Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Symbolism or Not, 'Prometheus' Still Fails as a Compelling Story

by John Shade Vick

Considering the attention that my negative review on Forbes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has garnered, it is clear that this film – regardless of its silliness as a story – has proven worthy of heady debate on multiple levels.

In the last couple of days, another article has also gained quite a bit of attention. It is an extremely well-written, well-reasoned treatise on the symbolism contained in the film, written by a guy called Cavalorn. There’s a fair amount of pablum in it about psychically activated black goo, but beyond that he points out numerous details within the film suggesting that the story’s alien characters – the Engineers – are connected to Earth’s religious and specifically Judeo-Christian past as well as the mythical Greek Titan that lends the film his name.

Cavalorn’s theory is that the Engineers who occupied the temple discovered by the human scientists on planet LV-223 became upset with earthlings 2,000 years ago, but were prevented from cleaning our clocks when they became victims of an industrial accident involving those jars of black goo they had lying around on the floor of their ship. The ultimate assertion is that Jesus Christ himself was an Engineer, and when we killed him, we signed our own cosmic death warrant.

Despite a comment from Scott saying that actually calling it Christ would be “too on the nose” (and a 9-foot tall albino Jesus wasn’t quite what the Good Book described), I absolutely believe that this is what the filmmakers were going for. I believe it because this has become screenwriter Damon Lindelof’s shtick, whether he likes it or not (http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1687203/prometheus-sequel.jhtml).

Lindelof now seems to be shifting the blame for Prometheus in Scott’s direction, but his writing for the ABC series LOST was rife with spiritual themes and philosophical strangeness from the very beginning, and as the series went on, it became the primary reason for its continued success. Every new image, character or happening on the show sent rabid fans searching for answers in their libraries, in the hope of uncovering the One Theory that explains everything. Whole websites were constructed for the collection and dissemination of LOST-related data, every obscure detail potentially holding the key to the series, and for everything that happened, there was some guy, somewhere, who could say, “Actually, what Locke said to Jack is mirrored right here in the Talmud. See? It’s brilliant!”

Even worse was when the writers pulled in scientific theory and then blew it off. As we all know, not only were the scientific questions raised in the final seasons of LOST not dealt with, but neither was the spiritual soup made of pieces of virtually every belief system in human history. It all ended in a church with stained glass on another plane of existence. Or something.

Scott, Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are clearly intelligent people who know a lot of interesting things about a lot of interesting stuff. And, finding clues to a greater meaning in a story can be fascinating and great fun. But, for symbolism to have any real meaning, it has to make sense. It has to serve the story, and it has to come organically. The shotgun-symbolism of LOST, where countless bits of disparate philosophical ideas were blasted onto the canvas and allowed to mean everything or nothing, depending on the knowledge base of the viewer, is not storytelling. You can take the worst Eddie Murphy movie and load it with potent religious symbolism, and it’s still going to suck. Why? Because, it’s still a dumb Eddie Murphy movie injected with potent religious symbolism. The symbolism is irrelevant if there isn’t a good plot or well-drawn characters to carry the themes through.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Use Your Illusion

The Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood (Oxford University Press, 2012) 

“ Sanity is a cozy lie. ”
- Susan Sontag

Among the most popular topics fueling cognitive science and psych books in the last 20 or so years has been the origin, role and future of the "self"  and, I'd argue, deservedly so.

Consciousness and the self, or selves, has been a preoccupation of the human mind since recorded time began, and no doubt well before then.  From Socrates' admonition to "Know thyself," to the present-day philosophies of mind, we have always wanted to know if there really is an "I" within, or if we're just fooling ourselves into believing so. Advances in understanding how the brain functions have intensified those questions exponentially, and the answers have in some ways become even more elusive.

Bruce Hood, professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, marshals an expanse of research to convincingly argue that the self  while very much real in our experience  is in fact a useful illusion, one necessitated by the brain that gives it life.

But, Hood submits, it is not only our individual brains that are doing the creating, but the intersocial web of brains that constitute much of our life experience. Our sense of self is, you might say, a group project, because it only fully develops within the social context, and that starts before we can speak a word. Hood states:
Our self is a product of our mind, which in turn is a product of our brain working in conjunction with other brains. As the brain develops, so does the self. As the brain deteriorates, then so must the self.