'Prometheus' Shows Hollywood's Religious Ignorance
In space, no one can hear you scream, “I freaking paid $17 a ticket for this?!?”
It’s no secret that the "Alien" sorta-prequel "Prometheus" is a gorgeous fiasco, a visually stunning yet substantively ridiculous outer space epic that makes any fan of the 1979 classic want to rip out what’s left of his hair in frustration at what might have been. I had eagerly anticipated it, saw it on opening night, and left understanding what Hell must be like.
"Prometheus" can and should spur many discussions – including one about how plots should make sense – but it also raises the question of whether Hollywood has any institutional understanding at all of what religion is and what the tens of millions of, well, alienated believers/potential audience members who it wants to get back into theater seats actually believe.
Sadly, when it comes to religion, Hollywood has that same deep, enduring connection with normal Americans that led them to believe there was a tsunami of demand to see Tom Cruise as an '80s hair rocker.
Caution: light spoilers lie ahead. Avoid them if you wish to see the movie with the dewy-eyed sense of wonder of an ever-optimistic film lover. Read them if wish to avoid wasting $17 a ticket and two precious hours of your life.
"Prometheus" represents all that is wrong with Hollywood’s conception of religion. For one thing, it doesn’t really have a conception of “religion” at all – instead, it embraces a vague concept of “spirituality,” which is something quite different.
To the extent Hollywood does conceive of religion, it kind of lumps all religion together into a generalized cult best described as “Footloosean,” in the sense that Hollywood sees all active religious adherents as falling somewhere along the scale from “Kind of Silly” to “The Full Lithgow,” where their central theological concerns are banning dancing and hunting gays for sport.
Hollywood much prefers spirituality, because spirituality doesn’t actually ask you to do anything while allowing you to sort of take comfort in an unarticulated sense that there is some higher power out there, probably “nature” or “the universe” or another amorphous notion that fills the role that God would if they were talking about religion instead of metaphysical mush.
A religion, in contrast, would actually require that you believe something concrete or, worse, actually do or not do something. Religion imposes obligations and makes moral judgments. You can’t have those; they could spoil the party!
Better to embrace spirituality – the welfare state of theologies. It asks nothing of you but supplies you with whatever you wish. If spirituality adherents sang hymns, their favorite would be "Generic Grace."
Now, the characters in "Prometheus" spend a lot of time talking about seeking “answers” to the Big Questions about where man came from and, well, where man came from. And here’s director Ridley Scott’s inspiring answer – from a bunch of freaky, giant, pasty-faced folks who look like they should be asking, “You rang?”
In the first couple minutes, one of these Lurch-looking dudes is on a planet – maybe Earth, who knows – and he swallows some goo then sort of decomposes and his DNA breaks up and I guess he is seeding the planet with life or something.
Yeah, we kind of start the movie with the punchline.
Oh, and then these giant dudes decide they want to kill all human life, and that becomes another Big Question, except it really isn’t a Big Question because you kind of can’t create a Big Question of human existence from within the context of your own stupid movie. If people didn’t wonder about it before walking into the Overpriced Cinemaplex 16, it really doesn’t count as a Big Question.
Noomi Rapace plays the spiritual scientist, and she raises a lot of questions, like what kind of name is “Noomi?” She wears a cross, which becomes a huge symbol of, I guess, her spirituality. It’s certainly not a symbol of, you know, Christianity, because Christ doesn’t get a mention. I’m not even sure if God does.
It wouldn’t do to have her be an actual, you know, Christian, because in Hollywood’s eyes her main focus would then be barring the other characters from having fun – after all, that’s what Christians do. So she’s a generic believer unfettered by actual theological imperatives or obligations, a waify free spirit sampling from the sacred smorgasbord that is spirituality.
At one point, the movie flashes back to a childhood chat with her widowed father about life after death. He explains his spirituality thus: “I choose to believe.” Leave it to the theologians of Hollywood to dispense with the faith component that plays a teensy, tiny part of Christian doctrine.
God, apparently, is just another lifestyle choice. And, to the extent it supports rather than undermines its liberal social agenda, Hollywood will rule it a valid one.
"Prometheus" is a hot mess with good visuals and good performances in the service of an incoherent plot and an even less coherent message. It wants to ask those Big Questions, but the vocabulary that its stunted sense of spirituality provides is simply too limited to do so. The answer to “Where did we come from?” turns out to be some guys who are marginally taller than us and who have the complexion of a back-up singer for The Cure. And we, the audience, are sorry we asked.
When Hollywood takes religion seriously, it’s actually not Hollywood at all doing it – "The Passion of the Christ," for example, was made by Mel Gibson almost completely outside of regular production channels. It hit a chord and made a mint. Whether you like his theology or not isn’t the question; there is no question that he took Christianity seriously, and there’s no question audiences responded.
Hollywood might do well to do the same, but there’s not much room for optimism. For example, there is an Internet rumor that Ridley Scott wanted one of these giant guys to turn out to have been Jesus. Seriously.
Apparently he sobered up before making one of the few conceivable choices that could have made "Prometheus" worse, but someone please let me know where the sequel goes with it.
They don’t have a prayer of getting my money again.