Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Riddle of Sir Ridley

While we're on this weird bad science kick of the last few weeks, I want to return to Prometheus one last time. Sorry, but I swear it will be the last one for a long while - and, frankly, every post about Prometheus gets much higher traffic than anything else I write. Apparently I'm not the only one who finds it so interesting!

A couple of minor spoilers follow.

Writing my post about Prometheus misconceptions, I realised something. While I maintain that the questions people seem determined to ask about the opening scene have no baring whatsoever on the rest of the movie, one of those questions does have a large impact on the universe of Prometheus and, therefore, the whole Alien franchise (by which I mean Alien to Alien 3 - the rest don't count). That question is whether or not the opening scene takes place on Earth.
As I wrote in my first post, the answer to this question is "Almost definitely." The entire film is about how the Engineers seeded Earth with DNA, and we see no evidence of any kind to suggest they ever seeded any other planets. So, when we see an Engineer seeding a planet, it's a pretty safe assumption that it's Earth. From all the evidence on hand, this is the most sensible conclusion.

But I vaguely remembered reading an interview with Sir Ridley Scott, the director of the film, where he had said that it didn't matter. I assumed he meant it didn't matter because, as I've said, it didn't affect the story of Prometheus. But then I looked the interview up. Does Sir Ridley think it's Earth?

"No, it doesn’t have to be. That could be anywhere. That could be a planet anywhere. All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space."

Scott thinks it doesn't matter not because it doesn't affect the story, but because this "gardening" thing is just what the Engineers do, and that their seeding Earth is not unique or even special. This is backed up by the director's commentary, where he seems even more adamant that there's no reason to assume it's Earth - he himself actually seems to believe it's not.
And that's fine. Or rather, it would be fine, if the Engineers were only seeding these planets with DNA. But they're not. They're seeding these planets, very specifically, with human DNA. That one utterly stupid line about Engineer DNA being 100% identical to that of humans has, once again, reared its ugly head.

The Engineers have not simply dumped DNA on Earth and waited to see what kind of life appears. They have dumped DNA on Earth (which already seems to have some primitive plant-life, somehow) and knowingly waited for it to reform into 100% identical (but also somehow different) copies of themselves. It's a pretty impractical method of cloning, honestly - especially when the whole process seemed to get distracted by giant lizards for two-hundred-million years and it took an asteroid to course-correct. But whatever; the point is that evolution apparently had a target in mind all along.
If, as Scott suggests, Earth was not a special case, and the Engineers have done the same thing on other planets too, this implies that we are not the only humans out there. It implies that other planets were seeded with life that would also have evolved to be 100% identical (but also somehow different) to their creators.

This is the creator of Alien saying that, in the universe of Alien, there are multiple unconnected societies of humans, independent of ours, scattered throughout the stars. In the same way that this doesn't affect the story of Prometheus at all, it doesn't directly affect anything about the Alien films either - but the question is certainly an interesting thought exercise. And it spawns another, even more interesting question: does Ridley Scott actually realise that this is what he's suggesting?

Going back to that interview for a moment, immediately before the line about gardening, Scott says, "...the weight and the construction of the DNA of those aliens is way beyond what we can possibly imagine."
Except that we know that's not true. The DNA of those aliens is exactly the same as ours - the film is very clear on this. Is it possible he doesn't realise that's what his movie is saying? It would certainly explain his attitude to the "gardening" - rather than not realising what his interview answers imply, he doesn't realise what the film itself implies.
And anyway, what does that quote even mean? It's DNA - four bases paired off and chained together in a sequence. If the "construction" is different (or even the "weight") then it ceases to be DNA.

Elsewhere on his DVD commentary, Scott explains that the film's mysterious "galactic configuration" (which looks like a constellation, but apparently only contains one star) is made up of planets. Planets: those things around stars that by definition move around a lot. A fixed configuration of those. And if that's the case, why do they not call it a "planetary system" since, y'know, that's what those are called.
There's a bit later on where he talks, at a very basic level, about how life adapts to its environment, and it's clear he's already out of his depth. As well as not understanding what his movie says, it's beginning to look like Ridley Scott doesn't understand the basic science that his movie deals with.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with his lack of knowledge in general terms - not everyone needs to have an interest or familiarity with science - but the director of a science fiction film has a responsibility to at least understand the fundamentals of their film's scientific concepts. Especially when those concepts are as simple as these.

And then, finally, I found another interview in which Sir Ridley said this:

"...there are probably thousands of different lifeforms in this galaxy... It’s entirely ridiculous to believe that we are the only ones here. That’s why my first thought is that for us to be sitting here right now is actually mathematically impossible without a lot of assistance."

Let's break that logic down. Ridley Scott believes that life is common in the universe, not rare. And because life is common, he finds it unlikely ("impossible" even) that life could exist on this planet without help. It is common; therefore it is unlikely.
That's, um... That's pretty contradictory, Ridley.

I realise I'm coming across as mocking and insulting one of the world's top film-makers, but that's not my intention at all. I just want to figure this out.
I think what's happening here is not that Scott is crazy or stupid - though those were certainly among my first thoughts - but rather that he just doesn't think these things through. He believes life is common in the universe and he also believes that life on Earth is unlikely - he just hasn't looked very hard at how either one affects the other. Likewise, I'm sure Ridley Scott knows that planets move (because, d'uh) - he just hasn't applied that knowledge to his idea of the "galactic configuration".
Taken on its own, the idea that the Engineers are space gardeners makes sense - or, at least, it doesn't not make sense. Taken on its own, so does the idea that their DNA would be very similar to ours (though 100% identical is still too much of a stretch). It even makes sense, taken on its own, that the original Engineers would have more complex genetics than the copies that became humanity, depending on the meaning of "more complex". It's only if you think through the entire process, from start to finish, that you realise it leads to a place of craziness. I think it's clear Ridley Scott has not done this - that he has instead looked at each in isolation, nodded, and then moved onto the next.

Going back to his commentary, at the point where Dave the android finds a living Engineer in a stasis pod, Scott says that there's actually Engineers in all six (I think) of the pods in the room - then he suddenly backtracks, says they all died in their pods and he knows why but it's too complicated to get into right now. He's not a great liar.
He hasn't thought through the sentence he is saying, apparently, and he's certainly never thought through this aspect of the scene before. Again, "David finds an alien in a pod" and "there are six alien-filled pods in the room" both work fine as plot-points on their own, so Scott accepts both - but in combining them he discovers some uncomfortable questions, and hastily tries to patch them up. This is quite a minor problem compared with many of the others, but hearing it play out in real-time on the DVD is pretty illuminating.

We've seen this pattern before - things that work in isolation but do not work when examined together. It's a perfect description of Prometheus itself. The entire film is a chain of scenes that work beautifully well on their own, but make no sense when placed inside the overarching story. It's a collection of interesting but separate ideas that were never properly thought through.
Having an amazing holographic map of the alien structure is a great idea! Having people get lost in the creepy structure is also a great idea! But nobody seems to have thought through how one idea affects the other - just as Ridley Scott doesn't seem to think how one interview answer affects another.
I honestly think this is how Sir Ridley approached the film - maybe how he approaches all his films (though most of them are much more successful). If something works or makes sense on its own then it is assumed to have worked and made sense within the story, and it's never brought to mind again. This is the impression that these interviews and comments seem to paint, and it's an impression heavily supported by the movie itself.

But, in a sudden twist ending that you probably don't want to hear after reading sixteen-hundred words of pseudo-analysis, Scott's attitudes and opinions don't actually matter. Which, finally, brings us to a sixth common misconception about Prometheus:

6: Ridley Scott is Right

Scott says that there are dead aliens in the other five pods.
Frankly, I think he's wrong. I saw the film and, to me, it seemed pretty clear from David's actions that that was the only inhabited pod and that the other five were empty. I disagree with the director. The point being that there's no reason to assume his interpretation is any more valid than mine. Or yours.

There is a theory called "Death of the Author" which claims that when interpreting a text of any kind (book, film, comic, music, painting, sculpture, long-winded blog post, etc.) one must approach it from the position that the author died the moment the project was complete and never explained it to anyone, even if you know full well that they are alive and talking about it constantly. If the author is dead, this means the only source of information about the text is the text itself.
How this applies to Prometheus is that if Ridley Scott tells us in an interview that the Engineers' DNA is "beyond our imagination", it doesn't matter because he is dead so he can't have said that. If he tells us in his director's commentary that we are looking at a galactic configuration of planets, it's irrelevant because he is dead so he never said that. Oh, you still read or heard the comments, but they were the comments of some random guy, not the director - because the director is dead - and, as such, they are no more or less "correct" than the thoughts of any other random guy.
Scott says they are planets. That's fine - that's his opinion - but it's not law. I can continue to believe that they are stars, because that makes more sense to me based on what I saw in the film. Scott says the planet in the opening is probably not Earth - I maintain that it almost certainly has to be, based on what I saw in the movie. Scott (to very quickly mention a different film) has said many times that Deckard in Blade Runner is definitely, undoubtedly, a replicant - and yet the debate rages on, regardless of what the director thinks. The film has to speak for itself - the original intent is effectively irrelevant.

That seems counterintuitive in a lot of ways, but it's really the only way interpretation can work. Otherwise a film (or book, or any text) could make no sense at all, but the director (author) could explain away any problems and we would have to accept those explanations - even though the text itself still makes no sense.
It's the same reason that “it makes sense in the book” is no excuse when things aren't adequately explained in the film version (think Patronuses in the Harry Potter films). It's the same reason that articles like this one, which analyse an entire movie based upon hearsay information that isn't actually in the movie, aren't a fair assessment. It's the same reason people can come up with conspiracy theories about the ambiguous endings of The Dark Knight Rises or Mass Effect 3, even though the creators never intended those endings to be ambiguous. And, more positively, it's the same reason that songs or art can come to represent social causes or cultural ideas that have nothing to do with the people who created the works originally.

Ridley Scott is free to say whatever he wants, to interpret his film in any way he wants, and to think those interpretations through as little as he wants. He's allowed to contradict himself and to contradict his movie, and it's not a problem because, once the film is out in the open, his opinion holds no authority and becomes just one more possible view. Death of the Author liberates us from the idea that the director's opinion is the correct one - or that there is only one "correct" opinion at all - and gives us the freedom to interpret a film on its own terms.
In this case, though, it's a bit of a moot point because, sadly, the film itself isn't very well thought out either.