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Film Review: Prometheus

February 5, 2015 1 comment

Prometheus (2012; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Emerging from a succession of imposing, primordial landscapes, a hooded figure stands at the brim of a thundering waterfall beneath a massive, floating oval spaceship. Removing its robe to reveal a powerfully-built, classically-sculpted humanoid figure, the titanic manlike being ingests a black liquid from a rudimentary cup with the careful precision of a rehearsed ritual. The tincture does not agree with him, to say the least; in fact, it disintegrates his magnificent physique from the inside out until he tips into the surging cataract, his limbs, torso, and head crumbling into black dust and swept away in the torrent.

Thus enfolds the semi-metaphorical opening scene of Ridley Scott’s more-than-semi-metaphorical sort-of prequel to his 1979 science-fiction-horror classic Alien. Taking a welcome respite from grimly serious (and occasionally racially suspect) historical epics, Scott returns to what brung him to the show, attempting to turn back his own aesthetic clock as well as that of a film series and expanded universe increasingly given to B-level space marines vs. frightening alien monsters generic shlock. The message and tone of Prometheus is evident from its Greek mythological title and encapsulated in the above-described initial sequence before being drawn out in a narrative sometimes surprising and memorable but just as often conventional and cliched: tread lightly when creating life, because death is usually quick to follow.

Ridley Scott is never not interested in the Big Questions, especially when treading on sci-fi territory, and they animate his kinda-reboot of the Alien franchise as a deep-origin prequel set in the same universe. Prometheus demonstrates this most clearly, engaging in a visually and referentially dense conversation about the nature of existence with not only the Greek philosophers but also with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Isaac Asimov, Carlo Collodi, Sigmund Freud, and (not to be left out) Stephen Stills. Not to mention the original Alien, of which Prometheus is often an uncanny clone, blurring the line between thematic echoes and Hollywood focus-group generic element reproduction. Knowing nods of recognition will accompany the revelation that Damon Lindelof co-wrote the screenplay (with Jon Spaihts), as the dense layering of philosophical, mythological, scientific, and pop cultural references and bursts of pulpy incident will be richly familiar to legions of Lost fans.

The eponymous spaceship’s crew awakes gradually as they arrive at a barren, rocky world where they expect to find the answer to a common star map riddle unearthed by a hotshot archaelogist couple (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) in their digs across Earth in the late 21st Century. This riddle, Doctors Shaw and Holloway believe fervently, is nothing less than the origin of the human race in neither Darwinian nor monotheistic Genesis terms, but as a star seed of an advanced form of extraterrestrial life. Their work is apparently persuasive enough to convince a wealthy, very elderly CEO (Guy Pearce, unrecognizable in age makeup) to fund a mission to the world that they believe holds the key to this most confounding of locks.

The cryosleep of the Prometheus‘s crew is suspended by the ship’s android, David (Michael Fassbender). He’s had lots of free time in between monitoring their vital signs and the ship’s systems on their multi-year space journey, and has apparently spent most of it watching Lawrence of Arabia over and over (the benchmark to which Historical Epic Ridley Scott seems to forever be reaching for and therefore not a surprising name-check). He patterns his appearance and speech patterns on Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence just as those who conceived of and executed the mission he is a part of patterned that mission on an interstellar strain of Lawrence’s arrogant imperialistic meddling (Fassbender is spectacular here; there are bigger movie stars, but this man is slowly laying claim to the title of the world’s finest actor).

The ship lands on the planet, investigations begin into the monolithic structures on its surface, and motives begin to clash. Set against the scientific/spiritual idealism of Shaw and Holloway is the corporate boardroom refinement and precision of mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), as well as the proletarian pragmatism of the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba). David, though apparently as incapable of motivation as he is incapable of emotion, seems to be working at cross-purposes to everyone, perhaps on secret orders from the absent CEO back home, though it would be telling too much to go into that much further.

Like Alien, this intellectually resonant framing is all too soon overcome by sequences of intense corporeal horror as the Prometheus team discovers that the starseeding Engineers who built those galactic superstructures met their end at the hands (or claws and fangs) of some familiar-looking creepy-crawlies of their own creation. The first attack by a milk-white eel-worm larvae in a dark cavern is troubling even if it is predictably staged by Scott. It is fully eclipsed, however, by a tantrically extended and exquisitely squeamish sequence of Dr. Shaw surgically removing a squidish embryo surreptitiously implanted inside her. Rapace’s Shaw is Prometheus‘ self-evident Ripley figure (she’s even got a contemporary take on Sigourney Weaver’s perm-mop hair), and this scene is the pinnacle of her hardy semi-feminist survivalism; she even must work around patriarchal assumptions to achieve her life-saving abortion, as the automated surgery pod can only perform male-centric procedures (the right to choose, indeed).

Also like Alien, the visual design of the film is almost more to the point than its entertainment or metaphorical features. It was interesting to watch it so soon after Jodorowsky’s Dune and see some of the late H.R. Giger’s unused designs for that film employed onscreen at last, as well as ship and technological designs indebted to that project’s other creative minds. As in Alien, the design reaches out from the backgrounds like a searching tentacle, grabbing hold of Prometheus‘ grand philosophical implications and injecting them with parasitic suggestions of organic/technological hybrids and disturbing, monstrous, intensely sexual incubii. There are some stabs at awe as well, as when David stands in the midst of a holographic star map and Marc Streitenfeld’s score reaches its apex of stellar wonder.

Prometheus skews too much to action blockbuster convention for its own good, however. There are not one but two scenes of characters outrunning gargantuan threats that they would probably not stand a real chance of outrunning. The grander message, too, is more alarmist than visionary. It skeptically equates scientific exploration and inquiry into human life’s origins with the titular Titan’s gods-defying gift of primitive technology to primitive beings, Greek mythology’s take on the Judeo-Christian myth of the embrace of knowledge, loss of innocence and fall to sin. The examined life seems like a fine thing, but that process of examination can unearth some very disturbing things. After all, Socrates never had to face down a ravenous tentacled arthropod, so who is he to tell us what is and isn’t worthwhile? Prometheus says the lion’s share of what it has say in its opening minutes: our insatiable desire and curiosity for self-awareness is an existential threat. Finding out what we’re made of can take us to pieces. Magnificent as the film can often be, the rest is just so much elaboration and frothy filler.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

February 2, 2015 3 comments

Roughly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago whose warm weather, languid coastline sunsets, and edenic profusion of tropical flora is generally accepted in popular aesthetics as the nearest natural approximation of the Judeo-Christian vision of paradise. This is certainly the ironclad image of Hawaii peddled by tourism boards, hotel operators, tour guides, and real estate developers, that of a mild, comfortable, frequently pretty vacation destination. A holiday-perfect place in the sun, conveniently available to the world but especially to Americans as one of the 50 states, with a history both patriotic and romantic.

This manicured picture of Hawaii is not exactly untrue, as far as it goes. Its excellent climate, idyllic natural beauty, and cultural patrimony are unquestionable. A visitor gets this impression especially strongly on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Having risen from the ocean floor on mounds of hardened, nutrient-rich lava bursting through a moving hot spot in the earth’s crust, Kauai is about 6 million years old, and thus has had more time to grow into a richly-adorned living botanical garden than many of its fellow islands in the chain (though it has some human-arranged versions of those gardens IMG_3770as well, most notably the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Gardens near the old plantation town of Koloa).

With no more active volcanoes to increase its size, Kauai is eroding gradually into the ocean; the effects of this epic erosive process are most visible on the dramatic Na Pali Coast on the island’s north shore, its near-vertical verdant cliffs and ridges snaking towards the reductive ocean like inverted fingernail scratches. It’s gorgeous but also imposing, aesthetically potent but also pregnant with the awesome danger inherent in the natural world. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg shot most of the locations for Jurassic Park there.

If this spectre of the mortal peril underlying geologically-scaled natural forces pokes through the green curtain of beauty on Kauai intermittently, it is wholly inescapable on the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state or archipelago that shares its name. The youngest and largest of the islands, the Big Island is also the only volcanically active land mass above sea level in the archipelago, having been formed relatively quickly in geological terms (over a mere half-million years). Its sense of grand, catastrophic geological drama is unmatched in the Pacific and perhaps the world. From its coast, alternately sun-baked and rain-soaked, encompassing gentle beaches (of white, black, and even green sand) and treacherous rocky outcrops, it is possible to progress above 13,000 feet to the peak of its twin sleeping mountains, Mauna Kea IMG_3975and Mauna Loa, in the space of a couple of hours (although, with altitude sickness in mind, it wouldn’t be advisable to cover that vertical space too quickly).

The intense threat of this place often overwhelms its scenic wonders. From the thunderous waves with deadly undertow potential to the frigid mountain summits to the rivers of fire spilling from the three-decade eruption of Kilauea, the Big Island can lull with its stark magic but promises the potential of death behind every winking sunset as well. The islands’ first and most celebrated pasty-white foreign tourist encountered this fatal potential firsthand: British navigator Captain James Cook met a bloody end in the island’s picturesque Kealakekua Bay, his skull stove in by Native Hawaiians in the shallows of what is now one of the world’s finest and most tranquil snorkeling reefs.

True believers in Hawaii’s paradisical serenity may balk at such gauche reminders of a less idyllic past, but bare history rarely sugarcoats. My views of the last two centuries of Hawaiian history were largely formed by Sarah Vowell’s informative and wonderfully readable Unfamiliar Fishes, which I devoured on the long travel day to the islands from the Eastern Seaboard. Mixing travel literature with history, Vowell interweaves her own idiosyncratic treks through the islands to historical sites and museums with an account of the period from Cook’s stopover in 1779 to the archipelago’s annexation to the United States a little over a century later.

What Unfamiliar Fishes makes clear is that Cook’s arrival set in motion both local indigenous changes and larger imperial forces that moved astonishingly quickly to enfold Hawaii into the rapidly-developing modern world and, consequently, into the American Republic. New England Evangelical missionaries followed Cook’s lead in 1820, with Jesus Christ quickly filling the void left by a traditional set of religious practices and social customs that distintegrated swiftly under the stress of the examples of off-island society and destructive irruptions of off-island disease. Kamehameha vowell_unfamiliar_fishes_bookthe Great, a ruthless but astute warrior chief who united the islands under his dynastic authority (a unity achieved through mass slaughter of resistant forces, which sets the streets, parks, and malls named after him across the archipelago in quite a different light), also left a kingdom and a culture susceptible to foreign influence and eventually takeover. A coup masterminded by the missionaries’ sons (also wealthy landowners in the rapidly-developed plantation system that dominated the Hawaiian economy for 3/4s of a century until tourism displaced it) in 1893 removed Kamehameha’s descendant Queen Lili’uokalani, paving the way for a cynically imperial annexation by the U.S. upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Vowell, an outspoken liberal and NPR regular, sees plentiful parallels between the then-contemporary Iraq War’s imperial grasping under Republican President George W. Bush and the Spanish-American War’s imperial grasping under Republican President William McKinley. But she also pulls out illustrative incidents from Hawaiian history that further reflect American social, political and cultural traits and tendencies. American control over Hawaii was and still is justified in terms of the inevitability of westward expansion, manifest destiny stretching into the Pacific. But in this most beautiful of states, Vowell is able to find much that was ugly about how Hawaii became a state in the first place.

Early in Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recounts visiting one of Hawaii’s iconic banyan trees in a town square. These impressive trees, with their insatiable, rhizomatic root structures, do not resemble single-trunk growths so much as multitudinous wooden vines. They are more like contiguous forests than single trees, and make a strong impression on so many visitors to Hawaii (I first visited the islands when I was 2 years old, and “banyan tree” was one of my first spoken words) that one might believe that they had been growing there for centuries.

But banyans are not native to Hawaii; like so many of the islands’s flora and fauna species, they are invasive, brought from India. Furthermore, their exponential expansion is nearly unstoppable; Vowell’s local guide tells her that gardeners are kept quite busy trimming the snaking roots and branches to keep the town’s tree from toppling most of its buildings. Vowell intelligently presents this image as a metaphor for her own view of Hawaiian history (and, I must admit, now mine as well), but without specific definition. We are left to read it as reflecting the pervasive and ineradicable foreign influence that has made Hawaiian into the diverse culture it is today, as well as the damaging cultural reality of that influence. But as presented, it is also an image of natural forces threatening the structural integrity of civilization. This last impression is inescapable in this mid-ocean land forged by water and fire.