Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Prometheus: Faith, Religion, and Death

At the onset of "Prometheus" we see a large humanoid alien walk to the edge of a waterfall as a spaceship descends from the clouds. The humanoid pauses and removes its robe, revealing a well-muscled torso. It pulls a small cup from from its pockets and sets it down on the rock, looking like it is offering up a sacrifice to the ship descended. But then it drinks whatever was in the cup and writhes in agony as its DNA is fractured and shattered and it turns into smoke and liquid, falling into the water and regenerating into new life somehow. The title card goes up and the movie begins.

This unexplained moment from the film is the source of a lot of hatred against the movie. Many people criticize the movie's narrative for not answering the questions of "Alien" and, in fact, raising more issues than the original. This had such an effect on the movie that when it was released to DVD and Blu-ray, it's tag line read "questions will be answered", something that I think a marketing team who never saw the movie made up.

"Prometheus" is a coy movie, a sly movie, a smart movie, and one of the current science fiction masterpieces. Not only does the movie look great; but the thought behind it, which is so often critiqued and mocked, is actually very fitting for what the movie attempts to ask and answer.

In college I had a philosophy professor who said that sometimes his teachers would structure a final exam with only one question: "why?" The appropriate answers were two "because" or "why not?" In a large sense, "Prometheus" raises the question "why?" from a religious point of view. In one of the first scenes, David, the android, peers into Elizabeth Shaw's dreams and sees her witnessing a funeral. She asks her dad, presumably a Christian missionary, why he doesn't help these people. He answers that their respective gods are not the same.

When the ship Prometheus arrives at the planet, having followed a set of coordinates from cave drawings spanning millennia and continents, and the people are released from their artificial sleep, the first thing we notice is the crucifix hanging from Shaw's neck as she violently retches into a bowl. She is, in a sense, reborn before our very eyes. Yet rather than adopt a new way of thinking, this baptismal introduction allows us to understand this is a character who will not change her faith, no matter what comes across her path.

Immediately upon entering the atmosphere of the Earth-like planet, the crew conveniently notices a line of structures. Shaw's partner Charlie Holloway notes, "God doesn't build in straight lines" as the ship sets down. On a religious holiday, Christmas, the crew sets out to explore the dome-like structure. Giddy and excited, Charlie and Elizabeth descend down into the labyrinth and come across remains of a previous civilization. These are the Engineers.

Shaw tells the crew early in the movie that Engineers are the predecessors of humanity. They are the reason that we are here and the maps of stars found across the world suggest an invitation. Shaw is determined to find out the answer to her questions and, make like in the Christian dogma's view of heaven, she assumes that these questions will be answered as soon as she comes face-to-face with her maker. Yet all this time, the cross remains around her neck.

As David peers into Elizabeth's dreams he loses connection when her dad asks the question, "What do you believe?" This one question become vital when observing "Prometheus" as a whole. For the movie becomes a religion of some sorts. Charlie loses his faith as soon as the crew uncover a mysterious room with a large mural and pods that begin to sweat as soon as they enter. Their presence begins a chain of events, facilitated by David, that will bring about their ruin.

David represents an intelligence that branches off from humanity and is reflective of it, yet can never hope to attain humanity. He is, if at all possible, smug because of his superiority; yet envious. After David steals a pod and takes it back to the ship he meets with Peter Weyland who tells him, as is later revealed through coercion, that he must "try harder" to find life on the planet. "Trying harder" turns into playing God. The soul-less android dissects the pod and infects Charlie with something, maybe because he knows what it will do. or maybe just our of curiosity. I tend to think the latter. In order to get the momentum building, David takes a risk.

The theme of death is impossible to ignore in the movie. The native people of the planet, the natural inhabitants have been wiped out by some mysterious evil force. Their history is never explained fully though hints of it are seen throughout. In some sense, "Prometheus" plays like someone uncovering an archaeological dig, providing theses for origins. The massive death brings about life, as noticed in the first first scene of the movie.

Yet the movie starts to raise questions before it can answer them. Why? How?

Earthworms seem to morph into large snakes that infect and possess the crew, turning them into monsters. Shaw becomes pregnant with an alien child as a result of David's interactions with Charlie. The movie's most graphic scene shows her removing the fetus from herself and killing it, though it comes back at the end. It begins to feel like a Rube Goldberg machine. One thing leads to the next to the next all while the film juggles and fails to answer the question of origin. Why did you make us?

Before Charlie's death by infection/flame-thrower, he talks with David as the android prepares to poison him. Provoking Charlie, the robot asks what he expected from the encounter. What did he expect to hear from his makers? Charlie says during this conversation, "We made you because we could" to David, who replies that if that answer was provided to humans, think of how unsatisfying it would be. As the film continues, this idea is crucial to hold onto. The dissatisfaction of a creation for the sake of creation is almost inevitable.

The actions picks up and characters start to fall but Shaw remains. She clings to her faith, searching desperately for an answer, yet unable to find one. Here is where the movie is the smartest. The question "why?" is far more powerful than any answer. "Why?" is the site of creativity and innovation while the answer allows for passivity and lethargy. The narrative of the movie is pushed by the question "why?" which ultimately is never answered though one could make several plausible alternatives. "Prometheus" reminds me of "Upstream Color" in that, the story doesn't have to make sense because questions will always be more potent than answers.

When the action dies down and Shaw is left clutching the remains of her faith and her purpose she tells David's head that she wants to keep moving forward, not going back to Earth. They leave behind the set-up for "Alien" quite nicely; yet not explained. The themes of the movie ironically challenge what a "prequel" is 'supposed to' accomplish. "Prometheus" is like a religious text or a story about people struggling with a religious text. The interpretations are vast, the message is clear; but the analysis expands on and on, ostracizing some and welcoming others.

Like David quotes from his favorite movie "Laurence of Arabia"—a film about a man devoid of religion celebrating his own hubris—"Big things have small beginnings."

What is smaller than a simple question? Why?