The Trick is Not Minding That it Hurts: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS

Thirty-three years ago, a British director named Ridley Scott – fresh off of a commercially disappointing debut feature – agreed to helm a science-fiction film that would eventually come to be known as ALIEN. Now, over three decades, three sequels and two spin-offs later, Scott returns to the franchise that he started all of those years ago in what might be the most bizarre and, in some viewers’ opinion, questionable way imaginable: PROMETHEUS.

PROMETHEUS is not a prequel to ALIEN. Not in any direct way, at least. Though the two films share common themes, ancestry, plot points, DNA and take place within the same universe, PROMETHEUS in no way leads up to the horrifying events that launched one of the most successful and long-running franchises in science-fiction history. And because of this, Ridley Scott (along with his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof) has been given the ability to craft this impenetrably dense and mythologically rich feature that has been burning up the rumour-mill for the last several years. Free of any direct ties to the ALIEN franchise, PROMETHEUS not only stands remarkably on its own, but proves the rule that a story about questions would do wisely to remember that answers are not their logical extension.

Opening amongst a stunning series of landscape shots on an intentionally ambiguous planet, Scott and Lindelof come out of the gate swinging as we bear witness to what can only be described as the origin of life. A physically perfect, seemingly human character stands teetering over a rushing waterfall as a ship drones ominously above; stoic and silent. He opens a small container, reveals a black liquid and then drinks it. The liquid finds its way into his blood stream and then down into his very DNA, ripping him apart literally from the core. He crumbles, falls into the river and fades into nothingness, donating his own being to kickstart life on this barren little isle of rock.

Scott communicates this with wonderful, haunting visuals, and nothing else. There is not a trace of dialogue, context or any sort of hint to what exactly it is that we are seeing; for all intents and purposes, we are watching Jesus Everyman sacrifice himself for unspecified life to flourish and continue. This might be Earth that we’re looking at, far in the distant past beyond recorded or even conceivable history; then again, it might not. Maybe this prologue, existing delightfully and perfectly out of time, is not meant to throw us wildly into our past, but rather to show us somebody else’s present – or even their future.

And this is all before the title card.

What PROMETHEUS does so beautifully is something that few films are brave of enough to do, and even fewer are rewarded for doing: it asks questions, never pretending to know the answers. It exists solely on a plane wherein there is no why; there simply is. It is the puzzle without borders, the mystery box within a mystery box – the endless, impossible equation with no solution. And rightfully so: just as the characters in the film struggle desperately to find meaning in a place where there simply may not be any, the film never pulls any punches in telling the audience that the pursuit of answers is a journey with no destination. But it’s a journey worth taking, because sometimes interesting questions are infinitely more satisfying than interesting answers.

When we finally arrive at the beginning of our story, Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) – a terrifically, perhaps naively optimistic couple – are on the verge of answering the great question: why are we here and, better still, was somebody responsible for it? Their anthropological and historical search leads them deep into the vastness of space, to a small, isolated system of planets where they believe the gods have pointed them. And much in the same way that the titular Titan may have overreached just a little too far in the face of the gods, our characters are reckless in the extreme. Lindelof goes out of his way to ensure that every choice these characters make – possibly to their detriment – is that of hubristic intent: when the Captain tells everybody to fasten themselves in during the landing, Holloway springs to his feet and rushes to the window. When they’re informed that the air inside the possibly alien structure is breathable, Holloway – and the rest, in spite of a few logical protests – immediately removes his helmet, laughing in the face of Death. What many have deemed as unintelligent characterization is instead a rather grimly accurate portrayal of the sort of hubris one might expect from a landing party sent with the task of meeting our makers.

Still, Scott never allows the seriousness of the thematic content to run away with itself. Sprinkled throughout the first half of the film is a generous assortment of quirk and whimsy, an almost imperceptible layer of tongue-in-cheek charm: characters, with their obnoxiously bulbous helmets (possibly mirroring their obnoxiously swollen egos), literally can’t move side to side without knocking into one another. Even the great Peter Weyland (played almost invisibly under a thick layer of prosthetics by Guy Pearce), as he gives what might as well amount to an epitaph via hologram in the form of a mission briefing, makes snide and awkward jokes, his dog nonchalantly rolling playfully around at his feet while people talk with utter seriousness (some of them, at least) about their mission to meet God. Its a delightfully absurd touch that keeps the film from totally drowning under its own ambition.

Because ambition is the one thing that PROMETHEUS has no lack of. From the moment that we are introduced to the android, David (with another scene-stealing turn from the increasingly impressive Michael Fassbender), in the opening scenes of the film, it becomes clear that Scott and Lindelof had a thematic cyclicality in mind that I don’t think anybody who heard the words “ALIEN prequel” could have imagined. As David wanders throughout the ship alone, playing basketball, dying his hair while watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and learning every known language under the sun, one gets the unmistakable feeling that this is the way that he prefers it – being alone. From the moment that the rest of the crew wakes and David is forced to take his place alongside (beneath?) them, there is a marked change in his demeanour. This is no subtextual resentment, either; David makes his feelings clear in open conversation throughout the film, particularly in a scene between himself and Holloway where he is not shy about the parallels between mankind’s desperate search for answers to their purpose and his own clearly defined, extremely underwhelming answer to that same question.

And therein lies the chief concern at the heart of PROMETHEUS: the generational cycles of creators to creations and the ways in which they react to one another. Though the relationship between man and his artificial creations is a topic that has been addressed in the genre ad nauseam for centuries, PROMETHEUS takes the rare stance of making our own creators a contributing and tangible factor in that discussion. It seems impossible to shake the fact that, underneath all of David’s programming and his veiled mission objectives from his own creator, there is a certain overwhelming relationship of curiosity between himself and the gods of his gods. Though it becomes clear throughout the film that David has a certain level of contempt for his creators – in that they created him, as Holloway suggests, simply because they could – he seems completely and utterly fascinated by the idea that he will get a chance to witness a possibly similar relationship develop between his own creators’ creators. It may seem obvious to blame his actions throughout the film as obeying orders or emotionally detached curiosity, but given the subtextual level of fascination he seems to have with discovering this generational, possibly inheritable, contempt for one’s own creation, there is a certain richness to this reading of the character that belies his questionable motives.

And yet, in the end, David is incapable of fully understanding Shaw’s desire for answers. Despite his apparent, possibly morbid desire to see mankind fall victim to the kind of meaningless existence that he himself must endure – his own creator introduces him as a soulless creature – he is still a robot, incapable of grasping the sentimentality and emotional relevance behind such questions. Still, it is impossible to deny the relationship between the gods and their grandchild: David is the only one capable of communicating with them, and he understands them a good deal better than their own children do. Wisdom, it seems, skips a generation. As does empathy.

Which brings us, naturally, back to ALIEN. Curiously to some – and frustratingly to others – some of the most compelling questions that PROMETHEUS raises are in direct response to the ways in which this film connects to the original. Though there is no direct link between the two films – ALIEN takes place on a nearby planet from the one in PROMETHEUS, and it is implied that the “Space Jockey” may have simply suffered from the same fate that the Engineers in the tunnels did in his attempt to escape / leave – their connective tissue feeds directly back into the questions of cyclical creation. Indeed, it is the discovery of the “black goo” in the canisters that fuels both the questions of why the Engineers decided to destroy us (hint: one does not crucify an emissary of the gods without suffering retribution) and where the xenomorphs originated.

One of the most compelling moments in the entire film, in fact (for fans, at least), is the moment when the crew enter the “Head Room”. Beyond the dozens of oozing black containers, the massive, stone carving of our species’ likeness and the unmistakable mural of a man getting his liver torn out lies the biggest question of all: why was the xenomorph’s likeness carved into the back wall of the room? What relationship is there between our gods, us, and this deadly, biologically perfect creature? Though a primitive version of the creature emerges from the final Engineer in the last scene of the film, it goes without saying that this mural undeniably proves that the xenomorphs existed prior to this moment. How did they exist, and in what manner? And how are they related to the Engineers? Do the Engineers worship them, as it would seem from the carving? Or are they an ideal form of life, a design that has yet to be fully realized? These questions are things that can only be speculated on, and are undoubtedly topics that have been left for the proposed sequel(s).

What is less speculative is the relationship between the xenomorphs and mankind, as per what is depicted in the actual film itself. In much the same way that the original ALIEN franchise dealt heavily in the symbolic representation of female struggles (what with all of the violently phallic imagery; imagery that is equally present here), PROMETHEUS does not shy away from topics of motherhood, rape and the links between parental figures and creators. Indeed, one of the most on-the-nose, feminist metaphors in the history of the franchise takes place here, in the most cringeworthy scene in the film: an emergency cesarian section, where a monstrous, foreign being takes root inside of the womb of an unwilling, host mother. And though the themes of rape and abortion are ever present here, what is more interesting is the way that this scene relates back to the cyclical, generational nature of creator and creation.

Once the film ends, we see a primitive Chest-Burster (curiously grown) emerge from the abdomen of the final, dead Engineer. This creature was implanted in the Engineer’s chest by the mother of all Face-Huggers; one that we can only assume is illustrative of what might happen if one of those Huggers from the first film hadn’t immediately attached itself to Kane’s face and had instead been able to grow and mature. But what is most curious about this chain of events is where that Hugger came from: a human being, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, who in turn was impregnated with it by one Dr. Charlie Holloway, who had unintentionally ingested a small dose of the black goo. If we are to extrapolate that what the Engineer had drunk in the opening scene of the film is indicative of this same substance, we are led down a very interesting path of potential creation, wherein David, the child of the children of the gods, may have been responsible for a brand new cycle of life – a new generation, all his own. That is, assuming that Holloway succumbed to the substance; instead, he sacrificed himself to prevent creation, denying David his moment of fatherhood.

Even more interesting is what this chain of events reveals about the origins of the xenomorph in relation to mankind. If we are to assume that the creation of this AlphaMorph was directly in the design of the Engineers – which is not a far-fetched assumption by any means, given their apparent deification of the creature and the lineage from which it springs – it suggests that this creature is, in many ways, mankind’s brother. Though it may have been designed as a harbinger of Death that our crucification of Jesus had warranted as punishment, it was still engineered, much in the same way that we were, and seemingly by the same hand. What this says about the relationship between this monstrous creature and our own is fascinating – especially if this brother was designed specifically to destroy the mistakes of the gods. In order to create, sometimes one must first destroy, and when ying fails, yang must take its place. I don’t even want to get into the mind-bogglingly dense implications of the AlphaMorph being created in a multi-stage process that included a biological kinship with both mankind and their creators; a son, born of father, by way of brother, by hand of…nephew? The mind reels.

Ultimately, PROMETHEUS is not a perfect film. Some of the dialogue is heavy-handed, its script needed a little expositional clean-up and many of the character arcs are indistinct or non-existent. Of course, it’s hard to argue a lack of characterization in a film that glorifies and outright proclaims a case of existential insignificance; after all, who the hell cares about the children when the parents, grandkids and brothers are all so interesting? It may be time to accept the fact that mankind is the least interesting branch on the family tree, weighed down by petty emotions, an overzealous spirit and a downright knack for hubris. It’s hard to sympathize with Shaw when her pouty cries of “why?!” remain the equivalent of an existential temper-tantrum. We get it: finding out that your makers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be hurts.

But the trick is not minding that it hurts.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

What Kind of Bird Are You: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

For his seventh feature, Wes Anderson returns to live action – after the glorious detour into stop-motion animation that was FANTASTIC MR. FOX – with this whimsical little fairy tale, MOONRISE KINGDOM. Set on a sparsely populated, tiny little island (only 16 miles across with no paved roads), the film takes a loving stab at the romance between two twelve-year old outsiders, Suzy and Sam, as they run away; not necessarily from their problems – which they certainly have – but more so simply for the sake of running. This is the kind of film that revels in the idea that amongst all of the rigidity of life, there are still adventures to be sought out, found and enjoyed. And though there is a touch of melancholy sprinkled generously throughout the proceedings (in some cases, the story takes some surprisingly dark turns), Anderson never stops to abandon the general air of whimsy and excitement that follows these two (moderately) tortured souls.

What’s most impressive about MOONRISE KINGDOM is how unequivocally Anderson the film feels; after all, you have to have one hell of a unique visual style in order to transcend the medium itself and still be recognizable. Whether he’s doing stop-motion animation or live-action film-making, the visuals in a Wes Anderson movie are undeniably his own. Appropriately, large sections of MOONRISE – particularly the first act – feel almost as if we are gazing into a living, breathing diorama. Anderson’s sleek use of deep-focus on a flat, static image – almost as if the screen were itself a window through which we are gazing – is on full display here, and make for some absolutely breathtaking visuals. And as Suzy and Sam slowly make their way away from the mundane existence that they are trapped within at the beginning of the film, the photography begins to open up; while the interior of Suzy’s house is never framed in any way except for in delightful, dollhouse-esque images and Sam’s camp (led by Scout Master Ward, played spectacularly by Ed Norton, who brings just the right level of emotion and playfulness to the role) is practically an assembly line of singular, vertically-staged incidents, the great wide open of their wilderness adventure is free and uncontrolled. Anderson even sneaks in a little handheld camera work to really demonstrate the contrast between the two.

Indeed, Anderson and his entire production team must once again be commended for not only the beautiful cinematography, but also the impeccable production design: MOONRISE is nothing if not scene after scene of perfectly framed images amongst elegantly designed stages. If there was any director working today who I wish would take up the torch from Scorsese and bring a subtle use of 3D to their films, it would be Wes Anderson. These perfect little shoebox-sets, so exquisitely crafted and shot, are the perfect medium for the filmmaker to demonstrate the value of the 3D window – especially since he already shoots with depth and suggested, static three-dimensionality.

The cast is wonderful. The kids, played by newcomers Kara Hayward (Suzy) and Jared Gilman (Sam), do a terrific job of both demonstrating the quirkiness of Anderson’s vision and the emotional damage that these two characters have suffered. Their chemistry is undeniable, awkward and adorable in all of the right ways: just two kids discovering love for the first time, experimenting with the idea of sensuality and adventure more than experiencing it firsthand. And while they have lived idly by in (separate) worlds where uniqueness is discouraged and even something as silly as the Khaki Scouts of North America can be treated with drill sergeant style brutality, the idea of venturing out on their own to find adventure – something they dream of; both Sam and Suzy claim “going on adventures” to be the thing they want to do when they grow up – is something that they cannot deny any longer. Thus begins their tiny, insignificant quest, following in the footprints of the local native tribe, looking for some kind of escape from normalcy; and would be treated as such, had the rest of the characters not treated their mild infraction as something far more dramatic.

Therein lies the most interesting point of the story. Although our two heroes are treated as different and “emotionally disturbed” by the rest of the characters – both young and old – they are not alone in their desire for drama and adventure: as Sam “tunnels” his way out of his tent and the dogs are called (literally), every parent, Khaki scout and policeman in sight gives chase, practically reveling in the idea that something exciting could actually happen in this desolate place. The kids, taught to take on the utmost seriousness in their duties by Scout Master Ward (never just Ward), give chase in violent and hilarious fashion, brandishing homemade weapons in their pursuit of “the fugitives”. At the end of the day, everybody wants to play Cowboys and Indians – some just take it more seriously than others, to varying degrees of emotional and psychological complexity. And when Suzy repeatedly claims that people often tell her that she “goes berserk”, it isn’t because her sense of adventure is wrong, it’s just that it’s intense; the equivalent of the kid who throws a rock in a dirt clod fight, taking things just a bit too far when they’re caught up in the moment. Every kid likes to play at violence – some just can’t quite find the social line.

Also interesting is the adult cast, which is varied and wonderful: Bruce Willis as a sad police officer, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as Suzy’s lawyer parents and Tilda Swinton as a necessarily cold social service officer (even Jason Schwartzman makes a last-minute appearance as a head Scout at “Fort Lebanon”, a link between the adults and the kids). All of them play surprisingly dark, sad characters in direct contrast to the pluck and spirit of all of the kids; who, regardless of which side their on, still believe in the game they’re playing. There is no line more telling in the entire film than when McDormand leans over to Murray in his adjacent bed (they don’t share one) and mutters, “We’re all they have”. And Murray responds with the only thing he can: “It’s not enough”. These adults, categorically judging their children as troubled and disturbed, are much worse than the kids are, and they know it. What these kids need isn’t just the jaded, troubled concern of their emotionally problematic parents – they need each other, and they need that more than anything else in the world.

Still, in spite of the dark undertones, MOONRISE KINGDOM is a delightfully quirky and fun time at the movies. And though the final act sort of goes a bit crazy with the fantastical and adventurous undertones of the story – becoming one rather than just riffing on the psychology of one – it’s still an absolute blast with a lot of laughs. The children are pitch-perfect, the emotions are true and story is heartfelt. Another victory for Wes Anderson.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian