June 11, 2012

Prometheus and man's origins

I see very few movies in theaters anymore because they're so invariably unenjoyable, but this one was watchable -- the story wasn't boring, most of the visuals were eye-catching, and at least a few of the actors could act worth a damn. That may sound too harsh, but my habit is watching DVDs of good movies; if I were a regular movie-goer, I don't doubt I'd be ecstatic to finally catch a break.

Rather than review the good and the bad, I'll just ramble off some thoughts on what some of the tantalizing bits may have to do with. There'll probably be spoilers if you don't know anything about the movie.

Certainly the question of where mankind comes from should fascinate everybody, although I fear a lot of viewers only see this in the genetic sense -- like, did we evolve from other primates, did aliens seed our planet with their DNA, etc. But in Prometheus, this nerdy focus only occupies a sliver of the narrative, where scientists match 21st-century human DNA to that of the Engineers, an alien race whose colony they are studying.

The opening sequence shows a titanic humanoid sacrificing its own body to bring forth life on an otherwise desolate world. As mentioned here, that is a typical creation-of-the-world myth. The oldest form of this myth in Proto-Indo-European is thought to involve one being, whose name means Man (*Manu), slaying another whose name means Twin (*Yemos), then using his various body parts to fashion the oceans, mountains, grass, etc. The self-sacrifice narratives probably developed later, although even as late as Roman mythology we still see the creation myth of Rome involving the progenitor of the race slaying his twin, whose name, Remus, derives from *Yemos.

This original ancestor of mankind is shown in deep contemplation and nerve-steeling as he prepares to execute the ritual. It's not something you notice until after the movie is over, but this bold, deliberate, and altruistic act that gave birth to human beings is not at all like the process whereby we invented another sort of beings, such as the robot David. The inventors of those robots did not trade their own lives, and kind of stumbled into it -- yeah, looks like we could invent another life-form, so why the hell not? It'd rock! It was more of a random hobby for us to create robots, and we patted ourselves on the back for it, whereas the Engineers saw their creation of us as a goal whose achievement would serve some grand purpose beyond boosting their own self-esteem.

At one point, the robot asks a crew member why he thinks the Engineers created human beings, to which the crew member says something like, "Well, I guess it was like why we created robots like you -- they did it because they could." Here he blithely assumes that the Engineers must have shared his own species' vainglory and lackadaisical attitude toward creating life. But that opening sequence proves that they weren't just puttering around their workshop and thought, yeah got nothing more promising to do, might as well get around to creating those human thingie-dingies I've been mulling over.

The fact that one of the lead researchers into human origins would hold such a cynical view of his creators underscores the profound lack of faith among most of the crew. It's not hard to see why the Engineers might have planned to undo their creation, if that's the thanks they get. Imagine if you found out your child thought you only conceived them by accident, hence didn't really care for them or love them, hence they were just some blob the parents didn't feel like getting rid of after bringing into existence. Wouldn't you at least smack them across the face for believing that?

By contrast, the protagonist wants to commune with the sources of her bloodline, not selfishly seek out eternal life from the Engineers like Weyland does. She is the only exception in starting out with faith and maintaining it throughout her trials, and this ensures that she survives to the end, almost like Noah. And hey, speaking of which, why don't they make or replay good music in movies anymore? Someone at some point near the end could have played this over the ship's PA system, or at least over the ending credits, to strengthen their resolve:

Taking us even further away from the narrow and boring question of where our DNA came from, the movie follows the god's self-sacrifice by showing 21st-century humans discovering images and symbols that are common to several independent ancient civilizations. They didn't just give us the genetic basis that we evolved from, but more importantly they sowed the seeds of our culture -- what makes us more than just brute animals.

Creation myths used to always address that question, such as the Tower of Babel story to explain the origin of linguistic diversity, or Prometheus giving fire to man, sacrificing his own well-being to improve ours. But we have such a debased view of our species now that we primarily think about genetics when it comes to the evolution vs. creation debate. We hardly even smile, let alone marvel, at how our culture came to be -- did it just evolve piecemeal from the culture-like ways of our primate ancestors, or is it so wondrous that we're tempted to look to an introgression from outside our species?

That has happened genetically, you know: Neanderthal genes have "introgressed" into the human genome, kind of like how useful loan words might take hold in another language. Who's to say that key pieces of our culture don't ultimately derive from some cultural "genome" belonging to a non-human species? Sure, invoking extra-terrestrial aliens is stylizing it for dramatic effect, but still -- don't you ever wonder how we came into possession of our awe-inspiring culture? Perhaps we're chauvinistic to assume it all had to come from the output of the cavemen counterparts of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michelangelo -- perhaps we picked up some of the main ideas from Neanderthals, E.T., or who knows what?

And maybe it wasn't just us stealthily peering through the bushes and selfishly copying the practices once we were back at the home base. Maybe whoever we learned it from actually taught us deliberately. There must be all sorts of domesticated animal "culture" that we their owners have purposefully endowed them with (although not to a great extent with cats), independent of the genetic changes in them that our artificial breeding has induced.

Well, I feel my body drifting off into outer space, so I'll just wrap it up there. It wasn't a terribly engrossing movie, but it does hold your attention and interest, which is more than you can say for most movies these days. It's just not as fun to watch as to think about afterward (like what the opening scene is about). I usually hate Movies That Make Ya Think, but here it was more like an invitation to think over some of these ideas for yourself while drunk or stoned later on, not a cerebral snore.

I really wish they'd gone into more detail, though, about the archaeological sites, reconstructing dead proto-languages, and inferring proto-mythologies. Not a lot more, but enough to absorb the audience in the sense of wonder about our origins -- not based on some hazy musings, but on concrete signs that tempt us into following their trail. Even that brief scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones explains the Ark of the Covenant was enough, or that scene in the jail cell in Ghostbusters where Ray and Egon explain what Zuul is and how a Roaring Twenties cult tried to channel it to destroy the sick world. Hopefully if a sequel gets made, they'll be able to explore that in greater detail.

1 comment:

  1. what is the purpose of life?i once asked randomly years ago.then a friend answered,to seek for the purpose of life itself.if it was not for charlize theron,i have given up the tickets.id rather watch snow white and the hunstman.gratefully it worth my pennies :)


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