the science fiction of despair

Ridley Scott’s new movie Prometheus is a rough ride to the end of the world. It relentlessly abandons hope and leaves the heroine, an archaeologist played by Noomi Rapace, with no one to love, nothing to look forward to, and an unanswered question as her reason for going on.

It’s so dark we might someday look back on Prometheus as the end point for what science fiction has usually portrayed – a weirder, sometimes more dangerous but ultimately hopeful future. Truth is, the air has been leaking out of that balloon for a long time,  and Prometheus is where it goes flat.

In brief, Rapace’s character discovers ancient cave paintings which suggests humanity was created by aliens. The paintings show where the aliens may be, and Rapace concludes ‘they want us to go visit them.’

Instead, it turns out the alien world is not only the repository for the chest bursting, drooling-fanged creatures that Scott brought to us in the 1970s (this movie is a prequel) but the remains of the humanoids who created us – called ‘the engineers’ – who then changed their minds, wanted us gone, and were preparing to fly spaceships full of chest bursters to earth to destroy us, except the ‘bursters got them first.

Of course, science fiction really reflects the concerns, hopes, fears of the age in which it’s written – or filmed.  So in keeping with the late 60s, 2001‘s aliens were awe inspiring and god-like; the aliens of E.T. and Close Encounters in the mid-70s were more human scale and friendly, and the movies suggested great things ahead for humanity; the original Alien came along as the 70s turned to the 80s and portrayed a new wariness, a sense that the world can be a very dangerous place;  Independence Day, from the mid-90s, said there are dark forces massed against not just individuals but against the country as a whole; Battle: Los Angeles from a couple of years back extended the Independence Day theme to say not only are there dark forces, they are utterly impersonal and indifferent to us.

And Prometheus takes us a step further: there are dark forces amassed against us, and even the one thing we would think was safe – our ‘parents’ – isn’t. There is only survival, which sounds a lot like the real world story we’re living today.

At the end of the movie, Rapace’s ship is destroyed, her lover and friend and the rest of the crew are dead, she is on a harsh world with a few hundred thousand containers of the goo that lead to the chest bursters ready to be deployed, and the talking head of an android (brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender) as her only company. There is a way out – using one of the flying horror alien ships, but no point in going home. So she takes the one path she has left – going to find our alien makers to ask them why they turned on us. It’s what she has to work with, and it’s not much. You see, the real horror of this picture comes in a quiet scene mid-movie when one of the humans is contemplating meeting our makers, and how our deepest questions will get answered, and Fassbender the android asks ‘Why did you make me?,’ to which the human shrugs, ‘Because we could.’ ‘Imagine,’ Fassbender says, ‘how disappointed you would be if your maker said that to you.’

And that’s the real point of Prometheus, that maybe there is no point, no big answers – and not only no salvation out there, but horror and despair are  waiting. Maybe we should find that liberating – we should see ourselves as free to make over the fictional universe, or the real world we’re in, as we see fit, to push back, to make meaning. But we need time and resources to get there, and no one watching Prometheus can feel like the odds are very good, and that right now or 80 years in the future, we’re probably not up to the task.

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