Devolution of Promethean Proportions

I’ve had a very Promethean weekend. I saw Prometheus and also an encore screening of the NT Live Production of Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Johnny Lee Miller as the Creature.

Firstly, the film: I badly wanted to love it. And there are bits I did. Michael Fassbender as a way into the film was pretty good, he had quirks and made the humans look pitiable, which as a creation, is exactly what he is meant to do.  And the film is beautiful. Parts of this very, very slow-moving thing felt like 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a Blade Runner subtext that became text-text, and finally sounded like Close Encounters, which is something, especially in combination to the soaring visual landscape shots and the special effects, but it didn’t add up to enough to distract from the many and gaping plot holes.

I got that it was a prequel, not just to Alien, but to everything, life on earth, the whole shebang. The film was hitting me over the head with allegory and imagery and commentary, upheld by ludicrous assumptions and rash decisions and a lack of motivations from characters who are absolutely not meant to do what they do but go ahead and do it anyway.

Since I saw Cabin in the Woods recently, I found similarities. Cabin overtly defined the role of storytellers through explaining the provenance of certain rituals; Prometheus uses myth and then aspects of Christianity to explain how Large White Muscular Males created all life, which ancient humans somehow knew. But Prometheus is much less successful than Cabin as the audience is meant to know the myth of Prometheus, accept Christianity as a rationale for space exploration, and just go along with the hidden motivations and lack of science. Where Cabin explained the bad decisions of its heroes using science, Prometheus makes scientists stupid for no reason. And I’m not attacking Shaw. Her faith is not the sticking point; it’s the rashness of the crew. If I was spending a trillion dollars to send a space ship to a distant system I would hire people with less derp. You know, people with an interest in biology, who can run sideways or stick to a map. Hell I would’ve hired those kids from Cabin in the Woods. They had gumption and insight.

Cabin too, had a sense of humour (a very bleak one at times), while Prometheus is ultra serious. It deliberately indicates its influences and knows the audience knows it, but there are no winks that we know. There is filmic reflexivity, with an obvious nod to Lawrence of Arabia, but also to Star Trek with the crew’s cultural mix, but without the fun. I came away from the cinema thinking this was all just an extended parable about how frustrated parents treat their kids when their little progeny don’t work out how they want (or frustrated directors when films don’t turn out as expected).

It also occurred to me it was about how White Men make things and women try to subvert them. You know, cos women don’t do the making. Maybe it was an extended meditation about the state of the marriages of the script writer and/or the director. Dunno. Again, Cabin in the Woods makes this apparent: that film asserts Man = Writer = God, jokes about it and then makes them pay. A lot. On the other hand, Prometheus just says Yes, It Has Always Been Thus. Now Stopping Thinking About Plot and Accept My Creation.

This film too doesn’t much like the idea of parenthood and suggests children of single parents (especially) seem to turn out bad. Shaw is the supreme example, but David and Vickers also demonstrate the badness. And it generally condemns the notion of family full stop. Yep, humans share DNA, but none of them share much by way of motivation, loyalty or even knowledge. At least Whedon understands the notion of shared responsibility in the bid for survival.

Shaw, as this film’s Ripley, has some cool (I mean bad) shit happen to her, but she can’t escape the influence of the All Powerful Man, especially in David. David literally becomes the God Head since he is the only one who can communicate with the Aliens, control their ships or understands anything that is going on. And he knows all this as he spent two years gaining the skills to imitate Peter O’Toole and learning ancient languages. As you do.

David, as Lawrence, holding the earth in his hands, can the symbolism be any more…?

My question to the casting agents is why hire a (relatively) young man to play an ancient character? The purpose was to somehow save his life yeah? A regeneration scene would have been grand then, even if it was thwarted half way through, and that would’ve been monstrous and perfect justice. But no. Next time there’s a red herring plot line, why not cast an appropriately aged herring? Save on the makeup and invest more in a science consultant for the script.

This film suggests further sequels in a divergent tangent to Alien. Alien was destined for Earth, while Shaw and David fly off beyond, to find The Maker. The ending especially brings to mind Frankenstein’s endless pursuit of his monster though the Arctic. It is a quest of love and destruction as well as a search for that which defines us.

So yeah, that was Prometheus. A director’s pride takes him to his furthest point where he can figuratively touch his creation, another sun (son) and he gets toasted for his hubris. Now that is a Greek tragedy. It makes Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus strangely compelling. The play by Nick Dear, coupled with direction by Danny Boyle was its own creation, evocative of the era of the original novel and yet contemporary. It suffers a little from characters explaining things that the audience has already kinda guessed, in the same way say Cabin does, but it doesn’t detract too much because there is a plot. There is no science per se, except for references to Paracelsus and galvanic forces, which in 1818 was pretty cutting edge. Yet it is a morality tale, a story about a fall from grace because the Genius goes too far, and a story that restores a voice to the creature.

Where Prometheus’s aliens (all of them) are silent and perhaps some of them not even sentient, Frankenstein’s Creature is all too cerebral. In a mesmerising performance he evolves before us, gains abilities and then recites Paradise Lost by Milton, which is also a deliberate ploy to locate the entire story within the Christian mythos, and within this play this is used to tragic and comic force, unlike the film.

This play says children are what their parents make them and they are always bound together in love and hate. It is interesting that the punishment for Frankenstein’s ‘transgression against nature’ is the loss of his bride. His neglected fiancé who has waited years for him to complete his studies even tells him if he’d wanted to create life he could’ve, years ago, with her. And fair enough too. Victor Frankenstein knows his abilities and his limitations and his powerful and erudite creation is a reflection of himself.  The creature is physically misshapen and his heart ‘becomes black’ but he argues his own morality devolved through his experiences with humanity and not even Elizabeth’s kindness saves him. He kills because he has been shown that is the way. In Prometheus, it seems the aliens want to destroy earth for a similar crime. Humans are made, and then we go bad from there, and must be destroyed.

Speaking of Elizabeth, her kindness (read as Generic Feminine) didn’t do Frankenstein any good either. He loved her as an ideal or as an ornament to his achievements, while he devoted his attention and all his drive to his creature. There is a heap of Feminism 101 on Shelley and Frankenstein which is covered elsewhere, but there are certain themes that echo in both this play and the film Prometheus; pride, science, confusing the search for meaning with the search for provenance or identity, responsibility, and parenthood. It is interesting to me that Johnny Lee Miller took inspiration from his then two-year old in how he portrayed his version of the creature. The creature is a child of Frankenstein just as in Prometheus the crew literally and figuratively are children of Weyland, as well as the genetic descendants of the Unnamed Very Large Alien Men and also children in that they arrive on this amazing distant moon and instantly regress.

In the end, the play’s the thing. Mary Shelley managed to say a lot so long ago that remains relevant today, even rewritten and enacted. Prometheus aims just as high, perhaps, and sadly doesn’t quite make it. Instead of an amped-up thriller/space slasher we have a reverential art house space creationism story that manages to melt its wings and crash back down to LV-223 with a bit of a thud, but at least it was a beautiful ride.

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