Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ridley Scott's Alien Abortion -- On Prometheus

Note: Spoilers are contained herein.

Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi after a 30 year hiatus, specifically a return to his Alien universe; facehuggers and abdomen-bursting; the mystery of the 'space jockey' revealed; themes of intelligent design and faith; Michael Fassbender as an android. Prometheus seemed as if it was specially geared to appeal to my particular aesthetic sensibility. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Though Scott bizarrely eschewed the use of the term 'prequel' in the promotional events leading up to the release, Prometheus is a prequel in virtually every sense except that none of the characters are the same. Not only does the action in Prometheus take place in "the same universe" (Scott's preferred descriptive idiom), but it takes place on the same planet as the original Alien and sets the stage for the events of that film, while sporting many of the Alien calling cards: the aforementioned facehuggers and chest-bursters; a decapitated android; insidious Weyland corp machinations; a strong female protagonist who outlasts her crew mates while aliens kill them all off etc. If Prometheus truly did share nothing but "a universe", the result wouldn't be quite so frustrating and disappointing.

This time around, though, the scope has shifted. The juxtaposition couldn't be more stark: Alien was an intimate, claustrophobic space horror with a narrow scope, while Prometheus seeks more epic pastures, expanding its concerns from the crew of a single ship to the concerns of all mankind. Though the film purports to address The Big Questions of humanity -- Guy Pearce's character helpfully explains that it does -- there really is only one 'Big Question' it addresses: the question of human (and/or biological) origins and 'creation'. While the origin of life is not a 'solved' problem, most approach the question either by positing Darwinian (or otherwise 'naturalistic') mechanisms which gave rise to primordial, single-cellular life which then evolved, or with God (or with some combination thereof). Scott ineptly fumbles the issue coming from both directions.

On the one hand, 'God' is vaguely present in the narrative in the form of the main character's -- Elizabeth Shaw's -- Christian faith (which we'll return to). The notion of God as creator is also addressed via proxy by suggesting that humanity is created by Engineers (one might say Intelligent Designers), who are 8-foot tall, pale aliens with dark eyes. One of the members of this race is the mysterious 'space jockey' from the original Alien. Of course, an intermediate, finite designer of life doesn't actually address the Big Question of life's origins because it only pushes the question back a step: who designed this designer? The film recognizes this at one point, but in so doing renders itself rather moot and impotent in the exploration of the Big Question.

On the other hand, the only appearance evolution makes is when one crew member scientist of Prometheus responds to Shaw's claim that the Engineers created human life with "Well, if you want to just throw out 3 centuries of Darwinism", which is also confused. In the opening scene of Prometheus we see one of the Engineers depositing the building blocks of life on early Earth. We can assume, from there, life then evolved. If this were the case, not a stitch of Darwinian evolution would need to be dispensed with, yet this objection comes from a scientist -- the biologist even, if memory serves. I suppose, within the world of the film, Darwinian evolution really might be bunk and the mechanisms which appeared unguided and natural were actually encoded by the Engineers, but even if this were so Darwinian theory wouldn't necessarily be wrong. The Engineers may just harness their knowledge of natural, Darwinian mechanisms to bring about a desired result. In any case, at that juncture there's no reason any intelligent scientist would think that Shaw's theory debunks Darwinism whole cloth, even if it's true.

Speaking of Shaw's theory, it provides the most cringe-inducing moment of the film. Shaw and her research partner (and husband? boyfriend? I don't recall), discover a pictogram that appears on cave drawings, inside temples, on rocks from every ancient human civilization, many of which share no common lineage or have any dealings with each other. The drawings all show the same image: humans crowded around a taller human-like figure who is pointing to a constellation of cosmic bodies. The configuration of the bodies is identical, and it happens to match some solar system which has a sun similar to ours. All of which is plenty reason to suspect the presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence, one that it appears may have communicated with our race in some mysterious way, which makes investigating the matter an obviously logical step. No problem so far. However, does this evidence suggest that we were created by the the extraterrestrial intelligence, even if it exists? No, it doesn't, yet Shaw believes that we were created by them. Can she prove this? No, but again, at this point it may not be a matter of empiricism. Fair enough. But surely she must have indicators, some line of reasoning, some sign-posts which point toward her conclusion. When one of the scientists asks her for evidence in this vein she replies "I choose to believe it is so." Oy vey.

It wouldn't even be that bad if she postulated some shaky, inconclusive argument with tenuous rational and evidential support, and then when pushed to defend it she finally resorted to her "I choose to believe it is so" line, but she couldn't even manage that, and so it comes off as if she pulled the theory directly from her hindquarters. In her position there's nothing epistemically unjustified in holding such a belief, but since she offers literally no support -- not even of the speculative, theoretical variety -- why bring it up to a team of scientists? It's a functionally irrelevant belief for the mission.

This brings us back to the theme of 'faith' in the film. Shaw wears a cross around her neck; there is one scene where a memory of hers as a child is scanned where her dad uses the "it's what I choose to believe" line; Shaw has faith in the existence of the Engineers (presumably in the same manner that she merely "chooses to believe" in God, without any real reason). Unsurprisingly, Christian 'faith' is given pretty short shrift and depicted as the impoverished, unspecific, insignificant, unreliable 'mechanism' many (falsely) assume that it is. Ironically, the film portrays faith this way, but it doesn't seem to think it's doing so derisively. After all, Shaw saves the day, is the last survivor of the crew, and her hypothesis turned out to be correct . It would appear her 'faith' -- her belief in belief -- was vindicated. And yet her faith, to the extent it is on display, is a pretty anemic, lifeless thing that isn't really worthy of praise.

And all of this, as annoying as it is, still might be overlooked if the rest of the film were good; if the characters and dialogue were compelling; if the narrative, even despite its metaphysical and scientific blunders and absurdities, was interesting; if the terror from the original Alien struck again in a new chord; if the mysteries were revealed in ways that enriched the franchise. But the film woefully misses all marks.

The worst of all of these sins is the pathetic character work. The character actions and interactions are often unbelievably absurd and nonsensical. Contrasted with the spirited, believable, and dynamic crew of the Nostromo, the crew of the Prometheus is colorful only because all of its members are exaggerated and false cliches. And the ones who aren't are indistinguishable in their dullness.

While I normally wouldn't delve into such detail, I feel a responsibility to catalog at least some of the worst offenses in this area. Some of the ones involving Shaw's character have already been covered, but what about the rest of the crew?

One of the earlier character notes is one of the more subtle offenses, but when the half-bald, half mohawk scientist decides he wants to go back to the ship rather than investigate a scene further, Shaw asks him why, and he responds by bizarrely getting in her face and screaming at her. I get that the character is supposed to be a douchebag, but this isn't what a douchebag would do in this situation. A true douchebag would ignore the question, or perhaps dismiss it with some quip. And perhaps if she pressed the issue further, accosting him, then he might explode, but this guy skipped straight to explode and it really made no psychological sense whatsoever. This is one of the more subtle character missteps in the film, but it set the tone early on for what would become a comedy of errors.

Perhaps the most significant of these is when Shaw's research partner / lover (played by the obnoxious Logan Marshall-Green), after arriving at LV223 (the planet they're investigating, and perhaps a reference to Leviticus 22:3) and discovering only Engineer corpses, resorts immediately to despondent, heavy boozing. He wanted to converse with them, you see. And since he didn't get to, time to drink. Sure, his partner is out there still in the process of collecting evidence and perhaps solving the riddle of the true origins of the human race, but yawn, yada, yada, I wanted to talk to them, damn it! Not to mention it isn't even clear that they are all dead, he's just assuming they are. In fact, as the planet is explored more thoroughly one of them is later found alive and cryogenically frozen.

Not much should need to be said about the buffoon scientist who, when coming upon an hissing alien snake-like creature, decides that it should be playfully approached as if it were a cuddly kitten.

Late in the film, Shaw returns to the Prometheus as the Engineer's spacecraft is preparing for take-off and informs the crew that the ship is headed to Earth to destroy humanity. It's not entirely clear how she arrived at that conclusion -- the Engineer was certainly hostile to them, but it's not obvious that he wishes to destroy the human race -- but she relays this information to the Prometheus. The Prometheus isn't a war vessel, and so the captain and two of the crew members almost immediately realize that, based on Shaw's breathless pronouncement, a kamikaze mission is in order and they happily march to their deaths. The captain had hitherto not been an exceedingly selfless or caring character, so this again rings completely false in myriad ways.

Sure, characters can be emotional, irrational and inconsistent just like people, but these characters were so in profoundly inhuman (and cliche) ways. And when you take into consideration that these are all scientists, it's even more suspect.

Michael Fassbender gives the only sympathetic performance as David, this mission's android. Which should tell you something, since he's diabolically wreaking chaos and havoc and seems to have a distinct distaste for these humans aboard the ship -- as we all do, by the end of the film.

The one thing the film does somewhat have going for it is in its mysteries, symbolism, and unanswered questions it leaves much up for debate and discussion, and so the film can serve as a good conversation piece -- if you can get past everything else. But when this thin veneer of false intrigue is draped on the skeletal frame of a film that is fundamentally, offensively unsound, it doesn't -- it can't -- enrich the film but rather serves only to distract from the lack of coherence and substance.

I could go on. And I didn't even touch on the absurd abortion sequence.

The quality of Prometheus being what it was (abysmal) and with Bladerunner 2 now in the works, one has to wonder if Scott is cashing in on his legacy. Or, perhaps, using his legacy as leverage to make more interesting films; The Counselor -- Scott's next project -- boasts a magnificent cast and a script by Cormac McCarthy. Whatever the case, as a matter of artistic integrity, Scott had no business sullying the Alien franchise with this endeavor. Go ahead and make a non-Alien sci-fi film about human origins, and maybe with the expectations, burdens, and restraints of the franchise lifted, your creative genius might just shine through. After all, much of Scott's genius was always in the creation of new worlds, and since the world of Alien already exists, his creative matrix may have just never been engaged. It's a plausible explanation anyway, and he might want to latch onto it. Otherwise one is forced to conclude he's a has-been hack in the late-George-Lucas phase of his career. One may conclude that anyway.


CORRECTION:  I said the film takes place on the same planet as the first Alien, but it's a  different planet in the same system of planets.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Theology's Debt to Nietzsche

I intend nothing facetious in saying Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed amanesis of itself -- of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity's origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds.

- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Indeed. The one thing Christianity can't be -- which its modern detractors often take it to be -- is "old hat"; some slightly modified system of existing morality; a metaphysical or mythological re-run. Just as a matter of historical fact, Christianity is not those things, as Nietzsche understood. It is not in smooth continuity with what came before, but represents a massive upheaval, both in what it preached and in its effect on the world. And being so many centuries removed from the event of Christ in history the scandalous nature of it is difficult to grasp for us moderns, but Nietzsche reached back into the depths of time and was able to captured a glimpse of this notion at a time when it was being forgotten in "post-Christian" Europe.

Of course, Nietzsche understood the scandal of Christ and Christianity and despised them for what they actually were -- a radical evangel of peace amongst a sea of terrible ”majestic” violences -- but this seems preferable to despising Christianity for being something it isn't, as most do. As C.S. Lewis said "Those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that know nothing at all about it and think they have it."

Thursday, June 7, 2012


This post is an extension of my previous post, picking up where it left off. The very next passage in The Beauty of the Infinite elaborates on the idea that Christianity, properly understood, is not a retreat -- spiritual or physical -- to some far-off world, but is rather a joyful celebration and affirmation of God's good creation, made possible by the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. While Nietzsche sees in the Dionysian the joyful embrace of life -- in all its terrible, majestic power and splendor -- that Christianity rejects, Hart wishes to instead pit Dionysus against The Crucified using a typology of wine, and the riposte is brilliant.

"Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25; cf. Matt. 26-29; Luke 22:18)—wine clearly appears here as the perfect and concrete emblem of the beauty of creation and the joy of dwelling at peace in the midst of others: not the wine of Dionysus, which makes fellowship impossible, promising only intoxication, brute absorption into the turba, anonymity, and violence, but the wine of the wedding feast of Cana, or of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The wine of Dionysus is no doubt the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness […] the wine repeatedly associated with madness, anthropophagy, slaughter, warfare, and rapine. The wine of Scripture on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God’s bounty (Gen. 27:28; Dt. 7:13; 11:14; Ps. 104:15; Prov. 3:10; Isa. 25:6; 65:8; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19-24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zech. 9:17) and an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel’s love for God (Ex. 29.40; Lev 23:13; Num. 15:5-10; 18:12; 28:14; Deut. 14:23); it is the wine that cheers the hearts of men (Judg. 9:13); the sign of God’s renewed covenant with his people (Is. 55:1-3); the drink of lovers (Song 5.1) and the very symbol of love (7:2, 9), whose absence is the eventide of all joy (Isa. 24:11); it is moreover the wine of Agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing, at Cana—a wine of the highest quality—when the kingdom showed itself “out of season.” Of course Nietszche was a teetotaler and could judge the merit of neither vintage, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that his attempts at oino-theology should betray a somewhat pedestrian palate. (pp. 108-109)*

Just like Hart to punctuate an insightful, eloquent theological discourse with a devastating polemical right hook!  Vintage Hart, if you'll excuse the pun.


*This is a shortened version of the passage, in order to make it blog-friendly, but if you're so inclined you can read the full version at Google Books.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Christian Otherworldliness

A common critique of Christians and Christianity by secular critics today is that the Christian focus on the significance of another world -- a spiritual world and/or future world, fundamentally 'apart' from this reality -- causes Christians to withdraw from the world; to disdain the world; to -- if not celebrate -- at least downplay the significance of decay, destruction, and death; to defer responsibility and actions in the troubled world around them. The critique finds its most robust, vibrant articulation in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and he isn't entirely wrong. There are certainly some bitter fruits associated with just such a Christian Otherworldliness, to the extent that it exists. The question becomes whether it in fact exists and to what extent, and whether it is a particularly Christian Otherworldliness that is really at issue, or otherworldliness as such which just happens to have a Christian variant.

Re-visiting David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, this passage stuck out to me, in which Hart addresses the issue, and traces the true genesis of this otherworldliness to pre-Christian sources, which in turn infected elements of Christianity, but which was never proper to its essence.

[H]owever just [Nietzsche's] condemnation of pious otherworldliness  may be -- and the church has seen no end of it -- it is the unambiguous renunciation of gnosticism, and not the paradoxical renunciation of classical Christianity, that would correspond most nearly to his account. Indeed, no one familiar with late antiquity and the world in which the gospel was first preached can be unaware that a prevailing spirit of otherworldliness had long been moving inexorably through the empire: not only gnosticism, but every variety of etherealizing devotion, mystery religions, Eastern esoterica, mystical Platonisms, and the occult; the contempt for the flesh expressed by Valentinus, Ammonias Saccas, Plotinus, the Mithraic mysteries, or even the sanctimoniously ungroomed Emperor Julian was more bitterly world-weary than any of the exorbitant expressions of spirituality to which the church fell prey.

One may agree with Nietzsche that this atmosphere of acosmic and incorporeal religiosity defames the world, and one may acknowledge that it infected every institution and spiritual aspiration of its age, including those of the church; but one should also recognize it as first and foremost a pagan phenomenon. [...] Christianity suffered from this contagion in some considerable measure. [...] But it was also into this crepuscular world of transcendental longings, of a pagan order grown weary of the burden of itself, that the Christian faith came as an evangel promising newness of life, and that in all abundance, preaching creation, divine incarnation, resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate restoration of heavens and earth; a faith, moreover, whose symbols were not occult sigils, or bull's blood, or the brackish water and coarse fare of the ascetic age, but the cardinal signs of fellowship, feasting, and joy: bread and wine.

And surely there is something almost tediously wrong in asserting Christ's crucifixion has ever figured in Christian tradition as a repudiation, rather than ultimately an affirmation, of the fleshly life Christ was forced to relinquish (pp. 106-107)

The Christian faith, uniquely, provides the resources for "renarrating the cosmos from the ground up", and affirming the goodness of creation -- in all of its glorious materiality -- while also providing a metaphysical account of evil. Hart continues:

The orthodox doctrine of creation out of nothingness, and its attendant doctrine of the goodness of creation, led the church (more radically than even Neoplatonism) to deny evil any ascription of true being, to define it not as an essence or positive force but as mere negation, reaction, a privation of the good, a perversity of the will, an appetite for nonbeing -- but no thing among things: all things had to be affirmed, with an equal emphasis, as God's good creation. (pp. 106-107)

One take-away from all this, on a meta level, is that we need to avoid being so reactionary that we immediately reject everything critics of the faith have to say out of hand; we need to recognize the nuggets of truth that may be contained therein, but to shed the full light of truth on them, separating the wheat from the chaff. In this case, Nietzsche and his modern ideological descendents are right to be wary of otherworldliness, but the solution is not to turn away from Christ and the orthodox Christian tradition, but toward them.