Archive for June 2012
It’s been twelve days since I saw Prometheus for the first time, and nine days since I saw it the second time. I’ve tried to sit down several times since then to blog about it, but I can’t fully get my head around the whole thing.
One problem with me processing my thinking about the film is the series of seemingly unrelated events in my life the week before I initially saw it. Scott Walker defeated the recall election targetted at removing him as Governor of Wisconsin. A few days later, I made my second visit to Miller Park and watched the Brewers scrabble out an extra-innings win (and I wore a pro-union shirt while I was there). Then I twice set a pair of 3D glasses on my nose and settled in to see Prometheus. Walking out of the film, I was certain all four events were somehow woven together. It was easier to think that than to delineate the thoughts, though, and that kept me from getting my thoughts out here. That is not to say that I have given up on trying to find the through-line between all the events, it’s just to say that it’s time I sat down and wrote something about Prometheus so as not to drop something I started and be an irresponsible blogger.
So here I am, twelve days later, still struggling to piece together all I saw twice now in Prometheus.
First of all, it’s not a perfect film. It is technically excellent. There are parts of it that are spectacular, and other parts that are as equally horrifying and cringe-inducing. There seems to be a perfect blend of those two extremes, though, and that was expected. What does not stand up as well, though, is the plot. There are a number of holes, and some of them are significant. Certain characters have knowledge they shouldn’t logically have (with no explanation), and some characters act on unplausible motivations. I wonder if these things are a function of editing and if some deleted scenes that might be issued with the DVD will fill the cracks in the plot. I hope so. That being said, though, plot is always the most difficult part of a story and falling down in a few places is a forgivable sin, though Prometheus stretches the limits of my forgivability. Another thing is that this may be a by-product of having to go back in time in the universe of the film and account for things that already happened in Alien and the subsequent films while still adding something to the canon. The producers of The Thing last year were faced with a similar situation last year, so maybe what we’re seeing is one of the unavoidable pitfalls of extending a film universe by creating a prequel. But Hollywood won’t ever leave well enough alone, will it?
What has left my head spinning is how Blade Runner became such a integral part of Prometheus. It was given that Alien was going to be a part of things, but the philosophical and existential questions at the center of Blade Runner became huge factors about two-thirds of the way through Prometheus. Suddenly, there was a deep-thinking space / horror epic in our laps, and it was something that elevated the film. The motivation for the characters quickly becomes meeting our makers. When faced with The Engineers who created life on Earth, man realizes that those same engineers have created additional life designed to destroy us. But why? What’s so bad about humankind that we need to be destroyed? The answer seemed simple to me: We are the most destructive force in the universe because we eventually destroy everything we touch. And Prometheus is but the most recent piece of media that hinges on that thought and a method to wipe out man. That thought goes all the way back to The Bible, and is a significant part of other world mythologies.
In fact, without showcasing man’s penchant to destroy, Prometheus wouldn’t go anywhere. The characters tamper with things (or in one case, an android is programmed to do so). They disrupt a controlled (and safe)environment, and, predictably, the whole horror snowball starts rolling downhill until it’s so huge and thunderous that it can’t be stopped. Pack a healthy dose of corporate greed into the mix (the Alien films have their basis in unchecked corporate greed), and there is some insightful commentary being made. And then, Bingo! Ridley Scott has fulfilled the most important function of well-made science fiction, which is to make the important statements about the human condition that need to be made.
To me, what it came down to was this: Man’s greed, thirst for power, and capacity to destroy is a hard-wired aspect of our essence. Therein is the reason why Scott Walker was one of the first things that came to mind as the film came to a close and the credits rolled. Where does baseball fit into all of this? Dunno, other than to say that I guess not everything leads back to that.
Note: Joel Hutson is one of the original subscribers to The Seeker, and sometimes chimes in with comments. You might remember him from the road trip to Detroit two summers ago as described in these pages. Since then, he’s been busy writing science stuff. He is soon to have his first publication; it will appear in The Journal of Experimental Biology, and is titled “A test of the validity of range of motion studies of fossil archosaur elbow mobility using repeated-measures analysis and the extant phylogenetic bracket.” You might say he knows a thing or two about science. Thusly, he opines regarding yesterday’s post about Prometheus:
I only know Ridley Scott’s name, as do many other science teachers, simply because his name is synonymous with the movie Alien. That movie is impressive in many ways, which Jeff deftly explained. However, as an avid Star Wars fan, I must mention the one aspect of Scott’s movies that Jeff may not know about, but anyone with a scientific bent will appreciate. Scott’s science fiction movies are scientifically accurate, or, at least much more so than movies like Star Wars. This detail is important for three reasons:
1) Scott has the testicular fortitude to not play down to the ignorant demands of the masses and make the decisions that bad science should be used for sensational effect (e.g., like Kubrick he did not let the sounds of rockets be heard in space in Alien, which is an impossibility);
2) unlike Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, Scott’s scientific accuracy is used not to bore you, but is with great effect to draw you in, as was done in another gripping science fiction movie called Predator;
3) Scott’s science is often “dual science,” which is science that can be used for good or evil and so he seems also to be using his films for social commentary, on the not-so-nice uses to which science can be put.
In short, I like Scott’s movies because I can relax with the foreknowledge that I will appreciate his attention to detail, and anticipate that he will use science to scare the bejeezus out of me instead of awakening the little guy on my shoulder who says, “Ahem. . . that’s not possible.”
Comments: Thanks for your insights, Joel. It’s interesting to note that you mentioned the scientific quality of Predator. Let’s not forget that the Predator and Alien universes have been mashed up in two films, so there must be something sympatico about them beyond the scientific quality.
As coincidence would have it, The New Yorker published a Science Fiction issue last week. In it, no less an authority than Ursula K. Le Guin commented on the struggle of denial that SF writers put themselves through as they strive to have their work considered as legitimate literature by what she calls the Republic of Letters: “Pay no attention to the spaceships, the post-holocaust scenery, or the mutants… My novel is not sci-fi; it is literature.” It seems that science fiction literature is not alone in that regard; science fiction films have suffered under the same pall. Again, here’s hoping that Ridley Scott transcends the usual trappings and that those of us who see Prometheus talk more about the people than the panache. I’m starting to worry that the film was shot in 3D.
Once or twice a year, I get particularly excited about films that are about to come out. Whether it’s a James Bond flick (when is the next one?), or True Grit, or The Thing last fall, some films get me slobbering in anticipation. The latest is Prometheus, which I will probably see next weekend.
The primary cause for my excitement over Prometheus is that it marks the return of Ridley Scott to the genre that cemented his reputation as a director. For a while earlier this millenium, he was my favorite director and really couldn’t go wrong. He cranked out Gladiator and took home a wagon load of Academy Awards; the next year he put out one of the most authentic combat films ever, Blackhawk Down, which also got serious Academy Award consideration. Even before those two gems, he was the brain behind some totally great films–Thelma and Louise, G.I. Jane–and a handful of decent films like Black Rain and Someone To Watch Over Me. Unfortunately, he’s not been able to match his early-2000s success of late. His only recent film of some renown was American Gangster, though it didn’t live up to the excellence of Gladiator and Blackhawk Down. Most of these films can in some way be connected to the action genre, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that Scott made his name as a director of science fiction films. And when I say “made his name,” I mean he quickly owned the genre in a way that no other director except Stanley Kubrick has.
Scott showed from the get-go that he understands the most important thing about science fiction (and I say the same thing about horror): It works best when the story is the priority and is steeped in commentary on the human condition; the effects are mere backdrop. There might not be much theme work being accomplished in Alien, though Scott tackled a space-themed film in the midst of Star Wars mania and generated one of the scariest films ever (and one that is at #7 on the American Film Institutes list of greatest sci-fi films AND is a damn sight better than most of the Star Wars catalog), but you better not let many people hear you say that commentary is missing from Blade Runner, which Scott put out three years after Alien and which is considered the 6th best sci-fi film ever by AFI. It helped that Scott worked from excellent source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but he still had a stunning vision of what Dick’s dystopia looked like. I have high hopes that Prometheus will be an effective meld of Scott’s two science fiction hallmarks, and I have good cause for that given that Prometheus takes place in the Alien universe and has to do at least tangentially with the Alien creatures. In fact, my understanding is that the film is a dual origin story (that theme alone is bound to spark heavy debate about intelligent design).
Something else I find interesting here is the metaphorical implications of the Prometheus myth and Scott’s film career. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan and is credited with having breathed life into man; he later stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man so man could survive (Zeus gave him a nice thank-you gift by chaining him to a rock and sending a buzzard to gnaw his liver out each day; Prometheus would regenerate the liver each night). Furthermore, Prometheus’ name means “foresight.” In this film, Scott is working on going back in time to show the origin of the Alien creatures; it seems interesting that he has the foresight to return to the genre and film universe that established his name and will perhaps breathe new life into his lukewarm film career. But Prometheus is also the symbol for unintended consequences. It’s apparent that the unintended consequences in the Alien universe are the Aliens themselves (it turns out they are a biological weapon run amok, and there are hints of that throughout the Alien films). I’m hoping that real-life consequences don’t include Scott falling flat with this space epic and further hindering has career. If things turn out well for Scott and with Prometheus, he can enter his name and film in the register of Prometheus-inspired work, the foremost of which in pop culture is The Modern Prometheus, which is better known by it’s more common name: Frankenstein. The second-most popular work is no doubt Edgar Winter’s epic jam, and third most popular just might be David Carradine’s character in Death Race 2000.
I accepted an award last week for the thesis I wrote to graduate Northwestern three years ago. If you’ve been following pretty much since the inception of The Seeker, you might remember “Thesis Blues,” the long-running serial in which I used this space as a metacognitive journal to track the progress and problems of writing the piece. I revisited the serial two years ago when I was using part of my thesis to apply to a writer’s workshop (fail), and now is another good time to revisit things.
I read in the Mensa monthly magazine last December that the San Diego chapter of Mensa was again holding their Creative uRGe contest. There are several categories in their contest; most of them involve writing. (BTW… the “RG” in “uRGe” refers to “Regional Gathering,” which is what Mensans call it when a bunch from the same area get together… one of the unwritten laws of Mensa is that every event or SIG [Special Interest Group] has to be an acronym or have a clever pun in its title). I saw that one of the categories for Creative uRGe was “Unpublished Memoir” and immediately thought of my thesis, which is at least 20% memoir and almost book-length. I sent them the first 30 pages and a synopsis of the rest, and they notified me in late March that I was a finalist for the award.
When they notified me, I had to send them the entire piece. Before clicking “send,” I took some time to skim through it, which I hadn’t done for quite some time. My initial thought was that there was no way the damn thing doesn’t win first place. It’s a rare day when I feel so confident in my own writing (that’s usually a recipe for major disappointment, and I’ve been burned before), but I felt strongly about it. So I sent them the rest of the piece and tried my hardest to forget about it being a contest and how I probably jinxed myself with my ego. But it turns out I was right. They notified me two weeks ago that I won Best Unpublished Novel.
It’s odd that my biggest successes as a writer are linked directly to the same source: Mensa. My first published piece came as a result of a story I wrote about the organization, and now this award. I’m glad for the exposure and recognition, though I continue to have mixed feelings about Mensa.
I notified my thesis advisor about the award. She was happy to hear it, and said this is something I should talk about with an agent. That has me thinking about a lot of different things, most of which revolve around getting this story back out and continuing to work on it. I need 25-30 more pages, and I think I can accomplish that with all the notes and unfollowed leads from the initial drafts of the piece, but that’s a lot to think about, and too much to write about right now. But it’s a thought.