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Prometheus (2012) – Calvinball Mythology and the Void of Meaning

June 21, 2012

0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories

Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.

While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text.  As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.

This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.

As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.

1. When Mythologies Fail to Take

One of the side effects of the rise of geek spirituality is that fans are sometimes frustrated when works either fail or refuse to make the transition from simple text to quasi-religious megatext. An excellent example of this frustration can be found in some of the reactions to Takeshi Koike’s science fiction anime film Redline (2009). The film revolves around a kinetically paced and psychedelically designed road race featuring colourful aliens, magical princesses, energy beings, orbital weapons platforms and an ending that is best described as an enormous space orgasm. While the film does contain a very sweet romantic subplot, the film’s emphasis is clearly on the race itself and the action set pieces that comprise it. Much of the film’s plot and setting do not make a huge amount of sense but this is completely unimportant as the film is designed from the ground up to provide a visceral cinematic experience. When the film was reviewed on the influential Anime News Network website, many fans took issue with what they perceived to be shoddy worldbuilding. As one poster named Timeenforceranubis put it:

My thing about science-fiction is: The worldbuilding is a big part of what makes me to care about a work of science-fiction. Without it, there’s little context. Sure, it keeps the story simple, but at the cost of immersion, and I felt like the whole movie was trying to make me care, despite the fact that it refuses to build its world. I never thought I’d use this phrase to seriously describe something, but it insists upon itself.

Conditioned by the market to associate the science fiction genre with escapism, the poster perceived Redline’s deliberate lack of worldbuilding as a weakness in the text and a mistake on Koike’s part. Despite being generally well disposed to the film, the poster genuinely seemed to struggle with the idea that a work of science fiction might have an artistic goal other than providing a textual foundation for flights of escapist fantasy.

This sense of megatextual expectation also explains why it is that so many fans are still attempting to resurrect Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly despite the fact that a) the series was cancelled ten years ago and b) the series already had a ‘conclusion’ in the form of a 2005 film entitled Serenity. As the original series was unexpectedly cancelled after only 14 episodes were made, many fans feel that the world of Firefly is somehow ‘incomplete’ and so they continue to lobby for the creation of more Firefly-related content in the hope that this new content will answer all of their questions.

Similarly intriguing is the anger generated by the supposedly unsatisfying final season of the ABC TV series Lost. Created by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, Lost tells the story of a group of people who survive a plane crash only to find themselves trapped on an isolated tropical island. As the group starts to explore the island, they encounter a series of increasingly baffling mysteries that include polar bears, time travel, sinister corporations, magic numbers and smoke monsters. The most striking thing about Lost is that, while each new mystery compels you to keep watching, there is little sense that these mysteries form part of a wider and more coherent truth. This approach to running a series can be compared to Calvinball, the game played by Calvin and Hobbes whose rules are entirely made up on the fly. As the Calvinball theme song has it:

Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!

Calvinball storytelling emerged at a time when ‘serious’ American TV drama was attempting to move away from the production of stand-alone episodes and towards a focus upon long-term storylines (or ‘plot arcs’). Early pioneers of arc-based TV storytelling included Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which pre-empted Lost by using an open-ended mystery to provide an impression of narrative cohesiveness.

Calvinball storytelling is a transitional approach to show-running in so far as it provides an operational bridge between treating individual episodes as self-contained stories and treating individual episodes as component parts of much larger narrative tapestries. Calvinball storytelling allows writers to focus upon churning out the best possible episode they can without overly worrying about how that episode will fit into the greater narrative.  As Twin Peaks, X-Files and Lost demonstrate, Calvinball writers throw a lot of ideas at the wall and only some of them stick. It is only when writers of later episodes begin drawing on previously used ideas that the illusion of a deeper narrative structure begins to emerge.

One of the peculiarities of running a Calvinball TV series is that the audience must never be allowed to think that the writers are making stuff up as they go. The reason for this is that mysteries tend to engage our interest only in so far as they appear to have solutions. By acknowledging that none of their mysteries were designed with solutions in mind, TV writers would effectively break the spell and so reveal the mess of dangling plot strands and stand-alone episodes that lie hidden behind the illusion of narrative cohesiveness. The author M. John Harrison once expressed a similar insight on his (now defunct) blog, writing about the challenges of ‘worldbuilding’ he said:

The worst mistake a contemporary f/sf writer can make is to withold or disrupt suspension of disbelief. The reader, it’s assumed, wants to receive the events in the text as seamless & the text as unperformed. The claim is that nobody is being “told a story” here, let alone being sold a pup. Instead, an impeccably immersive experience is playing in the cinema of the head. This experience is somehow unmediated, or needs to present itself as such: any vestige of performativeness in the text dilutes the experience by reminding the reader that the “world” on offer is a rhetorical construct. All writing is a shell game, a sham: but genre writing mustn’t ever look as if it is.

The art of Calvinball storytelling lies in the ability to keep the shell game alive so as to not disrupt that suspension of disbelief. In order to do this, TV writers must manage a vast number of active plotlines with little or no guidance as to how these plotlines are intended to develop. Skilful showrunners keep the Calvinball in play by knowing when to keep a plotline open, when to close it, when to combine it with others and when to bail on it completely. The most successful Calvinball series are those that manage to keep themselves on the air for year after year without alienating or frustrating the audience and without having to resort to such heavy-handed ground-clearance techniques as crashing a plane into a village, travelling back in time, revealing that it was all a dream or repeatedly hitting the reset button. The aim of the game is not to provide answers but to hold an audience’s attention by asking ever more evocative and unexpected questions until the continuity eventually becomes so cluttered and unmanageable that the entire enterprise collapses in on itself like a dying star.

In its heyday, Lost demonstrated how skilful writers could focus upon telling simple stories and yet create the illusion that they were exploring a vast and complex mythological framework. However, at the end, Lost also demonstrated how that mythological status could be revoked when answers are not forthcoming. A similar thing happened with Twin Peaks when the series was cancelled and a cinematic spin-off was made and marketed on the basis that it would provide audiences with answers that had not been forthcoming during the original run of the series. Directed by David Lynch himself, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) was intended as both a prologue and an epilogue to the series but its failure to provide audiences with satisfactory answers resulted in an audience backlash that killed the franchise stone dead and forced Lynch to abandon his plans to produce two further Twin Peaks films.

What the fall of franchises such as Lost and Twin Peaks demonstrate is that, while fans are drawn to series and franchises that appear to possess a mythological depth, their commitment to said franchises only persists so long as the impression of depth remains. Some franchises (like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) endure because they were built with such depth in mind. Other franchises (like Chris Carter’s X-Files) endure because their managers are highly adept at keeping the illusion of depth alive. Some franchises (including the Marvel and DC comics universes) begin as illusions only to eventually gain the substance and depth of true mythology. While there are many strategies available to writers and franchise managers who hope to encourage immersion and keep their mythologies alive, some franchises simply have mythological status thrust upon them.

2. Mythological Despite Itself

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was never designed to support a franchise. The film began life with the somewhat inauspicious title “Star Beast” before undergoing a series of re-writes, legal difficulties and production changes until it eventually entered the orbit of Walter Hill, the man who directed The Warriors (1979). Hill felt uncomfortable with the science fiction elements in the script and so passed it on to the then relatively inexperienced Ridley Scott. As Kim Newman observes in an excellent recent piece for Sight & Sound magazine:

Alien was one of those masterpiece-by-committee films fathered by writers, producers, designers and cast as well as director (and it’s probably Scott’s only film as a director for hire). The subsequent development of the series, even in its despised entries, has taken a similarly wayward path, with Hill and Giler calling in talents as diverse as [James] Cameron, William Gibson and Vincent Ward (both of whom worked on earlier versions of Alien 3), David Fincher (that film’s eventual director), Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Joss Whedon (director and writer respectively of Alien Resurrection) to add in elements of the universe. Even noveliser Alan Dean Foster was responsible for elements that became canon, while Sigourney Weaver became a more dominant and involved voice in the crafting of successive films.

While Alien’s masterpiece status may be something of a happy accident, its status as core text of a vast multi-media franchise seems nothing short of perverse.

Alien was built neither to sustain an escapist mythology nor to create the illusion of mythological depth. In truth, the film is nothing more than a traditional horror movie that replaces the trappings of gothic romance (vampires, decaying mansions, terrifying forests) with the trappings of space opera (aliens, decaying spaceships, terrifying planets). Those elements of the film that hint at a wider universe are there largely for their capacity to evoke feelings of awe and foreboding in the audience. Indeed, what are the original Space Jockey and crashed spaceship other than an updated version of the crashed spaceship and mummified corpse from Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1959)? Like the videotape in Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998), the puzzle box in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) or the countless objects that crop up in the basement to Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012), the Space Jockey exists purely in order to pose an unanswerable question that destabilises the audience and forces them to begin doubting what they think they know of the world. Alien opens by introducing us to an empty and barren universe where humans continue to work shitty jobs for shitty pay… then they discover a crashed alien spaceship. If everything the characters know about the universe is wrong then who knows what lurks around the next corner.

The success of the Alien franchise to date owes more to the iconic design of the original film than it does to the depth of its worldbuilding. Armed with only a final girl and a monster, James Cameron was able to ‘evolve’ Alien into the action film that was Aliens (1986). Armed with an aging final girl and a radically debased monster, David Fincher ‘evolved’ the series yet again into Alien 3 (1992), a grim meditation on the futility of a life lived without purpose. Since then, the franchise has been happily spawning games, spin-offs and sequels that draw heavily on the themes and images of the first three films without adding anything to them.

Given the success of the Alien franchise and the increasing tendency to ground franchises in some sort of fan-friendly mythology, it was perhaps unavoidable that someone would eventually try to put the house of Alien into some kind of mythological order. As with Twin Peaks, the decision was taken to go back to the beginning and produce a prequel to the original Alien that would fill in all the unexamined gaps in the film’s supposed mythology. When it was announced that this prequel would see the return of Ridley Scott not only to the Alien franchise but science fiction as a whole, the Internet (quite understandably) went mental. However, while Prometheus (2012) is being both marketed and discussed in terms of its capacity to supply answers, the film itself limits its mythological engagement to playing around with mythic symbolism. In fact, I believe that Prometheus is best understood as vicious critique of the tendency to seek answers to big questions and to weave these answers into some kind of escapist fantasy. Far from providing us with a mythology that makes sense and answers all questions, Prometheus suggests that life is nothing more than a series of random events leading not to Tolkien’s meaningful ‘turn’ but to a sense of profound bafflement.

3. Prometheus Unravelled

 

Auspiciously, Prometheus opens with an answer.

The answer is to the long-standing question of what the figure of the Space Jockey actually represents. Was the Jockey’s insectoid appearance due to the fact that his species was insect-like or was the insectoid appearance due to the shape of his spacesuit? The answer, it transpires, is the latter as the Space Jockey is revealed to be a member of a species that shares 100% of humanity’s DNA… except for the fact that they are ten feet-tall and hugely muscular with skin the colour of freshly-milked semen.

This is the only definitive answer that Prometheus provides its audience.

Having answered this question, Prometheus sets about asking a whole series of new questions as our Space Jockey-lookalike downs a shot of something black and gooey before dissolving himself into what we assume to be one of Earth’s primordial seas. From there, the film skips forward several thousand years to a scene in a Scottish cave where archaeologists have just discovered proof that aliens have visited the Earth. Based on a piece of imagery that reappears in the artwork of a number of geographically isolated human cultures, the archaeologists work out that the aliens who visited Earth in the distant past most likely came from one particular star system. Claiming that these aliens may well have created mankind, the archaeologists convince a dying trillionaire to fund their expedition to the stars on the assumption that these aliens will be able to answer humanity’s most fundamental religious questions, namely that of why we are here and what part we have to play in the grand narrative of creation.

Prometheus lays out its mythological stall with an excruciating attention to detail. For example, the film is knee-deep in mythological allusion and symbolism ranging from the name of the ship (Prometheus, the titan from classical myth who rebelled against the gods and supposedly fathered humanity) to the name of the android (David, both a biblical king and a famous work of art). The film also blurs whenever possible the line between the organic (landscapes, species that evolved organically) and the synthetic (robots, products of genetic engineering, buildings, spaceships and works of art). The result is a dense thicket of disparate and incoherent symbolism that is forever poised on the brink of becoming a meaningful metaphor. While these allusions and symbols ultimately add very little to the film’s substance and message, they do coax the audience into a heightened state of pareidolia in which they cannot help but search the screen for answers.

This state of expectation is further excited by the derivative nature of the ideas on display. Indeed, the idea that alien visitors might have played some role in the emergence of humanity will be familiar to anyone who has either read or heard of books like Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968) and Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1995). The idea will also be familiar to anyone who has seen films such as Quatermass and the Pit (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stargate (1994), Mission to Mars (2000), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). My point is not so much that the ideas contained in Prometheus are old and tired, rather that we approach the film with quite a clear set of genre expectations and those expectations encourage us to believe that the human crew will discover the truth about human origins once they reach the alien planet. Intriguingly, the audience’s sense of expectation is mirrored by that of the crew.

Once the ship lands on the mysterious planet, the crew finds both an alien installation and proof that these aliens were planning on returning to Earth. However, they also find a big pile of dead bodies and thousands of urns containing an evil-looking black substance. While the exact nature of this ooze is never made clear, we know that it is some kind of biological agent that turns humans into monsters and insects into enormous snake-penis-things with acid for blood and a marked fondness for face-raping.

As the film progresses and Scott moves us from symbol to symbol and mystery-to-mystery without ever offering any explanations, one cannot help but be reminded of Calvinball TV series such as Lost, Twin Peaks and the X-Files.  The structural similarities between Lost and Prometheus are far from accidental as one of the people credited with writing Prometheus is the Lost show-runner Damon Lindelof. Indeed, much like Lost, Prometheus keeps its audience interested by Calvinballing its way through a dazzling array of evocatively staged mysteries including:

  • Why did the Space Jockey dissolve himself into the sea?
  • Why did the aliens visit Earth in the first place?
  • What happened to the alien ship?
  • Why were the aliens planning on visiting Earth with a shipload of sinister black goo?
  • When that mission failed, why did no alien ships turn up to either complete the mission or tidy up the mess left by the first ship?

In addition to these Big Questions, the film also provides a number of much smaller, character-based mysteries including:

  • Is Charlize Theron’s character a robot?
  • Why did one of the people on the ship conceal his presence?
  • Why did the android begin experimenting on the crew?
  • Why did nobody bother to check when the team returned to the ship and accidentally left two people behind?

The main difference between the structure of Prometheus and that of Lost is that while Lost used mysteries as a means of driving inter-character conflict and setting up action sequences, Prometheus uses them to spark discussion between the characters. This makes for a far more subdued viewing experience as all of these discussions drain the film of both pace and tension. Robbed of all momentum and emotional resonance, Prometheus’s few action sequences feel decidedly lacklustre as nothing Scott throws at the screen comes anywhere close to recapturing the tension and excitement contained in the first three Alien films. On a more structural level, Scott’s decision to anchor the film in discussion proves disastrous as these discussions not only provide few tangible answers, they also allow the audience just enough time to realise that Prometheus is nothing more than an elaborate narrative shell game. This is precisely why Lost would frequently cut to Jack and Sawyer having a fist-fight; the more the audience is entertained and distracted, the less likely it is that they will get bored and begin demanding answers.

Seemingly aware that the audience may be getting restive, Prometheus takes an unexpected left-turn at the end of the second act when the ship’s android discovers a surviving member of the installation’s alien crew. Desperate for answers, members of the crew crowd around the freshly awoken alien and attempt to elbow their way to the front and ask him the greatest questions of all. At which point the alien wordlessly rips off the android’s head and goes on an angry, angry killing spree.

Naturally enough, the alien’s psychotic behaviour invites the audience to raise a whole new battery of questions:

  • What did the android say to the alien upon its awakening?
  • Why did the alien respond to a first contact situation with psychotic violence?
  • If the alien had a ship all along, why did he bother to put himself in cryogenic hibernation in the first place?
  • Why was the alien headed to Earth?
  • After 2000 years in cryogenic stasis, why did the alien not bother to check-in with his home culture or command structure?

One of the most amusing things about the online reactions to Prometheus is that many people have responded to this mass of plot holes by attempting to create an elaborate back-story that fills in all the gaps in the narrative. Some are even touting the inevitable extended director’s cut as the version of the film that will both make sense and provide actual answers. To my mind, these attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.

Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions. However, once the humans arrive at their destination, every attempt to uncover answers results either in death or the discovery of yet more questions. As death follows puzzle and puzzle follows death, a clear theme begins to emerge: The universe is utterly indifferent to humanity and has no interest at all in answering its questions. Though laughable on a dramatic level, the decision to have the alien attack the humans on sight actually makes a good deal of thematic sense: if the universe is unwilling to answer our questions, why should our gods be any different?

The idea that our creators may not have any Big Answers to give us is further explored in a beautifully understated scene at the beginning of the film. In this scene, the android David asks about why it is that humans felt the need to create androids. Visibly uncomfortable about talking to what he considers to be a piece of technology, the archaeologist glibly suggests that humans built David because they could. The flippant indifference of the archaeologist foreshadows the flippant indifference of both the alien installation and the aliens themselves. If we have no answers to give David, what right do we have to expect similar answers either from our creators or from the universe at large?

The closest Prometheus comes to providing us with an explanation for the events in both this film and the original Alien is that it is all an accident. This theory is put forward by the ship’s captain who speculates that the alien installation may be some kind of bio-weapons lab whose experiments got completely out of control. This certainly fits with what we know about the film’s non-humanoid creatures that invariably emerge as a result of accidental contact with the black ooze. Thus, alien worms turn into giant penis-snakes, human gametes turn into an enormous rapey octopus and a chance encounter between the octopus and the surviving humanoid alien results in the birth of something that looks almost exactly like the xenomorph of the original Alien films. By showing us how a series of random events can lead to the creation of whole new species, Prometheus is effectively calling into question the human need to myth.

Mythologies differ from scientific explanations in so far as the logic they use to explain events is narrative rather than causal. For example, Prometheus offers an explanation for why certain things happen but the nature of this explanation is purely causal in that the film shows us how A lead to B and how B resulted in C. The reason why so many Alien fans walked away from Prometheus frustrated is that they wanted a mythological back-story for the first film, not a causal explanation. They wanted Prometheus to take the unanswered questions of Alien and answer them in terms of a story that made narrative sense and so allowed them to experience that Tolkienian ‘turn’. By explicitly denying its audience the chance to experience that narrative ‘turn’ where everything makes sense and fits into a neat little story, Prometheus is breaking with the accepted wisdom that all stories support sequels and that all sequels add mythological depth.

4. Kicking the Mythology Habit

We live in an age where little seems to make sense. Today’s young people have done everything that was demanded of them; they did their homework and gained good qualifications before embarking on ambitious careers. They worked long hours for shitty pay on the assumption that someone would notice and give them a helping hand. They did as they were told and they followed the rules but still the lives promised to them never materialised. An entire generation has been laid off or shunted into low pay and low prestige sidings while the rich old fuckers in power get older, richer and more powerful. Today’s young were sold a scam and this sense of anomie has driven them into the arms of popular culture where everything makes sense and everything feels good.

I have endless sympathy for the desire to seek escape from a life that didn’t quite work out as planned. I know the attractions of shutting out the world’s problems by immersing oneself in an escapist realm that makes perfect sense and so glows with the distant warmth of true salvation. I know what it is like to mourn a Faith I never possessed and I have imbibed enough postmodernism over the years to realise that religion does not require truth in order for it to be effective. We are all native postmodernists and we know that ‘truth’ is relative to time, place and perspective. Myths do not need to be true in order for them to make us feel at home. I understand all of this and yet I also realise that there is a time and a place for everything.

Escapist media is central to what it means to be Western. For decades now, we have been burying our heads in various franchises and using what we find there to both make sense of ourselves and to make sense of the world. The quest for palliative entertainment lies at the heart of many of the most successful media franchises that Western culture has yet produced. Indeed, it is entirely fitting that today’s Cathedrals and Pyramids are erected in film to a pantheon of comic book gods who claim no greater reality than that of subjective spectacle. We crave stories in order to cope and the stories that help us most are those that resemble mythology.

Prometheus is a timely reminder that not all stories can support a myth and that attempts to force mythological status on largely self-contained stories can prove disastrous. The problem highlighted by the very existence of Prometheus is that the demand for synthetic mythologies is now so intense that it is beginning to distort the nature of popular culture. With fans demanding mythological depth and investors demanding the type of monies that accompany owning people’s fantasy lives, the market for self-contained stories is beginning to shrink. Indeed, the pressure on the market is effectively double sided: On the one hand, investors would rather invest in properties with the potential for further growth and, on the other hand, fans are increasingly reticent to invest their time and money in properties that do not offer immersive mythological depth. Prometheus is an important film as it is the first attempt to reboot an existing franchise and place it on a more mythological footing. Though an undeniable artistic failure, Prometheus has been a hugely profitable venture and I would not be surprised if it not only spawned further ill-conceived sequels but also provided a template for other works that, despite being non-mythological in character, have existing fanbases that would be receptive to mythological reboots.

My worry is that the growth of geek spirituality may be shrinking the market for works that, like Koike’s Redline, are beautiful precisely because they are perfectly self-contained stories. Prometheus is a legitimately terrible film and yet I cannot help but feel that it contains the future of all popular culture.

55 Comments
  1. June 21, 2012 11:03 am

    fascinating review!

  2. June 21, 2012 12:06 pm

    Amazing review! I will try and follow your advice to stop looking for the meaning of life in pop culture. It won’t be easy to break the habit though.

  3. aelilea permalink
    June 21, 2012 1:57 pm

    Great review! I wonder if there is a memo in a drawer somewhere with the idea that any “unresolved questions” could always be “resolved” via a spin-off TV series. This would rather support the last line of your review (though I don’t think it will happen in this case).

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Battlestar Galactica in your list of Lost-like examples, which ultimately made a failed attempt to tie up the loose threads its week-by-week writing had generated. There has been a definite trend to use nuggets of ‘meaning’ and ‘mythological depth’ in same free-floating way plotlines would be used and reused across films and episodic series, and yours is the first review I have read that tries to figure out why. Since there is no genuine thought behind the use of these elements, too many of them are used at once, which is possibly how you end up with something so weighed down with confusing allusions as Prometheus.

    Conversely, one could speculate that when such gestures were made more sparingly, with the main focus being on a plot, they were more effective, even though it isn’t at all clear the writers at the time on average thought any more deeply about what they were putting together.

  4. Audrey L. permalink
    June 21, 2012 5:14 pm

    Yes, amazing review indeed !

  5. June 21, 2012 5:37 pm

    Agreed – great discussion of the place of “synthetic mythology” in contemporary culture.
    I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of mythologies of this type, but I have to admit I’m getting to miss less ambitious, stand-alone entertainment.
    As to the film Promethetus: I haven’t seen it yet, and so can’t judge the discussion of that film, but I’m not surprised by your conclusions regarding the “attempt to force a mythological status” on the Alien franchise. From the start this seemed to me a questionable exercise.

  6. June 21, 2012 9:22 pm

    Thank you all for your kind words, I’m glad you liked the piece :-)

    Linda — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking escapism in pop culture (I certainly use pop culture as a lens through which to examine my experiences and decisions), my problem is with the tendency to approach pop culture solely in that manner. Sometimes a film is just a film.

    Aelilea — Good call on Battlestar! What turned me off the series was the impression that they had completely abandoned the idea of systematic characterisation in favour of raw expediency. If one character needed to be crippled by self-doubt in order for the episode to work, then that self-doubt would manifest itself without any basis in anything the character had said or done up to that point. Battlestar’s mythology is probably a good test case for some of my ideas as the first season opened a load of boxes in a really awesome manner and left everything up in the air as an end of season cliff-hanger. Sadly, come the start of season 2 they had to collapse the wave function and the series never fully recovered.

    Nader — This type of deep mythological creation is certainly ambitious but it is only one form of ambition. In terms of both narrative and worldbuilding, Redline is a proper soufflet but the technical ambition of the film dwarfs anything on display in Prometheus.

  7. June 22, 2012 2:26 am

    Thanks, what a great read! This put my own concerns into a broader context and really opened my eyes. It is interesting to see how many people embrace Prometheus. Lindelof clearly generates ambiguity for its own sake because as a poor writer, that is his only tool to reel the audience in. He creates the illusion of depth and meaning and quite literally deceives the viewers on an intellectual level. Now you get people on the internet who know no better but to label the film as “visionary” or “ahead of its time”. Considering that it hints at questions that are as old as humanity itself with a script that is as flawed and conventional as it gets, assertions like this are just laughable. And a bit worrying.

  8. Apostrophe permalink
    June 22, 2012 3:04 am

    Theodore Sturgeon seems to be invoked here, in several ways.
    Sturgeon’s Law is most often quoted as “Ninety percent of everything is crap” – which certainly might apply to the tangled spaghetti-strand loose ends of a Calvinball Mythology.
    But the Original Sturgeon’s Law – the one he himself gave that title – was “Nothing is always absolutely so.”
    Is that what the Alien committee of creators are saying here? If we look at this, it seems to say that any search for meaning in myth leads only to pain, horror, loss, in a cosmos void of it. “Why ask why? Drain blood dry!”

    Again, Sturgeon, when writing his signature, would add a small symbol, explaining: “It means ‘Ask the next question’.”

    The next question would be: Are the Alien mythwrights advocating mytho-nihilism on purpose, or did that message just show up by empty chance?

  9. June 22, 2012 7:15 am

    Jonathan — I think you’re being melodramatic by painting Lindelof as some kind of evil genius. I very much enjoyed Lost because I realised quite early on that they were making it up as they went along. Once you accept that there is no deeper mystery there to uncover, you can watch Calvinball series simply for the joy of the next unexpected twist: Yeah holes in the ground! Yeah polar bears! Yeah submarines! I think that Calvinball storytelling is a technique like any other… in fact it’s a technique that has been in wide use for a long time now. There’s nothing sinister about it, it’s just a different way of writing a show. The problem comes when people watch Calvinball films and TV in the expectation that there is some deeper method to the madness. There isn’t… but that doesn’t stop the madness from being enjoyable.

  10. June 22, 2012 4:04 pm

    No, not an evil genius. Just a poor writer. Or maybe just the wrong writer.
    My problem with Lost and Prometheus are that everything is portrayed as being so damn important and beyond us. Even though there is no substance there, it is easy to buy it as some intellectual enigma rather than the fun and shallow entertainment it is. If Lindelof was a genius, his plan would be to waste everyone’s time.

  11. June 26, 2012 7:35 am

    I found this blog and conversation via the mystique ways of the web – Is this not the old conversation between form and content? Ape sees canister on ground, Ape’s curiosity gets better of it, approaches, pokes canister, noxious substance is emitted and consumes – Ape dies. Canister flips open – empty. The Book of Revelations is a bit like that – as is the Epic of Gilgamesh. And extending this one element further – apply this critique to all human behaviour and you see a lot of scurrying around and self importance and no meaning whatsoever. So maybe the ‘lens’ of critique you’ve used on the area you’ve been looking at has transformed to accommodate what you are critiquing… Maybe look next at ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ as those values are of course often unexamined and taken as a ‘truth’ of human experience.

  12. June 26, 2012 8:50 am

    Hi Terry :-)

    I think that this is a really excellent point. The whole ‘Aiie… God is Dead!’ riff tends to assume that pre-modern people lived lives of exquisite meaning and that the sense of place they enjoyed added a lot to their lives. In truth, I suspect that most medieval peasants lived lives that were just as bereft as ours except that rather than thinking that they just disappeared when they died, they simply assumed that they went to Heaven or Hell.

    I think a lot of the carping after ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ is nostalgia in the sense that it is yearning for a place that never existed to begin with.

    I think you’re right that these are concepts that need re-examination as they are far from problematic but I do think that — right or wrong — the desire for the world to ‘make sense’ is driving people towards store-bought synthetic mythology.

  13. June 26, 2012 10:40 pm

    I would guess that the imagined sense of self of an Egyptian Slave, or Medieval Peasant come to that, would differ quite significantly from a current sense of self, so the weight of significance that a myth would have – when peering into the dark unknowable night of both the former – would have a value that would be much different from our own. This is all supposition but we do know (if anything is knowable that is) that some 8 million years ago we split for other primates. If that were a fact worth knowing then we could coclude that there is a change in consciousness from then to now. So there would be other changes of consciousness as we went… Anyway, my point is that we shouldn’t discard the possibility that that weight of myth in earlier times constituted the basis of a reality that was effectively mythic. Also, if that were true in some way, then that memory, of wanting mythic constructions and in fact working with them might evoke the power of a mythic reality today.

  14. June 27, 2012 8:40 am

    A very, very good review that points to much larger issues in our culture.

    Speaking of which — I just thought of something rather depressing: If this myth-making pattern continues (and why shouldn’t it), people in the future will create mythologized fictional accounts of the 20th and 21st century — in which every war, every atrocity and disaster will “make sense” and be “part of the larger myth”. (Gag me with a spoon…)

  15. June 27, 2012 3:03 pm

    I don’t know about the whole century, but catastrophes and wars are constantly used in movies as the backdrop and catalyst to some sort of personal realisation or social awakening. Take Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”. 9/11 is stripped of its political context and represented as the disaster everyone needed to find back together again.
    In fact, when the first plane hits the building, all we see in the film is its faint shadow going past on a nearby building, almost as if to suggest a divine intervention.

  16. Geoff B. permalink
    June 27, 2012 3:38 pm

    If Prometheus is explicitly setting out to be a myth that subverts myth by pointing out the impersonality of the universe (oddly, by putting more inexplicable persons in it) how or why would we engage with it? Moreover, how could this be the future of popular culture if it overtly rejects the expectation of its audience?

    Where, one might ask, lies the mythic appeal of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who constructed a mythos of meaninglessness, chaos, and madness? It seems to me that, like Prometheus, these works have their appeal mainly in the cultural context of more standard myths. For people in the process of rejecting the content of traditional mythologies (like religion) I suspect there is something ideologically satisfying about these myths of meaninglessness, with their blind demiurges and idiot gods. Appreciation of the works of Lovecraft, for instance, is something of a geek emblem, perhaps not because the stories are satisfying on their own, but because their subversion of traditional meaningful myths resonates with these individuals. In that case, I imagine the Calvinball style of pseudo-mythology will remain popular, but the explicit anti-myth thing seems to have a limited niche.

    Digressing now to the actual topic of this myth/antimyth, the topic of human origins: as someone who strives for a better understanding of the processes of evolution, I don’t find the “big question” that Prometheus is ostensibly asking to be very compelling/well-posed. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Prometheus sets up an extraterrestrial creator of humanity within a framework where such a creator is superfluous. In both films, the space-god intervenes at such a late stage in our (theretofore presumed “natural”) development that it hardly seems necessary to invoke one at all. The origin of the universe might be mysterious, the “spark of life” might be difficult to recreate, but there’s hardly a need for a mysterious monolith to transform us from apes to men–we’re still pretty much apes.

    Prometheus puts humanoid possible human-progenitors in space–why? It sacrifices the parsimony of an earthly explanation–for what? Why would such a narrative prove more intuitively satisfactory even in the abstract? So what if we were designed by another intelligent life-form, wouldn’t this life-form ultimately trace it’s origins back to the same mindless matter from which we ourselves would otherwise assume ourselves to have developed? Wouldn’t we then be faced with the same real question, the relationship between the self-aware mind and the material substrate of its existence? A mythology seems hollow if it serves only to obscure the questions it addresses.

    Of course, if “what event in our species’ history made us distinctly human” is a poor question, maybe that’s just supposed to drive home the pointlessness of asking these sorts of questions.

  17. June 28, 2012 7:00 am

    Pointlessness is not part of our story-making compulsion.

    The horror of the myth of Prometheus asks us to consider our relationship to the natural order. Perhaps the writers were aware of their ideological position, or perhaps not, but it seems to me it is fundamentally one of the hard line animal rights movement. It’s something akin to David Baileys commercial for the anti-fur lobby.

    The horror is twofold – one that the ‘creator doesn’t care about us, the second that not only doesn’t it care – we are here for one reason only: food. The initial gesture of sacrifice was a gourmet gesture, and not only gourmet – I want the best possible food – but a cannibalistic gesture. I want only this kind of meat, my kind of meat.

    I’m not sure this reading stands up to any more – I want to consume myself etc. But the horror aspect might be similar to the original feeling engendered by the Pandora myth; ”Do not under any circumstances open the box”. We always open the box though, don’t we.

    As we know, in classical myth Prometheus steals fire from the gods and is punished forevermore by having his liver eaten (Zeus might just have that later with a nice chianti – repeatedly). Fire in the mystical canon is of course consciousness. But Prometheus wasn’t the only one. Lucifer Bringer of Light, stole Divine Light from Yahweh and brought consciousness to man and was forever cast out. In Mauri myths, Maui stole fire from his ancestress, Mahuika so that everyone might have fire for their cooking, etc.

    It just might be that empty myth making is the base-linbe compulsion because it then leaves an empty vessel that might become filled by other people’s creative imagination.

  18. June 28, 2012 8:05 am

    Here’s an additional and follow up comment by way of a post:
    http://thedigitalanomaly.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/myth-and-meaning-in-the-digital-age/

  19. June 28, 2012 9:01 am

    Within the context of this discussion, consider Tarantino’s film INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

    It does two things to mythologized accounts of war:

    - First: the film creates a fictionalized version of WWII where things ultimately “make sense” — Hitler gets his comeuppance at the hands of the people he persecuted (wishful thinking indeed), and all plot threads are resolved (unlike the real WWII).

    It’s as if the film tried to create a “geek version” of history — and wouldn’t fans crave more of the same, if they had the opportunity? A comforting fake version of history instead of the awful real thing…

    2. Second: the film-within-the-film “Pride Of the Nation” is a send-up of war movies and points out the obvious: war movies *as such* are, at their core, bloodthirsty pieces of lying s**t which have very little to do with real war and should not be taken seriously.

    I took with me from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS the lesson that war movies are all about trying to create distorted mythical versions of history. (Whether this was the writer-director’s purpose is beside the point.)

  20. Geoff B. permalink
    June 28, 2012 2:31 pm

    Yngve, surely you wouldn’t say that ALL war movies “as such” are trying to create “distorted mythical versions of history”? Inasmuch as “horror” (the state of being overwhelmed by chaos, meaninglessness, and “wrong”) is what myths are trying to save us from, aren’t movies that emphasize the horror of war de-mythologizing it? “All Quiet On The Western Front” or “Full Metal Jacket” hardly seem to mythologizing war as such.

    War engenders myth as a reaction against the horror. The myths, in a sense, enable the continuation of warring.

    I think its a mistake to claim that myths are false, that mythologizing is necessarily distortion. We’ve come to equate the terms, but that’s an impoverishment of the language. Myths contain some kind of truth; truth about patterns that humans find meaningful. Whether the myths are “accurate” representations of particular patterns in history might be questionable, but that doesn’t mean the myths are not true. In the context of war, myths are a reflection of that part of war that is meaningful, that part of struggle that is worthwhile, that part of suffering that is not in vain.

    The distortion comes about when we believe that war is nothing but those things, when the myth becomes the only truth.

  21. July 6, 2012 2:32 pm

    Interesting review and analysis! As most reviewers only talk about films in terms of dramaturgical character and technical detail; whether or not the film manages to imitate the standard of the genre yet being original, this is very refreshing reading.

    I haven’t yet seen this supposedly terrible film, but when (and if) I do, I will have your review in mind. Greetings from Sweden!

  22. July 7, 2012 4:48 pm

    Fantastic, thought provoking stuff. We seem to have a basic human need to have our questions answered and to make sense of the world – both the real world and the imagined world. I havent seen this particular film but, for me, the reason Lost became ultimately unsatisfactory was because it gave the illusion of being a single coherent story, but wasn’t. I guess some of the earlier mythology tales (the Odyssey and Gullivers Travels, for eg) got round the problem by simply moving their hero on to the next adventure.

  23. Ian permalink
    July 11, 2012 1:21 am

    What I read of this was pretty interesting, though I stopped once it started to talk about Prometheus. I kind of agree with what is said in the premise. While I certainly like things that are stand alone (or is a show that is largely stand alone episodes). But I generally I don’t fall in love with them the way I do with a long term serialized show (or movie series or book series). There are certainly pitfalls to making shows like that, and sometimes they start off great and then fail hard (Heroes). But I like that it provides a world that I can get wrapped up in and wonder what happens next, and demands for me to watch the next entry in the series (BSG). Based on the last paragraph of the article I disagree with idea that of hoping they don’t continue to make more TV, movies, and books that are like that. I hope they keep doing it, I just hope they get better at it. I also have to say that just as many things that stand alone are terrible as things with a long term story arc. It’s just people tend to get more invested in long term story arcs. Therefore, they are more prone to noticing and complaining about them when they fall apart or don’t work out in the end.

  24. dartwick permalink
    July 12, 2012 4:02 am

    +This is an insightful piece but it goes off the rails ultimately.

    In the conclusion, after explaining what happened more or less correctly – McCalmont spins Scotts success as if it was a mistake.

    There is no “artistic failure” in naturalizing an element of a mythos, when its done to create a larger context while at the same time isolating the the previous Mythos.
    If anything its a bit of artistic bravery to create a bookend which ultimately elevates the events of the original sub-story.

  25. July 12, 2012 5:53 am

    Bravo. Fascinating insight.

  26. Lisa Summers permalink
    July 12, 2012 6:26 am

    Fantastic review! Thanks!

  27. July 12, 2012 1:04 pm

    Given Scott intends two sequels to Prometheus, can we be sure that the questions raised by the film are not left unanswered because they are either: (a) setups for the sequel – why did the alien attack, what were they doing there, why were they on earth etc.; or (b) weak plotting – why did the mapping guy get lost, why did nobody notice, why did the biologist prod an unknown alien critter and so on.

    Put another way, the general thesis is interesting, but Prometheus is a tricky example as while I agree that it appears to be about the universe not providing us with the answers we seek it may be that Prometheus 2 and Prometheus 3: The Great Explaining will address all the category (a) stuff and that those wishing for a detailed escapist world will receive precisely that.

  28. July 12, 2012 1:28 pm

    I wonder how much explanations matter? Prometheus 2 and 3 could propose story arcs a, b or c, and could end with resolutions x, y or z – with narrative impulse, impetus, arc and resolution fulfilled. Yet is it not the atmosphere that is the issue? Not the scarifying of the thing, but the sensibility involved that speaks about our contemporary state of mind with regard to contemporary uncertainties, in a ‘reality system’ where we’ve always promised ourselves certainty?

  29. July 12, 2012 1:35 pm

    Matter to whom? To the vast majority of genre fans who saw that movie I’d imagine explanations matter a great deal, so much so that as Jonathan notes many are even now crafting their own despite the film’s apparent opposition to any such explanations existing.

    To other people who saw the film I doubt explanations are of much interest, the film entertained or not.

    Otherwise, atmosphere is sufficient for some, but many people need narrative to find art satisfying and for them an explanation, or at least a sense that an explanation exists, is I think necessary. If narrative is less important, and narrative is of course an utter lie, then explanations cease to matter quite so much.

    Prometheus fails in large part through execution, which is a shame as the core concept that we go seeking answers and find only indifference and further confusion is a good one. That does say something interesting about our own experience these past 150 years or so. Sadly the film is too muddled to make something serious of that.

    Lost and BSG I see more as commercially driven vehicles where the audience is promised narrative where none truly exists, which is an ultimately cynical exercise. The need for myth that Jonathan speaks to is noted and monetised, but without followthrough. By contrast World of Warcraft notes and monetises that same need of myth, but does so more honestly and actually builds the alternate reality in which narrative has meaning that so many seek.

  30. July 12, 2012 3:08 pm

    I have heard a lot of people claiming that Prometheus will make sense once the director’s cut comes out or that the sequels will fill in some of the gaps. I think three things about this:

    Firstly, if it’s not in the text of the film then it doesn’t exist. Scott could have started with the most profound myth in the world but he failed to get it up on the screen and so it doesn’t matter… that internal sense might as well not have been there in the first place.

    Secondly, I can’t think of a single series in which an early volume fails to make sense but where later volumes fill in all the gaps and everything becomes coherent. Writing doesn’t by and large work that way and large scale cinematic production CERTAINLY doesn’t work that way. If Scott had approached his producers with an incomplete shooting script and explained that they’d fill in all the gaps with a sequel, the producers would have sent him back to the writers because Prometheus 2 might never be made. A good example of this problem is the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes remake where you can tell that they tried to strike a balance between telling a complete story and leaving plothooks for a potential sequel.

    Thirdly, if we are looking at a series where the answers will be provided in a later cut or a later film then we are in the arena of pure Calvinball with people making stuff up on the fly or managing to get certain stuff into production but failing in other respects. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (as I keep saying… I very much like Lost) but it is very different to a work that lays out a myth in top-down fashion like Lord of the Rings or even a franchise that builds towards mythical status in a controlled bottom-up fashion as with most RPGs where they give you some basic stuff and then gradually flesh out the world with later supplements.

  31. July 12, 2012 4:05 pm

    The first point is persuasive, anything not in the text is by definition not in the text and so not present. That said, there is a question as to whether the film is a complete work, or if it’s part of a larger work. Put another way, is Prometheus the text, or is Prometheus 1, 2 and 3 the text? If the latter, if 2 and 3 never come out it’s merely an unfinished work.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a LotR situation, if Scott hasn’t in fact already sketched out his answers, his mythology, but is spacing it over three works which are intended to be read collectively. When whatever the first volume of LotR came out could similar points not have been made about that?

    Equally it wouldn’t surprise me though if the holes are never answered, in part because some aren’t recognised as holes and in part because on the strength of the first film alone the point very much does seem to be that answers may not exist, may not if they do exist be meaningful to us and indeed may not be comprehensible.

    The sad thing about Prometheus is that the only part of the film which really works is its negation of narrative, which is precisely what I suspect the sequels will address/undermine. It would be good to be wrong though.

    On secondly, the Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson works like that. Book one stands alone as a coherent text, but book two doesn’t. It only makes sense in retrospect, once you read book three. Neuromancer is in that sense a text in itself, but I’d argue Count Zero is only a partial text, made whole by its place in a larger work. Whether that was intentional or whether Mona Lisa Overdrive somehow managed to patch a flawed earlier work I don’t know (or much care).

    Anyway, your core argument wasn’t about Prometheus.

  32. July 12, 2012 8:30 pm

    <3

    That's all I really have to say.

  33. July 13, 2012 12:28 am

    Excellent essay and I love the metaphor of the Calvinball.

    I have a problem with your use of “Western” though… it’s a problem I have in general with the use of this word. What do you really mean by it? Just non-Asian? Or non-Japanese? Japanese culture isn’t really as alien as this essay would seem to suppose. Does “Western” include Latin American and Caribbean culture, which is in the Western hemisphere?

    I would suggest being a bit more specific and using “Anglophone media” or “predominantly white Anglophone countries” so the scope of your analysis doesn’t lead to irritating and inaccurate generalizations.

    Also, Prometheus enraged me, and I’m still trying to figure out why. This essay helps a lot.

  34. James permalink
    July 13, 2012 3:40 am

    Great review and analysis, thank you

  35. Alix in MV permalink
    July 13, 2012 6:19 pm

    I think something that may have been forgotten? Lost? in the dissection of Calvinball (great metaphor, by the way) storytelling in a time where audiences are wanting to see season or series-long story arcs is that those expectations have to thank, in part, to J. Michael Straczynski’s works on “Babylon 5″ (1994). And at least from what I picked up from the media at the time it was airing, he deliberately went into that series with a five year story arc already planned out (it was derailed, in part, by threats of cancellation, but that’s a different topic).

    “The X-Files” ran concurrent to that, and is the second show I can think of that seemed to have that series-long story arc going on, and by comparison, it’s Calvinball techniques paled to JMS’s storytelling.

    But now, I think, many fan’s of genre media like BSG, LOST, and Prometheus *expect* that kind of foresight and planning in their writing team when presented with that kind of long running mystery. Almost every example of Calvinball writing has a dissatisfying ending because they *haven’t* thought the stories through to the end and come up with a reasonable framework for their story.

    I don’t think that should be something lauded, celebrated, or rationalized away. I think it should be held up as poor storytelling techniques so the writers are discouraged for continuing to use it as a crutch when approaching these storylines which have the potental to be mythologized.

  36. July 13, 2012 6:47 pm

    Well… if we’re talking about who did series-long arcs first then you’d have to look at soap operas whose plotlines last dozens and dozens of episodes. In fact, I would be tempted to say that the rise of plot-arcs has more to do with wanting to build soap-style followings for series than it does with any great drive towards narrative excellence.

    But yes… I acknowledge that B5 did have season-long arcs and reportedly had an entire mythology plotted out beforehand. I didn’t mention it because it bored the knackers off me :-)

    You’re right that people are dissatisfied with Calvinball series because they’re made up on the fly as series with stories made up on the fly can’t hope to complete as neatly as series that are pre-plotted. However, I think that series such as Lost can be appreciated purely for the madness of their plot twists regardless of whether or not those plot twists make any ultimate sense.

  37. July 17, 2012 10:54 pm

    Prometheus has problems that can be discussed without trivializing David Lynch as “Calvinball.” Even if the Calvin and Hobbes reference is super cool!.

    That is all.

  38. July 18, 2012 6:05 am

    Kevin — By attempting to understand the phenomenon, I am doing the exact opposite of trivialising it.

  39. gwern permalink
    July 18, 2012 7:56 pm

    Interesting how the Calvinball and pareidolia points apply to a number of anime; _Neon Genesis Evangelion_ in particular.

  40. July 18, 2012 8:13 pm

    Really Gwern? How so? Eva has always struck me as a quite deliberate in both the construction of its own mythology and its use of other mythological images and ideas. There’s an element of Calvinballing in the sense that the series has written and re-written itself as the creators have taken multiple tries at getting the ending right but hasn’t Eva always always always been about a war between God and humanity?

  41. gwern permalink
    July 18, 2012 8:34 pm

    Always? No, the mythos is starkly atheistic from its original conceptions to Rebuild (so far). There’s no war between God and humanity because there’s not even a God to be at war with.

    For me, the real question is how much Anno intends the incoherent universe and lack of answers – akin to how you interpret Prometheus. The interviews and endings certainly can be interpreted this way.

  42. July 18, 2012 9:05 pm

    Where do the angels come from then? My reading of it is that God issues an order to mankind, mankind refuses and so he sends angels to force them back into line. However, the institutions built up to deal with the angel incursions wind up being infiltrated by a group of hardcore anti-theists. The movies are all about forcing mankind onto some higher spiritual plane whereby he might be able to replace God.

  43. gwern permalink
    July 18, 2012 9:09 pm

    The overall picture is, by the TV series’ production, pangenesis: the Angels are the originals from the first life-seeding expedition, and we’re the mistakes, usurping second-comers. End of Evangelion is not so much a spiritual plane but a physical plane: creating immortal vessels without flawed separate human hearts or minds which can colonize other worlds.

    (In the first discussions, the Angels are essentially the God-warriors from Nausicaa: one or two ancient civilizations killed themselves off but not all their weapons were destroyed.)

  44. gwern permalink
    July 19, 2012 2:51 pm

    Occurred to me I ought to justify my comments. Most of the relevant materials can be found in http://www.gwern.net/otaku

    - http://www.gwern.net/otaku#early-evangelion covers the earliest known versions of Eva
    - http://www.gwern.net/otaku#original the ORIGINAL screenplay edits show the continued process of downplaying the panspermia
    - cut EoE materials include the colonizing material: http://www.gwern.net/otaku#eoe
    - http://www.gwern.net/otaku#conscience-of-the-otaking Toshio Okada gave background, as did Yasuhiro Takeda http://www.gwern.net/docs/2002-notenki-memoirs#aoki-uru
    - I’ve translated 2 Anno interviews from ’96 and ’97 which touch on the ending and religious elements: http://www.gwern.net/docs/eva/1997-animeland-may-hideakianno-interview-english and http://www.gwern.net/docs/eva/1996-newtype-anno-interview
    - the _2.0 CRC_ is interesting almost as much for what Anno doesn’t talk about as what he does: http://www.gwern.net/docs/2010-crc
    - while on Rebuild, it’s worth noting that the most explicit background was given in the http://wiki.evageeks.org/Classified_Information_%28Translation%29 which contained videos that depicted the original panspermia aliens as… exactly like the 4 beings we see in a flashback in Rebuild 1.0.

    Phew!

  45. July 19, 2012 9:25 pm

    Cabin In The Woods was directed by Drew Goddard, who cowrote the script with Joss Whedon. Give the dude some credit!

  46. ericmvan permalink
    December 30, 2012 7:21 pm

    “Calvinball storytelling” is the best addition to the sf critical vocabulary in years. Kudos.

    If you assume that the suspended animation equipment aboard the Prometheus had a defect that rendered all the awakening crew members somewhat stupid, it’s actually quite a satisfying movie. It’s visually stunning (at least it was in IMAX) and it had a few extended sequences that were gripping, most notably the self-surgery. And you’ve explained why the back story doesn’t need to make sense. I think the odds are good that it will end up in my top 50 films of the year.

    The reason why there’s so much Calvinball storytelling on these mythology shows, I bet, is that TV writers simply love to sit around and make shit up. Working the mythology out in advance would be far too constraining. It’s worth remembering that Tolkien re-started LOTR from the beginning four times, and that he continually thought he was 2 or 3 chapters from the end, starting at about the end of what became FOTR. He had Aragorn and Eowyn headed towards marriage until he got to the end and decided he was too good for her, at which point he invented Arwen and re-wrote all the Eowyn scenes to make them unrequited. Imagine if he’d been writing it as a weekly TV series. It makes what Straczynski accomplished with Babylon 5 all the more impressive. (If you never got into the second season; you might give it another try. I was a skeptic and ultimately decided it was the second or third best thing I’d ever seen on TV, after Buffy and (had it not been dismembered) Pushing Daisies.)

    The folks doing the most stylistically interesting story-telling on TV right now (though by no means the best; the execution is at a B to B+ level) may well be two Lost writing / producing alums, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. After the furor over the last season of Lost, they promised folks that their Once Upon a Time would not be Calvinballed. It appears, though, as if they created just enough mythology beforehand to hold things together, but not enough to unduly constrain the writing room, because there’s still a sense that a lot of what we see each week is being made up on the fly. There’s thus an effective balance between story beats that have been set up nicely in advance and others that have a satisfying WTF? quality. (Whereas Buffy and Angel, on the rare occasions where you could sense the writers making it up, always suffered for it.) Since the show is a ratings success, this approach could become a template for fantasy TV. I bet that when fellow writers meet Horowitz and Kitsis,the first thing they want to know is how long the show’s original bible was.

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