Prometheus

Prometheus is the most libertarian of the Greek gods. His name has been used to signify choice and accountability in such stories as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus”; her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”; Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” in which the protagonist renames himself Prometheus; and even the web address of Liberty magazine, libertyunbound.

In the story, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, both Titans, are given the task of creating man and endowing him with gifts. The animals are created first, and Epimetheus is a bit too generous, bestowing all the talents and skills (courage to the lion, strength to the ox, cunning to the fox, sagacity to the owl) before man comes along. What to do about this blunder? With the aid of Athena, Prometheus flies up to the sun and steals a bit of fire, bringing it back as a gift to man.

This gift would truly set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. With fire they could warm their houses, cook their food, forge tools to cultivate the earth, create art and musical instruments, and coin money to make commerce and wealth possible. They could also make weapons of defense. In short, they could become independent and self-reliant. But eventually those weapons of defense would become weapons of war, bringing such wickedness to the earth that Zeus would be compelled to destroy it with a flood and start all over again with a new founding family.

Zeus and the other gods, whose power comes from the adulation of humans, are not happy. As a punishment, the gods do two things. First, they form a woman named Pandora and give her to Epimetheus, along with a box from which Pandora releases sorrows and misfortunes into the world, misfortunes that will cause humans to turn to the gods for help. Second, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock, where an eagle comes each day to eat his liver. The liver grows back overnight, only to be eaten again.

It is helpful, though not entirely necessary, to know this background when seeing Prometheus, the long anticipated prequel to the “Alien” (1979) / “Aliens” (1986) / “Alien3″ (1992) / “Alien Resurrection” (1997) quadrilogy. Those films put Sigourney Weaver on the map as one tough mama and opened the casting door to women to become Hollywood action heroes. While the film does not adhere slavishly to the myth, there are enough allusions to make it satisfying intellectually even though it is mostly a science fiction thriller.

As “Prometheus” opens, the camera pans along what appears to be primordial Earth: uncultivated shrubbery emerges from rich, black, volcanic rock as water pours through fissures in canyon walls. The camera pans up to a gigantic waterfall that seems to be the source of life itself. (Iceland, I must say, provides the perfect location for a pre-human Eden!) At the top of the falls sits a man-like being. In his hand he holds a black and red substance. He hesitates with what appears to be a look of sorrow, and then he eats the substance. His body changes—veins appear in his skin—he seems to become mortal–then he crumbles and falls, as his DNA spills like atoms into the water. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Persephone banished to Hades for eating the forbidden pomegranate seed, Adam becoming mortal in the day he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and Prometheus suffering eternal punishment for bringing life-giving fire to mankind. “Adam fell, that men might be” (2 Nephi 2:25), I thought, as the being fell, literally, into the waterfall. Powerful.

The rest of the film is a satisfying return to the Alien franchise, with all the expected elements. Aliens burst from stomachs (note the allusion to liver-eating here…). Wise-cracking rocket drivers crack their last laugh. Space scientists hide from monsters in darkened shafts. And one strong, independent woman does her best to save the day. This time, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall) have discovered evidence of the origin of earth life—and it isn’t evolutionary amoebas. They believe they can trace the path of that original goo-eating Earth visitor back to his planet of origin, and there discover important truths about humankind.

What they find relates to the second part of the Prometheus myth—Zeus’s decision to destroy Earth’s war-mongering civilization. The space travelers discover that aliens have been stockpiling gallons of the goo as a weapon of epic destruction, and their navigation system is targeting Earth. They have simply been waiting for humans to become smart enough to reach the founder gods, Prometheus style, and bingo—lift off. Once again, Earth’s safety lies in the hands of a feisty, self-reliant, courageous, and in this case quasi-religious woman–Elizabeth is a crucifix-wearing Catholic who isn’t quite sure what that means.

Even with a slew of stomach-ripping aliens on hand, no modern blockbuster would be complete without a cold, heartless, corporate rep. “Prometheus” supplies two of them, in the guise of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and her boss, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who is funding this mission not for its potential contribution to science or humankind, but for selfish personal reasons. Of course. (Interestingly, Weyland’s company logo is a triangle, perhaps suggesting the Trinity. That would go along with Elizabeth’s crucifix.) Unfortunately, the always wonderful Guy Pearce is wasted here under pounds of age-creating prosthetics; if they wanted an old man in his role, why not simply hire an old man to play it? Unless flashbacks have been planned for the next installment of this prequel, there was absolutely no reason for this casting. As for Theron—she plays the cool queen magnificently.

The true stars of this film are Michael Fassbender as David, the lifelike robot servant of the crew, whose name suggests that either a Goliath slayer or a Messianic king (or both) is coming somewhere along the way of this new trilogy; and Rapace, who steps into Sigourney Weaver’s moonboots with a fierce determination and a welcome softness. She will do well as the new Eve, if that is where this trilogy is headed.

“Prometheus,” directed by Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2012, 124 minutes.

Moonrise Kingdom

Perspective. Two people can look at the very same scene, or experience the very same event, yet come away with completely different ideas of what they have seen. That seems to be the point of Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” and he begins making that point, cleverly and creatively, with his opening scene.

We see a painting of a seaside house. As the camera comes closer, we enter the house. It is obviously a dollhouse, full of tiny dollhouse furniture. Then a boy walks into the scene, passes the tiny chair, and demonstrates that it is actually normal size. As the camera pans from room to room, similar anomalies appear. We see a giant set of binoculars at the far side of a room, until a young girl walks into the scene and comes toward the binoculars. Only then do we realize that they were normal sized binoculars sitting on the window sill in the foreground, not the background. Again, we see a full-sized lighthouse in the distance, until a car drives into the scene and we realize it is merely a mailbox in the foreground, decorated to look like a lighthouse.

These optical illusions are no accident, and they are not merely a filmmaker’s cinematic game, although they are mighty fun. Anderson uses this technique to establish, early in the film, that what we see is not always what we get. Our perspective of anything we see is often skewed by our expectation of what it is. The girl carries her binoculars everywhere and sees almost everything through their lenses, suggesting that if we look at events more closely, and put people into the picture, we are more likely to gain a proper perspective.
Wes Anderson is known for his quirky story lines, dysfunctional families, vivid color palate, and deadpan direction. This is film is no exception. “Moonrise Kingdom” is a story of young star-crossed lovers—a familiar story, here turned upside down. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is the oldest child of a pair of lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who speak in legal jargon and call their four children to dinner with a megaphone. At one point a shirtless Mr. Bishop walks through the living room, carrying an axe, and announces to no one in particular, “I’m going to find a tree to chop down.” No wonder Suzy has anger-control issues.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphaned “Khaki Scout” staying at a summer camp across the island from Suzy’s house. Sam doesn’t fit in with the other scouts. Authority figures in 1965, when this film is set, would probably have said he needs to “be a man”; certainly no one seems concerned about how the other boys treat him. Those same authorities today would probably say “he is being bullied.” It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

Sam and Suzy meet by accident when the scouts attend a church production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” in which Suzy plays the raven. (Okay, it’s not exactly by accident; Sam sneaks into the girls’ dressing room to find out who she is.) Britten’s music provides the score for much of the film, and “Noye’s Fludde” foreshadows both the pairing up of the two young romantics and the tempest– figurative and literal– that is about to break forth.

After a year of clandestine correspondence and furtive binocular spying, Sam breaks out of his tent, Shawshank style, and runs off with Suzy into the woods. The shenanigans that follow, with scouts, family members, and a robotic matron (Tilda Swinton) known only as “Social Services” trying to find the runaways, is classic Anderson, with bizarre, illogical, unexpected happenings presented as perfectly natural events. The sweet budding romance between Sam and Suzy as they play house in the woods (also bizarre and illogical) is contrasted sharply with the mean-spirited antics of those who are sworn to protect them.

Under the direction of their gung-ho scout master (Edward Norton) the rest of the scouts form a posse to track Sam down and bring him back to camp. “I resigned,” Sam tells them simply, to explain why the boys have no jurisdiction over him. To this one of them asserts, “You don’t have the authority to resign!” His perspective on group dynamics is funny and chilling, so obviously wrong and yet so socially accepted. Recalling the furniture in the film’s opening scene, the boy appears to be a small GI Joe, but he is spouting grown up beliefs. Sam is correct when he says to the boys, “I don’t like you and you don’t like me, so why don’t you just let me go?” But they won’t let him go; they expect him to conform to the group.

All of this might be charming and delightful if only our star -crossed lovers were a little older. But to me there is something creepy and unnerving about 12-year-olds kissing in their underwear and talking about hard-ons and breasts. Yes, these children have faced some difficult obstacles, with Sam being sent to foster care after his parents died and Suzy spying on her mother’s infidelity with the local cop (Bruce Willis) and being bathed by her mother at the age of 12. But I hardly think that running away to play house and have sexual experiences at that young age is the answer.

I also couldn’t shake the realization that Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman were 12 themselves as they experienced their first “touching sessions” in front of cameras, boom operators, and director Anderson. As the film points out in its opening scene, a little perspective is wanted. Things that are large sometimes turn out to be small, and things that are small often turn out to be large. Children are small. They should not be placed in adult situations, no matter what the director–and their parents–tell them to do.

Moonrise Kingdom,” directed by Wes Anderson. Indian Paintbrush, 2012, 94 minutes.

How We Decide

“Don’t think, feel!” Bruce Lee’s character exhorts his young son in “Enter the Dragon” (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored “Don’t feel, think!” when she wrote, “People don’t want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think.” Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee’s feeling intuitively or Rand’s thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in “How We Decide,” they’re both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brain wave studies have shown that there isn’t time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren’t that fast. A quarterback’s decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, “You just feel like you’re going to the right place.”
Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to “choke” on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. “A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind,” Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn’t sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, “I can tell if someone’s guilty just by looking at him” is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain’s emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.
The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed “Run!” his reason said, “Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire’s fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you.” He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge’s brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. “Every feeling,” Lehrer writes, “is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can’t be accessed directly”(23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember–one that required them to remember seven things–usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller’s essay, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables–as when one is buying a new house –“sleep on it” and then “go with your gut” really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, “You are so confident you’re right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion.” This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: “always entertain competing hypotheses,…[and] continually remind yourself of what you don’t know” (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. “Emotions have a logic all their own,” Lehrer says. “They’ve managed to turn mistakes into educational events” (248-49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they’ve been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. “You can’t avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains,” he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.
“How We Decide” is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand’s conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for “Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which.”

“How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition (2010), Harcourt Brace (2009), 302 pages.