Friday, June 8, 2012

The Meaning of Life

I'm at a crossroads. I watch film after film and want to share my thoughts about them, but a few things stop me. First of all, who has the time? I gobble the damn things up like a hungry, hungry hippo and don't ever want to stop to reflect. I simply consume. I'm greedy and the only thing I give back are films of my own, which no one sees as I have no way of getting them to people and ensuring the work of my cast and crew are fully appreciated. Also, I'm broke as shit. I have a job and all of my money goes to pay debt. And furthermore if I ever hope to make a living making films, is it responsible or nice of me to sit here and bitch about the work of hard-working professionals who are making a living doing the thing I love. Wouldn't do to piss on those who've made a life for themselves and who are already under so much scrutiny, especially if they're heroes of mine. And so friends I swallow review after review. Not because I don't love you and want to keep writing for you, my loyal and beloved audience, but because I'm a worrywort and a bit of a fraidycat. But occasionally something happens and it shakes me from paralysis, partly because it seems to know everything about me. Its creator seems to spend all day worrying about death just like I do. And so how can I resist? Especially when the man and his films have bookended my life so far, directly and otherwise. If you guessed Prometheus, perhaps you too know me a little better than you think. As you'll recall, longtime readers, consciousness begins at Aliens, James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Suddenly, there I was, a little human with a brain that would ever return to two things: death and film. For me, they are constants. The only certain things in life. And so I've spent my life watching, rewatching, examining, dreaming about, and writing about the films in the Alien universe. How fitting then, that on my 23rd Birthday, Ridley should give me this gift; another Alien film that is and isn't that. What it is friends, apart from appalling coincidence/synchronicity from Scott to myself, is a reminder that though we are confronted by many horrifying questions, we should never stop asking even more, demanding more from the universe. Sure, we get horrible films all year, but we don't have to. We don't have to pay money to see whatever thing Michael Bay has backed (ok, so I'm not done shit-talking. But what are the odds I'll ever meet the man. I'm sure he has people who are paid to keep pricks like me away from his fantastically adorned, two-car garage, six bedroom ego) we can instead pay money to see a film that asks far more questions than it answers. On this, the day I was put on earth, in the year we've been told will be our last, I couldn't ask for more...or could I? I will say that it's mighty fitting that a film about the nature of existence seemed designed to help me examine my own. After all, I'd felt like I'd been waiting my whole life to see this film, just as Ridley'd evidently been waiting that same amount of time to make it.

by Ridley Scott 

On a planet we're meant to recognize, but not too well, a docile looking white humanoid alien infects himself with some form of poison and his remains are scattered into a waterfall. What are we witnessing? The end of life or the beginning? Meanwhile in a time and place we're meant to recognize, Scotland in 2089 (I do wish Ridley would have learnt his lesson from Blade Runner about picking years as settings), two archeologist/sociologists discover the final piece of a puzzle they've been assembling for sometime. A cave painting that happens to look enough like six or seven other cave paintings from impossibly distinct and far away cultures. They reason that this is proof that some other life form landed here, taught our many cultures and then vanished. Or, perhaps they did more? Perhaps they created us; living gods. Evidently they aren't the only ones with peaked curiousity, as Peter Weyland, a billionaire in rapid decay and none-too happy about it, has bankrolled a trip to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. The cave paintings depict a constellation that they've finally located and near it, a moon capable of supporting life. When our heroes wake up ready to land, the wide-eyed wonder of the now long dead Weyland has been replaced with the cold, watchful skepticism of mission director Meredith Vickers, the woman with direct ties to the money that put them here. They can go looking for their supposed creators, but they may not do anything that puts the giant, costly ship at risk, which includes talking to them or bringing them on board. 

Their optimism isn't damped. Elizabeth Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway have been on this course for years, several of them spent frozen in space, and just because some humourless executive tells them to play it safe doesn't mean they're going to. And besides, her pet android David seems to be programmed specifically to poke around ever deeper into the mysteries that present themselves, so why shouldn't they? They land and begin investigating one of three oddly shaped mounds. David's been programmed to not waste a second's time wondering at the vast expanses of tunneling they find beneath the giant structure and has soon activated a primitive video playback which illustrates what happened to the architects of the thing. Something went terribly awry and they tried to make a quick getaway. So quick was their retreat that one of them had his head cut off by a door before he made it to their own version of cryogenic sleep. Shaw takes his decapitated head back to the ship to investigate. David takes his own souvenir in the form of a capsule of strange black liquid. See the door that closed on the poor alien's head also hermetically sealed him in, and now that it's exposed to the air again and all its toxic properties and heat, the liquid has started to bubble and melt, releasing...things...

Shaw attempts to shock the nerve endings of the head, but only succeeds in blowing it up after too much stimulation. David has a little more luck, if you could call it that. He isolates a drop of the strange liquid and then gives some of it to a despondent Holloway in a glass of rum. Holloway was very much hoping to carry on a conversation with his creator, but there's no evidence that any of them are still alive. Or so he thinks. The following day when they return to the pyramid, as they've taken to calling it, to retrieve two lost members of their party who were stranded by a toxic storm the day before, David discovers that one of them's still frozen and could be revived. So why doesn't he tell Holloway right away? That's just one of many secrets these people have all been keeping from each other. More pressing is that David's experiment in Holloway's body has worked; so much so that the man becomes terminally ill in a hurry with some horrid infection. Worse still, he and Shaw had sex just after it finished incubating. Things get ugly fast. In the process of trying to learn what created her and why, Shaw becomes an unknowing creator of life, or at any rate, she unleashes lifeforms that were otherwise arrested or unborn.

Let's start with the obvious. The filmmaking is top notch, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are fucking amazing, the cinematography and editing are fantastic, the effects are largely great and I appreciate the nods to other films though I could lived without them. This isn't Alien. Nothing is. Alien is a perfect film and Scott knows this as well as I do. He isn't trying to outdo himself, he's here to answer some questions, put others to bed for good, and ask quite a few more. In the middle category, he and his two hired screenwriters have pulled the ground from beneath Alien: Resurrection, Alien Vs. Predator and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem. There are plot elements from all three films, weirdly enough, which I view as the resignation of a father bailing his blacksheep son out of jail. I gave you life, goddamnit and I can't abandon you now. And so in is the billionaire bankrolling one last trip into the unknown and the sense that capitalists with death phobias are the cause of our interstellar problems. Also in are some pretty icky biological equations a la Resurrection. What I like about the ostensible lip service he pays here is that he's also saying "Yes, that all happened, but here it is in a much neater package so you needn't have your faith in my film raped by pretenders to the throne." So in essence, anything you would have gotten out of films 4-6 is here, so skip them and tell your friends and children to go straight here. Of course the script suffers for their inclusion but I respect the urge to clean up the mess made in his wake. Also causing the film to suffer, too many disposable characters (a tradition of the Alien sequels, I'm afraid, though you used to know and care about them), breakneck pacing (Alien was as splendid as it was languid), too much dialogue, a Phantom Menace-style slickening of production design even if it makes sense in context, and a fairly boring morality governing the action, even if the heart of the film escapes this. And though the film is a prequel to Alienthat too seems almost beside the point. Scott started the wheels turning with that concept, and then realized he hadn't asked questions of his audience in a very long time. Kingdom of Heaven gets at a lot of these issues, though they're hidden rather better under a very impressive, handsome and engaging historical epic. Scott's relationship to theology is one of the more adult in contemporary art; he gets that we made it up, but also understands why we did it. What he seeks to do is go deeper than it's possible for humans to go right now from our limited vantage point. This is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, an epic that seeks to sniff out the genesis of evolution and our relationship to technology.

Ridley Scott's done something uncommonly brilliant and meta-textual here. He can't have been the only one who had questions left at the end of Alien. So in delving into the questions that would have led to the creation of his earlier film, he also answers those same questions about life. Both are as important to him. Like William Friedkin or Francis Ford Coppola, Scott was an artist who managed to produce great, shocking and sometimes even perfect work within the confines of the studio system. What are widely considered their best films (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Alien) were made for massive consumption with overbearing producers and yet there they are. They had a stunning amount of control, but were still under the watchful eyes of the cautious and the greedy, and still made art that will hold up until the end of time so far as I can tell. So perhaps in trying to figure out what made him produce the best work of his life, Ridley returned to it as a vessel to ask a series of questions about how he's even here in the first place. And that's the meat of Prometheus. The aliens who may or may not have created us (they share our DNA, just as Gods are always drawn/painted/portrayed to resemble us) did so for a reason? Then why did they make us mortal? Why did they abandon us to a life absent of their voice and guidance? He also expands on the existentialist crisis that awaits all children when they discover that the universe is infinite, but that our sun will one day burn out. We're told as kids not to think about it as we'll be long dead by then. Well...what if we didn't have to be? If we could walk up to our "gods," our creators, and ask them to simply explain why we die, and perhaps get them to turn off the clock of fate that we each have wound up inside us, then we could simply hop galaxies until we found one with a better sun, right? I imagine in the sequel to Prometheus, he'll get around to asking whether eternal life's all it's cracked up to be. Let me say that I love that this is a movie about curiousity. How often do you see a fucking epic on this scale and realize that it's about using all the resources in the world to just keep looking for answers.

 Worth noting is that Scott asks these questions because he doesn't know. So obviously the film has no answers. Which makes up for it being boilerplate at points and conventionally structured. A fascinating idea is stepped over in almost every scene, sometimes literally as when we open the decades-closed chamber containing the dark liquid and our headless demi-god and discover in the soil, maggots! How'd they get there? A product of this moon brought to Earth by accident? Something the aliens invented and bring with them wherever they go? Or simply a species that would evolve on any body in any solar system. The question the movie is concerned with that gets the plot in gear is what happened before Shaw and her team got there? Because the holograms and all evidence suggests that they came to some realization and then immediately tried to high-tail back to earth to kill all of us and, perhaps, start over. Did they figure out that they made us mortal? Or prone to violence and hate? Did they mistakenly make women child-bearers instead of men, which upset our hormones and made men more violent and less caring by nature? The beautiful thing? We may never learn it of our alien creators. We'll certainly never learn how much of our DNA was a mistake. It's a small comfort to know that despite the many songs and poems that state the contrary, we couldn't be anyone other than who we are. Existence isn't so random that you may well have been born a tree or whatever the goddamn. You are you, reading these words, simply because you were generated inside your parents. You have them hardwired into you. Which, to me, is a sublime idea. We are the only sure things about existence. You couldn't have been any other way, so for fuck's sakes own it! Of course some of us will always wonder/wander. Hence that splendid android. He has no biological father, just a programmer who states openly that he doesn't believe David has a soul. The robot in turns confesses he wouldn't mind killing his parents, as he goes searching for role models in the form of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (a film I also have a huge affection and attachment to). A much more fitting comparison than it initially seems; he too was sent to do a rather difficult and thanklessly complicated job for a benevolent father figure. Stripped of most of our existential crises by virtue of not having an expiration date, David is free to wonder with us once his father has stopped giving him orders and proven that there's no escaping death, so we might as well understand it and everything else, while we're at it. Like a broken jack-in-the-box, he may seem as though he's outlived his usefulness, but not so long as he can help open doors to more answers. I think he too understands that without a sense of purpose, there'd be no reason to exist, so he adopts one because it makes his existence as vital as if he'd been programmed to do a specific job. In other words, he's more human than he seems.

Life is short but astonishing. Ten years and 13 days before I was born, Alien made it to theatres where my dad saw it, setting off a chain of events that has led to this day in my life. Scott returned to the film that defined my life - whether I'd have made films without him is open to debate, but I'm more than willing to concede that between my parents and Ridley Scott lies my purpose, and I owe them equally for the direction my life has taken. Nary a conversation between my dad and I doesn't somehow touch on the man and his films. We love talking about Alien. It's one of his favourite films, one of my favourite films, and Scott's work and influence besides been a constant in my life since I first snapped into realization of my surroundings and eventually what life exactly was. A lot of my life's been spent just trying to wrap my head around the idea of dying, and what that means for my life. And on my 23rd birthday I sit down next to my dad in a movie theatre to watch Ridley Scott question existence using as his vessel a directionless, undying robot who shares my first name and loves film. Much like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg did eleven years earlier when they named their robot the same thing, made him my age and then sent him down a rabbithole of existential discovery. Further coincidental madness: my eldest sister Elena was born in 1986, the same year that Aliens was released. My younger sister Rachel was born in 1992, the same year Alien³ hit screens. I don't believe in a creator, but I do believe in film. I don't think Scott, Kubrick or anyone else made movies because they knew I'd be watching - they make films because they have to, because they hope that I, anyone, will watch. As do I, because of them. Humans are the only species with the capacity to make art to further our understanding of the universe. Even if we like to belive that, as David himself says, big things have small beginnings, we have no guarantee that we'll amount to anything. There is no Why to existence, but sometimes it's very comforting to look at a movie screen and know that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.