The Great God Pan in Space: MMP Author S R Jones reviews Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”
By now, many thousand reviews for Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus (a sort-of prequel to his original Alien outing) have been logged into the overmind/undersoul of this here internet thing, and, from what I’m able to tell from a couple hours of perusal, a sizable chunk of that data-mass is generally negative, citing everything from sloppy characterization to poorly realized motivations to weak plotting. All agree that Prometheus is shiny and generally amazing looking and that the film is worth seeing for Fassbender’s portrayal of the android David alone, but a very common theme in reviews so far is the this-wasn’t-scary-due-to-predictability, coupled with the these-characters-are-all-idiots complaint.
Valid concerns, yes, and I can see where they come from, but I rather think that Scott has placed a red herring in the path of the viewer with the very title of the film. The god-form being invoked in this movie is not Prometheus at all.
It is Pan. And, more specifically, the Pan of Arthur Machen’s classic horror novel The Great God Pan.
This review, then, is not so much a here’s-what-happens-in-the-film and here’s-why-it’s-bad/good (because there’s been plenty of that already) but a defense of some of the decisions regarding characterization and plotting.
Because when Pan is invoked, you can expect some fairly wacky behaviour on the part of humans. Wacky, yet completely predictable behaviour.
Yes, the Promethean ideal is the surface gloss of the film. You have the Engineers, who, in the opening scenes, are seen to ritually sacrifice themselves in order to unknit their genetic structure and seed planets with life. The Weyland Corporation luxury starship that makes its way to LV-223 is named Prometheus, even, a choice that reflects the hubris of head honcho Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), while the search for the Engineers itself is an attempt to steal fire from the gods, fire in this case being the secret of triumph over death, itself a laughable concept loaded with hubris. Grand, high ideals! The big questions! Epic in scale! Worthy of the best of us!
So why, once the Prometheus touches down on the planet, does everyone on board (a mix of presumably intelligent scientists, cold calculating suits, and space-hardened star-jockeys, a microcosm of all that is logical and reasonable in our society) start running around like stupid, cliché-riddled monkeys with shit in their jumpsuits?
Because they are humans that have returned to the primal source of life. They have come face-to-face with the black ooze from which we sprang, the inchoate and frothing base nature of Nature itself. When we enter into Pan’s domain, that wild and primal sphere where death and life are intimately linked, where the one follows upon the other with alarming speed and no regard for such high-minded concepts as the soul or individuality, where from corruption horrid life springs to deal out death, well, in that domain we are psychically and physically unmade. Pan grips our hearts with whatever appendage it has available, be it tentacle or claw or teeth or all of the above, and the result is, predictably, naturally, and inevitably… panic. The wild god Pan is invoked and in his malign aspect (hell, even in his benign aspect!) he is dangerous and crazy-making.
Note the supreme panoramic wildness of Prometheus. This may be a science-fiction film, but it does not depict the future, instead showing us the deep past, the Night of First Ages. The sacred chaos of a Pan-infused environment. Encountering a mountain that dwarfs the Martian Olympus Mons would be debilitating enough to a human mind nurtured on the small scales of Earth; take that and then factor in an encounter with the gods, actual gods, Titans, our creators and the horrific formless spawn that is also their handiwork or their error or both (but in either case, our siblings!), and you have a situation tailor-made to unhinge even the most hardened and rational human being.
One of my favourite tweets seen in the wake of Prometheus’ release was: “Imagine if Buzz Aldrin had exited the lander and ran away giggling and farting. That’s every character in Prometheus”. Hilarious, sure, and it speaks to our perception that every space-faring human critter from the future needs to be a hard-ass action-hero archetype with a steel-trap mind and a ready quip for when the chips are down.
Fact is, we aren’t like that.
We would certainly like to think so, and we expect as much from our heroes, and will likely build such qualities into our mechanical replacements (with interesting and probably nasty results) but at the end of the day, the body-horror of what we are at a cellular level, this fragile genetic foam briefly given outlines and structure by flukes of environment and evolution, puts the lie to any delusions of grandeur we may have as a species. Our individuality is nothing. Our minds are ephemeral, epigenetic. Pan lives through us and will live beyond us; life will chew us up and move on to its next, more efficient expression.
Can you tell I found Prometheus profoundly disturbing? Yes, predictable, but I found such predictability to be utterly natural, given the circumstances. Of course Millburn the giggling biologist (Rafe Spall) is going to play kissy-face with the cobra-tentacle that rises from the muck! Of course Logan Marshall-Green’s archaeologist is going to hide his sickness, the deep genetic taint that Fassbender’s David introduced into his drink. When a wisp of your viscous eye-meat flails a tiny tentacle at your reflection, you see a fucking doctor, sir! A rational man gets help. But these are not rational men and women. These are people in the grip of Pan.
And how about that toast? “Here’s mud in your eye!” is completely resonant with the themes of the film: your vision will be changed, darkened, regressed. You will see and act as your evolutionary forebears did. You will scream and claw and lose your mind. Here’s mud in your eye, indeed.
A few years back, here in Canada, in the middle of the night on a Greyhound bus somewhere out in the middle of the black prairie, a passenger, no doubt out of his mind on PCP and god-knows-what, with no warning and completely out-of-the-blue, successfully beheaded another passenger with a Bowie knife. Years later, I was discussing this event with a co-worker, and she made the claim that, had she been on that bus, she “would have done something about it.” This is rational mind speaking, this is action-hero speaking; she had some martial arts training, which I think is suggestive. The truth is, Pan descended in all his chaotic glory on that bus, and every last person exited with extreme haste, locking the doors behind them. There were no heroes in the face of sudden, abject horror; there was only the completely predictable, utterly cliché, panicked response of organisms in peril.
Which is why Prometheus works for me. While a good portion of the audience, if the reviews are to be believed, sat safely behind their jaded psychic screens built from years of exposure to unreasonably competent sci-fi heroes, from the original Alien’s Ripley to the goddamn Master Chief, I dropped all pretension to being a rational critter, and descended into the black muck of my own incarnation. I allowed myself to feel the shit moving through my guts, the blood in my temples, the stick and clam of my sweat and saliva, the grinding of tooth on tooth, and when in a near-ecstasy of fear, of panic, my hands instinctively shot up to protect the back of my neck, I did nothing to stop them.
I’m sure I looked like an idiot to any scoffers in the seats behind me, but my neck needed protecting, see? It’s where I keep my important wires.
I think Prometheus will gain a following, as more and more viewers figure out what Ridley Scott has done here. It is a brilliant, and harrowing film.
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