[Marxism] Prometheus: the Tea Party in Space

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 18 10:47:20 MDT 2012


Counterpunch June 18, 2012

The Vapidity of Ridley Scott
Prometheus: the Tea Party in Space
by JEFF SPARROW

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 spiritualties, 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 eternal bête 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 religiousity that runs throughout 
the movie is immediately identifiable as the pop Christianity 
associated with conservative megachurches, 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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