Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus' Subliminal Messages from the Religious Right

It's been over a week since I watched the summer blockbuster Prometheus in 3D. The film is advertised as a prequel to Alien and is easily seen as such for those familiar with director Ridley Scott's work. I'm a sucker for science fiction flicks, and for summer blockbusters, so this seemed like it would sufficiently satisfy my appetite for allegories of the human condition, as traditional sci-fi so often does.

What I did NOT expect was to encounter strong themes of religious-based faith, Anglo-Saxon imperialism, and the pop culture media-sensationalized fear of travelling. I did not expect to find these subliminal messages from the religious Right.

You should be warned that there are spoilers below. I won't hold it against you if you haven't seen it yet, but I will sit here and subtly shake my finger at you:


The first and most recurring problem I had with the characters in Prometheus was how often the majority of them (scientists, ship folk, and billionaire 1%ers) questioned lead character Elizabeth Shaw's science-based curiosity. She just wanted to know Why -- a question that, if you ask me, not enough people ask and not enough non-scientist folk hold scientists to figuring out -- and got slammed time and again by everyone. Why were there other scientists -- geologists, biologists, and medics, oh my! -- who insisted that her attempts to piece together anthropological origins were "irrelevant" to their current condition. The fact that American politicians neglect to donate money to schools and NASA only supports the idea that being kept ignorant -- and not asking Why -- is the best solution to keeping a nation compliant. We are responsible for our future and we need to start asking Why and demanding answers, or at least the means of exploring the possibilities.

My earliest memory of defending science came about in second or third grade when a team of my friends informed me on the playground that my older sister was weird (like I didn't already know . . . j/k): "She thinks we came from monkeys," they said, "tell her she's wrong."

Though I will admit that I'm not thinking about analyzing ancient hieroglyphs when I feel I'm in danger of being eaten by snake-like parasites.
Would it be a little pretentious to call them Face-Huggers?
Regardless of this simple plot device, I shall move on. The second thing I noted worth exploring was the ship's android, David, and his obsession with T. E. Lawrence, made famous not necessarily by his epic autobiographical piece of work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but by actor Peter O'Toole's portrayal of the British Lt. Colonel in 1962's Lawrence of Arabia.
Now in manga form.
Why would this bother me? The model of an Anglo man leading a group of people with different ethnic, racial, or species background that was extracted from Lawrence of Arabia has been used so often in cinema. The hero who saves a nation does not originate from that nation -- and in cinematic history this "White Savior" is celebrated for arriving (or infiltrating) a population of color and telling them what to do. In the real world, this doesn't necessarily work out. In the real world, you die if you don't do what the natives tell you.
I will admit that moments like this, where David expresses wonderment at looking back at Earth -- though he be of robot descent and therefore void of emotions -- were just simply beautiful.
Case in point, Grizzly Man -- if you haven't seen it, you should, and what I have to say regarding the White Savior syndrome won't alter or "spoil" your genuine reaction to it. In short, the GM was told by Alaskan natives to stay away from the grizzly bears although they were revered in the culture; it was understood both by Alaskan man and "beast" that their different instincts and reasoning makes it impossible for them to live peacefully together. One is always living in fear of the other killing them.

The tricky thing regarding David's condition in Prometheus is, who is he fighting for? Who are the "natives?" Who is his old self that he is repelling and who is his "new" one that his is embracing? As this Psychology Today article points out, the common theme in Lawrence, Avatar, and Dances is that the main character is going native (thereby re-creating himself), then ultimately finds himself in a battle against the army from which he came -- in a way he is battling his old "self." In the beginning, David is clearly hiding information from Theron's character, the billionaire daughter of Peter Weyland who is funding their trip. A case can be made for David either defending the humans in their escape from the planet, or for defending the beings thought to have created us.
Could he be OUR White Savior?
Before I move on to my third point, you might be thinking, Crystal Math, there was so much more that this movie offered -- you're seriously dwelling on some shit that only took up like, five minutes of the movie, dudette. What's your beef, brah?

That's a clown question, bro, but you would be pretty spot on: the first point I made that characters were typically anti-science and the third point I will be making about religion are totally out of the realm of my everyday thought and reality. That's not to say that I'm not informed -- I just didn't grow up going to church and fearing the wrath of God. I have always stood by science, the scientific method, and am naturally curious so it's hard to be empathetic or provide much editorializing on behalf of "non-believers;" however, my third point regarding Elizabeth Shaw's faith in the movie is difficult for me to elaborate on because I am . . . a non-believer. I don't know religion nearly as well as I know and have read up on social justice, race and identity issues within our society in a current and historical perspective. I don't read about the history or conflicts of religion unless you want to talk about overlapping themes of human rights.

I found that Prometheus skirted around the issue of religious-based faith -- we are shown images of a young Elizabeth as she watches what looks like a South-Asian funeral and turns around to ask her father where the dead will go in their faith (she also wants to know if that's where Mummy went). In the movie she is seen wearing a necklace with a cross and refuses to give it up when David tells her it's contaminated, but notes that she doesn't want to give up an icon of her faith. In another scene, he briefly compares her faith of science in finding the origin of our DNA to her faith of religion in a supreme being. I suppose the two can be seen as the same (both are powerful white dudes, one with a beard).
wants to destroy us all
wants us to stop apologizing

Yet another childhood memory I have of religious conformity and lack of critical thought hails from high school when discussing with a friend why she hated The Beatles: "He said they were better than Jesus. Nobody is better than Jesus Christ."

I think the main message at the heart of Prometheus is that we choose to believe what we want to, and conversely, we don't have to believe anything at all because regardless of wherever we originate, at the present we just are and our existence in itself is a remarkable achievement. It's a remarkable conclusion for someone who tends towards curiosity and seeking reasons behind everything. Prometheus proved to be a unique experience for me simply because of its status as a summer blockbuster -- my summer freedom allows me the time and resources to fully explore this film's themes, however vaguely they present themselves. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews from this film and while I wholeheartedly agree that it could have been made better, I recommend that one lower one's expectations of a summer big-budget film and relax. Allow your mind to take note of everything, and feel free to read whatever you wish into the story line. Let the debates begin. I love sensationalized theories found in cinema.