Open Speculation: On Prometheus, The Martian, and Ridley Scott

illustration by Tom Ralston

“There are people like him (so he says) who complicate their inner lives by feeling too much all at once, by living in knots, and who therefore need outer things to be simple. A house, a field, some sheep for example. And there are those who manage somehow, by some miracle of being, to simplify their inner lives so that outer things can be ambitious and limitless. Those people can swap out a house for a spaceship, a field for a universe. And though he’d give his leg to be the latter, it’s not the kind of thing you can trade a leg for – in any case who’d want his leg if they already had limitlessness?”

 —Samantha Harvey, Orbital 


Much criticism is acute interpretation and, in its least rigorous form, open speculation. Some artists can be—like to be—ciphers to their audience, and this inspires a mad dash to divine meaning in which “meaning” isn’t necessarily the point. Hitchcock quipped something to the effect of, “I don’t make slices of life. I make slices of cake.” Here, a director’s authorship, their every little creative decision, means all and nothing. It’s about the experience of viewing the film, but maybe even something less than that. It’s about what you know of the director, of the production, of the cast, of the series, but maybe even more than that. 

I often run into this circuitous, frankly unproductive loop of thought whenever I watch Ridley Scott’s work or try to interpret Damon Lindelof’s writing in good faith. With the former, one is dealing with a consummate professional, which is not necessarily a compliment. With the latter, one is dealing with a well-paid, well-regarded amateur philosopher. Both are hacks; this itself is not necessarily an insult. Scott: whose every film is designed down to the studs, who’s never turned away from an opportunity to make a lot of money very quickly, whose career is perhaps defined by his irascible, surly desire to move on to the next project. Lindelof: the world-builder, the provoker of existential questions, a necromancer of franchises. In some ways, these two make the perfect pair. 

The result of their combined efforts, Prometheus (2012), has morphed into its own litmus test. Were you a champion of the film when it first came out? At what point during the film did you know it was an Alien prequel? How does it compare to the rest of the franchise? And, my least favorite, did you get it? 

The problem is that Prometheus is much smarter than critics give it credit for, and much dumber than its creators intended. Scott and Lindelof (along with Jon Spaihts, who wrote the original screenplay and whose core ideas Lindelof then drastically reworked) attempt to provoke unsettling answers to age-old questions: what is humanity’s purpose? What lies out in that vast field of stars? Under what conditions can humanity survive? Under what conditions would humanity even want to?

During press for the film, Lindelof stressed, bizarrely, that Prometheus is pro-science—that even though its protagonist is a (cartoonish, unconvincing) Christian, the script comes from a perspective that finds solace not in religion but in the objective truths of evolution. Good for him, but it’s not Lindelof’s film. Burning bright through the core of all of Scott’s science fiction projects, no matter who writes them, is not a stance against science or human ingenuity—if nothing else, the genre gives Scott the chance to go more deeply into the realm of aesthetic specificity, to imagine new worlds and technologies tinged with his particular flair for the sleek and efficient—but an amused, sometimes openly contemptuous question: how long until our ingenuity stalks back, looks us in the eyes, and rips our throats out? 

For Scott, it’s a matter of when, not if.

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“We’re going to Mars     because whatever is wrong with us will not
                                                  get right with us so we journey forth
                                                  carrying the same baggage
but every now and then leaving
one little bitty thing behind:
maybe drop torturing hunchbacks here;
maybe drop lynching Billy Budd there;
maybe not whipping Uncle Tom to death;
maybe resisting global war.”

    —Nikki Giovanni, “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)”

*

Scott is old-fashioned. He likes to set his table. He likes to start out his astronauts with a given: they are capable, attractive, and ambivalent about being away from Earth. Blank slates with jocular personalities, vessels for unbridled id, it doesn’t matter. There is something pragmatic about all of them, from Alien’s Ellen Ripley to The Martian’s Mark Watney. It’s easy to believe their expertise because so little is specified as to what they have to do and when they do it; it doesn’t seem all that mechanically complex. These characters have already been chosen. However many years of school and training, whatever accolades of distinction or catastrophic failures, they’ve already happened. It’s a matter of miles, not novelty. There is the air of the grunt to Scott’s scientists, awed nerds who can’t make—don’t need to make—sensitive interpersonal decisions, because they’re so good at what they do that the people who hire them don’t care how they act. They want so purely, it warps the world around them.  

Mark Watney is a humble, likable, inoffensively rowdy guy—do I need to specify that he’s played by Matt Damon?—who’s good at being a botanist. He’s passionate. He’s right where he belongs. “Tell them [his parents] that I love what I do and that I’m really good at it,” Mark Watney says to his commanding officer when he’s at his lowest. One imagines that Mark Watney has never had to consider doing anything other than what he’s always wanted. The idea of him asserting himself against the world would never occur to us, so it’s certainly never occurred to him—and yes, in Ridley Scott’s films, audience expectation often dictates character. But in order to survive the desolate Martian landscape alone, that’s exactly what Mark Watney has to do: assert himself over and over until help finally comes. 

The Martian’s ultimate optimism is odd because optimism is not normally Ridley Scott’s chosen register. NASA astronauts on a mission to Mars are forced to leave their presumed-dead colleague behind, and, when they realize he’s still alive, must marshall the cooperation of the entire human race in order to save him. One could describe The Martian as a movie about collective problem-solving, the purity of scientific inquiry for the sake of itself. Doesn’t matter so much. The story isn’t Scott’s, it’s an adaptation of a novel by Andy Weir, but the central idea remains intact. More than that, it’s faithfully carried out. Scott can lay claim to a number of cinematic successes in his career—reshaping the adult blockbuster being one of them—but The Martian is a demonstration of his ability to make big-budget, ensemble filmmaking look easy. Maybe that distinction seems redundant, given the MCU of it all; modern Hollywood behemoths look easy because they look like no one cared. But a wide canvas is Scott’s groove: money on the screen, shots counted, memorable moments aplenty. Scott doesn’t direct, he orchestrates.

One doesn’t have to have directed commercials or music videos in order to attain this level of skill, but Scott did, for a long time, and it shows. All those set-ups; all those cuts; the cobbling together of alternate takes without too much recourse for continuity; explosion, beat, explosion; the sense that the film was edited to temp music; a motivation-revealing close-up here, a clunky line of dialogue there; breathtaking establishing shots; the flashpaper glimpse of a singular and thrown-away iconic image; brand names dead center of frame. Scott doesn’t subvert any of these tendencies because when they work, the audience gives in. All Scott’s films are about or often enabled by or sometimes can do no better than their design. Sometimes that design is a sumptuous, detail-oriented kind, a world like Prometheus’s as seen through stone and viscera and bright blue rocket jets. 

Sometimes it’s about getting to the finish line as directly as possible, tried-and-true, nothing too fancy, which doesn’t mean there’s no room to flex every now and again. 

With The Martian, Scott allows for sweeping, crowd-pleasing exultation that feels genuinely enthusiastic. It’s cast with actors who seem like they enjoy each other’s company. In the film’s most pleasurable moments, there is the threat of real, unexpected danger. People say they hate predictable film endings, but that predictability just means the director can hit his protagonists harder. Scott tosses, stabs, bruises, starves, suffocates, burns, and freezes Mark Watney matter-of-factly. One doesn’t get the sense it’s because Scott believes the audience has to earn the happy ending, but rather because Scott is good at selling pain and consequence. Yeah, it’ll get ugly, one hears him say. So what? 

For a long time, The Martian baffled me. I’m often baffled by Scott. But the film didn’t seem like it belonged in the timeline of his work during that period. Prometheus followed by The Counselor followed by Exodus: Gods and Kings, a detour to Mars and the beauty of collaboration and disco needledrops, then the squish fest of Alien: Covenant. But toss them up, and Prometheus and The Martian flip through the air and come back on the same coin. Exploration as a means of testing boundaries, of understanding the universe: a curiosity fetish, a humanism fetish, exploration to further ends, to exploit, to extract, to extend a domain, chaos, chaos, chaos. 

Mark Watney lives because he exists apart from the derision of his creator. He’s no stand-in for humanity the way the stupid, meddling explorers of the Alien universe seem to be (open speculation). Watney gets what we want him to deserve, not what the director wants. So Watney’s success is plausible because it’s fantasy—a fantasy reality sponsored by a fantasy NASA where cooperation is as automatic as the absence of wartime weapons is obvious. Scott’s nihilism isn’t gone. The Martian’s characters are as anxious to answer the question of who’s bankrolling the rescue mission as any producer. The Chinese government’s altruistic third-act deus ex machina is plain for the PR stunt that it is. The Earth is still dying. All that rocket fuel burning in the atmosphere. Here you go, Scott seems to say, handing over the triumph. Enjoy it while you can.

*

“Another tenet of faith in science is that the laws of nature are ultimately discoverable by us human beings. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Adam asks the archangel Gabriel questions about celestial motions, Gabriel explains that studying the skies will reveal whether it is the Earth or the Heavens that rotate on their axes, but ‘the rest from Man or Angel the great Architect did wisely conceal, and not divulge His secrets.’ In contrast to the admonitions of Gabriel, science believes that all knowledge about the physical world is within the province of human beings to discover. In science, no knowledge about the physical universe is off-limits or out of bounds.”

                       —Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe

“With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men, will carry him into countries where God does not reign, but only the Captains of this earth.” 

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

*

By now, I know it’s because I’ve watched Prometheus before and after losing my faith that (back again in the miasma of not knowing where or what or how God is but still believing in him) I find the film’s depiction of humanity’s search for answers about our origins funny. Why were we made? A solipsistic question that science—both its practitioners and its creations—neurotically, self-consciously asks (according to the movie) like a sulking, resentful teenager. Religion isn’t unimportant in The Martian. Sure, it’s a contrivance, but a wooden cross—contraband on a space vessel that brokers nothing flammable onboard—allows for life-giving flame to burn. Someone’s faith inspires them to break the rules. Still, in that film, faith is akin to a rabbit’s foot. Prometheus endeavors to juxtapose the scientific quest for utopia with the supposed irrelevance of religion. At least, that’s how it starts. 

At the beginning of the film, the android David (Michael Fassbender), progenitor of the xenomorph terror that reverberates throughout the Alien series, checks in on Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) as she’s in cryosleep. The titular ship is on its way to a planetary system heralded by disparate ancient human civilizations. Shaw and her colleagues look up at the stars. Meanwhile, David looks into their dreams. What plays for Shaw is a childhood memory where she accompanies her father (Patrick Wilson) to Africa. A large cross hangs from her father’s neck. A funeral procession passes by, and Shaw asks her father, a doctor of some kind, why he doesn’t help the village people. “They don’t want my help,” he says. “Their god is different than ours.” 

What ensues is nominally a conversation about death and the afterlife, a precedent for Shaw’s religious faith that is not a sketch so much as a storyboard featuring stick figures; Scott throws in a split-screen close-up of the cross necklace to make things more obvious. “It’s what I choose to believe,” Shaw will say later, the context not mattering because this sentiment is meant to define her entire being, even when her atheist boyfriend burns to death, even when the alien Engineers responsible for creating humanity reveal themselves to be disgusted—or at least deeply unsatisfied—with the results of their experiment. 

Funny that Scott and Lindelof drag God out into space via a caricature of a human being, when David the android is the only authentically God-haunted of the bunch. Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote in The Word of God and the Word of Man, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” David knows this better than anyone. While the scientists on the Prometheus run around looking for answers, David understands that, no matter what is found, it will disappoint because the scientists are asking the wrong questions. Cosmologist Janna Levin, in her memoir How the Universe Got Its Spots: “We are part of the system: as austere and distant and objective as we try to be in our scientific investigations, there is a theoretical limit to how precisely we can remove ourselves from our object of investigation. The questions we ask in some part determine the answers.”

David’s sentience is never really in question, the soul quandary of Blade Runner less pressing here, though moneybags Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) outright says that David doesn’t have one. No, David resents his makers wholesale, in love with humanity’s art while fantasizing killing the artists, so the question of a soul doesn’t figure. Rather than capitulate to the standard of almost every cinematic artificial intelligence that longs to be human, David is so appalled by us that he commits genocide against the alien race that made us in the following film. 

More open speculation: I don’t know for a fact that Ridley Scott shares David’s contempt for humanity, but it certainly feels plausible. Scott makes our penchant for violence and cruelty endemic, coded into our DNA from long-lost extraterrestrial ancestors who manufactured an entire arsenal of parasitic bioweapons just to wipe us out. Dead planets used as giant Petri dishes. The really provocative idea is that the characters with the least instinct for their own self-preservation are the ones Scott deems the most realistic. We are helpless against our own curiosity, which is inextricably bound up with our ego. Simmering under the surface of starry-eyed utopian dreams lies the question: Is space really an open invitation? What does it say about us if we’re disappointed to find nothing? 

“It’s us, it’s everything,” Shaw says upon discovering that our DNA exactly matches the Engineers. “There’s nothing,” Shaw despairs later when everything goes horribly wrong. 

The fantasy of space travel is that there will be space to travel in. Our ships will be roomy, our horizons will expand not just visually but emotionally. We will land on a new planet and nothing will stand in the way of our taking a clarifying, embodied moment of joy. “I think if we are kind, it will be a kind world,” David lies at the end of Alien: Covenant. Our home is the universe, not because the universe is the air we breathe, but because the universe is there for our use. Scott doesn’t dispute our ability to realize this; he’s too shrewd a businessman to doubt that capitalism won’t eventually get us to the places we want to be; he’s also too aware of capitalism’s machinations not to remind us that with every dollar spent, someone else is getting fucked over. 

What’s left then is cosmic irony, if not fate. Shaw laments her inability to bear children and then has to tear open her own womb to extract an alien fetus. Mark Watney sets out to study Martian soil and then has to destroy his work in order to survive. All of this is contrived, but it doesn’t matter. The point is whether you agree that we’re doomed, whether belief is a myopic comfort or a scalding prod to look closely at what’s actually before us. “You have to accept the possibility that God does not like you,” Tyler Durden says in Fight Club as he burns his own hand. “In all probability, he hates you.” 

Final speculation: the one thing Scott doesn’t hate is the land on which we dwell. Present in The Martian but particularly wondrous in Prometheus are his flying shots of nature—of craggy deltas and misty lakes, waterfalls crashing onto black rock, towering broken tree trunks strewn against a mountainside, glaciers and plateaus and deserts and pregnant clouds that give way to cleansing sunlight. These aren’t throwaway shots. They seed the film with nature’s effortless beauty. Put up against all that human struggling and anguish, it’s not that the natural world seems tranquil or perfect or even kind. It just exists. It is. 

The world is full, lacking for nothing. Meanwhile, as the revenant of science’s leaps and efficiencies stalks around the corner, what do we deserve? What we get.