Music Past The Red Line: ‘Life’ from Prometheus

By this stage, Prometheus has been dissected, reviewed, criticised, lauded and pulled apart a few hundred different ways. Ridley Scott’s prequel / do over on the ideas presented in Alien, the film is one of those fascinating pieces that brings out entirely different responses in everyone who sees it. To my mind it’s both massively ambitious and massively flawed, and it’s been fascinating to see how the blame — or perceived blame — has fallen on some elements of the production more than others. In particular, one thing regularly cited as a major failing in the early reviews is Marc Streitenfeld’s soundtrack.

To me, the soundtrack is one of the strongest elements of the film. There’s some fascinating work done with the refrains from the Alien soundtrack, linking the two films musically as well as visually. Similarly, one of the film’s major closing action beats is scored with music of an almost religious tone, as well as the usual action bombast, giving credence to some of theories presented about what’s actually going on.

There’s one track which utterly fascinates me. ‘Life’ is heard for the first time very early in the film, and it musically encodes the central conflicts of the movie — religion versus science, humanity making it’s way out into a bigger universe and realizing how little it matters —  into 2:30 of music.

Here’s the piece.

The first thing you hear is that rumbling, low noise we’re programmed to associate with the vast. It’s lower than normal too, until a single, slow drum beat sounds. The meat of the piece lands with the opening horn refrain, alone against that rumbling background bass note. The refrain rises, finishes higher than it started and the emotional response it evokes is instantaneous. This is brave new world stuff, astronauts gazing up and out of recruitment posters as they stare towards the infinite they will soon conquer. It’s a Starfleet style call to arms and, yet, it’s slightly mournful. This isn’t just about the grandeur and vastness of space, the big answers that Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway seek. This is about realising how small we are, how little we matter. The grandeur, the scope of human achievement and endeavor is embodied both in the Prometheus as a ship and in the refrain we get here; proud, heroic, noble and complete over shadowed by the constant, rising bass note. As the strings come in, they pick up the refrain and build on it, whilst the bass note continues to rise in the background. The refrain builds and turns, handed off between the strings and horns.

The choir kicks in last and here the piece becomes overtly religious. This is the sort of music we’re programmed to respond to with awe and wonder, the sort of music that Stephen Spielberg happily used to show how wonderful alien life is, how beautiful and intricate and glorious the universe is around us. It’s ascendant, aspirational: this is where we should be, we’re taking our place in the universe. The choir is deliberately angelic, but they’re always a little out of reach, a little too high and breathy. Beautiful voices just out of reach of understanding, always leading us further out into the black as they rise. Angels? Or sirens?

Then the percussion hits, hard, and the piece curdles. This is the moment everything goes wrong, the moment the expedition realizes how horribly out of it’s depth it is. A single group of humans, two years from help, trapped in the middle of events far larger than they can comprehend. Each note is stretched, the tempo increases, the piece builds yet again and then … stops. We’re left, like the crew, in the middle of nowhere with no way home.

It’s a fascinating, smart, mournful piece of music and the complex reactions it evokes mirrors the complex reactions people have had to both the movie and the main character, Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. Science versus religion, faith versus fact, belief versus action. It’s all here waiting to be discovered like the Engineers themselves.

As for what you find? Well…  that’s an entirely different matter.

Bloody Knuckled Algebra: Haywire

Speed and skill versus size and endurance. Do you hit faster, more often and more accurately or do you eat the shots to get close enough to land a single devastating blow? Who’s more experienced? Who can stay calm when they take the first punch? Who’s plan survives contact with the enemy?

 

Who wins?

 

She’s brand new, the first fighter. Tall and athletic, raven black hair and a look which is both classical and slightly eccentric. The camera can do nothing but follow her as she comes on screen, wearing street clothes, a woollen cap, rolling her wrists, cricking her neck. She moves with the casual experience that only professional fighters have, the awareness of where their body is at all times, the odd sense of gravity working just a little bit differently for them. She circles her opponent, bunching and unbunching her hands and smiles. She wants this, this is going to be fun.

 

Her opponent doesn’t move. He’s older than she is, has maybe fifty pounds of muscle on her and decades of experience. He’s dressed simply, wearing black trousers, a black t-shirt, his hair occasionally slicked back, occasionally longer than it perhaps should be. In a certain light he’s Bond, in another, he’s Bourne, in another he’s Ethan Hunt. What remains the same, regardless of his face, of his ability, is the shape he makes in the story. The seasoned operator, the grizzled spy, the lone troubled man doing the best he can in a world where his ethics and morals are challenged and he can only redeem himself by killing an awful lot of people. He’s a contradiction, a man on the edge who stays on the edge, a man pushed past his limits who knows exactly when to push back. He doesn’t smile, this isn’t going to be fun. But he wants it too.

 

Their eyes meet and there’s a split second of acknowledgement and she moves. She darts forward, bringing her hands up and pushes off from one foot, clearing the ground and hammering her right hand into his face, her entire bodyweight behind it. His head snaps back, his arms pinwheel and she follows him as he staggers, throwing alternating kicks to his chest and head and grabbing him by the back as he slumps forward, driving her knee into his chest and face over and over again. There’s nothing flashy, nothing showy about this assault, it’s all function dictated, very slightly, by form. She moves fast, she hits hard, she does damage and we watch it all, locked off in mid shot. Every grunt, every thud, every crack as bones break, and they will.

 

He slumps and she backs off, drops her hands. The camera pans round him as he takes a breath, spits a gobbet of blood out onto the floor and looks up at her. He stands, in slow motion of course, and she raises her hands, her eyes blazing as she dares him to come meet her and he does. He’s slower, and she lands another punch as he closes but it doesn’t matter. He’s inside her guard now and they grapple, him using his superior weight to control where she goes, her using her speed and flexibility to get out of one out of every two moves he tries. This is a conversation as much as a fight, red in tooth and claw and syntax and as she scissors her legs around him and he drives her into a wall there’s a moment which is one part intimacy and one part rage. They’re the same these two, hero and heroine. They may be evenly matched, they may not, but that’s something they’re here to find out. That’s the end of the conversation, the resolution, and the only way they get there is through her letting him go as he smashes her into a wall, him throwing her through a flat screen TV, her taking his legs away and trading punches as she kneels on his chest. Smaller vs bigger, experienced vs new.

 

He stands, she folds around him again and he bounces her off another surface. She puts an elbow into his nose as she drops and he staggers, blood running as she slumps and tries to collect herself. She’s good, the best since Ripley, Conner, Summers, and she’s got a real shot at this, at taking his title, taking his slot. She’s got real life experience, years as a Thai Boxer, as a Mixed Martal Artist, real world, applicable skills that teach her how to wound, how to strike, how to take a punch and keep going.

 

She’s never fought an archetype before though. That’s what he is as much as a man, a stereotypical spy, an archetypal antagonist, someone with as many faces as years she’s been born. She breaks James Bond’s nose and Jason Bourne punches her in the face. She chokes Jason Bourne out and Ethan Hunt throws her against a wall. She kicks Ethan through a plate glass door and John Scott stands up in his place. There are so many of him, each fresh and ready and each in control of the space as much as the fight. The camera’s locked off and that certainly gives her space to move, to hurt, but it also gives him time. There’s no pace to this fight,these fights, just an endless stream of long shots and knee strikes, pans and right crosses, bloody knuckled algebra being worked out in the middle distance with desperate urgency for everyone in the fight and mild interest for everyone outside it. There’s violence here, there’s emotion but it’s at two removes. No one cheers her on.

 

But no one cheers him on either. He’s first up this time and it hurts. He’s slow, unsteady and telegraphs his first three punches. She dodges them, fires back with a pair of kicks that knock him sideways and follows with a knee strike to the temple, looking to end this once and for all.

 

He catches it, picks her up and half runs, half falls through a door into the bedroom. She barely has time to close one foot in the crook of the other knee, constricting his head between her legs before he slams her off the bed. He’s bright red, bleeding from his lip, his nose, his cheeks. She’s as bad, she can tell, an ugly cut on one eye, blood streaming from her nose, her ribs throbbing from where he’s struck her.

 

She ignores it. She realises he can’t. He flails, throws one, two, three more punches to her face and she eats them all because she can, because she’s winning and she wants, needs, him to see that. His throat bubbles and surges, his eyes roll up into his head. Seconds left.

 

She rolls them off the bed, hitting him in the back of the head with the floor, her legs still tight around him. She lets go, just a little, demands answers about why this is happening to her. He begins to explain, a halting, almost apologetic tone to his voice. His right hands moves to the underside of the mattress, where she stashed her gun. She pretends not to notice.

 

He explains that it isn’t personal. That she was simply the right woman in the right place at the right time. This wasn’t about her, even with the camera so fond of her, even with the space left in the story for her and her talent for violence. It’s a revenge story, plain and simple, one where she’s a pawn not a Queen.

 

His hand closes on the grip of the gun.

 

She digs further, asks why her, what the plan is, who’s betrayed her. He tells her ‘Everyone’ and smiles as for the first time she feels real pain as a result of his actions. Her boyfriend, her colleagues, everyone she let get close has let her down. Everyone she trusted to get behind her hands, under her guard has used that lack of distance to hurt her so efficiently, so badly, she almost didn’t notice.

 

He sees her put it together.

 

He draws the gun

 

She hits him, once, takes the gun off him, pulls a pillow from the bed and puts it over his face.

 

There’s a single gunshot.

 

She gives herself a moment, just one to feel pain. Then she stands up, drags the body into the bathroom and showers their blood off her. The equation’s been solved, the answer’s been reached and she has a lot of work to do, more than she was expecting. This is a victory, but not a clean one. She has work to do, pace to improve on, and she can do it. But this isn’t her world, at least not quite, yet. So she showers and she changes and she runs, not away from her enemies but straight at them. Because she’s brand new, and it’s time to fight this war in a brand new way. Somewhere out past the film reel, her next opponent bunches his fists and waits. She’s ready, but he’s no longer sure if he is.