One of the weirdest, most psychedelically spooky and Halloween-triguing shows on TV right now is the Travel Channel's THE DEAD FILES, which stars renowned physical medium Amy Allan and retired NYC homicide detective Steve De Schavi. They investigate haunted houses with a twin pincer approach that dredges up the newspaper morgue and local resident-recalled facts of the building's (usually grisly) history (that's Steve's job), and contacts the dead souls and spirits in the building to see what they want (Amy's job). Allan also decides "if it's safe for you to stay or time for you to get out" and uses a sketch artist to capture the image of the main dead person she encounters which is later compared with Steve's recovered photo of the historical troublemaker. More often than not they are an eerie match. The big moments of 'the reveal' are when Allan drops some bit of knowledge Steve found only after a big search and there's no way she could know, and his eyes widen, his head involuntarily shakes back and forth in stunned disbelief. Watching a hardened but compassionate ex-cop become slowly acclimated to the unknown, his horizon ever-widening into the mystic, is a rare chance to see the 'super' part stripped away of one man's conception of supernatural, and slowly the soul and body, so long ago separated by church, science, and state, grow re-merged.
PROMETHEUS (recently released on DVD) provides an eerie ancestry with Steve and Amy's investigations. A retro-futuristic pre-emptive gravestone, Ridley Scott's comeback film marks his first return to the mythos of his 1979 franchise-launcher ALIEN in the same year, 2012, that's marked the death of his brother and fellow director Tony (see "I'm not Afraid to Die") and the end of the Mayan calendar. A muddled but fascinating career capstone, the film serves as a summation of all Scott's pet themes as a crew of adventurers travels light years to the end of the universe to find our godly makers and all we learn is that we're the result of a black oil virus, a DNA contamination that's offensive to our maker's eye. We are them (the DNA match is the same) but they don't want to recognize us, similar perhaps to the way science doesn't want to recognize the power of mediums like Amy Allan. Science wants to cut that 'superstitious baloney' out of itself, to live completely and deludedly in the realm of materialism. This is not just a problem science has with psychics, and the 'engineers' (lead scientist Elizabeth Shaw's term for the big alien creators) have with us, it's a problem Ridley Scott has with his own material.
Like more than a few prequels shot decades after the original, PROMETHEUS has lost its connection to the mystery that blew minds in the original's heyday. With the help of reality-bending CGI and a massive budget, the film has lost sight of itself. Too big to fail, it lurches into the dark void in search of a light switch, so that it might clear yet another room and settle yet another darkened wood with shopping malls. The Alien series is now caught in a Moebius strip where the future is farther in the past than the present and ten times the budget means the momentum and narrative are ten times deader. The CGI lets nerdy directors (Ridley notoriously second and third guesses his every creative decision) over-tinker until a film is all FX details and the actors just gray shadows.
A great aspect of the original, never recovered in any sequel, was the naturalistic dialogue. Remember the breakfast scene, after everyone wakes up on the Nostromo and starts smoking and grumbling and socializing in an overlapping dialogue naturalistic Altmanesque ensemble? These were people in the same room, at the same time, talking in their low, natural voices. Call me crazy but cigarettes had a lot to do with that. Has quitting smoking had the unforeseen side effect of dissolving our sense of 'adult' group dynamics? The chest-bursting scene was so shocking in the original because prior to that moment everyone was talking and joking and eating at the table in a believable manner, happy to see John Hurt's face again and to be heading home ("back to the old freezarinos!"), so when the little alien comes bursting out we're completely shocked. In this modern era we're always waiting for that chest-burster, but that's the problem. We've seen it too often to get traumatized --we expect it. We get pissed if it doesn't come. There is no 'normal' to deviate from.
So instead of characterization and naturalistic acting, the characters in PROMETHEUS are defined through Screenwriting 101 blather: the mohawked soccer hooligan geologist thinks he's in ALIEN 3 and so his overacting Brit thesp license is, in his mind, renewed; the nerdy hipster biologist thinks he's in a mumblecore rom-com; the disillusioned hunk drinks and mopes because the engineers seem 'all gone'; leader Charlize is of course cold bitch who needs sexual healing from a black guy who sings "love the one you're with" and carries a bandillon, etc. -- and there's douche chill-invoking dialogue, which mimics Scott's BLADE RUNNER (1982) in the way the actors disown lines even as they say them.
Many of you readers are perhaps lucky to have not heard Harrison Ford's original voiceover on that film, which the studio heads wanted added to clarify the confusing plot. As a fan of the film even before it came out, I used to fantasize that I could somehow edit out that cornball voiceover, which ruined Roy's big moment ("I don't know why he saved my life...") and stank everything up with hackneyed cliche like "The charmer's name was Gaffe. I'd seen him around" Or "he's the kind of guy who used to call black folks n*******." And of course "Rachel was special, no expiration date."
Such ick dialogue oozing from its actor's mouths in PROMETHEUS includes "it's Christmas, Captain. And I want to open my presents" and the old man Weyland talking about his shiny replicant David: "the closest thing I have to a son, but he will never grow old and never die." Oh thanks gramps. If you were in Kubrick's 2001 you'd have probably had to say that "Hal was the most human of us, yet a computer" and the continual associations of this voyage with an imagineered Disney ride, a beleagured entitlement that's a bit like little Richard Benjamin disembarking for WESTWORLD, or or that airplane feeling of helpless, impatient entitlement one might feel as the stewardess's beverage cart comes slowly down the aisle. It doesn't bode well for a film unless that film goes way off the deep end, and PROMETHEUS just has the ALIEN legacy and the rich field of crypto-anthropology to spelunk, but never so deigns since there's all this stuff to do that's stale three times over since the 90s.
The worst of the lot is Noomi Rapace, who cries and screams and yells and and rappels up to the moral high ground like otherwise no one would take her pint-sized powerhouse trip seriously. In the 1970 original, even when Ripley was racing around trying to rescue that damned cat Jones she knew there was no point in overacting, in making the pain and anguish she was going through unbearable to us as well. Truth be told this was my problem with Noomi in GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, too. There's a certain line no actor should cross when expressing agony. When they cross it, the film ceases to be entertaining and becomes merely traumatic.
Would have loved to see her smile like this just once, in the movie, instead of all that glum business.
One of the aspects of the original ALIEN that made it so mind-blowing was that the giant alien 'space jockey' in the ship Nostromo investigates in the beginning is so uniquely other (thanks to H.R. Giger) with its vaginal entrances and fallopian shape, and the 'space jockey' was so big and odd, and most of all very old, apparently calcified or petrified by the leaked-in non-oxygen atmosphere. It looked to be some kind of high-tech elephant man, with its stomach burst recorded in the petrification. For PROMETHEUS that mystery, that complete 'other' aspect is lifted up into the broad daylight, the fallopian / vaginal aspect is sublimated; the jockey is just wearing a helmet and suit, and is really a a big, hairless (literally) white guy. It's like if the Loch Ness monster being heaved up on dry land and someone explaining it's just a big catfish. Give us our mysteries back, Mr. Ichthyologist Scott. Your 'engineers' are just a bunch of pre-op Pinheads fixing to slug a Dr. Carrington in old age make-up (if you compare the bottom two image, clearly this was intentional, right down the collar on the human and the same camera placement).
|from top: Hellraiser 4, Prometheus, The Thing (from Another World)|
"Too much of our recent history has been soul-slaughter, imagining the past as merely primitive and, musclebound with technology, bulldozing the sacred spaces, hunting the daimonic animals with high velocity rifles, dispatching the jets to shoot down the UFOs, violating the moon-goddess with phallic rockets, and so on. Having severed all connection with the gods and daimons, we reckon we are getting away with it. But we aren't. The victory over the daimons is hollow; we simply make a hell of our world. And, as we drive the daimons out before us, they simply creep back in from behind, from within. We compel them to seize and possess and madden us. If we want to know our fate we would do well to look at Heracles. He neglected his wife, his soul, who, in order to rekindle his attention, sent him a shirt soaked in what she was told was a love potion. But the potion was a poison that poured over his body, corroding his too-solid flesh. The more he tore at the shirt the more he tore himself to pieces. He was glad to find death on a burning pyre..." (1)The problems with PROMETHEUS stem from this too-literalness. Instead of a daimonic soul force not bound by physical laws as we understand them, which would have been a fine use of the CGI Kubrick lacked in his "Beyond Jupiter and the Infinite" portion of 2001, or of gods whose thoughts are crystallized into the 3-D space time, like the Krell, or who breathe life into man, like Zeus, the engineers are jacked-up leatherboy baldheads carrying ink black tubes of super soil around the 3-D linear space-time universe, 'seeding' and/or 'poisoning' the worlds they find.
We have to take David's word for it that they're bound to come destroy earth, but so is he, in a way. Aren't they just seeing us the way we see the squid monsters, with abject horror, like the father beholding the creature that returns from college with long hair and a pierced septum in place of the wide-eyed ambitious son he sent there? It's fitting that our engineers turn out to be so Heraclean, so anti-spirit, even still using screens and projections instead of telepathy and astral projection (as the real aliens do, and are doing right now, telling you not to believe me).
With all this uncanny familiarity breeding so much revulsive contempt, the fantastic H.R. Geiger production designs of the original (above) become in fact anachronistic to the spirit of Scott's 'new' vision. The original marriage of alien and Nostromo was about a clash of surfaces -- the alien was the return of the Gothic architecture, of biology and machine fused together in spinal column-style fractal patterning vs. the maternal warmth of the ship and its lotus-like arrangements (above). We realize the original shape of the alien came from his previous surroundings, that he's continually shedding skins and becoming more and more like his surroundings and his prey. Because the freshness of Giger's work is now long gone, Scott gives up on any notion of either Gothic 'other' or chameleon in favor of a bland universal language which is made inscrutable. Like how grandparents and grandchildren sometimes share a special bond that leaves parents out of the loop, David the robot understands the big black engineers so we don't have to.
Quoting from his favorite film LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and wearing his hair like Peter O'Toole, David's the only character we can safely identify with in PROMETHEUS, the only character who at least has the wherewithal to subtly conceal his agenda rather than trumpet it like the denouement of an amateur stage production. Awash in Michael Fassbender's iceberg joviality, David seems to be acting only for himself, for a kind of twisted self-satisfied prank-pulling, imagining himself Lawrence, and the crew he serves no more admirable than the treacherous British military he 'works' for, and the aliens as his true tribe. He even talks to the ship's computer as if a human (rather than interfacing through his internal modem), while all alone, like he's feigning the need for 'human' companionship. The computer calls him "David" in a voice no-doubt intentionally similar to HAL's "I'm sorry Dave" in 2001. And like that film was associated with birthdays, PROMETHEUS references Xmas continually, and the idea of ersatz immortality wrought through progeny, all of whom are disappointed by whatever they get for Xmas, no matter how expensive, just as we are disappointed by who they turn into. It's our nature to be underwhelmed, and PROMETHEUS doesn't disappoint.
And who can blame David for thinking ill of his fellow Prometheus crew members? Sometimes the 'banter' of the crew even seems to careen towards a kind of FIREFLY jocularity, "a hundred credits?" wagers the Asian stereotype, "put it towards a lap dance with Miss Vickers!" Really bro? PORKY's-like sniggering and lap dances are going to survive into 2089? That's sad. And those overconfident orchestral scores with those minor key English horn parts that make everything sound like a Spielberg military funeral? And the way neither Ridley Scott nor Elizabeth seem to remember there's a difference between being a leader and a whiny martyr? "I shall need more time here," says Elizabeth Shaw when its announced they need to split back to the ship to avoid a coming storm, as if her lady martyr bossiness can hold back nature. Even when dealing with her husband's bitter disillusionment she spins it around to get attention by reminding him she cawn't have children, and so it becomes some big sob moment, recalling the words of Camille Paglia:
Feminism . . . sees every hierarchy as repressive, a social fiction; every negative about women is a male lie designed to keep her in her place. Feminism has exceeded its proper mission . . . and has ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate" (2)Thus even her husband's bitterness must be reinterpreted as a sleight against her being a woman. Still he's at least human. When he says 'here's mud in your eye, pal' to David, shortly before drinking the magic droplet he sounds like M. Emmett Walsh in BLADE RUNNER. And like Deckard, Shaw eats with chopsticks and talks to computers while watching the same material of someone or something over and over. Of course Scott is a fan of classic sci fi so naturally he'd age into a fan of his own work. He's edited and re-edited BLADE RUNNER so many times that it's become about its multiple edits, as I discuss so repetitively in my 2008 article for Bright Lights, What's your Edition Number? The Replicanting of Bladerunner: Final Cut.
The only thing that the over-eager team behind the digital refurbishing seem to leave alone is the faces of the "mortal human" actors: M. Emmet Walsh and Edward James Olmos as the cops, J. F. Sebastian and Tyrell. To see their blue veins and gray, pockmarked, sweaty skin in amidst all that shiny CGI-enhanced finery reminds me of those dehumanizing days spent getting to and from airplane travel, lost in that hurtle through time and space of going from home to car to train to airport to plane to airport to car again — the sort of a journey where you feel like the human self has become mere cargo, bare life as the burden of the machine. We want to apologize to the CGI computer for being so hard to duplicate, not just vis-à-vis the "uncanny valley" but with our decomposing faces. M. Emmet Walsh's scenes of bad expository dialogue now seem to hover in time. His bloated face uneasy with smoke and green light, hovering in the dark like some depressed apparition from Christmas past, Walsh's humanity as an odious, anachronistic element.
Thus the Peter Weyland is played by Guy Pearce in elderly make-up rather than a real old man who might seem less streamlined and more genuinely crotchety, and his hand closes like a polyp recoiling from his scheming daughter Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who, in classic Freudian form, has made herself as sleek and anime-replicant-like as possible in order to compete with David the favorite (artificial) son. But of course the favorite child never appreciates it. "Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?" he later asks. And while it's clear Charlize does want Peter dead, so she can take over Weyland Corp, she also desperately wants his love, which is a huge turn-off. Her attempts to become more like a replicant to win his attention are a sad, under-explored echo of modern eating disorders and surgery addictions as girls make themselves more and more like anime robots every day.
Clockwise from top left: Charlize (Prometheus); Kristina Lokken (Terminator 3);
Charlize again (Aeon Flux); Milla Jovovich (Ultraviolet); Sean Young (Blade Runner)
As a prefece, for those skeptics in the audience, please rest assured I have an open mind on these things, and that goes both ways, but let me just say this: microbes existed long before there were microscopes to see them, so if someone had vision so acute they could see microbes before the rest of us could via the invention of microscopes, would they be hallucinating, or lying? If your hearing was so acute you could pick up EVPs, would you be considered delusional until someone invented the EVP recorder? 'Genuine' skepticism keeps an open mind and neither believes nor disbelieves anything 100% and that's why the presence of Steve De Schavi is so reassuring. His heavy lidded eyes betray a long history of dealing with lying murderers, scared witnesses, concealed information, and blood, and he's a genuine skeptic as any good detective must be (ala Sherlock Holmes, and myself - "I neither believe nor disbelieve anything") yet he is continually astounded by Amy's spot-on information and never closed-minded. Compare him, then, to the smug skeptics aboard Prometheus, who even though it's 2089 and they're deep in space, sneer at Shaw's decree about our 'engineers' like they're sophomore year science majors and you see how it is. The cop trusts his instincts, his information, the facts. Science just snickers at anything outside its immediate understanding. It doesn't matter what evidence presents itself to the senses, or through witnesses, records, if they can't measure it, photograph it, verify it, they snicker.
But there are such things as ghosts.
In PROMETHEUS there are ghosts that appear via some alien expression of the 'Stone Tape' theory, which is that certain mineral deposits under or in the walls of old castles can record moments of extreme psychic trauma that replay over and over and can be witnessed by psychics, children, shamans, and schizophrenics. And just like the stone tapes within and without the world of film, certain emotions and moments in time endure.
And what will make Scott's film endure despite the cliches is its very real look at the intergalactic origin of humanity. Again, skeptics may scoff but there's plenty of evidence to make us question the doop-de-doo logic of Darwin, which explains very little about why were are so different than our ape brothers, why chimps haven't developed speech by now, and who made the tape splices and alien signatures and serial codes on our junk DNA ("ever buy snakes from the Egyptian, pally?")
I mock scientists' using lack of tangible evidence as an excuse for mocking the alien presence, like dogs denouncing mathematics as a sham since they couldn't taste any while chewing up Billy's math book. Sorry doc, woof! We have to, as dogs, admit there might be a other ways to perceive the information in the book other than through eating it. If we could read our reality the way it was written, with all nine of our senses aligned to all nine levels of reality, if we could read that which was written deep in the rocks of ages and in our DNA, then we would know who wrote it, who wrote and breathed us into creation, then split, promising to return in a few thousand years, in time for Christmas, then forgot about us, didn't even call on our birthday, or buy us a bushbaby, just threw us away like a message in a bottle is thrown by a drifting sailor. And now, if we see them on the street, they just look the other way, ashamed they ever created us to begin with.
The catch in PROMETHEUS is that our makers may have used us as a biological weapon to wipe out some other species. The 'sacrificial engineer' in the pre-credits sequence dissolves into broken ashes that slowly, presumably over billions of years, reconstitute into ourselves, but why? Were we meant to color the canvas or gesso it back to blankness?
|From top: Parasaurolophus Prometheus, The Tree of Life|
Science will always admit it doesn't know everything and there are still countless uncatalogued life forms in the oceans; still quantum physics-derived revelations about the elastic nature of time, space and 'true hallucinations' left to come. But we will know it and feel it ourselves long before they admit its real. That's why it will always be the job of the artists and TV producers to figure out how to present this uncertainty to the public in intriguing ways that never quite become fact or fiction, because unless science can taste it in the math book, it can't actually exist as far as they're concerned, and thus on these levels they are useless. We may not know how to read the math book ourselves, yet, but we're smart enough not to eat it.
For now we can stare at the cryptic markings and let our natural learning process slowly acclimate us. After a few more generations of ancient astronaut enthusiasts have come and gone, and their knowledge of alien theory seeped down into the collective 'given', then alien engineering will organically become a scientific reality. Or we can panic and deny, belittle and destroy, mask our fear under the guise of a skeptic or mainstream scientist, deriding all he or she cannot explain and never getting the paradoxical irony when they in turn admit they don't know either. In other words, I don't know the answer, therefore your answer is stupid, and not even worth investigating.
To bring the eating the math book metaphor back, science believes in all the ingredients--wood pulp, ink-- just not the result. It knows there are billions of galaxies and we have the potential to one day discover life on another planet and we know only a fraction of what life was like in our distant past and we are different in our brain power than all the rest of the animals, and the earth has been here a long long time. And yet --if you even propose to connect all these dots, and consider one of the other billions of galaxies around far longer than us may have long ago been to our planet and even 'seeded' us into existence, then they snicker. Why? Because they can never admit there might be a world going on outside of their own limited perspective. They can only imagine the universe as a school patiently waiting for science to allow it to open. We've only even had a space program for less than a century! In all the billions of years the universe has existed, surely someone had time to evolve enough to come here, and leave again once they got a look at how we turned out, a Dr. Frankenstein blasting off to escape his mess of Karloffian monsters!
Michael Fassbender's robot is however no ugly genetic swamp of rejection issue hang-ups and accidental girl drownings but an electronic Apollo, the gifted Adonis lawyer our god dad wanted us to be. He escapes the chthonic morass of nature, the primordial soup from which we were slowly built together via the knitting DNA mandibles of the insectoid uber-intellect, with all the phony differences, illusions of time, and abject rejection of one thing (sewage) and love of another (flowers), all being knit into focus from the black ooze. You could call those canisters of black ooze a biological weapon but you'd miss part of the point: this is the stuff that created us, that will create us again, wherever it lands. It's humans in a bottle: just release and wait six billion years for the ooze to work its way through its long gestation, through trilobites and past dinosaurs and mammoths and into monkeys and BOOM, there's that man again.
|Into the Darkness: T-B: Dead Files, Prometheus, Planet of the Vampires|
1. Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality (p. 261) Prime Winds, 2003
2. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, (p. 13) Vintage Books, 1991