Thoughts on Prometheus and, surprisingly, faith
(Spoiler City ahead)
In my life, I’ve only ever seen two R-rated films at the theater; ironically, one was Alien:Resurrection, while on a summer trip in Japan (a friend there treated me, and I didn’t have the heart or the language skills to say “no”…plus, it looked fairly cool), and the second was Prometheus, a prequel of sorts to the Alien films, last weekend. Because my parents sometimes read this blog, and because I don’t want readers to get the false impression that I’m anything but cautious about the content of the movies I watch, I’d like to note that I first scrutinized the reasons behind Prometheus’ rating (“sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language”) as well as peeked at the content advisory at imdb.com (which is a fantastic resource for all things movies, btw). Anyway, the R-ness was basically what I expected; if not for a certain particularly intense scene, it probably would have been a PG-13.
The movie itself was good. Sadly, it was not great, just good. Like a lot of people, I had some big expectations for Prometheus: Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof, a decent franchise to build on, a big budget, and some big, intriguing ideas all seemed to suggest the possibility, perhaps even likelihood of movie-making greatness. However, I should point out that the visuals and sound were fantastic, with some great sets, impressive sights, an interesting, multi-faceted score, and unobtrusively good CGI (as in, you weren’t reminded that you were looking at CGI). In fact, I suspect that the emphasis on visuals, in concert with what was no doubt a deliberately light touch on exposition, contributed substantially to the lingering sense of, well, “Huh?” which I and my friend experienced as we left the theater and began reflecting on the movie’s numerous apparent plot holes/calculated, sequel-friendly mysteries (such as, what exactly was that smoke monster? No wait, I mean, what exactly was that black liquid?).
For those lacking context, the movie is about a team of scientists whose search for the origins of human life on Earth leads them to a distant planet. The protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw, well-played by Noomi Rapace, is one of two lead scientists, specifically recruited by their corporate sponsor, we find out later, for her particular religious devotion, in the simple sense of being “a believer”, and which is outwardly evidenced by the small cross necklace she wears. These scientists come to this planet with the bright-eyed notion of either discovering their noble beginnings, or else disproving the whole idea of life having come from extraterrestrial sources. What they find there, instead of a glorious civilization of benevolent progenitors, is a decrepit, corpse-ridden biological weapons installation. Also, there is still alien life there – possessing varying degrees of sentience, but uniformly hostile. Oh yeah, there’s also an android among the crew who seems to be carrying out a hidden and, frankly, largely incomprehensible agenda, which puts them all at risk.
What I found particularly interesting about this movie is that it didn’t make a big spectacle of religious faith and big scientific questions clashing. It so easily could have, but it didn’t, which I appreciated. Although doing so would have even further muddled an already hard-to-follow sequence of events, I like to think that the writers also recognized that this kind of conflict has been done before, and done well (such as in Contact or Signs, the latter of which I liked a great deal even though the rest of my siblings thought it was ridiculous). But perhaps more importantly, I imagine the writers felt that only a light touch on the subject was warranted for the purpose of telling Shaw’s and the film’s story. This is not to say that the inevitable contradiction of religious belief and worldview-altering discoveries was ignored completely; at one point in the film, one of the characters essentially poses to Shaw the question of how she can still believe in religious things (provided that late-21st-century Christianity has not become radically altered, this would include things like the creation of Earth and its inhabitants by a divine being for wise and benevolent purposes) even while their scientific paradigms are rapidly being dismantled. Taking a cue from her own father’s answer during her childhood, she responds that she simply chooses to believe.
I found this to be subtly profound. I have come to view faith, at its fundamental level of belief in something initially unverifiable, as analogous to a person’s experience of a film. Filmmakers try to tell a story, and they do so with techniques which are meant to make their story more believable and meaningful to their audiences; they may succeed or fail at this to varying extents (or, in religious terms, they may inadvertently introduce stumbling blocks which lead people away towards sin, or which make efforts at righteousness unnecessarily difficult). However, the individual audience members have the final say on how they personally receive a film, whatever its flaws or merits. This is why we use the phrase “suspension of disbelief” when talking about films; while we may find disbelief more natural or just more preferable when approaching films (certainly, such a tendency has value for differentiating quality), we can be persuaded by the virtues of a film to let go of these doubts and embrace it. If this is true for films made by fallible humans who scarcely know or care about us on any deep, meaningful level, then it is extra true for doctrines, principles, and guidance originating from a God who knows and loves us completely. When these things are presented to us in completeness and purity (a most significant premise!), it is us up to us to choose to believe these things or not. In fact, in LDS scripture, we are taught that even “a particle of faith” and a “desire to believe” are enough to get the ball of faith rolling, if they are all we can muster; in contrast, I have seen some movies whose barriers to appreciability were so great that perhaps no amount of film-faith could have allowed me to move past whatever doubts and uncertainties I had to fully embrace them in a gesture of complete acceptance and trust (recognition of this limitation is the main reason I no longer watch Michael Bay films, after the pain and angst of Transformers).
Anyway, Prometheus was good, but it got me thinking about faith, which is even better!
P.S. This is probably the most inaccurate movie summary ever written – although whatever film it is actually describing sounds pretty cool!