FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.


 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
John W. Whitehead
Nothing is Real: When Reality TV Programming Masquerades as Politics
Yoav Litvin
Time to Diss Obey: the Failure of Identity Politics and Protest
Mike Whitney
The Trump Speech That No One Heard 
Conn Hallinan
Is Europe Heading for a “Lexit”?
Stephen Cooper
Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck
Binoy Kampmark
Scoundrels of Patriotism: The Freeing of Chelsea Manning
Ramzy Baroud
The Balancing Act is Over: What Elor Azaria Taught Us about Israel
Josh Hoxie
Why Health Care Repeal is a Stealth Tax Break for Millionaires
Kim C. Domenico
It’s High Time for a Politics of Desire
Shamus Cooke
Inauguration Day and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
More and More Lousy
David Swanson
Samantha Power Can See Russia from Her Padded Cell
Kevin Carson
Right to Work and the Apartheid State
Malaika H. Kambon
Resisting the Lynching of Haitian Liberty!
January 18, 2017
Gary Leupp
The Extraordinary Array of Those Questioning Trump’s Legitimacy (and Their Various Reasons)
Charles Pierson
Drone Proliferation Ramps Up
Ajamu Baraka
Celebrating Dr. King with the Departure of Barack Obama
David Underhill
Trumpology With a Twist
Chris Floyd
Infinite Jest: Liberals Laughing All the Way to Hell
Stansfield Smith
Obama’s Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Ron Leighton
Trump is Not Hitler: How the Misuse of History Distorts the Present as Well as the Past
Ralph Nader
An Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump
Binoy Kampmark
NATO and Obsolescence: Donald Trump and the History of an Alliance
Zarefah Baroud
‘The Power to Create a New World’: Trump and the Environmental Challenge Ahead
Julian Vigo
Obama Must Pardon the Black Panthers in Prison or in Exile
Alfredo Lopez
The Whattsapp Scandal
Clancy Sigal
Russian Hacking and the Smell Test
Terry Simons
The Truth About Ethics and Condoms
January 17, 2017
John Pilger
The Issue is Not Trump, It is Us
John K. White
Is Equality Overrated, Too?
Michael J. Sainato
The DNC Hands the Democratic Party Over to David Brock and Billionaire Donors
John Davis
Landscapes of Shame: America’s National Parks
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Politicians and Rhetorical Tricks
Chris Busby
The Scientific Hero of Chernobyl: Alexey V. Yablokov, the Man Who Dared to Speak the Truth
David Macaray
Four Reasons Trump Will Quit
Chet Richards
The Vicissitudes of the Rural South
Clancy Sigal
“You Don’t Care About Jobs”: Why the Democrats Lost
Robert Dodge
Martin Luther King and U.S. Politics: Time for a U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Jack Sadat Lee
I Dream of Justice for All the Animal Kingdom
James McEnteer
Mourning Again in America
January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life
Patrick Cockburn
The Terrifying Parallels Between Trump and Erdogan
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail