Friday, July 12, 2013

Film Review: Prometheus


*There have been over twenty movie adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories, all nearly forgotten. And yet Lovecraft’s sensibility serves as a guide to much of today’s cinema.*

*Prometheus*, directed by Ridley Scott. At theaters throughout New England.

*By Harvey Blume* 

To appreciate Ridley Scott’s *Prometheus*, it’s useful to have seen the director’s *Blade Runner* and his *Alien*. In fact it would be hard to have avoided repeat exposure to both these classics. Beyond that, it’s instructive to have read H.P. Lovecraft. Note I am using the past tense here. Most people who value Lovecraft encountered him at a time in their lives when they were maximally susceptible, ready to be forever imprinted. I am one of them. The likes of me read Lovecraft in batches, inhaled him, way back whenever. I can’t enjoy Lovecraft in anything like the same way now. I can barely get through what Stephen King calls the “lumbering poetry” to the vision underneath.

But that vision is indelible. For Lovecraft, the universe was anything but cold and indifferent, nothing like the empty abyss, the void, about which existentialists later complained. No, the cosmos was laden with meaning, all of it dire. For Aristotle, by way of contrast, to know the cosmos was to fulfill the highest purpose of the human mind. For Lovecraft to know the universe was to risk madness. For him, the more you knew about the cosmos, the worse it was for you. And once you began to know, once you had an inkling, there was no turning back. You were implicated, drawn. Dread suctioned you to the nightmare that was its source.

The Lovecraft fan club is diverse. It includes Joyce Carol Oates, as evidenced in *Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major Works Selected and Introduced by Joyce Carol Oates*, and Michel Houellebecq, author of *H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life*. As for Houellebecq, leave it to a poéte maudit such as he to rehabilitate and enshrine one of our most insolvent writers, much as Baudelaire did Poe. (About Lovecraft’s destitution, Stephen King, in his introduction to the Houellebecq volume, writes: “Few lines have moved me so deeply as the simple sentence which ends Houellebecq’s account of HPL’s fruitless job-hunting in New York: ‘And he began to sell his furniture.’”) It may also be that Lovecraft is improved by translation, that his gothic aspirations are more at home in French than in English.

In any case, Houellebecq writes: “I myself discovered HPL, at seventeen. . . To call it a shock would be an understatement. I had not known literature was capable of this.” Seventeen is just the right age to become acquainted in just that way with Lovecraft. Houellebecq adds that Lovecraft’s writings, “have but one aim: to bring the reader to a state of fascination. The only human sentiments he is interested in are wonderment and fear.” Lovecraft practiced an horrific alchemy that aimed to transform “perceptions of ordinary life into an infinite source of nightmares.”

It’s not that Lovecraft denied or was ignorant of the tidings of science —- his nightmares didn’t flow from willful obscurantism —- but that he managed to see only their shadow. Houellebecq: [Lovecraft] is the first to have understood the poetic impact of topology; to have shuddered in the face of Gödel’s work on incomplete systems of formal logic.” <>

H. P. Lovecraft — his vision is indelible

Many have found Gödel’s proof and the constraints it lays on math and logic bracing. (Bertrand Russell knew at once, upon reading Gödel, that he had wasted years on the *Principia Mathematica*). But few if any besides Lovecraft can be said to have shuddered at Gödel’s proof. Still, one can see why he might have: to straitjacket reason as Gödel did was, for Lovecraft, to leave nightmare unopposed.

Oates, with her own penchant for sniffing out the dreadful in the ordinary, helps make sense of Lovecraft’s appeal. She notes that Lovecraft was well aware that his kind of “weird fiction” could only come about in an “age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways.” Houellebecq fills this observation out when he writes that the Lovecraftian mythos is “unlike Greco-Roman mythology or this or that magical pantheon whose very clarity and *finitude* is almost reassuring. These Lovecraftian entities remain somewhat tenebrous.”

Their being tenebrous gives Cthulhu and the other elder deities that comprise Lovecraft’s anti-pantheon a certain plausibility. These entities beggar the imagination; they seem like nothing the human mind might arrive at on its own. The only conclusion, unfortunately, is that they exist in their own awful right. At the beginning of *The Call of Cthulhu* Lovecraft writes: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Should we nevertheless attend to hints strewn liberally about the cosmos, we will confront such “terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”


There have been over twenty movie adaptations of Lovecraft stories, all nearly forgotten. And yet Lovecraft’s sensibility serves as a guide to much of today’s cinema. The influence needn’t be direct, can even be deemed coincidental. It’s not necessary that Ridley Scott or the screenwriters for *Prometheus* have even read Lovecraft, unlikely as it is that none have. It remains true that a Lovecraftian mythos is what a movie like *Prometheus*exploits and explores.

To wit: Beings from afar have seeded the earth with hints about their existence. In the year 2089, earthlings are finally equipped to track those hints to point of origin. Those distant beings, if not the cosmos itself, entice our species, lures us. The crew of the “Prometheus” is as clueless as the crewmembers in the *Alien* film who were fascinated to find that pods on a faraway world contained life. We are not alone! Indeed not. We share the universe with creatures that want only to clamp themselves on our faces and slither into our lumbar cavities before cracking our bodies open in the next stage of their nauseating maturation. No, we are not alone; we share space-time with monsters who have an indelicate use for us.

*Prometheus* draws freely from *Alien's* cast of characters and set of expectations. There is, for example, an android who gets his head torn off as in the original and in all its sequels. His head will be torn off, revealing milky android innards, forever. *Prometheus* is part of an ongoing Lovecraftian saga. It will be told in one form or another to your children and their children. We are, in relation to this saga, as perhaps the inhabitants of northern Europe were to that tale of theirs involving Loki, Wotan, Thor, gold, Valkyries and unforgiving giants. That tale was in effect corked by Wagner when he upgraded it to high opera, though it proliferates nevertheless in low media -— comics and film.

The Lovecraftian mythos was born and bred in low media —- weird fiction, bad film, comics that don’t credit him as they might. Think of the first *Hellboy*, based on the comic book by that name, and those colossal, perfectly tenebrous entities waiting at the periphery for a mystic lock to be opened so they can enter into our world and reduce it to nothing. Those beings might as well have “Lovecraft” inscribed on whatever passes for tenebrous DNA.

Lovecraft’s anti-pantheon has no gods or devils, no good or evil. Calling it pagan only confers an inappropriate coherence. And it doesn’t matter much that *Prometheus* is nowhere near as good as *Alien* or *Blade Runner*. It often, frankly, stinks. For instance: two members of the crew are stuck in an underground cavern on an extragalactic moon when a freak storm threatens the mother ship. They behold a peculiar entity -— the kind of thing a Tim Burton might assemble out of a cobra and a tailpipe —- arising out of goo. You’d think, given that it’s 2089, these crew members would have seen *Alien* and its sequels, would have studied the series as part of their training. They’d know for sure, then, not to fuss over this serpentine thing —- and NOT to stroke it. Or have we learned nothing since *Alien* appeared in 1979? Will we be represented in deepest space by cinematically illiterate yokels?

No matter, if in *Prometheus*, we are. The movie does not vie with its predecessors for originality. Its point is to move the saga forward a bit, on an arc that will follow the siren shriek of great Cthulhu and his kind to an intolerable source.

comment from bill

A few notes on H. P. Lovecraft: I read him as a teenager and now can’t look at a page of his without laughing at the horrors of his prose style. Examined cornball sentence by sentence, he is one of the worst American writers taken seriously in and out of the academy. He makes his lumbering contemporary Theodore Dreiser look like Max Beerbohm.

1) Yes, most of the movies made from H. P. Lovecraft’s stories are mediocre, which is ironic, given that it is not his supposed sense of the “poetic impact of topology” that makes him valuable to Hollywood but his prophetic visual sense –- his stories are filled with weird monstrous creatures who are usually on their way to a state of melt down, biological ooze described though heaping helpings of adjectives. It is the ultra-goo-factor (i.e. Alien) that makes him an inspiration for horror films. On the page the disgusting mess is ridiculous or amusingly absurd, but on the screen — with CGI/special effects — his hackwork attracts the eye.

I would highly recommend one film –- 1985s Re-Animator –- a wild version of a minor story (“Herbert West — Reanimator”) by Lovecraft that parodies the writer’s adolescent fear of death (his multiple variations on bodily decomposition) and sex (a perpetual no-show). The gimmick in the story and the film is the invention of a serum that reanimates dead tissue.

The movie runs with this conceit to the point of pornographic/apocalyptic hysteria. What happens when a shot of re-animation fluid can raise the dead, including severed limbs? Near the end of the film, the reanimated body of a decapitated corpse holds his (living!) head in his hands so that he can perform cunnilingus on a screaming naked woman strapped to a lab table. The logical/fantastical end of Lovecraft’s misanthropic imagination (which is why he is so attractive to Michel Houellebecq). Stay away from the sequel — Bride of the Re-Animator — it is terrible.

2) Is there no sense of evil in H. P. Lovecraft? Cthulth and his cohorts do not mean us well — they are not indifferent but want to reinstate an age of primal nightmare. In this, Lovecraft satirizes theism -– we generally do not go to the monsters in his stories (Buck Rogers style) they usually come to us. It is agape rather than eros — we are the unfortunate (not accidental) objects of the desire of the gross-out gods, as in one of Lovecraft’s better stories “The Color Out of Space,” which puts evolution (or illness) into monstrous reverse gear, the curse of Cthulhu reducing man to puddles of protoplasm.

3) It’s not that Lovecraft denied or was ignorant of the tidings of science —- his nightmares didn’t flow from willful obscurantism —- but that he managed to see only their shadow. No — he denies empirical reality entirely. “The notion of escaping from time seems the motif most valid in his fiction,” wrote Edmund Wilson, “stimulated as it was by an impulse toward evasion which had pressed upon him all his life.” The drive behind his fiction is to make the world (and man) go away — again, tailor made for Hollywood.

• bill

i guess yr not in the fan club with m. houellebecq, jc oates and a younger version of me. you'd rather boo cthulhu with the likes of edmund wilson.

yr right that there is evil in the lovecraft mythos. these beings are evil. but there's no good v. evil for us, no morality, no course of action except to remain ignorant or be maddened/devoured.

but i wd restate the point of my piece: though great cthulhu is nowhere mentioned in "alien" or "hellboy" these films owe him every bit of their serpentine spit, every last writhe of their cephalopodan tentacles.

(then again you probably have not even an ounce of sympathy for "hellboy ii: the golden army", either, alas).

a last point: i think lovecraft's "the doom that came to sarnath" one of the great tales ever written about the undying nature of vengeance except for one thing: it is unreadable.

the deal lovecraft made with the elder gods was to write about them so dreadfully that no one wd believe they LIVED.

Edmund Wilson doesn’t boo Lovecraft — he laughs (incredulously) at the hack silliness of it all.
I have no problem with a “misanthropic imagination,” but I like my nihilism served for adults (Thomas Bernhard), not adolescents. Lovecraft is a case of arrested development if there ever was one. You mention mankind not being good or evil in his work, but Lovecraft himself maintains an infantile pre-modernist innocence regarding society and culture in his writing. It is this obliviousness to the modern that explains his attraction to Hollywood.
Cthulu is far from a Nietzschesque uber-monster — the flying octopus (via ‘leathery wings”) is not beyond good or evil. He is more like a Freudian avenger, the all-powerful adult coming to put the kibosh on what the kids are doing (in Massachusetts most of the time) for no good reason, at least from the kiddies’ point of view. For Lovecraft everything on earth is fine enough … there is no connection between the decay (or vulnerability) of human values and his despair. We are just over matched by an ancient race.
I disagree with Wilson when he compares Lovecraft to early H. G. Wells — the former was incapable of writing something as witty, scary, and pointed as The Island of Doctor Moreau — a Darwinian fantasia/satire filled with sex, violence, social criticism, madness, and a parody of religion. Wells’ political point is made at the end of the novella — Social Darwinism is the real “House of Pain.” Wells is a giant of science fiction — Lovecraft is a pipsqueak. 



be better to bring in marvel comics and god knows what video games.

lovecraft told scary stories that had an idea behind them: the cosmos was bad news.

his idea can stay with you if you come upon it at the right time. after that, the window closes. nobody, not even the most willfully perverted french writer, gets imprinted by lovecraft in middle age.

i don't think comparing him to h.g. wells makes much sense, either. wells, as i recall (do correct me if i'm wrong here), had many stories. lovecraft, past an early stage in which he wrote fondly about cats (did you know that?), has only one story. no fleurs de mal for him: only one massively suppurating fleur.

but his literary virtues and vices are not the point. i'd never have written about him except for the movies. i think about him often in terms of them [AND ONLY IN TERMS OF THEM]

his vision, credited or not, is behind many hollywood films — some of them, great films. i happen to think "alien" is a great film. (about "blade runner" there can be no doubt. let me up  the ante here: what i used to say about "blade runner" is that its use of sets is second only to "metropolis", and maybe "dark city". i'm not sure i've changed my tune.)

like them or not — i suspect you don't — these are seminal movies. much of cinema & the best cable has been a commentary or variation on them & not just an exploitative set of sequels, not just sigourney weaver saying: "come & get it bitch" to mama alien, though that's pretty cool too.

"blade runner" sets a classy stage for all kinds of stuff about us and them — us being human, coded by dna,  and them being them, coded by us.

back to lovecraft: i think jc oates gets it just right it when she says he knew his “weird fiction” was appropriate for an “age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways.”

i don't know about lovecraft’s influence on the written word. i see evidence of his influence on guillermo del toro and ridley scott, whether or not they care to see it too.

giving yrself the last word? (did you get my riposte?)

i think our argument more rewarding than the movie. . .

• 6/25/12

Fair enough — but I am not the one that takes Lovecraft seriously. What he brings to the movies has nothing to do with what Oates and Houellebecq are going on about in terms of the unconventional supernatural or the topological imagination — he brought monsters and goo together. He eschewed the psychological depths and style of Poe, etc, replacing them with childish fantasy.

As for Welles, Lovecraft read him and was inspired by his time-tripping, dystopian imagination. For sheer indifferent evil, it is hard to beat the Martians in “War of the Worlds” — some of Cthulhu came out of that …. though Lovecraft did away with the tale’s satire of colonialism.


the devil just hasn't risen to the same depths [sic] since "rosemary's baby" and "the exorcist."

been unseated by more tenebrous sorts.

i'll re-read "war of the worlds" — last encountered in the mediocre spielberg version — if you promise to try and enjoy "hellboy".

then we can write an opera for the ages — "cthulhu's song". there will be long recitatives by stephen king & a chorus sung by oates & houellebecq.

**Fred Owens says: 
June 26, 2012 at 1:26 am “Most people who value Lovecraft encountered him at a time in their lives when they were maximally susceptible, ready to be forever imprinted. I am one of them.”
Such a wonderful thing to say or write. I was once “maximally susceptible” but to other authors, not HPL. Ah youth!
Thank you.

I have been reading around in Gothika (Harvard U Press), Victoria Nelson’s informed and entertaining study of horror fiction, spirituality, and popular culture. She is far too earnest about the genre’s attraction — for her, the stuff is part of an “alternative religious movement.” I say fans enjoy the infantile escapist jolt — most don’t take the stuff seriously as radical theology.
Predictably, Lovecraft is an important player in Nelson’s argument about horror and the evolution of a post-Christian spirituality. This is from her chapter on him:
In a typical Lovecraft story, the protagonist (who is also often the narrator), either encounters or discovers he is related by blood to, or descended from, a ghastly horror of distorted size and form. This encounter or realization either triggers or is coincident with his own regression into the antihuman creature. By story’s end he is either mad (and, conventionally, writing from an asylum) or engulfed and metamorphosing into an alien creature himself. In the context of his non-Christian but Puritan-influenced cosmos, hellfire has been replaced by oozing slime.

I rest my case …..


** Ian Thal says: 
June 26, 2012 at 11:26 am 

For me, Lovecraft has the unusual role of a mediocre writer who had a germ of originality that served as inspiration of far more talented writers– he created a genre that did not exist before that, while adolescent in its concerns, has proven fruitful not just for pastiche, but for deconstruction.
Lovecraft’s discomfort with sexuality is particularly remarkable. For instance, just read the “Dunwich Horror”; for the modern reader who has read Freud, the story’s cosmic horror reads like a suppressed tale of incestuous rape– and the interesting aspect of HPL’s work is how often his “strange fiction” seems like a suppression of racial and sexually abusive themes. (Is it really any wonder how often Lovecraftians exert a great deal of effort to deny HPL’s racism?)


Tellingly, Nelson has nothing to say about Lovecraft’s racism, his stories, and their connections with “an alternative spiritual movement.” It is an ironically sanitized look at the values purveyed by “the swill of twentieth-century gutter culture.”


houellebecq, for what it's worth, makes no attempt to deny lovecraft's racism & sexism. he writes:

[Lovecraft] was fundamentally racist, openly reactionary . . . glorified puritanical inhibitions, and evidently found all "direct erotic manifestations" repulsive.

these are not traits houellebecq admires — nor can he by any stretch be sd to share "puritanical inhibitions" — but they do not stop him — or did not when he seventeen — from being swept away by lovecraft.

i want to return to a point i made before, namely that lovecraft's very limitation, his monomania, is a source of his power. unlike hg wells, & others (including stephen king), lovecraft has but one story. he writes less like an artificer than a shocked believer, someone who has no choice but to give testimony.

as for an "alternate spiritual movement", well, i don't know if it's spiritual, but i'm kinda bowled over by the ubiquity of the vampire versus werewolf story line. it plays a big part in glen duncan's "the last werewolf", which i've just finished. then i turn on the tube, find myself in a teen show on the disney channel, and there it is again, vamps v. wolves. it's like you can't be a teen and not be studied up on that rivalry. and i'm not even mentioning zombies and their ilk.

i don't get why this stuff seems to be absolutely everywhere, and haven't found anything better than oates's comment, especially its last point, namely that these days the will to believe is satisfied in "eccentric, atomized ways."

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