God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ’em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

C.J. Henderson: 1951 – 2014

I was very sorry to hear that author C.J. Henderson had passed away on July 4th at the age of 62.  I knew that he wasn’t well.  About a month ago I had run into a mutual acquaintance, writer James Chambers, for the first time in several years.  I asked Jim if he was still in touch with C.J. and had learned that he was suffering from cancer.  So while his passing is not unexpected, it is still sad.  C.J was a talented writer, as well as a nice, friendly fellow with a distinctive, wry sense of humor.  It was always a pleasure to see him.

CJ Henderson
C.J. Henderson with some of the numerous books that he worked on. Photo courtesy of John Paul.

While I wasn’t close friends with C.J. he was someone who I had encountered numerous times over the years, both socially and at comic book conventions, where he was often a guest.  I first met C.J. back in the mid-1990s, at one of the parties that artist Fred Harper threw at his loft in Brooklyn.  I know I’d read a handful of C.J. Henderson’s stories previously, and afterwards I acquired quite a bit of his work.  In 2003 I hitched a ride to the Pittsburgh Comic Con with C.J., Jim Chambers, and a few other people.  That was a lot of fun.  Fred and I also once spent New Year’s Eve with C.J. and his family, which was a nice, relaxing evening.

C.J.  Henderson was a very prolific author who was extremely fond of both hardboiled detective and horror fiction.  He wrote a number of excellent novels and short stories in those two genres, often deftly mixing the two.  One of Henderson’s ongoing characters was private eye Jack Hagee.  The various Jack Hagee short stories, written throughout the 1980s, were collected together in What You Pay For in 1990.

The Things That Are Not There

Henderson’s other signature P.I. was Teddy London.  Whereas Hagee’s cases were very much grounded in gritty noir, London’s investigations took him into the strange, dark world of the supernatural.  Henderson was a self-avowed fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror,” and London’s debut novel The Things That Are Not There saw the detective encountering malevolent entities summoned up from another dimension.  Originally published in 1992, the book returned to print a decade later, which is when I finally had an opportunity to read it.  The Things That Are Not There was definitely a riveting book, and I highly recommend it.

C.J.’s fondness for Lovecraft extended through much of his work, including his more humorous writing.  Baby’s First Mythos was a tongue-in-cheek faux children’s book that offered an overview of Lovecraft’s writings from A to Z, i.e. “N is for Necronomicon, That horrid flesh-bound book of magic, The reading of which by mere mortals brings their damned souls, To ends both terrifying and tragic.”  C.J. collaborated on Baby’s First Mythos with his daughter Erica Henderson, who provided the excellent illustrations.

Baby's First Mythos

C.J.’s short fiction appeared in numerous anthologies over the years.  These included Horrors Beyond, Dark Furies, Return To Lovecraft Country and Weird Trails.  Henderson also contributed to X-Men: Legends.  Published in 2000 and starring the mutants of Marvel Comics, the book was a collection of original prose stories set throughout the team’s history.  Henderson penned “The Worst Prison of All,” which featured Professor Xavier encountering a Lovecraftian elder god on the psychic plane.

Henderson was also a non-fiction writer & reviewer.  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, clocking in at a mammoth 500 pages, featured hundreds of reviews of sci-fi films.  Henderson’s write-ups were very interesting & insightful.  Even though I must have disagreed with half of his opinions, I found his analyses to nevertheless be thought-provoking and extremely well articulated.

X-Men Legends

C.J. did quite a bit of work in comic books over the years.  In the mid-1990s he wrote several issues of Neil Gaiman’s Lady Justice from Tekno Comix.  Henderson also was quite a prolific contributor to Moonstone Books.  He wrote and edited several Kolchak: The Night Stalker specials (he was a long-time  fan of the character).  Henderson adapted some of his own characters from prose to comic books at Moonstone, as well.  Paired with artist Richard Clark, he wrote a Jack Hagee: Private Eye graphic novel that was published in 2003.  Henderson also wrote two issues of Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, featuring the lovely Asian “psychometrist” who assisted Teddy London in the pages of The Things That Are Not There.

In 2004 Moonstone published Slamm! The Hardboiled Fiction of C.J. Henderson, a trade paperback collection of mystery, suspense, and horror stories illustrated by Fred Harper, Richard Clark, Trevor Von Eeden and Ben Fogletto.  I really wish I could locate my copy of that book, because it’s really good.  Unfortunately it’s probably packed up in storage with the majority of my comics.

Batman Joker's Apprentice

I once asked C.J. who his favorite artist had been to work with in comic books.  He stated that Trevor Von Eeden was probably the artist he had most enjoyed collaborating with.  In addition to their time at Moonstone, C.J. and Trevor had worked together on a pair of stories at DC Comics, the two part “Duty” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #105-106, and Batman: Joker’s Apprentice, with inks by Josef Rubinstein.  Both stories featured Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker.  “Duty” focused on James Gordon having to thwart the Clown Prince of Crime without the assistance of the Dark Knight.  The Joker’s Apprentice special had Henderson placing the Joker in a Hannibal Lector-esque role, manipulating from within the walls of Arkham Asylum a serial killer protégé who he aims at Batman as a twisted “present.”  It was an extremely dark, macabre, gruesome tale much in the vein of Criminal Minds, although Henderson’s story preceded that television series by several years.

C.J. Henderson was undoubtedly an extremely talented writer who crafted some amazing, entertaining, engaging stories during his lifetime.  He will definitely be missed.

Comic book reviews: Necronomicon

Halloween is right around the corner, so once again I am going to take a look at a horror comic book series that I really enjoyed.  A few years back, BOOM! Studios published a number of series inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.  For the uninformed, Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th Century.  He was very effectively melded aspects of the supernatural with science fiction, creating eerie, unsettling tales of “cosmic horror” and alien-spawned entities from the dawn of time exerting influence upon the present day.  Among the Lovecraftian titles released by BOOM! was the Necronomicon miniseries, written by William Messner-Loebs, with artwork by Andrew Ritchie and covers by J.K. Woodward.  Originally serialized in 2008, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback in 2009.

The eponymous Necronomicon is, within the fictional universe devised by Lovecraft, a tome of ancient, dark, powerful knowledge compiled over a thousand years ago by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred.  Throughout Lovecraft’s stories, characters often foolishly sought out the Necronomicon, either to uncover the secrets of Earth’s pre-history, or in the hopes of discovering methods to revive the now-banished god-like beings which once inhabited the planet.

Necronomicon TPB cover

Set in 1924, Messner-Loebs’ story focuses on Henry Said, the son of an Arabian merchant who is studying engineering at Miskatonic University.  Henry, although struggling with his major, is a polyglot who possesses an incredible aptitude for quickly comprehending new languages.  His remarkable abilities come to the attention of the Miskatonic’s theosophist society, composed of both faculty & students and headed up by Randolph Carter (who happens to bear a more than passing resemblance to H.P. himself).  The society is hoping that Henry can translate the Necronomicon, providing them a copy of the text in English.  At the urgings of his friends Jeremiah “Maxey” Maxwell and Rachel Schiff, Henry agrees to take on the task.  Soon, however, as he begins to experience strange dreams & unearthly sensations, Henry realizes the Necronomicon is no ordinary book.  This is confirmed when strange creatures masquerading as human beings attempt to steal the Necronomicon from the university.

As much as I am a fan of Lovecraft’s stories, I do have to admit that there were certain formulaic elements to his writing.  One of these is that his protagonists were typically middle aged white male academics.  When non-Caucasian or female characters did appear, they were usually depicted in an unflattering light, as servants of the various “Old Ones” who were threatening to once again encroach upon the Earth.  Unfortunately, it’s likely that Lovecraft’s own xenophobia and racism played a major part in this.  One of his primary themes is fear of displacement by some degenerate group of “others” or, worse, the discovery by his characters that they were connected by tainted bloodlines to those outsiders.

Therefore, it was very interesting to read Messner-Loebs’ story, which seems to have deliberately subverted this.  Henry is a foreign-born Muslim, and Rachel is a Jew possessing fervent Zionist ideologies.  Of the three protagonists, Maxey is the only WASP, and he is actually a rather dim fellow who is having an affair behind Rachel’s back, sleeping with a blonde-haired girl who makes anti-Semitic remarks.

Necronomicon 1 pg 7

Writing from the perspective of Henry, the outsider to American society, enables Messner-Loebs to look at the bizarre, disturbing events with an alternate point of view.  Indeed, it is Henry’s awareness that he is a stranger in a strange land, and his empathy for others who are in similar situations, who are looked upon as different, feared & scorned, that ultimately leads to his salvation.

Messner-Loebs also provides a glimpse into the possible history of the infamous Abdul Alhazred himself.  A number of commentators on Lovecraft’s writings over the years have noted that this is not a genuine Arab name, but rather something the author devised which sounded foreign & mysterious.  I believe, though, that Messner-Loebs is the first individual to expand on Lovecraft’s mythos who actually addresses this fact in-story.  Henry, originating from the Middle East, immediately realizes that “Abdul Alhazred” cannot be a genuine name.  But if so, then what was the true identity of the author of the Necronomicon?  Messner-Loebs offers up an interesting theory within his story.

When I was in high school and college, I enjoyed Messner-Loebs’ writing on Flash, Wonder Woman, and various other titles.  Regrettably he has not been employed as frequently within the last decade or so.  I was certainly happy to see him writing this miniseries for BOOM! and, indeed, it was on the strength of his past work that I purchased it.  Necronomicon is a very effective synthesis of the themes found in Lovecraft’s original writings and Messner-Loebs’ own sensibilities as an author.

Necronomicon 1 pg 20

I am not familiar with Andrew Ritchie, who illustrates and colors the miniseries.  I did a Google search to see what else he’s worked on and located his Tumblr site, which contains some really nice artwork.  It reminds me a bit of Charlie Adlard’s work.  Ritchie’s style is certainly well-suited to this miniseries.  He definitely imbues a macabre sensibility and atmosphere to the story.  Richie’s depictions of the Mi-Go and the Elder Ones have a genuine quality of the alien and unearthly to them.  And his renderings of Henry’s Necronomicon-spawned visions into other times and other worlds have the unsettling, sickly feel of a fever dream.

The cover work by J.K. Woodward is quite good.  These were done by him several years ago, earlier in his career, and consequently perhaps not nearly as polished as his recent amazing work on the Star Trek / Doctor Who crossover published by IDW.  That said, even back then it was obvious that Woodward had real talent & potential.  His cover for the first issue, a depiction of Lovecraft’s cosmic entity Cthulhu, is very striking.

If you are in the mood for an interesting, somewhat different interpretation on Lovecraft’s now-iconic legacy, the Necronomicon series is well worth a read, especially right around this time of year.  Happy Halloween!