Monday, January 16, 2017

Prometheus Delayed: A Foreword

Drones: Stanley Kubrick, 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968); Ridley Scott, Prometheus (2012)
Writing about the counterfactual histories of Cowboys & Nazis got me thinking about my very first foray into FanFic, I rewrote the screenplay of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Not a Shaw/Vickers story (although I'd read that), I rewrote the whole thing. My aim was to right what I saw as wrong with the film. Call it FanFix. It was only as I looked back on that early project that I realized that I had never published a long introduction I written for it, or a conclusion I had prepared. I also remembered how unhappy I was with the way I presented the screenplay. I've decided to remount the Prometheus project from the beginning. I've reworked the intro, below, and in the coming weeks I'll serialize the screenplay, this time with a lot more imagery - which is what I regret not doing the first time.

I went to see Prometheus a couple weeks after it premiered. I went alone, because I had been traveling and by the time I could see it, advance word was bad enough that I couldn't find anyone to watch it with me. I had been looking forward to seeing the prequel all winter. This was not just fan-boy summer blockbuster anticipation, it was also morbid intellectual curiosity. I had a theory about Hollywood filmmakers that I was pretty certain was about to play out once again: To horribly misquote Allen Ginsberg: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the exercise of filming their own 2001; A Space Odyssey
Solaris (1971); Solaris (2002)

I was right. Ridley Scott had set out to make "his 2001", and, just as I expected, he had bombed. Scott had provided yet another data point, backing what I'll call my "Sirens Theory" (because, Odyssey). 

Here is what I went to the film knowing: Like Kubrick, Ridley Scott is a successful A-list director, who, again like Kubrick, is able to attract A-list talent to his projects. There is a vanishingly small group of directors who reach this level of success within the Hollywood system. Like Kubrick and his collaborators, Scott and his crew have earned the right to take expensive risks, in a system designed to avoid expensive risks. The thing is, the siren call of 2001 is something Hollywood allows to happen with alarming regularity (pun acknowledged and apologized for).
Siren Call: THX-2001

The Siren Theory began to form when I realized that George Lucas was aspiring to make "his 2001",  in 1972 when he made THX-1138. But it wasn't until 2002, when I saw Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 art-house classic Solaris, that I realized I was witnessing a serial disaster. Soderbergh had, by way of Post-Soviet-Stanisław Lem-chic, made a run at 2001 (and bombed). 

In 2006 my theory became a conviction. That was the year Darren Aronofsky all but destroyed any artistic credibility he had by making The Fountain, a over-blown scifi opus about life, the universe, and everything. A year later Danny Boyle did it with a little more success (but not much) with his movie Sunshine. In 2010 Christopher Nolan was clearly aiming for the Kubrick-esque moon with his film Inception. And finally in 2012 we had Ridley Scott returning to scifi, and explicitly tackling the emerging post-millennial Kubrickian genre of "the speculative science fiction epic willing to flirt with cosmic pessimism; the eternally recurring saga of the space voyage toward our point of origin or ultimate destiny." What was not to be excited about?
MacGuffins: Rosebud, Citizen Kane (1941); The Monolith, 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 has replaced the siren call of Citizen Kane as Hollywood's version of Freud's "Todestrieb." For whatever reason there is an impulse towards self- and career-destruction that seems to touch directors of a certain caliber (or grandiosity). This used to be expressed by making "important," or socially significant, films that were politically edgy (Leftist: plight of the workingman, anti-war, racial equality, etc.) and at the same time artistically advanced. These sorts of themes could be counted on to attract producers willing to take big risks, top shelf talent, serious critical attention and awards. (Think of the sort of films that directors have made at the risk of destroying themselves, their careers, and even their studios: Reds, Playtime, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now... "difficult" films with serious social agendas.) 

These social agendas all remain viable means of acting out the impulse to throw one self at the artistic rocks, but they no longer are a viable way to do so, while also destroying a lot of other people's money. Potlatch, or wealth destruction, in Hollywood is now enacted as a secularize grappling with pre-linguistic meaning and truth, and doing so using the most cutting edged special effects technologies. The post-millennial answer to "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" appears to be "the possibility of doing the proverbial 'really good' science-fiction movie". This navel gazing technological one-upmanship married to big-budget one-upmanship can be imagined, along with competitive eating and reality TV, as yet another sign of our cultural decline. But it can also be seen as a healthy turn by artists (and audiences) to ask some of the oldest and most profound questions, and to do so by means of the most advanced and fantastic imagery and image-making technologies.
Little Tramps: Sullivan's Travels (1940); Prometheus (2012)
While James Cameron's original cut of The Abyss had a strong anti-nuke message, it had no ontological import (or at least none beyond the perhaps hoped-for awe and wonder to be inspired by translucent aliens). But with its radiating fins, the spaceship at the beginning of Avatar was an obvious nod to 2001 (via an early concept design for the Jupiter Mission Ship). And while Cameron touched on some obvious environmentalist themes - and some less obvious themes of modern encounter - with mixed results, beyond Sigourney Weaver's personal transcendence, there was no 2001-esque grappling with the meaning of life and death or the infiniteness of the universe. 

I enjoyed both the Abyss and Avatar, even though they lack the monotheistic abstraction of 2001 - or perhaps because of it. Cameron is material, literal, his imaginations of transcendence is localized, because of this he slips the pretentious Nietzschean trap set by Kubrick. And while George Lucas fell into Kubrick's trap with THX-1138, with Star Was, which has deep 2001 roots, and wears its abstract and universal pretenses on its sleeve (" surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together") Lucas was saved from failure, I think, by the example of Jaques Tati's 2001Playtime. That said, neither Cameron nor Lucas risked abject failure - that risk seems a key, if not core, aspect of this genre. While Star Wars, The Abyss, and Avatar all had weighty social issues embedded within their narratives (Vietnam, Nuclear war, and environmental destruction), all three were primarily constructed to entertain, not to challenge.
Mission Ships: early "Dragonfly" concept deign, 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968); ISV Venture Star, Avatar (2009)
I have written elsewhere that 2001 ignores the lesson of it's most obvious predecessor, Edwin Abbott Abbott's 1884 book, Flatland. That 19th century story is also about an encounter with an alien being on the eve of the millennium. And that like the Monolith, Abbott's alien also has God-like powers of perception and movement. In the case of Abbott's Flatland however, the encounter is not between an earth man and an alien from space, but instead a native of a two-dimensional universe (a square) and a being from the third-dimensional (a sphere). 

Here is what the theologian Abbot gets right, and that Kubrick, and all of his imitators, miss: God-like is not God. As Abbott's square comes to realize (but David Bowman, never does), a being with God-like powers and knowledge is still a flawed being like ourselves - near perfection is a distant second to perfection itself. The Monolith may indeed be the boot to our ant, but it is no more morally superior to us, than a naughty child is to a hapless insect.
Bubbles: Darren Aronofsky, The Fountain (2006); Alex Grey, Sacred Mirror (1975?) 

The Fountain is a film that profoundly lost its way. Beyond the opportunity to see Hugh Jackman with three different hair treatments (bald Jackman!). I have a hard time trying to find any redeeming value in the final product, which is a shame. I had looked forward to the film because of Aronofsky's observation that, "there is no reason a spaceship would be built like a giant truck in space... we realized that the most important thing about traveling through space is the view. You don’t want to be looking at a steel wall! You want to be looking at the view, because that’s the only thing that’s kind of interesting. So why can’t it be clear? The most sophisticated evolved form is a sphere. It’s completely simple and infinite and represents all the different symbols. So we eventually came up with this idea of traveling through space in a soap bubble.” 

Unfortunately Aronofsky's story of death and rebirth had all the visual clutter, and even less theological depth (if that's possible) of an Alex Grey painting.
Truck Bombing: Islamabad Hotel (2008); Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle's Sunshine which came out on the heels of The Fountain, was just as ambitious, and didn't bite it quite so hard. Boyle's "truck in space", the Icarus II, was truly visually innovative; repurposing Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock as a heat-shield trailing a string of fragile glowing habitats - jaw dropping, both visually and conceptually. I wrote a long post at the time, about the film as a meditation on belief, the harsh "regard" of God, heresy, and most shockingly, suicide bombing: 
The sun in Boyle’s story is Schroedinger’s box: a moment of absolute uncertainty that is at the core of scientific belief. It is, essentially, exactly like religious belief. The Belief is that this sacrifice will save the world. The final frames are pointed images; the shot of the bomb falling into the sun looks like the Ka’bah – the lodestone of Muslim worship – in Mecca. The hero riding within the belly of this is shown at the moment of detonation both alive and dead. A miracle of quantum physics. It is unlikely that Boyle was unintentional in making this visual association.
But I also wrote that, "Just like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which Sunshine clearly emulates, this movie finishes in transcendence, ambiguity and rebirth. Also like 2001, Boyle’s film is deeply flawed" - that last bit is a HUGE understatement. The truth is that Boyle's film was riddled by weakness, but with the introduction of a zombi-like tanning mom-Übermenschen in the final act, it goes totally off the tracks, and never recovers its balance.
Death Match: Dave vs HAL, 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968); Capa vs Pinbacker, Sunshine (2007)

By making Inception about the director as a God-like being rather than actually tackling epistemological religiosity, Christopher Nolan seems to have largely slipped the trap. Again, this is a movie I wrote about at the time it came out:
While [2001] has no architect, it is the modernist Master Art's finest hour. American Cold Warriors are shown within well ordered worlds, unshadowed by doubt. At the time it was made it was the fullest flowing of Corbusier's dream of Total Design, but instead of steam ships it was enormous space stations that housed the design and slimmed down corporate identities developed in the 50 year rise of the modernist masters. It was also the first time the claim can be made for film making as the new Master Art. Whatever else Inception is about (and it is about a lot of really interesting things), it is acknowledging a changing of the guard. It is the moment when a filmmaker has seen himself, not subservient to architecture, but its master...
As I pointed out, Nolan's architect, played by Ellen Page, is in no way a Master of her world. She physically smaller, under-dressed, and the least experienced character in the film. Nolan was imagining displacing the architect as God with the film director as God. Bold, but meta rather than transcendent.
You've Come A Long Way Baby: 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968), Inception ((2010)

The last time I wrote about Abbott and Kubrick I was writing about the two in relation to Lost - a narrative arch that squandered the opportunity of a generation: to make a six year narrative about man's inconsequential place in the impossibly infinite scheme of things. Because Damon Lindelof is partly responsible for both Lost and Prometheus, it is difficult not to blame him for the nervous tick that disfigures the narrative of both: the idea that Jesus can be mined for narrative gold as an archetypal myth.

This is not because I believe Jesus was the Son of God - I don't - it's because, when it comes to scifi and archetypes, I am a devout unbeliever. While I am sure that Joseph Campbell was a penetrating and original thinker, I believe the pride of place that Lucas has given The Hero With A Thousand Faces has weakened his film's intellectual import, not strengthened it. My original purpose, writing about Star Wars and Minimalism, was to make that point, I started this blog to press that point further. If there was a way for Hollywood to unlearn the patently false premise that Star Wars' success was due to its familiarity, the lesson should have been delivered by the strategy's obvious failure in Lucas' own Prequels, but clearly it is a hard lesson to unlearn. What was great about Star Wars, and what was great about 2001 before it, was not the familiar mythic tropes, it was the mind-blowingly unfamiliarity. With Prometheus, Scott almost delivered something as startlingly new. Almost.
Deaths-head:  2001; A Space Odyssey (1968);  Prometheus (2012)
It wasn't visual unfamiliarity that made Prometheus more than just another Fountain-like misfire (the visuals are strong, but at this point, space-truck conventional). It was the depth of Ridley Scott's native disillusionment. Prometheus is a return to the Kubrickian genre's true promise: Rather than flirt with cosmic pessimism, Scott turned to the horror of Lovecraftian Cosmicism. But here is what Scott did that none of his predecessors thought or dared to do: Scott made an epic blockbuster about hating and being hated by one's creator. The film seethes with existential contempt. 

Scott's is as bleak a perspective on the universe and our point of origin as I can imagine. - Unfortunately, as a movie, while all the parts were there, or almost there, they never came together. Call it the Kubrickian curse. Perhaps because I had such high hopes for Scott's return to scifi, I wasn't able to let it go. Or perhaps it is because, while Scott was clearly hoping to expand on Alien's infamous "body horror", he allowed something shockingly new to slip in between the scenes: theological horror.
Godheads: Monolith, 2001; A Space Odyssey (1968); Megalith, Prometheus (2012)
Hollywood dystopias are always unsustainable, because eventually every dystopia will produce the citizens it deserves: Individuals so alienated, with so little stake in their own societies, and therefore so little or even nothing to lose from its collapse, that they will stand-by or even hasten its doom. If Prometheus is a dystopia, all the universe, all of creation itself are its precincts and David is its most alienate being. He is the fey great-great-grandson of Hal, who was originally conceived by Kubrick as a "slightly fag robot". The Cold War paranoia of 2001's HAL, that sparks off the kill or be killed conflict between Bowman and HAL, is, in Prometheus transformed a mutual contempt between creator and created. The humans all have contempt for David, and David for them. Peter Weyland has contempt for Vickers (who calls him "father"), and the Engineer, who Weyland approaches as a supplicant, has nothing but contempt for the humans. 

I don't think Prometheus is a dystopia however, it is less a bad place, and more an absolute disillusionment with all the progressive humanist conceits that underpinned 2001's Modernism. According to the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, "in the battle between The Enlightenment and superstition, moving images were presented for the first time n a massive scale and thus became desiderata on a massive scale." Those early magic lantern shows were simultaneously illusionistic and disillutionistic. In the Cosmicism that Scott's magic lantern show aspire to, all that remains of the Enlightenment project is that harsher, on-going, historical transformation: The Disillusionment. The shedding of our traditional beliefs in God and heaven is an understandably painful shedding. It's a bummer to feel that we die, oblivion is a drag. According to Jim Holt, absolute oblivion - nothingness - wasn't a subject addressed by philosophers until 1714, when Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Tunnel visions: Planet of The Vampires (1965); Prometheus (2012)

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