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Those gladiators and outlaws and aliens are just vessels for Ridley Scott, a director with a surprising philosophical streak
Illustration by Andre Carrilho
Other than The Dark Knight Rises, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was the most anticipated movie of the season, and up until its opening a month or so ago, speculation raged as to its relationship with Alien, the 1979 film that put director Scott on the map. Sequel? Prequel? Appendix? Postscript? Safe to say, what people didn’t expect was a summer blockbuster about God. Prometheus is driven by our search for the celestial source: When Guy Pearce, unrecognizable as an ancient tycoon trying to buy eternity, talks about meeting his “Maker,” and when the robot “David,” played by Michael Fassbender, talks about meeting his, they’re at once speaking of the same God and their own respective Gods. Ultimately in Prometheus, a presumptuous human race is on the trail of its own Maker, which turns out to be another race bent on our destruction, suggesting a divine food chain that’s cavalier if not malicious. Within days of the movie’s release, the blogosphere was rife with new arguments about the movie’s meaning, including the theory—allegedly supported by a recent interview with Scott—that the human race actually is being punished for the execution of Jesus, who was an emissary sent by the aliens (or, as they’re called in the film, “Engineers”).
In Greek mythology it was Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus on behalf of human progress that got him a good smackdown from above, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel Childhood’s End our upwardly mobile species gets another smackdown when visited by an “overlord,” who comes to sort out the mess we’ve made of things. Waiting half a century, the Overlord finally emerges from his spaceship to reveal himself to be…the Devil, just as we’ve always pictured him, with tail and horns. Maybe the resemblance is coincidental, maybe we caught a glimpse of the Overlord back at the Dawn of Man and the image became part of our collective unconscious and then our religious iconography. In any case, when Childhood’s End was published nearly 60 years ago, science fiction took on theological themes to match the technological and militaristic, and brought mythology full circle. Clarke’s spiritual insinuations were subversive to say the least: In his most famous short story, “The Star,” the bright light in the night sky leading the Three Wise Men to Jesus’s birth is a supernova that wipes out an extraordinarily advanced civilization on another world. Einstein’s reassurances aside, God does indeed play dice with the universe, according to Clarke; with His pick of all the suns in space, He goes for the one whose extinction is a message of peace and goodwill at the cost of galactic genocide.
Stanley Kubrick wanted to adapt Childhood’s End for the screen, but the property belonged to someone else, so he commissioned Clarke to write 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it turns out that Prometheus indeed is a prequel to Alien—you’ve been adrift on a spaceship the last month and a half if this comes as a plot spoiler—2001 is the clear inspiration, as Kubrick’s film has been for virtually every significant opus since its release in 1968. Still dividing perfectly reasonable people, 2001 is one of those rare movies about which all that’s been said—good and bad, including claims of both visionary genius and pretentious claptrap—is true. Being a pretentious-claptrap kind of guy, I’m in the visionary-genius camp on 2001, and what’s indisputable even for the less enthused is that in the eyes of the culture, 2001 brought science fiction an acceptance by serious audiences that it may previously have deserved but never received. Part of this was due to Kubrick’s stately direction and part to the film’s preoccupation with the Great Mystery of Existence in all its pretentious capitalization—though I’ll concede Kubrick cared less about the answers than about how cool the questions looked onscreen.
It doesn’t seem an accident that most science-fiction movies that have become phenomena—going back to 1931’s Frankenstein, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel whose subtitle, as it happens, is The Modern Prometheus—address something for which “God” is shorthand: the meaning of life, the nature of reality, the essence of humanity, the riddle of what-else, the conundrum of what-next. The best known and most lightweight is Star Wars, with its ubiquitous “force,” but these concerns also are present in the first Star Trek movie in 1979 and the reboot 30 years later as well as in other exemplars, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (and Steven Soderbergh’s underrated if not-in-the-same-league remake) to the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and last year’s Melancholia from Lars von Trier. Few films pondered these enigmas more evocatively and memorably than 1982’s Blade Runner, the Ridley Scott picture with the surest shot at the pantheon. Scott isn’t exactly what most fans would consider a philosopher; like Kubrick except with a pulp sensibility, he has a reputation as an imagist—often, his detractors claim, to his films’ detriment. As any buff knows, Blade Runner was originally dismissed by critics and the public only to become to movies what the first Velvet Underground album was to rock and roll, with Scott’s indelible sense of design and lighting and every signature motif down to the steam rising off the streets eventually rendered cliché by every aspiring director whom Blade Runner influenced.
Be all that as it may, more than the story or characters, what survived Scott’s translation of Philip K. Dick’s novel to the screen were the story’s metaphysical obsessions, and a closer look at Scott’s body of work reveals a philosopher after all. He opted to freeze Thelma and Louise midair in immortality rather than follow their Icarus-like plummet into the Grand Canyon, and in Gladiator Russell Crowe is on a quest to avenge his murdered family and join them in an afterlife, of which he has recurring glimpses. That Gladiator is the most successful mainstream movie in memory to kill off the hero may lie in the fact that it constitutes, by the terms of Scott’s film, a happy ending. Unicorns—powerful creatures found in books of the Old Testament, from Psalms to Job to Isaiah—dash their way from Harrison Ford’s dreams in Blade Runner to the pagan domain of Legend, where Tim Curry is a slightly euphemistically named Satan. As with any philosopher, Scott’s faith, whatever it might be, wars with skepticism: He’s highly dubious about the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, no more so than when they take modern-day form in Black Hawk Down’s Mogadishu, deteriorating into death and desecration. The two Napoleonic soldiers in The Duellists, feuding so long they’ve forgotten the reason for their dispute, are caught in a time-loop of fate as absurd as it is infinite.
Inevitably, considerations of God in what otherwise intend to be mass entertainments come down to the same thing they come down to in any context, which is a consideration of humanity. It’s only conspicuous in science fiction because of the general whiz-bangery that distinguishes the genre. The Asian-noir, retro-future spectacle of Blade Runner notwithstanding, what stays with you and grows more moving each time you see it is Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” death soliloquy. With his conflicting cylinders of menace and nobility, android Hauer is finally Blade Runner’s most human presence; and after the last third of Prometheus collapses in a rush of exposition and plot points, the scheming simulacrum of Fassbender’s David—the descendant of Hauer and the ancestor of 2001 ’s HAL, with their very human flickers of fear and disappointment, premeditation and abandonment, loyalty and treachery—gives Prometheus a heart that’s as complicated as that of a flesh-and-blood entity. While the ship hurtles through two years of space and the rest of the crew hibernates, Fassbender watches Lawrence of Arabia again and again on the home entertainment system of your dreams, studying Peter O’Toole’s flaxen affect. In the robot’s favorite scene, O’Toole, as if to prove to himself that he’s both human and maybe something more, puts out a match’s flame with his fingers (“The trick is not minding that it hurts”), reminding us that what got the ancient Prometheus in trouble was his theft from the gods of fire. Though David hasn’t been programmed to do so, one of his jobs is to remind people why they’re human, in the same way it may be our job to remind God why He/She/It is divine, before the sweep of a cosmic arm scatters the stars like sand.