11 June 2012

Prometheus and 'big questions'

So in case you missed my post the other day, I saw Prometheus Thursday night, and I'll probably be seeing it again once or twice this week. Yes, it's that good. Well... at least I think it's that good. It's interesting to watch how critics are divided; the reaction is positive overall, but there are some big contrasts too – the critic for Forbes utterly trashed the film as worthless and forgettable, while Roger Ebert called it "magnificent" and gave it four stars. For those who didn't like the movie, one of the criticisms seems to be that it doesn't answer all its own questions. Which is odd, because I generally prefer movies that provoke thought rather than lay all their cards on the table. This is one of Ridley Scott's most ambitious films, and that's bound to produce a more complex reaction from audiences than a straightfoward crowd pleaser like The Avengers. For me, its ideas have been intriguing and complex.

There are some minor spoilers here, so please skip this whole thing if you plan on seeing the film.

SPF 300 for this guy
Promotheus touches on some ideas that, while not original, are pretty big: the origin of life on Earth, and our place in the universe. I recall an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where it was revealed that an ancient, extinct alien race seeded many worlds with life – meaning that humans, Vulcans, Klingons and the many other humanoid species in the galaxy were distant evolutionary cousins. In that episode, the ancient aliens are portrayed as wise and benevolent. And I think that generally, when we imagine alien civilizations that have evolved technologically to the point that they can seed the universe with life, that's how we imagine them.

Prometheus turns that on its head. It's interesting that Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a woman of faith; the events that unfold clearly challenge her, but the real implication is not about who came from whom (when she's mocked for her faith after it's proved that aliens, not god, created us, she simply replies, "Who created them?"), but the idea that we humans have a privileged place in the universe. Religious mythology in particular often reinforces this idea, like in the Biblical creation myth when God gives humans "dominion over the Earth".

But the "engineers" of Prometheus seem more like the gods of the Cthulhu mythos – not necessarily evil, but they've evolved so greatly, both biologically and technologically, that they are like demigods compared to us. We're like flies to them – an experiment perhaps, or perhaps even just one phase in an experiment. This is hinted at in a conversation between David and Charlie:

David: "Why do you think your people made me?"
Charlie: "[shrugging] We made you 'cause we could."
David: "Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"

To me, the most profound idea in Prometheus is our utter insignificance. And for me personally, it's a familiar one. As a non-believer, I think it's absurd to think that this unfathomably vast universe, expanding exponentially for 14 billion years and filled with billions of galaxies and sextillions of stars, was 'designed' with us in mind. The universe got along fine without human life for virtually its whole history, and the overwhelming volume of the universe is not only hostile to life, but will continue functioning just fine long after humanity has ceased to be. Special, we may be; but privileged... not so much. And as unlikely as it may be, it could be that there is, somewhere out there, a race of aliens that has evolved such that to us, they would seem like gods. Would such beings welcome us with open arms? Or would they swat us like flies?


Oh, and then there's this. Maybe it's just me, but I think that the orchestral theme for this film might just be good enough to be remembered as one of the great scores of film history.




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