Prometheus Bound (1 of 2)

I have decided to write two blogs about the film Prometheus, whether it deserves them or not. The second, which shall be entitled “Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)” will consider the themes explored in the film with reference to this blog, to which my sister directed me after I posted a facebook status about the film, as well as having Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Apollodorus at my side for reference to the myth and the interpretation within the film of what those myths mean, while using my own knowledge of the Greek world ([ego]which is considerable, as I have two degrees from the University of Oxford in that subject and am working towards a third [/ego] ) to suggest how these myths should be considered in their context. Expect that in the next couple of days. This blog, however, will consider my reaction to the film as someone with a passing knowledge of the Alien franchise, as an archaeologist, and as someone who exists within the cultural setting in which the film was made (more or less).

So that facebook status read as follows:

So Prometheus was a pretty clever film if you don’t have a passing knowledge of archaeology, biology, philosophy, or theology (also probably linguistics). If you have any of those it was a stupid film.

It has five “likes” so far and a few comments. I came to the film having glanced at reviews, but without having read any, knowing that the film was attempting to tackle questions about the beginning of life with which I would not agree, and, from the trailer, that it would begin with some dubious archaeological myth-science which probably wouldn’t make sense to me. On the other hand, it was going to have aliens and scary monsters and space and that H.R. Giger aesthetic which I absolutely adore from the original Alien films.

An aside here. I was a child raised with Star Wars, I like science fiction and space opera, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favourite TV show and I also enjoy comic books, not to mention those degrees (and an A level!) in Greeky things and their literature. The xenomorphs from the Alien films are probably my most favourite fictional species. I love them. They are so cool.

The biggest problem with Prometheus was that it basically failed to deliver fully on all counts, apart from looking pretty. It looks really, really pretty. Of course, I use “pretty” fairly loosely here, as the slimy alien structures and the xenomorph/Christ figure on their wall would hardly fit into a standard definition of the word. But while there were a few alien creatures there was very little of the xenomorphs, very little monsters chasing people, very little horror or even fright. And the philosophy, well . . .

Let’s start with the scene in which we are introduced to our archaeologist protagonists. They are excavating on a random hill on the isle of Skye in a tiny little area. Fine. OK, so their equipment hasn’t come on much in 80 years, but I can get behind this. It’s archaeology, a lot of us are still doing this in the way it’s been done for fifty years or so, new technology moves slowly into the field and is funding dependent. Except – they have a carbon dating stick. A stick which carbon dates. Great! OK, so its dubious carbon dating as it doesn’t give you a range of dates, but that’s OK. Simplifying for the non-archaeologists, I get that. On the other hand, it also carbon dates cave paintings in Skye to 35,000 years ago. Skye, and all of Scotland, was under a glacier until 11,000 years ago, according to my environmental archaeologist girlfriend. So, basically, they need to work on their calibration curve.

These archaeologists go on to interpret the iconography which they have found as a star map, pointing the way to the place where the giant men came from. The question I have here is: are all giant men the alien dudes who made the human race? Is King Darius one of them? Or are some giant men related to a size/importance iconography which places their entire hypothesis in doubt? Not to mention the fact that stars move in 35,000 years. But whatever. These guys are the kind of archaeologists who deal principally with iconography. They’re not scientists or anything!

Except that, for the rest of the film, they claim to be scientists. They perform autopsies, analyse DNA, do sciency things. Which is fine, some archaeologists do that (although no so much the autopsies). But really, those kind of archaeologists would think twice before following such a dubious iconographic principle which is the basis for the film. They also proceed to not understand that carbon levels on other planets would be different and need a different calibration curve so carbon dating a creature raised on another planet (ignoring the possibility that it might have, once, eaten seafood) wouldn’t be accurate using an Earth carbon dating stick. And, while we’re mentioning DNA, humans have different DNA to one another, although somewhere around 99% of it is shared with mice, dolphins, and lettuce (et cetera). So how can the alien dude’s DNA be “the same as ours” as Noomi Rapace claims? Furthermore, if it IS the same as ours, at what point does this fit into our well-known structure of evolution? The film appears to be based on the idea that evolutionary theory (which it calls Darwinism, but whatever) has enough gaps for humans to have been created, which it doesn’t. At some point we will have had to evolve. Where does that fit?

Let’s focus on the biologist for a moment. When presented with a dead alien life-form, the biologist gets scared and runs. On the other hand, when presented with a live alien life-form, which flares at him, almost certainly a sign of aggression, he sticks his hand into its mouth/vagina dentia. What kind of biologist would do that? If he wasn’t expecting there to be life, why was he on the mission in the first place?

My earlier troubles about the films philosophy were elevated during the opening credits of the film when my girlfriend commented that the writer, Damon Lindelof, was responsible for the end of the TV show Lost. I grew tired of Lost during its first series, believing the brilliant idea of a group of people stranded on a desert island had been undermined by some rubbish sci-fi twaddle, but I have read the ending and it is awful. The man clearly has no knowledge of any of the themes or history of the philosophical concepts with which he is trying to deal, and attempts to explain questions to which there are either no answers, or to which the answers are immeasurably more complicated than he is equipped to deal. Various themes come up in the film: parenthood and abortion; the beginnings of life; creationism verses evolution; the necessity of the soul; the relationship between creator and created. None of these themes are properly tackled, but are only hinted at. It doesn’t seem like any research was done into any of them, which makes me wonder why they were even there – the film could have been perfectly good if it was just a group of working people getting torn apart by xenomorphs like, for example, the rest of the Alien franchise.

That being said, I did enjoy the bits of the film where they weren’t being stupid. Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron gave great performances. And it looked spectacular. If only it hadn’t tried to look clever, it wouldn’t have look quite so stupid.

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The First Western Greeks this Way Come

Two men have died recently with whose work I should really have been more familiar. The better known of the two is Ray Bradbury, perhaps the greatest sci-fi writer in history, of whom you might expect I would have read the works. I haven’t – I am aware of the opening lines of Fahrenheit 451, so I can’t say I have never read a word, but I certainly have never read a story, or a book. I don’t know why it saddens me that I never read any of his books while he was still alive; I suppose because the option was there, and I always find it a bit difficult to think that it was someone’s death which brought my attention to them. Obviously, in this case, it wasn’t, but as a trigger it doesn’t seem like the best thing to have.

The other was the archaeologist David Ridgway, whose book The First Western Greeks I have read, and who I have listened to both in person at a lecture when I was an undergraduate, on In Our Time, and who has been in the same audience as me on a couple of occasions. I have never spoken to him, but he was a good friend of my supervisor who was with him on the day that he died at the site where we excavate, and who had been close to him when they were both in Edinburgh in the 1990s/early 2000s. I think that is why his death has affected me so much, it is sympathetic with someone I know who was closer to him. But there is a certain level of sadness that the old guard of scholars of my period, with whom I associate myself, are dying, leaving those teaching me as the elder scholars and my level as the up-and-coming generation. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course, but scholars like David Ridgway, John Boardman, and Anthony Snodgrass, with whom I might take some issues with as far as their ideas go (but only, it must be said, in the light of new evidence or approaches which they themselves uncovered or pioneered), revolutionised much of the study of my period, for better or worse, and it is sad to think that they will pass on, leaving their students to be the elderly statespeople of the Early Iron Age Mediterranean.