Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ridley Scott, Prometheus, and horror

So Ridley Scott has returned to the sci-fi and horror genre that made him famous in the late 1970s fiilm Alien.  This should at least be interesting. The original film, as anyone who has seen it will have probably observed, played a lot with the subtext of rape and bodily invasion. The alien could be scary because the nature and shape of the alien continually shifted and changed throughout the original film.  By James Cameron's sequel the monsters were scary in numbers and in terms of sheer size. If Scott's film could be considered high gothic in execution, if not in concept, then Cameron's film was low gothic where we were shown more and more monsters until we got to the queen herself.

Prometheus does not look like it's going to go in that direction.  Scott has indicated the original alien no longer has the power to scare people because after thirty years it is just too well known.  Instead the teasers and trailers make much of how the search for our beginnings could be our end.  The questions of who we are and where we have come from will get asked, if not answered in any ultimately significant way.  The specifics of the answer within that narrative universe may not matter so much as a general observation about horror as a genre.

Steven Grant has made two observations that seem salient at this point. The definition of tragedy, he wrote, was not that evil triumphs over good but that a tragic hero chooses a lesser good over a greater good in a battle of competing legitimate goods.  Grant, if memory serves, is an atheist or agnostic but a Christian cannot afford to be too dismissive of this observation about tragedy. It is the Christian understanding, in essence, of the human condition and our place in it within the cosmos.  The world did not stop being full of the glory, grandeur and love of God after the Fall since life and beauty do exist ... but the world and the humans within it are broken. This is a tragedy but not a horror.

Steven Grant's observation about horror was, if memory serves, that the evil and misery in the cosmos that we observe, the evil and misery we observe in humans or in ourselves, that is inherent to its nature.  To put it in theological terms horror is the running with the most literal embodiment of the idea that we, as humans, reflect the divine image and to consider that if we are but dim reflections or copies of the divine image how awful and malignant must that divine being or beings actually be?

This is, unsurprisingly, why many Christians would not like horror, will not like horror, or may choose to deliberately interpret horror in ways that fit traditional Christian ethical ideas.  And it's not difficult to do that if you observe that Jason Voorhees (sic) kills fornicators, by and large.  But in the first movie Jason's mother (not Jason) killed pretty indiscriminately.

A Christian who avoids the realization that this world full of death, murder and misery is permitted to exist by a god we recognize as loving, powerful, knowledgeable and good is avoiding something that is unavoidable.  The book of Job addresses this misery head on and concedes there is no direct answer. The answers to the nature and source of human cruelty are not as mysterious as we might like to think they are.  Psychologist Roy Baumeister went so far as to propose that the temptations and incentives to cruelty are all too easily understood and that the question we must ask about what theologians have called moral evil is not why there is so much of it in the human condition but why there isn't more of it. His answer was that the pre-emptive power of guilt to restrain us and the empathy that lets us imagine how others may be feeling are big reasons more evil is not committed.

Well, in a horror story it's not uncommon for empathy to be seen as a weakness by the monster or the cruel.  In many cases the monster, the shape, the thing, or the killer has no motive.  This plays into the myth of pure evil and while some people think evil is more scary if it has no motive this is not really the case.  Evil has a motive because actions are never unmotivated.  We know in the final analysis that what is senseless to us, even horrifying, is neither unmotivated nor inexplicable.  As the Joker tells Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, nobody gets too upset if things go according to plan even if the plan is horrifying.  If soldiers die nobody [except the relatives and lovers and friends] gets upset because it's all part of the plan. Soldiers know the risks they take.

And that is where horror makes its bed in our hearts about plans, that the horror is that if there is a plan it is a plan that has no regard for our dignity, our lives, our loves, our talents, our hopes, our dreams, or ourselves.  Job's comforters could be said, to borrow a few lines from Heath Ledger's Joker, to have told Job that everything was all part of the plan and they had figured out what that plan was.  Horror proposes that, as I think Baudelaire is said to have put it, that if there is a god he is the devil. Once one knows this general theme in horror many plot points for movies stop being mysterious even before the movies are released.  Don't take that as a sign that I'm not going to watch the film.  I'm curious enough to see it.  A cast that includes Fassbender and Theron that is directed by Ridley Scott should at least be watchable, I hope.

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