Saturday, July 6, 2013

God is an Astronaut

Chariots of the Gods (1970)
Director: Harald Reinl
Rating: 6 / 10
Seen via: Netflix Instant

Chariots of the Gods is an adaptation of Erich von Daniken's book of the same name that popularized the notion that aliens have visited Earth throughout human history and played an integral role in our development as a species. Citing countless ancient artifacts across the world as evidence, von Daniken's thesis hinges on the notion that primitive people couldn't have been technologically advanced enough to engineer marvels such as the Pyramids, Stonehenge, or Machu Picchu on their own. Combined with specimens of ancient art that seem to depict spacesuits, spacecraft, and godlike figures descending from the stars, von Daniken proposes that these extraterrestrial visitors have been continually mistaken for gods by ancient civilizations across the world.

The fact that von Daniken's book actually tacks a question mark onto its title is emblematic of his approach: to throw evidence in front of you and ask a ton of questions that are never conclusively answered or backed up with solid facts. You can almost picture von Daniken's raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders. "Doesn't that cave drawing look like a spacecraft?" "The Nazca lines sure do look like runways, right?" "Could the ancient Egyptians really have moved that many stones to build the pyramids?" In the age of instant fact-checking, it doesn't take a whole lot of skepticism to poke holes throughout the whole thing. But there's something attractive to me about the way von Daniken delivers his message. In examining artifacts from across the world, he's continually marvelling at their sophistication and how the seemingly vast gulf of time which separates us from our ancestors doesn't diminish the fact that we are actually very much like them.

The film adaptation takes a similar approach. It's more travelogue than documentary, and jumps back and forth across the globe from one exotic locale to another. The English adaptation is narrated by a nameless guide who detaches himself from the scenery most of the time. Even so, there are occasionally slips when he speaks as if he's telling stories from his own journeys. "For six days we trek onward, sleeping beneath the sparkling, starry desert sky. We are curious to learn as much as we can of the fascinating world around us." Fragments sounding as if they were lifted from a travel diary work their way into the story, particularly as he recounts a journey across Africa in search of ancient cave paintings.

It's a somewhat naive journey across the world with no active scorn for ancient civilizations, but an implicit wonder at the fact that they'd be able to achieve so much without extraterrestrial aid. The worn film stock and Peter Thomas Sound Orchesta's sweeping score often manage to convey a sublime beauty and antiquated sense of fascination with our place in the universe. Coupled with the frequent use of stock footage, this attitude lends it the feel of an old educational film. It's not surprising that an edited version (narrated by Rod Serling) was reputedly released on 16mm and sold to schools.

Even though it's a documentary with a questionable amount of truth, the earnestness of Chariots of the Gods sets it apart from more lurid mondo films. While the science is nonexistent and the conclusions are drawn based purely on hunches and speculation, it never feels exploitative. If anything, it tries to convey just a genuine enthusiasm for knowledge and questioning established histories. It's that sense of misguided curiosity that kept me engaged, just as it keeps me reading alien abduction stories I know are fictitious, just as it won't let me turn off a bogus documentary on the paranormal. It's all fake, but what if - what if? Chariots of the Gods globetrots for about half an hour too long, but the moments of adventure and optimism sprinkled throughout make it worth at least checking out - especially if you're willing to abandon rationality for a bit to bask in the impossible.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Eric! You have helped to quell some of my curiosity about this film. I'm happy to hear that's relatively non-exploitative and (from the sound of it) fairly innocent. My parents were children of the '70s, so I grew up hearing about this book.

    But wait...are you saying that aliens aren't real? I'm like you, a skeptic who likes to leave the door slightly ajar for the fun of it.