Investigative Journalism that is as
Radical as Reality Itself.

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 specialistschosen 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 thecentral character, Elizabeth, largely, it seems, on the basis that the extraterrestrial role in shaping humanity discredits Darwinism, the eternalbête 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 manyAmericans, 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 tohand, 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 facelesscorporations 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.


 

July 07, 2015
ANDRE VLTCHEK
In Ecuador, Fight for Mankind – In Greece – Fight for Greece!
Nile Bowie
Obama’s Pacific Trade Deal Trails Behind China’s Development Vision
Shamus Cooke
Unions Must Act Now to Survive Supreme Court Deathblow
Dave Lindorff
The Greek People Have Voted ‘No!’ to Austerity and Economic Blackmail
Mateo Pimentel
The Pope’s Letter: Neoliberalism and Fukushima
Raouf Halaby
Beware Those Who Speak With Forked Tongues
Ron Jacobs
The Grateful Dead: The Ship of the Sun Bids Farewell
Mel Gurtov
Keep It in the Ground, Obama
Colin Todhunter
The Warped World of the GMO Lobbyist
July 06, 2015
Steve Hendricks
Will FIFA’s World Cup Sexism Ever Die?
Binoy Kampmark
Oxi in Greece
Gareth Porter
How US Spin on Access to Iranian Sites has Distorted the Issue
Peter Bach
ISIL and Ramadan in the Rag
Paul Craig Roberts
A Rebuke to EU-Imposed Austerity
MICHAEL HUDSON
Greece Rejects the Troika
Robert Hunziker
Looking Inside Fukushima Prefecture
Quincy Saul
The View from Mount Olympus
ADRIENNE PINE, RICHARD JOHNSTON, FIONA WILMOT, et al.
Seven Reasons to Scrap the USA’s $1 Billion Aid Package to Central America
Norman Pollack
Capitalism’s Self-Revealing Practices
David Macaray
Could Justice Scalia Be the One to Rescue Labor?
Linn Washington Jr.
Storm Smashes Chris Christie’s Presidential Candidacy
Benjamin Willis
US and Cuba: What Remains to be Done?
Robert David Steele
he National Military Strategy: Dishonest Platitudes
Joan Roelofs
Whatever Happened to Eastern European Communism?
Weekend Edition
July 3-5, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Pentagon’s “2015 Strategy” For Ruling the World
Jason Hirthler
Going Off-Script in St. Petersburg
Rob Urie
Greece and Global Class War
DIMITRIS KONSTANTAKOPOULOS
The Future of Greece Without Illusions
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Ecuador Fights for Survival – Against its Elites
David Rosen
White Skin Crisis
Jerry Lembcke
Nobody Spat on American GIs!
Stavros Mavroudeas
The Greek Referendum and the Tasks of the Left
Arun Gupta
What Does It Mean to Call Dylann Roof a “Terrorist”?
Michael Welton
The Tragedy of Harper’s Canada
Andrew Levine
Dumping on Dixie Again
Richard Pithouse
Charleston (It’s Not Over)
Brendan McQuade
The Right Wing Resurgence and the Problem of Terrorism
Chris Floyd
Heritage and Hokum in Rebel Banner Row
Victor Rodriguez
Puerto Rico’s Economic and Fiscal Crisis: Made in the U.S.A.
John Halle
Four Thoughts on the Sanders Insurgency
John Feffer
ISIS and the Terrible Twos
Steve Breyman
Being David Brooks
Lawrence Davidson
Why Does Dylann Roof’s Kind Still Exist? 
Robert Fantina
Political Posturing in the United States
Binoy Kampmark
Austerity: Killing Greece (and the Idea of Europe)