also embarks on the search for his own destiny or freedom -- beyond man -- at the same time.

In terms of the former, most of the important characters in the film are developed in ways that signify they are either children or parents…or both.

Take protagonist Elizabeth Shaw, for example.  We learn from an early flashback/dream sequence that she lost both of her parents when she was very young.  Furthermore, she is unable to bear children herself.  Because of the absence of parents in her life, and because of her own inability to become a parent, Shaw is a woman of deep “faith,” viewing the Christian God as parental source of wisdom, support, and comfort.   She has fashioned a "personal" parent in the western, New Testament God image.

In need of a benevolent father figure to replace the one she lost all those years ago, Shaw “chooses to believe” that the Engineers are mankind’s creators, and that they are good, loving, wise creatures awaiting her arrival -- or return? -- with outstretched arms.  Her assumptions -- forged in the heartbreaking absence of human parents -- prove utterly wrong, and Shaw grows vengeful and bitter in the course of the film, determined to hold the Engineers’ feet to the fire for failing to live up to her personal imaginings of them. 

Why do the Engineers hate their own children?  Shaw asserts that she “deserves answers” to this pressing riddle.  This is so because she has erected her entire life and self-image around the myth of a loving God, benevolent father to the human race.  As the film ends, Shaw doubles down on her belief that the Engineers must love their grown children, and heads off to their planet of origin to confirm the answer she seeks.  This pursuit of her Creators is not one based on facts, since we have seen with our own eyes that the Engineers are unremittingly hostile.  Rather, Shaw's zealous continuation of the journey is the result of a closed mind, one which won't accept new data and new facts.  And yes, her character -- while heroic -- is certainly a comment on epistemic closure in those of faith.  One wonders, perhaps, if Shaw views herself as the prodigal child, one who has committed some (unknown) sin, but who will ultimately be accepted upon her return.  If she (along with the human race)  represents the Engineers' prodigal child, then the xenomorphs may be our more dutiful siblings...


Meredith Vickers is also defined in Prometheus as a child.  She is the long-suffering daughter of tycoon, scientist and magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).  Vickers has waited patiently throughout her adult life for her father to relinquish control of his multi-billion dollar company so that she can assume it herself; so that she can start constructing her own legacy. 

But Weyland is reluctant to let go.  So reluctant, in fact, that he finances a mission to LV-223 on the long shot chance of discovering the secret of immortality from the Engineers…from God.  Late in the film, Meredith rails against her father for his failure to observe the accepted way of things. Like Shaw she is angry and embittered by her experience with a parent.  He won't let her complete the process of transformation...of becoming.

It’s inevitable, Vickers tells Weyland, that a king has his reign…and then dies.  But Weyland steadfastly refuses to end his reign, landing Vickers in a kind of arrested state of not-quite maturity.   Trapped in that purgatory, she is not respected by others, and her authority inside the company is constantly questioned. Vickers is always heir to the throne, but never gets to sit on that throne.  She watches her father's death not with dread or pain, but with something akin to acceptance.  It was time for him to go, and his last act -- going to an alien to demand more life -- was pathetic and needy.


Weyland’s other child is David, the android or artificial life form that he created. Weyland serves as both God and father to David.  But he has created David not to be an independent entity or even an individual with a unique personality, but rather a living glorification of Weyland’s reputation as a genius.  

Accordingly, Weyland is routinely dismissive of David, noting in front of others that although David is immortal, he possesses “no soul.”  The uneasy nature of the David/Weyland relationship is best expressed in a sequence in the medical bay, during which David washes his father’s feet.

Foot washing is a Christian religious ritual.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of the Last Supper, his final night on Earth.  In this tradition -- unusually -- the superior washes the feet of the servants, or the apparent inferiors.   Jesus said: “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example…that you should do as I have done to you.


What David’s act of foot washing signifies is not the love of a son for an elderly, infirm father, but rather a subtle warning to Weyland that he, perhaps, should be prepared to wash the feet (symbolically) of the Engineers rather than demand from these absent parents more life (fucker…to paraphrase Blade Runner). 

David’s act of foot washing looks like one of subordination and respect, but in the tradition of Jesus, it is actually not subordinate at all.  Rather, David informs his father -- in the deliberately symbolic terms of foot washing -- that he should act just as David has acted.  He should wash the feet of the others, to humble himself before the Engineers.  But David knows that Weyland is arrogant and prideful and will not follow his example.  This suits David, because he wishes his father dead so that he can chart his own path.  He no longer wishes to take orders from the Old Man.

Another child in Prometheus, of course, is the human race itself.  It is the (perhaps unwanted…) child of the Engineers.  And in typically childish fashion, this child goes before its parents and demands answers about life.  The Engineers -- as parents -- however, clearly fear the humans.  The humans – their children – have in two millennia escaped their playpen (Earth) and sought them out at Daddy’s work, on LV-223.  This act suggests, perhaps, that the child shall eventually overcome the father, and eclipse the father. 

This deep fear, I submit, is the source of resentment on the part of the Engineers: they have created something that they can’t control, but which may outlive them and out-achieve them.  Now, if you read the net with any regularity, there’s much talk about the film's deleted “Space Jesus” and the idea that the Engineers sent an emissary to Earth, Christ, who was killed by humans.  That is the specific reason, apparently, that the Engineers dislike us.  But that omitted explanation was also rejected by Scott as too “on the nose,” and does not mitigate or undo the explanation I supply here.

In fact, the idea of a parent being jealous or vengeful towards a child conforms beautifully with the Prometheus myth, which the film evokes.  In Greek Myth, Prometheus is a God-like creature, a Titan, who created man from clay and then stole fire for mankind so that the child could stand on equal footing with his progenitor.  Prometheus’s punishment from his fellow Gods was everlasting torment.  Implicit in this story is the belief that the Gods -- the ultimate parent figures -- don't want competitors.  They fear that Prometheus's gift will make man an equal, just as many parents fear that their children, once grown up, will be equals...or betters.

One interpretation of Prometheus suggests that the Engineer seen in the prologue is either a Prometheus-like renegade or heretic who similarly gives the “magic of life” – his very DNA – to create man, perhaps over the ardent objections of the other Engineers.  Why does he do so?  We can’t know, of course, but perhaps this Engineer wanted to create something that was “good” instead of something destructive, like the black ooze biological weapon which – no matter which way you cut it, or what life form you utilize as intermediary – always ends up as vicious population control: a nasty, saliva-dripping xenomorph.

In this reading of the film, an “unwanted” child, the human race, is created by an unsanctioned renegade, and the rest of the Engineers realize they must destroy it before the child threatens them and eclipses them. 

Another possible reading: the Engineer in the prologue creates man simply because he can.  This is a deliberate mirror of Holloway’s explanation for David in the film’s dialogue.  Holloway tells David that mankind gave birth to an artificial life form only to prove that it could create life, not out of love, not out of responsibility, and not out of any deeper meaning or emotional truth.

By extension, perhaps this explanation applies to the Engineers and the human race too.  The Engineers conducted a test (they seem to be experimenters...)…and humans were the (fearsome) and unexpected result.  Not all parents intend to be parents in the first place, after all.  For some, parenthood is an unexpected and unwanted burden.  This is the existentialist, nihilist interpretation of the film.  Man goes out into space in search of the meaning of life, only to get the answer that his life -- his very existence -- is meaningless. How does he know?  Because the Bible (er, God...) tells him so.


I have read in many venues since Prometheus’s premiere how much genre audiences apparently dislike the character of Charlie Holloway, and how critics and viewers have grappled with what a “shithead” he is.  Why is he so mean and condescending to David? 

The answer, again, determinedly concerns parents and children.  As the Engineers view their creation with disdain, so does Holloway view mankind’s creation, David, with disdain.  But it’s not merely disdain…it is casual disdain. 

This rude and condescending behavior expresses Charlie’s hypocrisy, and his absolute inability to see himself as both a father and a son.  He goes to space to find his genetic father, while belittling and destroying mankind’s son...a miracle who stands right there in front of him.  Can’t he see that he is treating David in a way he would not want to be treated by his father or God?

I submit Holloway is actually a pretty intriguing character because of this casual, reflexive, unthinking rejection of David as a “lesser” being.  This is racism in its worst form, a thoughtless denigration of one of God’s creations.  And sometimes, this kind of racism exists in even the most enlightened individuals.  The point is that men – even great men like Charlie Holloway – can’t always see their own hypocrisy, or their own blind spots.  Charlie never gives voice to a specific reason for his hatred of David, he just blindly considers him inferior because David is artificial...just as generations have blindly considered African-Americans inferior because of skin color, or gay people inferior because of sexual identity.   

Does this racist behavior make Charlie a shithead?  I don’t know.  It certainly makes him a genuinely complicated character.  He seeks a God who loves him, like Shaw, one that he wishes to “talk to,” but yet he steadfastly denies that very love to David, a being created by man.  It’s a very elegant dynamic and point of comparison, and one that reveals how so many people of faith wear blinders in the face of their own foibles.   Charlie can position himself only as a child, shirking his responsibilities as father.

Weyland’s trajectory is similar to Charlie’s.  He has played God, but is not kind or good to his creation, David.  Yet Weyland wholly expects his God to honor a personal demand for immortality.  The Engineers have no reason to grant Weyland this prize, and in fact the brazen nature of the request only seems to confirm the Engineers’ apparent belief that man will eclipse them and threaten them if left unchecked.  Human appetites are boundless.  As Weyland dies at the end of the film, he warns David that there is only “nothing” (a reference to the desert, and Lawrence of Arabia).  What he means, however, is that -- going back to the existentialist interpretation of Prometheus -- God has no answers to give.  This is important information for David. Weyland has no answers to give, either.

Given the importance of the parent/child dynamic in Prometheus, the significance of the black ooze may just be that it violently makes parents of even the most unwilling organisms.  It usurps the normal life process and co-opts life for its own agenda.  And again, that may qualify as a cynical definition of “children,” at least according to some.  Children are a demand on time and resources, and the grisly bio-weapon of the Engineers forces unwanted parenthood on one and all. But the children of the black ooze are literally monsters, slavering beasts dedicated to murder, and therefore true weapons of mass destruction.  And yes, if the Engineers did create the black ooze, that makes the black ooze -- and by extension the xenomorphs -- our "brothers."

Now, of course, I don’t feel this way about children and parents.  I’m a happy parent of a delightful and wonderful five year old boy…who happily plays with Kenner Alien toys, incidentally.  But Prometheus gazes deeply at the reasons why parents and children sometimes gaze at one another across a gulf of suspicion and dislike.  Parents and children vie for resources and time in the quest to achieve dominance and immortality.  “Don’t all children want their parents to die?” David asks late in the film, and Shaw rebuts him, stating emphatically that the answer is negative.

But judging by the interactions between parents and children in the film, and taking into account the Prometheus myth, the film makes a case that David is right.  Parents fear children because the ascent of their offspring in some way portends the death of the creator.  And there's nothing more frightening -- even to Gods, apparently -- than facing annihilation and oblivion.  And children fear and hate parents because parents control them and hold onto precious life to the bitter end.

This is a rich, consistently-applied theme, diagrammed in character after character, and literally hard-written into the structure of Prometheus itself.  Of course, some will ask, if the Engineers despise their children so much, why give them an invitation to come visit?

The simple answer is that it’s a trick invitation.  Notice that the children are invited not to a home world, but to a dangerous weapons facility.  If the children come, they’ll more than likely be destroyed.  If you've ever been ambushed at a family gathering, you kind of get the point.  An invitation to "come home" isn't necessarily or automatically benign, is it?
 
“It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really:” David the Android, and the Lawrence of Arabia (1962) connection.


One of the key characters in Prometheus is Michael Fassbender’s effete android, David.  As we witness early in the film, David has adopted as his human role model the character of T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.  Specifically, he models his hair to resemble Peter O’Toole’s cut in that film.  One also wonders if he is  named David after that film’s director: David Lean.

By remembering some of the details and dialogue of Lawrence of Arabia, we begin to unlock the puzzle of David’s behavior and motivations.  Other critics have already pointed out, accurately, that dialogue in Prometheus deliberately and explicitly references Lawrence of Arabia on three occasions. 

These are when David notes “Big things have small beginnings,” when Weyland notes that the “key” to doing risky things is “not minding that it hurts,” and the commentary, finally, that “there is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”

Yet such references are only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. 

In ways important and complex, David clearly models his very behavior and actions after his cinematic hero.  For instance, T.E. Lawrence tells General Murray (David Wolfsit) in the Lean film that his manner looks insubordinate “but it isn’t really.” 

This is precisely David’s manner. He operates by an agenda that is seems insubordinate, but is not. Over and over, David ignores the orders of his superiors. Specifically, he opens the door to the temple vase room over Holloway and Shaw’s objections, and then de-activates the live feed showing his progress to the ship’s bridge, irking Vickers.  By and large, David -- like Lawrence -- “pretends” to be insubordinate, when this is not the case.  He is secretly operating by Weyland's command.  In other words, he is perfectly subordinate...at least until he can be free of his "father."

Also harking back to the filmic T.E. Lawrence, David recognizes his isolation and also independence from those surrounding him.  He is neither human, nor alien engineer.  He is singular in his nature. In Lean’s film, Lawrence describes himself as similarly possessing “no tribe,” and believes that this lack of specific membership makes him the perfect person to “execute the law,” as he tells Aida Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). 

Again, consider David’s behavior in Prometheus: It reveals no allegiance to any particular group, but rather a consideration only for David’s “law,” his personal quest, I believe, to “kill” his parents (Weyland and the other humans) and become, essentially, for the first time, a free man instead of a slave. 

When David suggests to Shaw that she rescue him from the alien bridge and return to the engineer spacecraft, he is essentially operating according his own agenda.  When he “views” Shaw’s dreams, similarly, we are led to believe that this is not something that was part of David’s recognized duty, since Shaw registers surprise.  David also lies to Vickers about Weyland and seems to suggest, to Shaw, that he would like to see Weyland – his “father” – dead.  Everything David says and does in the film is -- on some fundamental level -- related to his own desires and needs.  If those needs conform with Vickers’s, Shaw’s, Holloway’s or Weyland’s, that’s fine.  But if they don’t, David doesn't hesitate to take the path that seems to most benefit him.

Finally, David, like his cinematic mentor, seems to recognize the fact that he is virtually indestructible, or at least hard to kill.  He observes safety protocol and rituals, such as adorning a spacesuit and helmet, but these are affectations for the comfort of the nearby humans. David can touch biological black ooze without worrying for his survival, for instance.  And even when his head is severed from his body, he continues to thrive.

As T.E. Lawrence joked with Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) in Lawrence of Arabia: “They can only kill me with a golden bullet.”  Very clearly, the same assessment could be made of David.  He expects to be immortal, sans a nasty encounter or two with an angry Engineer.

The point of all these allusions is simple.  T.E. Lawrence suggests in Lean’s film that his allegiance is to “England…and other things,” a comment which cements his status as a man of uncertain or conflicted loyalties.  David could very well describe his sense of allegiance as being to “Weyland…and other things.”  He has thus learned from viewing Lawrence of Arabia how to successfully navigate conflicts and still achieve a goal he desires.  The Lean film is our visual cue to understanding David’s “nature,” and there are even scenes in both films where the David/T.E. Lawrence make mention of their emotional or unemotional state of “fear.”

The Lawrence of Arabia comparison is important in another way.  Specifically, in context of the parent/child dynamic the film explores so assiduously, T.E. Lawrence grants David the advice and wisdom of a mentor he actually likes, an important alternative to the cruel Weyland.  Similarly, the film itself is considered one of the greatest works of film art in history.  This is a status Prometheus hopes to achieve, only as a science fiction masterwork. 

In other words, David longs to be T.E. Lawrence, and Prometheus longs to be David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, metaphorically-speaking.  A key to understanding Prometheus is to understand what the text of Lawrence of Arabia means to both David and to Ridley Scott.  If you aren’t familiar with the classic film, you’re missing a whole avenue of interpretation and symbolism.

The Alien (1979) Connection: Too Much or Not Enough?


Prometheus depicts the story of the space jockey – an alien engineer – and reveals to audiences more of that famous alien’s technology and history.  As you can see from the Alien Movie Matrix that I printed below this post this morning, Prometheus also knowingly conforms to many of the tropes established in the Alien series.  There are familiar character types, including an android, a company man (or woman in this case), and comic relief.  In terms of plot situations, we get another pregnancy, plus new alien life forms, a heroic self-sacrifice (Janek), and a failed mission (Weyland’s quest for immortality).  So for those who wonder if Prometheus is truly an Alien film, the component parts – the DNA – answer in the affirmative.  A xenomorph may not hold center stage, but the conventions of the franchise play out all over again, in recognizable but adapted form.  Using all the paints and ingredients of Alien, Scott has created a new masterpiece in the same vein.

The connection to Alien established, Ridley Scott is also creative the father here, and so we can also recognize his career DNA in Prometheus.

Specifically, the director has imported Roy Batty’s quest from Blade Runner to serve as an important motivating factor here.  Weyland, much like Rutger Hauer’s famous Replicant, is facing a built-in expiration date, the impending end of his life.  As Batty went to visit his God, Tyrell for answers about immortality, so does Weyland petition his God, the Engineer in this matter.  In both situations, the quest ends…badly.  But the connection between Prometheus and Blade Runner is made explicit in visual terms during Weyland’s holographic presentation.  Weyland’s office closely resembles Tyrell’s sun-drenched sky-rise paradise, right down to the majestic columns bracketing the frame.  Weyland is thus – interestingly -- both petitioner and petitioned in this film, both a Creator and a child; both Tyrell and Batty, essentially. But Weyland picks up the quest for immortality where Batty left off.

In terms of Alien, Prometheus certainly continues Scott’s penchant for showcasing grisly, unexpected births.  Here, Shaw’s alien “baby” turns into a protean, giant face-hugger-like creation, and uses the Engineer’s body to incubate a monstrous, vaguely familiar xenomorph. 

Again, I realize that many fans of the Alien series have been upset with Prometheus for not more directly creating a definable life-cycle for the creatures in this film.  However there’s an easy and simple enough way to understand the monsters: Every road that the black goo embarks upon leads to one destination, eventually: the xenomorph.


Sometimes the route is direct, sometimes not.  It depends, I suppose, on the host DNA and the amount of black goo utilized.  But in the end, the weapon acts as just that, a weapon, and always creates a near-indestructible “beast.”  It’s a clear enough dynamic: whatever intermediary medium is used, you start with black goo and end up with a monster that eliminates, hopefully, your enemies.  I can see, however, why this kind of amorphous process rubs Alien fans the wrong way.  It’s a big change from what we have seen before, and change is always difficult to reckon with, at least initially.  Over time, as audiences come to accept Prometheus, I believe this concern will dissipate and people will start to recognize the film as, indeed, a genre masterpiece.

That sense of mastery rests in Scott's sense of composition, in the visuals he so carefully crafts to allude to other, great stories.  The film's opening -- an aerial tracking shot across a primordial planet surface -- is incredibly beautiful, and reminds one (intentionally, we must assume) of the Dawn of Man passage in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  As the camera move over roiling river rapids (a UFO hovering above), we intuit the sense of the swirling, turbid forces that give rise to life.  Sequences later in the film, overtly Lovecraftian in nature, fill us with anticipatory dread.  The temple of the Engineers -- a veritable necropolis -- is a vision inspired by Milton.  Again, this is an appropriate allusion.  The crew of Prometheus goes out in search of God and finds, instead, the devil.  In Paradise Lost, man was tempted by the devil (and by the fruit of the tree of knowledge) to leave innocence and paradise behind.  That loss of faith and innocence seems reflected in the film in Shaw's spiritual journey and loss of faith.

Clearly, I’ve written a lengthy piece here, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Prometheus, its symbols, and hidden meaning. I think it's a wonderful thing to be given a film so rich in meaning, motif, and allusion that it can’t easily be digested or parsed in one 250-word review.  Before I close, I just want to comment, finally, on the canny design of the Engineers.  With their alabaster skin and haunting black eyes, they resemble – to me anyway – humanoid sharks.  There’s something fearsome and predatory about them, and by coincidence, no doubt, here’s a recent news story on the net suggesting that sharks and humans share a common ancestor.   Engineer DNA?

That’s a nice bit of serendipity that works in Prometheus’s favor, I think. But at least on a subconscious level, when we view the Engineers, we are viewing things that we already judge fearsome....human and shark natures. That's important to the success of the film's final act.  For here, the terror rests not on slimy shape-shifting aliens, but on a reckoning with these twisted, over-sized reflection of ourselves.  That fact fits in with the theme of parents and children too.  The Engineers are a mirror for human life, only with an overtly wicked visual twist.

These are my thoughts on Prometheus right now, but I will continue to communicate them in future postings, hopefully with significant interaction from all of you, the readers.  Right now, more than anything, I want to see the movie again.  It was definitely worth the wait.

[Note: My friend Ed Erdelac noted on Facebook that the quote from Lawrence of Arabia is actually about Lawrence being insubordinate, not subordinate.  The review has been updated to conform to the correct quote.  Even though I mis-remembered the exact quote -- sorry! -- I think the point stands about Lawrence of Arabia...that David uses him as a role model and mimics his personality.  Thanks, Ed, for setting me straight.]