In the late sixties and early seventies, the Swiss quack Erich von Daniken made a fortune peddling a hundred different iterations of his ‘Chariots of the Gods’ thesis, asserting that sundry unusual artifacts from prehistory provided proof of extraterrestrial intervention.
As everyone knows, the von Daniken hokum plays a central role in Prometheus, the dire new Ridley Scott movie. But what’s interesting is how Scott wrenches this ‘ancient astronauts’ hooey from its original context and re-articulates it for the epoch of the Tea Party.
Chariots of the Gods recognizably stems from the same milieu as Carlos Castanedas’ equally preposterous The Teachings of Don Juan, both of which appeared in 1968. The sixties radicalization fostered a surge of interest in Third World cultures and alternative spiritualities, and in his own demented way, von Daniken presented his research as a quest for truths ignored or suppressed by the mainstream of which the New Left had become understandably suspicious.
In Prometheus, by contrast, it’s not the establishment that’s dangerous – it’s knowledge itself.
Thus the specialists chosen to explore the mysteries of human origins react to their mission like frat boys interrupted on the way to a kegger. But it’s not simply that they’re so disinterested in the prospect of scientific discovery that, once inside the alien monument, you expect them to leave off surveying in order to light their own farts. It’s also that they’re shown as perfectly correct to jeer at the high-falutin’ theories that have spurred the mission: in this movie, curiosity inevitably results in a swift and grisly death.
In Scott’s version of the Greek myth, Prometheus got what was coming to him: the secret of fire belonged to our betters and man had no business messing with it. The film portrays inquiry as inherently suspect, with the most admirable characters openly refusing to learn anything about the new world around them.
‘I just fly the ship,’ says the captain, as if he’s driving a school bus rather than piloting an expedition into uncharted space. His subsequent self-sacrifice accords with the peculiar notion of heroism that has evolved over the last decade – the hero as a taciturn blue-collar everyman, intuitively hostile to the nonsense spouted by an overeducated elite. One thinks of Peggy Noonan’s infamous explanation of how, in the wake of 9/11, intellectualism departed, giving way to ‘masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things.’
And then there’s the film’s treatment of religion.
Von Daniken’s thesis, at least in its early incarnation, expressed a sixties’ skepticism about traditional Christianity, since the attribution of ancient cave paintings and Biblical scriptures to the same alien source provided an obvious challenge to conventional dogma.
In Prometheus, on the other hand, the ancient astronauts actually confirm the faith of the central character, Elizabeth, largely, it seems, on the basis that the extraterrestrial role in shaping humanity discredits Darwinism, the eternalbête noire of the fundamentalist right. When her drippy boyfriend suggests that proof of interstellar beings manufacturing humanity poses a teensy problem for believers (ya think?), Elizabeth shoots back, like Sarah Palin sassing the New York Times: ‘Well, who made them?’
As James Bradley points out, the religiosity that runs throughout the movie is immediately identifiable as the pop Christianity associated with conservative mega-churches, a creed that can assimilate any kind of woo hoo into its theology. For many Americans, religion now entails less a coherent set of doctrines than a homemade assemblage scrabbled together from TV evangelists and the Left Behind books and Hallmark cards about angels and whatever else comes to hand, and so there’s no reason why identifying God as a cosmic astronaut should pose any particular dilemma.
‘It’s what I choose to believe,’ says Elizabeth, neatly voicing the contemporary sense that sincerity matters more than truth. ‘True for me’ is, of course, a notion entirely at odds with 2000 years of Christianity, and thus an illustration of the paradoxical secularism now embedded in so much contemporary religion. As we learned during the Bush years, even (or perhaps especially) for fundamentalists, truth has given way for what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness’, a knowledge that resides in the gut rather in the brain, a way of understanding the world that depends more on emotion than intellect.
That’s the spirit suffusing Scott’s movie, a vapidity that means it’s unable to invest profound questions about human origins with any excitement whatsoever. Symptomatically, the aliens aren’t in any way alien – they’re just muscled-up white people, an advanced culture demonstrating its superiority via more effective Nautilus machines.
In place of any intellectual wonder, the elaborate CGI effects deliver only bombast, in headache-inducing 3D. Nora Ephron once compared reading Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls to ‘masturbating while eating M&Ms’. The high-tech eye candy of Prometheus produces the same kind of onanistic stupor, without the inconvenience of having to turn pages.
All of this makes a depressing contrast with Scott’s Alien (and even James Cameron’s Aliens). Those films introduced Sigourney Weaver as a new kind of female protagonist – a woman who was smart, cynical and tough. Prometheus reverts to a much more familiar treatment of a woman in charge, with Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers rehearsing the old trope of the castrating bitch with daddy issues. The earlier paranoia about the faceless corporations controlling the ship has also vanished, replaced by a backstory about succession in a family business, like something you’d hear in a small claims court.
The sad truth is that this is not a movie about another planet so much as a representation of where our world’s at. The Engineers have their enormous stone temple; we have Prometheus, an expensive monument to a culture enmeshed in self-regarding idiocy.
— Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.
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