The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

A Nightmare On The Brains Of The Living: Prometheus and the Undead

Prometheus was supposed to be Ridley Scott's triumphant return to making films about Aliens. Instead, we got a film full of necromancers, ghosts, and zombies. What can we make of this frustrating, tantalizing film?

"This is the worst kind of movie, really," Sarah sighed to me the other night, "one that begs you to imagine another, better movie."

We've encountered a lot of films like that lately, between watching all the Marvel Phase 4 movies (for professional reasons), and watching a horror movie every night through October (for friendship reasons). Turns out a lot of movies lose track of their main themes, forget to add on a third act, sort of tack on additional third acts after the movie technically ends, or just generally accept the quotidian while the uniquely expressive lurked half out of frame in the shadows.

Everyone kind of knows that Prometheus, Ridley Scott's attempt at an Alien prequel, is such a film. The consensus I recall from right after its release has only congealed in the years since. I wanted to watch it anyway, because, well, the congealed consensus is so often *wrong*. And anyway--I rationalized to Sarah--we both want to write about Damon Lindelof, one of the writers on the project, and we established by rewatching both The Leftovers and Lost that those shows were awesome and deserved more appreciation. Maybe everyone was wrong about Prometheus too.

Sarah reminded me that this was not a Damon Lindelof story at heart, though. It was a Ridley Scott story. I flashed back to my experience with his recent series Raised By Wolves, to how stunning its opening was, how compelling its bold, thought provoking sci fi and shocking narrative turns felt... and how it slowly sank into a peat bog of interpersonal and thematic misery and tedium. I decided to ignore the red flags. Maybe, I said, it's more Lindelof than Scott.

When we got done watching, I stomped over to my computer to write the first fragments of this article. They were primarily a list of the things I found fascinating about the film, buried underneath the film's problems: the skeleton of the other, better movie Prometheus made me imagine.

The thing is, and bear with me here, Prometheus is sort of a story of hauntings from beyond the grave. I know how this sounds. Making a ghost story is a weird swerve for a film that's supposed to be a prequel to the Alien franchise, so weird a swerve I doubt the makers realize that's what they'd done. Alien iconically trucks in the Weird: alien Others that invade and violate the boundaries of the human spaceship the film takes place on, the boundaries human knowledge, and most infamously the fleshy human body. It's right in the title: Alien. A xenomorph--literally, an alien or foreign body or form. Something decidedly *not us*. So Prometheus instead filling its runtime with ghostly hologram humans, haunting dreams, zombified humans, ghostly hologram aliens, zombified aliens, and so on, is a departure to be sure!

This departure isn't why the film is bad; actually, it's the crux of the fake film I built in my mind furiously after I finished watching. No, a lot of the film's problems are bluntly technical. There's an overemphasis on spectacle and moments of people sitting around for precious seconds saying things like "ok now rotate, now zoom in" in a way that I think is supposed to build suspense, but feels like time better spent on characterizing conversations the film crucially lacks. The film score often opts, too, for a sort of "majesty of the unknown" pomp, solemn trumpets and swelling strings, in moments that for my money would have been better scored like Alien with something more tense or with simple silence. And the characters are...

Well, the characters are almost permissible. They're legitimately the kind of guys Damon Lindelof loves, the driving core of Lost and The Leftovers. In The Leftovers, for example, after an inexplicable excision of 11% or so of the world's population from existence, we get to see a whole parade of cranks and weirdos convince themselves they have some sort of access to the mind of God. The titular ship The Prometheus is similarly staffed entirely by cranks and weirdos, because these are people convinced that they're on a trip to go *meet* God (in the form of aliens who seeded humanity with life).

The key difference is that in Lost and The Leftovers all the "man of science man of faith" stuff, all the "deep truths of the universe" stuff, isn't... really the point. The point is how characters respond to the hierarchies of lesser or greater access to information or to the broader search for information. (Usually, badly.) Prometheus, on the other hand, is super duper about truth in a grandiose sense. The character study stuff is a thinly sketched sidenote. This means that whereas in The Leftovers or Lost characters' sometimes dumb decisions flow from their delusions, manias, hangups, misled convictions, &c., when the dumbasses of the Prometheus all take off their helmets in an alien atmosphere it just comes across as... kind of implausibly incompetent. I can reparatively read this and explain that these are zealots and weirdos doing weird zealous things that don't make a lot of sense. This reparative reading is... not really anywhere other than in my own head though.

If this was all Prometheus was, it would simply be a bad film. Frustratingly, though, its good qualities aren't all in my own brain. And bizarrely the most electrifying stuff is not the ponderous questions of godhood and creation but instead the way the narrative and its characters are haunted by the traditions of the dead. From the outset the Prometheus is less a triumphant vessel striving toward the future and more a kind of ghost ship. We're introduced to the ship through the eyes of David, who spends his time while the other characters are in deep cryosleep watching films like Lawrence of Arabia and, creepily, picking over the holographically instantiated memories of the crew. This strikes me as at least ghostly-adjacent, the android conjuring up visual recollections of dead family members for his amusement and edification.

It's not what sent me down this path, though. No, that was a scene shortly after David wakes the crew from stasis, where they're treated to a holographic recording of boss Weyland himself, looking positively lich-like in caked on aging makeup. Let's assume for a sec that this wasn't an aesthetic *mistake* but instead a creative *choice*, that they wanted Weyland to look like that. The man appears to be a walking corpse already, and announces himself as a kind of ghost: dead by the time his crew reaches their destination. The ship is on a ghost mission.

Of course it transpires later that he's actually still alive, schlepped across the galaxy to demand the secret of immortality. I really do think the inhuman aging makeup makes sense here. Weyland is a fucked up techno sorcerer using malign arts to keep himself alive. Look at him and tell me that's not someone who would gladly use the blood of virgins to try and preserve his youth!

What's remarkable to me about the holograms as a vehicle for the past reaching uncannily into the present is that the outpost of the alien engineers is also full of spectral holograms. The holograms David summons up aren't marching orders, though, but a ghostly record of the final moments of the Engineers as they're eradicated by some unknown force. It's interesting, too, that while the humans bumble around, David is the one playing necromancer again, summoning up the dead to haunt the living.

Not content with ghosts alone, the movie also gives us a few zombies. They find a perfectly preserved engineer head and reanimate it like the head of John the Baptist to speak prophetically (it explodes). Oh and there's a sort of Thing-ripoff sequence where a dude who's been zombified I guess comes back and kills some random crew members. Maybe the less said about this the better. I'm saying the film has interesting recurring motifs, not that those motifs make for a satisfying viewing experience.

It's tantalizing, though. The more I think about it the more I get a sense not just of the hauntological but the outright necromantic, or even alchemical and sorcerous. The science of the Engineers seems deeply grounded in transmutation. We see, after all, one dissolving himself to become the genetic seed of life on earth. And what is the entity that nominal protagonist Elizabeth pulls from herself in a gruesome self-surgery scene--in an automated treatment machine not calibrated to handle patients with wombs!--if not a kind of homunculus in its jar, summoned from the clay? In this sense, the film begins to approach a point where the hauntological and the weird might meet: in the eldritch violation of the boundaries between categories--animal and human, the living and the dead, the biological and the mechanical.

From this perspective, and indeed already baked into the structure of the film where Engineers beget Humans, Humans beget Androids, and eventually Androids in the form of David beget the Xenomorphs that will prey upon the whole chain, it's clear we should see all the players in this drama as more alike than different. Yet, the film seems committed to keeping all the nonhuman entities firmly at arm's length. The Engineers are unknowably distant, silent monstrosities who create and destroy life arbitrarily. They have no culture, no discernable motive, no speech that we ever hear even in the holographic projections, and a written language that seems to only exist for David to interpret as technical instructions.

David himself is treated with weird ambivalence in the film, brilliantly performed by Michael Fassbender as a being repressing his complicated feelings, only to be the butt of the film's final punchline. He can't comprehend why anyone would still need to get answers from their creator. Liz responds that this is obviously because he isn't human, he's a robot. It almost feels like Scott's takeaway from Blade Runner was "thank goodness these tin cans aren't, like, people." It's a weirdly reductive ending for the film, one that if I hadn't just watched the movie myself and seen how straight they play it I'd be tempted to write off as ironic, deconstructive of Liz's own character. Pity that, compared to the mesmerizing David, she basically hasn't got a character.

The film seems convinced that in order to tell an Alien story it needs to revert to a High Weird mode, transforming the Engineers in particular into this unknowable force, the God stand in. (Indeed, there's speculation based on a throwaway line about them planning to destroy humanity 2000 years ago that Jesus was an Engineer. Sure!) The most we really get by way of explanation of their actions is the captain's speculation that this is a military installation. I think we're sort of supposed to take that, too, as basically true, although if they're really as inscrutable as they're portrayed, isn't it possible that they see the distinctions between creation and destruction, biopolitics and necropolitics, as fuzzier than we do? They're an unknowable celestial host... except they're like us enough to have military outposts with obviously discernable purpose. Oh god and why direct humanity via cryptic star maps to the "military outpost" specifically? I'm trying to stick to my point but the more I think about the film the more it sort of falls apart in my brain.

But the point is that the film finds itself treating the Engineers like Outer Gods, but the whole thrust of the movie up till now has been the past haunting the present. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that filling a story with aliens that are also ghosts has the tendency of making those aliens less alien, more like us. Pairing them with all manner of other ghosts and zombies pushes the film into this hauntological mode.

There's even a way in which the ending with the living Engineer works for me. It wakes up from stasis and immediately beheads David and beats Weyland to death with David's head, then goes off to continue its apparent mission to exterminate all life on Earth, the one interrupted by the release of the chemical that wiped out the rest of its kind. The scene mirrors the opening of the film: a crew awoken from sleep in order to carry out a ghost mission.

The crew of both the Prometheus and of this unnamed alien ship are dead hands, homunculi piloted by ghost imperatives.

His inscrutability from this perspective feels like the inscrutability of a phantom. Is it too much of a leap to connect this to Derrida's reading of Hamlet's father's ghost, a visored specter whose helmet allows him to scrutinize but protects him from scrutiny? It, like David, is mantled in the protective inscrutability of an external mission, one it follows doggedly and seemingly dogmatically after inhuman amounts of time. Maybe that's a stretch but here's the thing: I have to find my fun somewhere if the film won't give it to me!

Here's some more wild speculation: I wonder, would the civilization that wound this dead hand pilot up and set it on its path of apparent destruction recognize it? How much has it changed and evolved since then? What revolutions and shifts of political fortune has it experienced? Is the Engineer we see at the beginning of the film seeding life on earth even of the same political or religious faction or ethnic group as the phantom Engineer bound to destroy it? The Prometheus crew may have only succeeded, in the course of their own barely understood ghost mission, in waking up something that their own creators thought dead and buried.

The possibilities are electrifying.

It's too bad the film and its characters seem completely uninterested in exploring them. I guess that would get in the way of the god metaphor. It's too bad the god metaphor gets in the way of all this other much more interesting stuff, without ever managing to achieve the true gnostic brilliance of something like The Matrix Revolutions. It's a little risky to propose an alternative ending to a film but, man, wouldn't it have made a bit more sense to have Liz at the end declare her intention to find the homeworld of these self styled gods and drop their own goo on them? Maybe it's just the Gnostic in me, but it feels sort of poetic. David, now beheaded, his creator dead, and Liz, having determined that she was "so wrong", acting as their own sort of return of the repressed, blowback personified, the biological warfare atrocities committed in the periphery coming home to the core of an empire of self-styled gods.

Which, I guess sort of happens in Alien: Covenant? But David just sort of drops a bunch of the bioweapons on the city and I guess dissects Liz for experiment reasons, so he can create the Xenomorphs. Naturally. It's sort of not important, frankly, to this film, which ought to at least try to stand on its own two feet, and in terms of this thematic throughline, doesn't, at least for me.

There's something tantalizingly close to really brilliant and unique here, though. I don't think it's that far off from what the film is already doing to bring in motifs of alchemy and necromancy. I'm not really convinced actually that "Prometheus" was remotely the best touchstone for the film. It feels frankly a little bit lazy, trite, obvious. No, what we've got here is more Orpheus in the underworld if we have to stick with the Greeks. A journey to meet the God of Death and bargain with Him. Or perhaps an alchemist or necromancer... Though it's a little hard for me to imagine a ship called the John Dee, Agrippa, or Trismegistus. Doesn't have quite the same ring as "Orpheus".

In fairness I guess you could argue it doesn't make sense for the crew to fly on a ship with a name like that when they think they're going to go treat with the living gods. I'd reply: oh what NOW we care about whether the characters in this movie make sense? NOW it matters whether the overbearing thematics correlate to sensible dramatic beats? I see how it is. Bitch.

Maybe it was this sense of the alchemical, of the necromantic, that influenced Ridley Scott to revisit so many of the film's preoccupations in Raised By Wolves. One of the two androids tasked by an "Atheist" scientist to raise a group of children on an alien world is, after all, a repurposed weapon of war made by the theocratic faction that acts as the sort of antagonists of the series: a "Necromancer". A "Witch". I wish I could say the show did much with this, or maybe more to the point, I wish its exploration of concepts like "how an ostensibly egalitarian society gradually reinvents gendered oppression and brutality" wasn't such a boring slog to experience.

Every time I get a bit too excited about the crew of the Orpheus descending into the tomb world of their death gods in order to, though they don't know it, demand a boon of immortality for their techno-lich master... I remember that Prometheus just is kind of a miserable movie. I can't even entirely fault it: it feels a little like Scott displaying his contempt for both his characters and, through that proxy, for fans of the franchise. Maybe this is why he finds himself taking David's side so often narratively. David, too, tries to find some reason not to facilitate the deaths of these contemptable characters, and finally concludes that playing amoral alchemist is just more worthwhile. Like the aging makeup on Weyland, I can understand these choices as deliberate rather than accidental.

But I still had to watch it.

On reflection, "the worst kind of movie" might be overstating the case. After we watched What Keeps You Alive recently we agreed that the REAL worst kind of movie is one that just pisses you off so much you can't stop thinking about all its infuriating and upsetting choices. Comparatively, Prometheus offers a perverse fun. There's just enough to compel me to, say, start jotting down notes of all the weird hauntological elements that don't really feel like they belong in an Alien film. But it's a frustrating pleasure, like the perverse pleasure of worrying at a slightly painful tooth or picking at a scab. I keep asking myself why I'm talking about a decade old film, in a decade old medium. I feel its dead hand. I want to tear into it and its flaws and transmute them into something more appealing.

Maybe it's ultimately the eerie way the film compels me to write something like this, something that blurs the line between critique and recreation, something that reflects the film's own preoccupations, that keeps conjuring it up in my mind, a self propelling cycle of hauntings.

This Has Been

A Nightmare On The Brains Of The Living

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