Tuesday, 19 June 2012

When Titans Clash

Spoiler Warning

Prometheus tries to evoke the aesthetics of Alien in a way that is borderline obsessive. Even down to making sure there are cream-coloured leathery/cushiony pads on the spaceship corridor walls. Still greater attention is paid to replicating H.R. Giger's design concepts for the derelict alien ship, cockpit and pilot from the original film. The really weird thing is that, even as Prometheus deliberately and slavishly tries to evoke and/or copy the aesthetics of Alien, it completely overlays them with an entirely different, clashing aesthetic sense.

Look, why is this image so powerful?

There are, I think, a number of reasons.

Most importantly, it's because it is just explicable enough to make sense while also being inexplicable enough to unnerve.  We are plainly looking at a navigator or pilot in a cockpit.  We understand this.  We are also looking at something inhuman and estranged, something that evades any attempt on our part to relate to it directly.  The 'Space Jockey' (as it is sometimes called) is a pilot, evidently, but it is also a giant, a fossil, a mammoth, a skeleton, a statue, a cyborg, a petrified outgrowth of flesh embedded within a colossal machine.  We cannot separate the entity from the artifact.  The ribs of the creature flow outward into the cables of the chair.  The trunk of the face flows down into the workings of the mechanism.  We cannot disentangle organism from system, animal from engine.  They are fundamentally akin, interchangeable, interpenetrating, symbiotic.  This was always the intention: to suggest something that was inextricably both biological and technological.  The cockpit and the pilot are not discrete things but are conjoined to the point of identity.  They were one flesh, until the flesh peeled away.  It's entropic in both an organic and mechanical way simultaneously.  It's the ossified cadaver of a wrecked bio-machine.

It's also beautiful, but not in a straightforward way.  It's not pretty.  It's hideously, ominously, unnaturally, grotesquely beautiful.  It's beautiful in the same way as a scorpion, or the bleached skull of an ox lying in a parched gulch, or a pile of rusted flywheels that was once a graceful machine.  It has the troubling, terrible beauty of wreckage, of the predator, of the insectile, the dead, the decayed, the destroyed, the deadly.

And it's fucking scary.  It's a great big skull-faced monster in a huge black room made out of what looks like loads of bones.

Now, look at this:

This is pretty.  It's the cockpit from Alien... decorated with shimmering CGI lights and swirls and spirals and graphics and glowing planets. It's like someone stuck gold stars all over one of Goya's 'black paintings' or inserted some watercolour daffodils into a Max Ernst canvas. Well, why am I dancing around this? It's like putting pretty, computer-generated patterns all over a picture by H.R. Giger. The design and CGI rendering is perfectly nice in and of itself, but in this context it looks like a tawdry, clashing embellishment. It neutralises the uncanny effect of the setting. For all the familiarity that popular culture now has with Giger (thanks largely to Alien) his imagery remains fundamentally inscrutable. The image above plasters extremely familiar, almost routine imagery - CGI computery prettiness - over this fundamentally inscrutable image. It wouldn't be so bad if this were meant, in narrative terms, to be human technology inserted into the context of the alien ship, as with the floaty red probe things... but the display above is actually supposed to represent the technology and culture and design sense of the pilot-type aliens themselves.

This is more than just an aesthetic problem.  The technology of the beings that Shaw calls 'the Engineers' is recognisably similar to the technology of the humans as we see it in the film.  Suddenly, the mysterious and unknowable culture of the gigantic skeletal bio-mechanical thing from Alien is explained, demonstrated and shown to be easily understood in conventional futuristicky/SF terms.  The aliens have computers just like the humans.  They have holographic displays just like the humans.  They have navigation charts just like the humans.  They have cryo-beds just like the humans.  They have chairs around button-covered consoles... on which they leave their flutes!  They suddenly have doors that open and close (think about it - there's nothing like that in the derelict from the original film).  They have cargo bays.  The cockpit chair turns out to be just that - a chair in which a humanoid sits.  He didn't grow out of it.  He sat in it.  Wearing a spacesuit and a helmet.

This helmet thing is a big deal.  The skeletal face of the alien pilot, with its ossified veins, its cavernous eyes and its trunk-like snout... turns out to be a helmet, just like the head-like helmet of the aliens in Independence Day.  Like many crappy sci-fi films post-Alien, Independence Day tried to ape Giger's influential design concepts.  So ID4 had bio-mechanical stuff in it, but in a processed and banal form.  Now the Alien series reclaims its appropriated design concepts... and recycles the lazy, banal variants already used by inferior films.

And what is inside the helmet?  We get to see.  Not only is the pilot's eerie, inscrutable, alien face revealed to be a piece of perfectly explicable human-like technology, with its trunk a kind of hinged flap, but we see it removed, and beneath there is...  a guy.  An odd-looking guy, for sure, but a guy, nonetheless.

Moreover, these guys have comprehensible motives.  We may not be told why they created life on Earth and then decided to destroy it, but these aims are comprehensible in and of themselves.  The 'Engineers' can be communicated with, spoken to.  Their thought processes are apparently akin to those of humans.  It is no longer that The Company wishes to utilise the Xenomorphs (if we must call them that) as weapons... apparently they always were weapons, or outgrowths of weapons.  The Engineers created them as such, wittingly or unwittingly.  The Engineers are capable of military strategy then, along with fear, rage, the desire for revenge, and other such all-too familiar states of mind.

Again, there's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it is appended onto the imagery of the derelict craft and its silent, inscrutable, lonely occupant in Alien... and it represents a fundamental misprision of why those things are so interesting.  Put crudely, to explain the Space Jockey is to make it less mysterious (of course) and therefore less powerful.  It was always a Titan.  It's just that Alien allowed us to believe in the Titan by making it unknowable.  Prometheus makes the Titans less titanic by making them simply larger versions of us.

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