There has been much hype surrounding Ridley Scott’s movie Prometheus released today. An alleged prequel to the sci-fi/horror/thriller classic Alien (1979), the director Scott was always hesitant to speak of it in such prequel terms, and instead spoke of it in larger and vaguer terms—and indeed he was right.
The movie more resembles Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of theme than it does the original Alien. Apparently Scott has bigger fish to fry in this film. In its attempt to ask big questions such as whence and whither humankind, Prometheus presents an action/monster suspense movie in the place of Kubrick’s classic, but such deep questions remain to the end in the character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace).
As a meditation on human origins as somehow alien, Prometheus most closely compares to Brian De Palma’s much maligned Mission to Mars, but in comparison to that movie the “engineers” in Prometheus have no care for mere human life or for life on the planet earth as a whole. In fact *SPOILER ALERT* the super-human engineers are super-powerful beings who are downright malevolent toward the existence of humankind, and in fact bent on its destruction (even though they share the same DNA). For instance, one of the several manifestations of this evil monstrosity literally resembles images of H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu.
Unlike 2001 or Mission to Mars, Prometheus is less contemplative in its cinematic method and intent. It is more about human characters doing whatever it takes under extreme circumstances to stay alive in terms of “action film” techniques. However, for one individual character it is also about continuing to seek after the truth. Apparently, reading ancient hieroglyphs and cave paintings in the here and now tell us more about the truth of the alienated human being than any day to day feeling of ennui while ordering a latte at Starbucks.
Like 2001, and not like Mission to Mars, Prometheus has no element of parody in its depiction of human grandiosity. It is more like the speech of human greatness in Sophocles’ Antigone than it is like the whole of Aristophanes, except this human greatness is up against a malevolence of untold proportions. Perhaps it is nemesis.
Nonetheless, with the help of robotic technology—in the form of an android named David played by Michael Fassbender— our heroine Dr. Shaw has the capacity to find an answer to the deep questions of whence and whither. David is an android with artificial intelligence that can be educated with both knowledge and character in mimicry of the best of human learning (here the movie channels sci-fi notions found in Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as in HAL 9000). The movie leaves that quest open for a franchise of never ending sequels as Dr. Shaw and David move on to find the deeper origins of the importance of an individual human life.
David the android is programmed to acquire a kind of human judgment through indirect experience—for instance his education surreptitiously (?) models itself on Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps Ridley Scott is making a point that movies like Lawrence of Arabia teach human excellence in its complexity better than his own movies do—even a classic like Alien. Or perhaps we watching this movie are no different than androids like David?
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw has faith. She wears a cross on a necklace—a virtual talisman which is taken from her at one point—at which point, by the way, the movie almost resembles a sci-fi version of Rosemary’s Baby. This movie is surely about a post-Christian world where you can “believe” in science or non-science and it does not matter. However, the movie presents something more than a Kuhnian paradigm shift—because “300 years” of Darwinism (sic) is allegedly overturned through new empirical evidence on a new planet. That is to say, the movie presents modern science and ancient myth on equal terms.
In contrast to these larger than life themes, Elizabeth and her fellow scientist Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) demonstrate a personal love for each other. In fact, in one scene Charlie tells Elizabeth that no-one is more important than she. But *SPOILER ALERT* Charlie dies. This basically mirrors the scene in Mission to Mars between the characters played by Tim Robbins and Connie Nelson, whereby the death of one leads to a void whereby the other is willing to act in a heroic and self-sacrificial manner.
Elizabeth’s cross necklace represents something, but the Christian story is at best implied. Nonetheless, the whole movie intends to show the ultimate insignificance of human beings no matter how much they may demonstrate individual heroic virtue. Perhaps the undying love between Elizabeth and Charlie sustains the search.
So this thought on the significance of individual heroism making a difference leads me to a quick review of For Greater Glory. Unlike Prometheus, For Greater Glory is all about the importance of individuals in history. It has, not incorrectly, been compared to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. It is well acted and filmed, and it is important for Americans to learn of the Cristero War. It has some moving moments—in particular, the story of the young boy who leaves his family to fight and die for “Viva Cristo Rey.” I’m just not sure that this particular movie is the best way to learn of these events in Mexico.
Much has been made of this movie in relation to questions of religious liberty and the current HHS mandate on Catholic institutions regarding the provision of contraception. This is seriously overstated. President Obama is far from President Calles. Mexico—after the Revolution and Cristero War—had (and has) a much different understanding of “church and state” relations as laicite/laiciudad than does the U.S. with its Puritan separatist foundations.
Still, For Greater Glory is an entertaining movie. I remember being in Huitla, Oaxaca and placing my forefinger in the bullet holes of the church doors. It was a powerful experience to know that many died in defense of such Catholicism, and that it still exists there as a memorial of those times.
BTW, to come full circle, Peter O’Toole plays a martyred priest in For Greater Glory.
Update: I should say that Stephanie Zacharek was ahead of me in some of the Prometheus/Mission to Mars parallels, but that said, her points were not quite my own.