And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee About Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Prometheus, a big summer popcorn flick is the latest from Ridley Scott, the visionary auteur who gave us Kingdom of HeavenBody of Lies, Robin Hood, and G.I. Jane.  Okay, forgive the sarcasm—Scott is also responsible for some fine films, including Blade Runner and Alien, which Prometheus is most decidedly a prequel to, despite the early incoherent maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t buzz from the studio. I list some of Scott’s recent (and not-so-recent) films as a reminder of what many film fans might be happy to overlook: Ridley Scott may have a keen sense of style and a competent grasp on storytelling and emotion, but he’s essentially a hired gun who happens to make better-than-average genre flicks. Prometheus is another entry in his middling non-canon.

Obligatory plot summary (no spoilers):

At the end of the 21st century, two archaeologists find a series of apparent star maps at ancient sites. Positing these maps as an invitation from “Engineers” — clearly, an alien species who created human life (how they make this inductive leap is never made quite clear) — the archaeologists head to the outer limits of the universe in the spaceship Prometheus. Along for the ride are a host of expendables, a skeptical Captain Janek (Idris Elba), ice-queen/corporate rep Vickers (Charlize Theron), and David (Michael Fassbender), an android who has apparently mastered Proto-Indo-European, the language these alien astronauts presumably speak (again, why this should be is never explicated). The Prometheus’s crew follow the star maps to an Earth-like moon and land near a giant temple, where they discover the remains of the Engineers, as well as some vases filled with black ooze. Being reasonable folks, they break quarantine and bring samples back on the Prometheus (recall now how Ripley tries so hard to prevent Dallas from bringing Kane back aboard the Nostromo in Alien). All proverbial hell breaks loose, and Prometheus begins to rack up a predictable body count as it slowly settles on archaeologist Shaw (played by an excellent Noomi Rapace) as its heroine.

Along the way, Prometheus gloms clumsily on to questions about creation and origin, but these questions lack real depth. The filmmakers rely heavily on clichés, hackneyed dialogue, and overdetermined images to present their creation theme, and the effect is largely divorced from the visceral spirituality we might otherwise associate with such a grand subject. Fassbender’s android is perhaps the clearest symbol of creation, a robot boy with daddy issues. (David’s creator Weyland, portrayed by Guy Pearce, foots the bill for space exploration because, of course, he’s searching for immortality. Quick aside: Why in the fuck is Pearce, a man in his forties, cast as a dying elderly man?). While Fassbender does a marvelous job as David the android, his performance retreads familiar territory (nods to Data and HAL 9000). David’s motivations are never entirely clear, and while some may argue this makes for a more interesting film, the lack of clarity is ultimately part of the film’s deflections. In Prometheus, the refusal to telegraph clear meaning isn’t subtle ambiguity, it’s the mark of empty spectacle, of filmmakers who aren’t entirely sure if they have a thesis or not.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some fantastic moments in Prometheus. The film is beautiful, the designs impeccable, and Noomi Rapace’s Shaw emerges as an enthralling heroine, a final girl to rival Ripley. The film is at its finest when it focuses its energies on Shaw, as in a bizarre alien-abortion scene, probably the most thrilling segment of Prometheus. However, most of the marginal plots fail to coalesce. Charlize Theron’s Vickers could just as easily have been written out of the film, for example. Also, we’re told at the beginning that there are 17 crew members on Prometheus, but the body count here is so nebulous that it becomes impossible to keep track of who’s dead and who’s alive, let alone care. Ultimately, it’s the mishmash of mythologies that muddies Prometheus: Is this Pandora’s Box? Pinocchio? The Fountain of Youth? Genesis? The Book of Revelation?

Prometheus is all contours and surfaces, roomy, spacious, and slick. Near the end of the film, when one character, dying, announces “There is nothing . . .” it feels like a fairly concise summary of the film’s spiritual program. I suppose I’ve devoted so many words to Prometheus simply because I fear that it’s one of those popcorn flicks like Avatar or Inception that people will try to pretend are deep or meaningful or clever. In his glowing review, Roger Ebert suggests Prometheus is “all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn’t have the answers.” Ebert’s analysis fails to leave out that the film doesn’t even try to answer—at best, it offers a smug shrug, a winking nihilism, pure cinematic spectacle as a substitution for meaning, gussied up in the robes of inquiry.

There is a moment though when Prometheus manages to synthesize its elegant bombast with the existential questions it wishes to pose. The end of the movie—yes, there are potential spoilers ahead—follows the same curve of self-annihilation that we see in Alien, with Ripley, final girl, safe but traumatized, a survivor who may now bear witness. In what I take to be the grandest shot in the film, a terrified Shaw gazes up at the alien spacecraft as it crashes down. The spacecraft recalls an ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, symbol of self-reflexivity, death-in-birth: it recalls too, both thematically and physically, the shapes of the reptilian aliens that haunt the rest of the Alien franchise. Watching the wreckage of ships, I was instantly reminded of the final chapter of Moby-Dick. In the epilogue, Ishamael tells us, “The Drama’s Done. Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck.” The chapter begins with a quote from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Whether or not Prometheus is actively alluding to Moby-Dick is beside the point. What both narratives do well is explore the capacity for survival, illustrating what it means to witness catastrophe on a cataclysmic scale. While Prometheus hardly explores its metaphysical questions with the depth or aplomb of Melville, it does tap into the same impulse that makes Alien such a great film, illustrating the Darwinian competition that underwrites existence.

If it seems I’ve been too hard on Prometheus, it was not my intention to declare it a bad or stupid or graceless film—again, it’s a good summer popcorn flick, filled with spectacle and thrills. I should point out that my wife and I caught the matinée, had a nice dinner, and then came home and watched AlienPrometheus actually does a remarkable job of answering to some of the mysterious imagery that dominates the planetoid scenes in that film, but it ultimately suffers by comparison with Alien. Prometheus is too antiseptic and spacious, with none of the gritty, grimy, cramped corners that makes Scott’s earlier film so scary and paranoia-inducing. Prometheus also lacks the naturalistic performances and dialogue of Alien, which I suppose is more an issue of how much film has changed since the 1970s than anything else. On the whole though, Prometheus isn’t a bad summer flick—it just can’t live up to its marketing buzz, let alone its own metaphysical posturing.

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Russian Ark — Aleksandr Sokurov

Before I get into the details of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, I implore you to stop reading my review and simply get a hold of the film and watch it. It’s a marvelous, rewarding, dreamy experience. That’s not a very convincing argument of course, but I think that the best way to see this gorgeous film is with no preconceptions, with as little information as possible–not because there are plot twists that a review might give away, but rather because the pleasure of Russian Ark is its narrative immediacy–and any review will seek to mediate that immediacy. So I’ve hemmed and hawed. If you need further convincing, read on.

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll let Don DeLillo do it for me. In his latest novella, Point Omega, his filmmaker protagonist describes it as an ideal for the kind of truth he’d like to capture in one of his own films:

There’s a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can’t cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes.

That was enough for me to get hold of Russian Ark and watch it, or rather experience it (I think experience is the best verb here, corny as that sounds), but perhaps, gentle reader, you’d like some plot details. Let’s give it a shot. The film begins in darkness, with its unnamed/unseen protagonist describing the vague details of his last memory, a violent accident that he remembers little about. But before we go on, I should point out a few things: this protagonist is unseen because he is essentially the camera; his movement  propels the film–is the film–and although he is his own character, he is also a surrogate for the audience. His first-person experience dictates the film, is the film, and although he has ghostly access to the characters who float through the gorgeous halls of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, they cannot see or hear him. There is one character who can see him however, an unnamed black-clad 19th-century French aristocrat who the protagonist comes to call “the European.” Neither the European or the protagonist understand why they are in the Hermitage or how they got there; the European is even more perplexed to find that he now speaks perfect Russian. Unlike the protagonist, the European can interact with the denizens of the Hermitage, and interact he does, by turns offending, menacing, or charming (or at least attempting to charm) the characters that the pair encounters as they drift through the ballrooms, galleries, and courtyards of this beautiful palace. Initially, the European repeatedly insults Russian culture, which he believes a pale imitation of European aesthetics. He even protests that one of the fine orchestras that they stumble upon must be manned with Italian players, as Russian musicians simply couldn’t be so skilled. But as they wander the halls, the European slowly succumbs to the rich beauty and opulence of the Hermitage; although he never states it outright, he relents his prejudice against Russian culture, and perhaps even learns a new way of seeing beauty.

And who wouldn’t be moved by the beauty here? Russian Ark functions in some way as a guided tour of the Hermitage, although that term, “guided tour” implies a stuffiness that’s antithetical to the looseness of this film. The camera lingers on a painting or statue; the protagonist offers his thoughts, the European his; perhaps an erstwhile docent steps in to explicate a point of technique or symbolism. It’s wonderful. In one stunning moment (scene would not be the right word for this movie which is of course one long scene), the European argues violently with a boy over a painting of the apostles Peter and Paul. The boy admits to knowing nothing of the scriptures, yet he’s deeply moved by the wisdom and promise that the painting connotes; the European cannot understand how the painting’s aura alone can transmit its meaning to the ignorant lad. The scene begins at 6:38 in the clip below:

The European’s clash with the boy echoes the larger (and yet subtle) clashes of the film, as characters, artworks, and musical styles of different epochs float into or burst out of or parade around in the grand rooms of the Hermitage. There’s Pushkin, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Anastasia. There’s an incredible scene where Tsar Nicholas I is offered an apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of an ambassador; there’s a wonderful ballroom dance that moves the European to great joy. In one of the film’s pockets of horror, a layman labors in a strange utility room building his coffin; it is the siege of Leningrad in WWII where over a million people died at the hands of the Nazis. The European, of course, has no knowledge of these events, being after his time, and the disjunction between the protagonist’s contemporary perspective of history and his own provides for a fascinating, if not wholly fleshed out, conflict.

Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of Russian Ark is its refusal to narrativize or philosophize history beyond a first-person perspective walk through the halls of the Hermitage. The movie erupts into little pockets of exuberant joy or strange, desperate violence; sometimes the protagonist is drawn in, but just as often he’s repelled, and looks for another avenue, like a dreamer willing his own escape. To call the movie dream-like would be an understatement, and like a dream, Russian Ark‘s divergent set pieces overwhelm the senses in their rich splendor. Like the protagonist and the European, I found myself repeatedly entranced by a painting or a concert or a dance or a strange little moment, only to be interrupted by another character intruding into the frame, bearing new information, discordant news that disrupts the dream logic (while paradoxically ushering in a new set piece). Russian Ark distracts its audience, sending them inward; in contemplation, the viewer loses the thread–but is there a thread? Is real life a narrative? Are dreams even narratives? Some of my favorite moments of the film happened when my anxiety at having been distracted by some gorgeous detail was confirmed by the protagonist, who all of a sudden has lost the European, or who is startled by the bustling arrival of new people. But of course, in this film, the viewer is the protagonist.

But writing about Russian Ark is no good, not really. You have to just see it (but I already said that, right?) To quote again from DeLillo’s Point Omega, “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Sokurov’s film collapses history and art and beauty into a beautiful, edifying, sometimes terrifying dream, a dream that, in its adherence to first-person perspective, is a marvelous approximation of true life. Highly recommended.