This summer my gal and I paid a brief visit to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where we saw this little beauty here up above. It’s the telescope first used in the discovery of Pluto. Last month, we took a long road trip from Los Angeles to Freeport, Texas, and it really was Los Angeles.
Don’t let my girlfriend fool you with any business about Glendora or Azusa. Just different ways of pronouncing Los Angeles, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, she and I took a trip, starting in some place Losangelish and ending at some place Freeportish. Along the way, we stopped at Cadillac ranch in Amarillo where we found this message…
I’ve been thinking lately about the notion of Mother Earth (or Primal Gaia). She figures rather prominently in a lot of the literature I read back in grad school, and I frequently have occasion to revisit some of that material with my students. What has me thinking about this lately is a few discussions on the topic of climate change initiated by a colleague of mine. So, like I said, …I’ve been thinking about her lately.
To say that I find it hard to believe in such an entity is putting it mildly. I don’t literally believe that the earth itself has a will of its own. Even still, I can’t help thinking the notion of Mother Earth has a lot going for it. Near as I can tell, talk of Mother Earth conveys two things about the environment that are all easily lost in Her absence.
The first entailment is a sense of dialogue (or perhaps dialectic) in nature. So long as we think of the world around us in terms of objective data it becomes that much easier to anticipate the consequences of our own actions in terms of an essentially cause and effect sequence. We may recognize that some of the effects of our actions escape us at the moment, but that just doesn’t stop folks from thinking of their actions in terms of a discrete cause and effect sequence based on our present understanding of the world at hand. If I do x, the result is y. That seems to be how people think about objects.
Not other people!
People (and most living things) can be predictable, to sure, but they are never entirely so. My cat is meowing at me as I type this. I expect she will bring me a toy to play in a moment. That’s what I expect her to do, but she may surprise me. Likewise, I may surprise her. Maybe this time I won’t stop typing and toss the toy about for her to chase it. Likewise, my students may not do the assignments I give them; my boss may not count my workload as I expected; and the folks at Amazon may not package my latest order of chili paste as they have so many times in the past. Living things…
(Pardon me. I’ll be back in a moment.)
As I was saying, living things always seem to add something else to the mix when they react to our own behavior. Sometimes, they even start things of their own accord. Therein lies one of the real advantages to thinking of the environment in terms like those suggested by terms like “Mother Earth.” It gets us out of the habit of thinking that we know exactly what She is going to do. …of thinking that the concrete effects we hope to bring about with any given action ever come close to a thorough account of our impact on the world around us. I can think my way to this bit of humility, but talk of Mother Earth suggests that notion from the very outset. If I think of the earth as a living thing, I don’t have to remind myself that burning carbon-based fuels may have unintended consequences. I can be sure of it. In this context and others, I can be sure that Mother Earth will always add something to the mix when she responds to me and others.
Oh sure, we can conceive of particular things in terms of fairly discrete cause&effect relationships. If I leave a Cocacola outside, it’s going to freeze and burst. Hit a ball with a bat and it will fly away.Better yet, hit a cue ball low with a well-chalked cue-stick and it will (hopefully) spin backwards after contacting the object ball. These are things we can imagine in relatively specific terms. But as our account of the object world expands, as we approach aggregate subject matter such as an ecological niche or regional environments, our ability to conceive of things in such neat terms starts to fall apart. Which is precisely what makes the notion of Earth as a subject in Her own right becomes a rather tempting option.
But I did say that the notion of Mother Earth conveys at least two things about the physical environment, didn’t I? Well the second is pretty simple. Thinking of earth as our Mother effectively conveys a sense of nurturing. More to the point, it conveys a sense that we are the ones being nurtured, and that we are dependent on her. Since She is a person, rather than a thing, or even a collection of things, this means we are dependent on Her good will.
The upshot of all this is a kind a moral responsibility, a sense that life itself entails a moral responsibility to earn the good will of the world that makes our lives possible. We could get to that sense of moral responsibility in other ways (even stewardship, perhaps), but I don’t know of any ideas that convey it quite so effectively as notions like those of Mother Earth or Primal Gaia.
For me , at least, She may be little but a metaphor, but for a metaphor, Mother Earth can be damned compelling.
So, what has me thinking about this tonight? A film called People of a Feather. This documentary follows the efforts of an Inuit community dwelling on the shores of Hudson Bay (near the Belcher Islands)as to learn why the local population of Eider ducks is in serious decline. Following substantial die-offs in the 1990s, they asked the Canadian Wildlife Service for help in determining the cause. What they got in the way of help was Joel Heath, an ecologist who documented his years of research in this film.
This is a gorgeous film. Heath’s underwater footage of Eider ducks swimming about in search of shellfish is absolutely spectacular. He also spends a good deal of time documenting the lives of local Inuit and filming the cycles of surface ice on Hudson’s Bay. One of the things I like most about this film is the way Heath leaves much of the detail without comments. He simply lets his camera linger on the scene and leaves us to piece together the details for ourselves. If Heath has done his job well, and he has, the footage alone is often enough to tell a story in its own right.
What the film does take the time to explain is just what is happening to stress the Eider ducks in this region of Hudson Bay. It’s worth knowing at the outset that these ducks do not migrate. Instead, they spend the winter along small patches of open water called Polynyas. The problem of course is that something is happening to the Polynyas. They have become significantly more unstable in the 2000s, effectively leaving the ducks without a dependable means of surviving the winters.
So, why is this happening? The simple answer is that the hydro-electrical systems used to heat the major cities of Canada have altered the currents (along with the salinity) of the bay. The Hydro-electric dams in the region typically release large amounts of fresh water into the bay during the winter, effectively reversing the normal cycles of activity. The increasing instability of the polynyas may be just the tip of the iceberg here (ironic metaphor, I know). Heath’s work, and that of his Inuit friends thus raises questions about the total long range-impact of the power-grids used to support the mainstream communities of Canada. As people who rely on the natural cycles of the region to support themselves, the Inuit who initiated this research are felling the effects more directly than those living in the cities, but this is small comfort to anyone contemplating the long-term consequences of changes in the water system of the region. In effect, the eider ducks may have been a bit of a miner’s canary. Things are happening in the area that no-one really anticipated, and the questions are how much change will the hydro-electric systems brings about? How much will they be allowed to bring about? Are there alternatives?
People of a Feather doesn’t really answer these questions, though Heath does outline a few brief policy considerations as the credits roll. What makes this film great, however, is his patient development of the problem itself, and in particular his ability to help us understand just what this problem means to the Inuit living the area, Inuit who (it must be emphasized) saw fit to initiate the study itself and provided active support throughout its development.
This is one of those times when indigenous people got the details right. It’s a story of indigenous people working closely with scientists to address an important question about the natural environment. I’m reminded of similar efforts to improve the accuracy of whale counts along the coast of the North Slope here in Barrow. When scientists and Inupiat whalers disagreed about the number of bowhead whales in local waters , both groups devised new means of counting the whales. Turns out the Inupiat were right. (You can read about it in The Whale and the Super Computer by Charles Wohlforth.) Simply put, it pays to listen when indigenous communities raise concerns about what’s happening in the local environment. They don’t just give us grand abstractions like Mother Earth and poetic themes for movies, poems, and pastel-laden paintings. Sometimes, they really do provide the best resources for understanding particular things.
That said, I do find myself wondering about the story-line presented in People of a Feather. It’s not the most heavy-handed narrative, to be sure, but in this film it would be fair to suggest the hydro-electric dams appear to be the source of evil, so to speak. That isn’t because the people producing them mean to hurt anyone. It really isn’t. Rather, the problem is an unintended consequence of their function, a consequence felt most particularly by an indigenous population whose livelihood is determined as much by the natural cycles of Hudson’s Bay as it is by those of the modern market. Which reminds me of other narratives that could be told of this same issue, narratives about progress and development, of carving a civilization out of the frozen wilderness. These are the narratives that will be more familiar to people living closer to those power grids, and to most I suspect that will read this blog post. In these narratives, the dams are good thing, almost a miracle, one that makes possible the lives of countless people. We could probably even point to a few benefits enjoyed by those in various indigenous communities. Those connections are there. How we sort the details, and what people want to do about them is another question. My point is that these grand narratives tend to predetermine the significance of the facts. It may not even be that the policy-considerations demand a choice of one value or another, but in the stories people tell about this such an issue the choice is often already made by time the plot starts to quicken.
…which may be the reason this film has me thinking about Mother Earth. This is one more instance in which something people didn’t anticipate turned out to be critical to the lives of some people (and some ducks). It’s also one case in which people have begun to sort those consequences out, just as we hope to be doing with issues like global, ocean acidification, and so many other issues in which the natural environment as a whole seems to be threatened, and along with it, us. Yet our understanding of these issues is always playing catch-up to the processes we’ve initiated, and frankly, it isn’t clear that this understanding is catching up fast enough. It’s enough to make us wish we had a way of talking about these issues that reminded us from the outset of just how much we don’t know about the impact of humans on the environment.
The temptation to call for Mother aside, it’s worth noting that comparable metaphors typically guide popular thinking (and policy) on the subject as it stands. Here I am speaking of the invisible hand of the market. Hell, the very notion of a market is a bit of a metaphor, an image that transforms known tendencies, tendencies with variable strength and effective) into a kind of thing that we can depend on. Do people in cold climates want a means of keeping warm? Supply will rise to meet the demand. The market will sort its way to a kind of equilibrium. One could easily apply such thinking to the process which puts all those dams on Hudson’s Bay to begin with, and it would help us to understand a few things. But this thinking too relies on the turn of a metaphor, and it too seems to distorts the facts in a few subtle ways.
One of the most interesting things about the invisible hand of the market deity is just how effectively it can be used to remind us of just how little we know about the economic impact of government policies. Time and again, market theorists remind us that each and every regulation (such as laws mitigating fresh water release in the Canadian hydro-electic system) will have unanticipated consequences. Time and again, free market fundamentalists will tell us to be wary of efforts to correct social ills. We may just make them worse! They are right, of course, except on the main point, because those truly devoted to this metaphor consistently tell us to let the market work itself out. It’s easy to think of this as a kind of humility, a recognition that being mere mortals, human beings cannot anticipate all the consequences of our own actions. The problem of course is that free market fundamentalists will only carry this logic as far as the market itself. How those unintended consequences will affect the balance of human relations to the environment is typically beyond the scope of their reckoning. Any humility we may learn from tales of the invisible hand seems ironically to leave us with an odd certainty in its own right, a mandate to leave unquestioned most anything done in the name of profit. For a lesson in humility, this takes us to a place that looks awful lot like hubris.
Stories of the invisible hand bid us to exercise caution less the market come back to bite us for every effort to legislate our way to a better world. They don’t do much to address the externalities piling up in the environment around us. In vie of these externalities, it is becoming increasingly clear that just about every cost-benefit analysis ever computed in human history has fallen short of a proper reckoning. I don’t see an adequate account of this coming from those devoted to the image of the invisible hand. If such is to be had, it will either come from painstaking empirical research, or from the language of another metaphor entirely.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Moldinow The Grand Design
It always bends my thoughts a little sideways to hear my fellow unbelievers dismiss Christianity as primitive superstition, but it isn’t Christianity or Christians that I’m worried about (sorry). It’s the ‘primitives’ that concern me.
Having spent most of my career working with indigenous people, people who until recently might well have been dismissed as primitives, I can’t help but bristle a bit when the cultural heritage of my friends and coworkers (or their grandparents) is used as an insult for someone else. More to the point, I can’t help but feel the comparison is deeply misleading, not just as to the nature of ‘primitive’ people and their customs, but as to the whole shape of human history. In the end, references to primitives and/or superstition always strike me as a bit of self-indulgence, or even an ironic expression of faith.
The notion here is that Christianity (and most if not all of the world’s great religions (certainly the Abrahamic faiths) are essentially trying to explain the world about them much as preliterate peoples are presumed to have done in the remote past. Actually, “non-literate” would a better term, but for the present, I am taking the notion of things-primitive to refer to those who haven’t developed writing systems. That’s putting a rather complex topic into a simple formula, but of course this is a blog, not a book, so you are either with me or not at this point; we’ll see what happens. Anyway, the point is that folks comparing Christianity to primitives are essentially suggesting that Adam and Eve, are for example, erroneous attempts to explain human origins much as Australian Aborigines might explain local geography as the concrete result of events in Dreamtime narratives; just as Norseman might explain the shape of a salmon’s tail as a result of Thor’s powerful grip; …and so on. The idea, as I understand it, is to treat religious beliefs as a subset of erroneous explanations for the world around us, explanations that reflect the ignorance of those doing the explaining.
Take for example the following excerpt from Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design (2112):
Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life. There were gods of love and war; of the sun, earth, and sky; of the oceans and rivers; of rain and thunderstorms; even of earthquakes and volcanoes.
Hawking goes on to explain that the development of modern science has displaced such explanations, and as science progresses these sorts of beliefs should essentially fade by the wayside. Thus, we have the germs of a grand historical meta-narrative, one in which humanity tries various means of explaining the world only to commit numerous errors before settling on modern scientific methods.
Paul Zolbrod The Navajo Creation Story
So, what is the problem?
Let me start with an example. When I first headed into Navajo country in 1996, I hired on as a research assistant for a study of local youth gangs. I can’t say that the study yielded much of value, but we did manage to not get anyone killed (…I think). At any rate, one of the items we were supposed to investigate was the question of why gangs had appeared in Navajo country. In the days just before the study kicked up I recall asking an elder that very question. He looked right at me and said; “The separation of the sexes.”
So, what was he talking about?
It was a reference to a specific phase in the Navajo emergence narratives. The most thorough retelling that I’ve looked at would be the book; Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul G. Zolbrod. A portion of the narrative has been reproduced here on the website for the Twin Rocks Trading Post, and it’s definitely worth a read, but I’ll paste in a small stretch here. You could just as easily entitle this passage; “Where All The Trouble Began.”
Altse’ hastiin the First Man became a great hunter in the fourth world. So he was able to provide his wife Altse’ asdzaa’ the First Woman with plenty to eat. As a result, she grew very fat. Now one day he brought home a fine, fleshy deer. His wife boiled some of it, and together they had themselves a hearty meal. When she had finished eating, Altse asdzaa’ the First Woman wiped her greasy hands on her sheath.
She belched deeply. And she had this to say:
“Thank you shijoozh my vagina,” she said.
“Thank you for that delicious dinner.”
To which Altse’ hastiin the First Man replied this way:
“Why do you say that?” he replied.
“Why not thank me?
“Was it not I who killed the deer whose flesh you have just feasted on?
“Was it not I who carried it here for you to eat?
“Was it not I who skinned it?
“Who made it ready for you to boil?
“Is nijoozh your vagina the great hunter, that you should thank it and not me?”
To which Altse’ asdzaa’ offered this answer:
“As a matter of fact, she is,” offered she.
“In a manner of speaking it is joosh the vagina who hunts.
“Were it not for joosh you would not have killed that deer.
“Were it not for her you would not have carried it here.
“You would not have skinned it.
“You lazy men would do nothing around here were it not for joosh.
“In truth, joosh the vagina does all the work around here.”
To which Altse’ hastiin the First Man had this to say:
“Then perhaps you women think you can live without us men,” he said.
…and things get worse from there.
Ultimately, the fight between this Ur-couple will lead to the separation of all men and women from one another. The longing that each gender feels for the other will in turn lead them to unnatural sex acts, and these will in turn lead to the birth of monsters (really the story does get quite interesting).
So, what was the elder telling me? On the one hand, he was suggesting that the gangs were themselves the sort of monster that had its ultimate origins in the time of separation, just as had the giant and all the other beasts slain the by Hero Twins later in this same set of legends. On the other hand, he was suggesting something more subtle; he was calling attention to a high divorce rate on the Navajo Nation. In effect, that brief response served to point out not just one but two answers to my question, and to suggest some sort of relationship between them. Either way the separation of men and women from one another was, in this man’s view, the reason that gang violence had begun to appear in Navajo country.
The first of the two answers presented above could be classified as mythology. It is an attempt to explain a known fact by means of a reference to an old (and quite unverifiable) legend. The second approach treats the story in question as an allegory about the importance of marriage, and the elder’s answer becomes a direct social commentary on the relationship between changing family conditions and the rise of gang-related violence in the area. Right or wrong about the issues at hand, this interpretation would suggest the elder had been directing my attention to real world behavior. It would not have been difficult to measure that behavior, and even to formulate strategies for testing the causal connection he had asserted. But the most interesting thing about this whole fashion of speaking is really the interplay between the two forms of explanation. The elder did not choose which approach to communicate; in fact he chose language that suggested both lines of thinking to anyone familiar enough with the issues to know what he was talking about.
Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (September 2011)
So what, right? Thus far, what I have presented is fairly comparable to untold other religious texts. What is the difference, you may ask?
Well, for a start, there is no catechism here. Neither is there any equivalent to the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed (or any other). Recourse to the emergence narratives presents no set doctrines about which one must agree, nor are there mechanisms for establishing what those would be. Until folks like the early anthropologists make it into the southwest, these stories were not written down at all, and until Zolbrod one could find no single text to unite them all into a single Holy Text. In the old days, as they say, this story might well have been a complete performance in its own right, one told for reasons specific to those present, and adapted a little for that precise purpose. Folks would have understood how this little story related to a number of other stories, but no set canon could be found against which to measure each individual performance or determine its precise meaning. In short, thesignificance of the text above ought to be understood without recourse to any of the mechanisms by which mainstream religions streamline their message and create a uniform set of doctrines.
To understand the elder’s reference one needn’t start by assuming he literally believes in the events described in the narrative above, or even that such a belief is relevant to his answer. One need only recognize that he found the story to be a useful reference point, and that he chose to use that reference point as a means of communicating a sense of the current state of his community.
I think this is the sort of thing John R. Farella must have had in mind when he said in his book, The Main Stalk, that one ought not to assume all natives are fundamentalists. It isn’t even that such folks aren’t out there, but they do not necessarily control the traditions in question. We shouldn’t be too quick to assume that a literal interpretation of things drives every reference to native oral traditions. That is what people raised in the Abrahamic traditions (whether we have accepted those traditions or not) tend to do when encountering the oral traditions of various people around the world, or even when we read ancient texts (such as Genesis) with an eye towards understanding something about the oral traditions incorporated within them.
Understood in these terms, the literal value of mythic events loses a lot of ground to the other implications of the narrative. A god of lightning ceases to be an explanation for lightning, and the lightning becomes a convenient means of letting nature call the name of the god to your mind. References to actual geography in mythic narratives cease to be a means of explaining those geographic features and become a variety of social conventions from territorial claims to moral lessons. The oral traditions become less of an attempt at understanding nature and more of an attempt to use nature as a means of expressing principles of social organization.
And where does that leave us?
I think it leaves us without a coherent central theme for the grand meta-narrative. Absent the assumption that every story is supposed to contribute to a single coherent theory (much less the assumption that that theory is a truth the recognition of which all mankind is obligated to acknowledge), we lose any clear reason to treat such stories as pre-scientific explanations of the world around us.
No, this does not mean we must accept any and all religious assertions after first checking to make sure they are offered in a less than literal spirit. What it does mean is that we lose one religious tenant to which not-a-few atheists seem quite prone, namely belief in uni-lineal Progress with a capital P. We lose that tenant, both as a short-cut to understanding the past of humanity, and as a promise of future success.
This does not mean giving up reason as a value, just letting go of the illusion that this value is the axis mundi around which all of human history turns.
Hawking is perfectly right to insist on the superiority of scientific approaches to explaining the world; he is wrong to think that explanation is the key to all those other traditions now conveniently (if quite inaccurately) summarized as a god of this and a god of that.
If there is an explanatory feature to religious tradition, it is largely a function of the means by which religions derive actual doctrine from such narratives and demand that others acknowledge the truth of those doctrines. In this respect the Abrahamic traditions do not merely carry forward the problems of earlier, so-called primitive, traditions. Instead they bring with them a brand new sort of problem, an effort to realign all the creativity one finds in oral tradition with a single obligatory and highly inflexible paradigm. We ought not to be too quick to let the God of Abraham share the blame for this problem with the figures of oral tradition from around the rest of the world. Nor should we be too quick to assume the course of history has been driven first and foremost by the values of scientists and philosophers.
Prometheus opens with great promise delivered on a grand scale. It is a quest to find the origins of life on earth, a journey to meet our makers. I had entered the theater primed with expectation (the promos for this film were brilliant), and upon learning where the story would take us, I smiled and settled into my seat. Seriously, I couldn’t wait to see what new directions Ridley Scott might take with this wonderful theme.
Sadly, the answer was right into the ground.
Because the big crash of a spaceship at the end of this flick was the perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole. It was just one big train space-ship wreck.
…complete with main characters running directly away from the rolling wheel-like space ship instead of jumping to the side. Yes, they actually did that. Seriously, how does a movie studio spend so many millions of dollars on special effects and star power only to miss the fact that they put a Loony Tunes gag in the middle of the dramatic climax of the story? Or do they just think we are that stupid?
Maybe we are. …Damn!
Don’t get me wrong. I like really cool special effects as much as the next guy. But I also like an interesting story. Is it really too much to ask that they appear in the same film?
Ridley Scott has produced such films! Alien was such a film. More to the point, Blade Runner was such a film. And one of the best things about Blade Runner was its use of the very same theme.
Blade Runner was a classic Philip K. Dick story. Few authors could make something so fantastic speak to people in such personal ways, and Ridley Scott transmitted that to the screen brilliantly. Do you remember Roy’s encounter with his maker? Do you remember watching as this replicant interrogates his very creator, trying desperately to wheedle extra time out of the very man who had chosen to the hour of Roy’s demise? And do you remember how easily the story acquired its deeper significance, that moment when a simple plot point about a creature trying to extend its life acquired philosophical significance?
For all his artificial nature, Roy stood before his maker asking questions about the very meaning of mortality. They were questions we could all recognize. Questions that touched deeply on what it means to be human, what it means to live for only a little while.
And in that moment when the character of Roy stands before his maker and demands to know the reason for his imminent death, he became so very human.
…still more so in the moment of his passing:
What makes Roy’s story so compelling is not merely that we can see the metaphor, but that the metaphor is used to tell us something about our own humanity. It is not merely the loss of personal life that Roy mourns. It is also the passing of his experiences into oblivion, experiences that could be of real value to someone. He is a remarkable character, to be sure, and the world will lose something as he passes.
…just as it does with the passing of each of our loved ones.
…just as it will for each and every one of us.
Roy meets his maker to confront his own mortality, and he takes us along for the ride. We are there, not just to witness the action, but to share in the meaning of that encounter. …perhaps even to share in the crime of deicide when Roy executes his own verdict on his maker.
And what of Prometheus?
As Roger Ebert tells us, Prometheus raises questions about the origin of human life, presenting us with a version of the panspermia hypothesis in which all of life on earth is begun through the apparent suicide of a pale muscular alien. In the opening scenes that alien appears alone on a barren plant, his spaceship leaving without him. With all the solemnity of a priest performing a great ritual, the alien consumes a mysterious substance, and it ravishes his body. As the mysterious alien falls into a rushing river, his body disintegrates, releasing the seeds of life into a new world.
Was this earth, as Roger Ebert suggests? Ridley Scott tells us that it could be any planet, but of course the point of the scene is to raise the possibility. This might have been how life on earth started, so we are asked to believe. More to the point, it may well be how life on planet earth will begin anew, if the “engineers” as these aliens are called, should choose to return.
That is the possibility uncovered by our main characters in Prometheus. They set out in a quest to find the engineers, to speak with our very creators only to find them bent on our destruction. And thus the a question about the origin of life on earth transforms into a question about the possibility of its imminent demise. The two questions are really the same, because each is essentially a question about the motives of the engineers.
This SHOULD have been a brilliant movie. What makes it so sad is the inattention to narrative detail. The scientists do not act like scientists, especially the geologist who’s rabid anti-intellectualism belies his choice of career. Seriously, didn’t someone on set know that geology is a science? But of course this is a side character, and his flaws are forgivable. What of the main characters?
Three people drive the quest to find the engineers in Prometheus. Two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall Green) initiate the quest to find the engineers as a result of the result of their own findings. Holloway is so intent on speaking with the engineers that he engages in reckless actions upon landing. Believing the engineers to be dead, he drowns his sorrows in a bottle. I suppose we are meant to appreciate the irony of a scholar lamenting the greatest archeological find in the history of the field, but I for one could not get past the absurdity of it. Shaw could almost have served as a voice of reason were it not for her complete irrelevance in the lead-up to the final conflict. No-one listens to her (least of all her husband and partner Holloway), right up until she ends up as the sole human survivor of the expedition.
…which is to say that no-one ever listens to her.
And then of course there is Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce). A wealthy old man facing the end of his own life, Weyland funds the expedition for the sole purpose of extending his life. How he came to the conclusion that the engineers would extend his life is beyond me? I think it was beyond the writers themselves? Whatever its origins, Weyland holds onto this assumption despite all evidence to the contrary. Long after it has been made clear that the engineers bear no goodwill towards their creation, Weyland chooses to speak with one of them. It was a foolish mistake.
…and it was his last one.
And here we have the crux of the problem.This movie doesn’t really raise any questions about the origins of life at all. The prospect that life on earth might have its origins in the stars is simply a premise designed to kick-start the action. Nothing about the unfolding action sheds any light on the significance of that premise, nor does it begin share that significance with anyone in the audience.
The central meaning of the encounter with the engineers rests on the irrational presuppositions of Holloway, Shaw, and Weyland. Each of them has loaded the event with significance particular to their own stories, their reasons for doing so barely explored in the course of the film. This sort of approach might have worked with some earnest character development, but Prometheus was too busy wowing us with majestic visuals and sudden moments of terror. In the end, this film attaches no genuine meaning to the event at all.
And so the encounter with the makers of humanity does not quite resonate the way it could have. The encounter with the engineers is an intrinsically interesting moment, one spoiled terribly by the lack of a meaningful storyline to carry us through it. Unlike Roy, these characters bring no great questions to their creator; seeking instead to learn whatever he chooses tell them. But he tells them nothing, electing instead to begin smashing up its creation.
…which actually sums up this movie pretty well.
I have to thank my friend Michael Kucan for helping me to remember some of the more irritating details of this movie. I would also like to recommend aknittysociety blog, which contains a wonderful analysis of race and gender in Prometheus. I should also say that in my thoughts about Blade Runner were rather strongly influenced by entry in Roger Ebert’s Journal, I Remember You.