Odyssey at the Movies: Prometheus Unchained

Michael Fassbender as the artificial human, David, a role which holds Scott’s film together from start to finish. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

“There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”
“I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.”
Prometheus inspires wonder, bafflement and, it has to be said, disappointment. It is hard to believe that any Ridley Scott movie could disappoint; but one only has to think as far back as his take on the Robin Hood legend to realize that even Scotts’ imagination can occasionally misfire. Let me add with some haste that there are no such misfires with Prometheus. There is much to admire over and above the usual cinematic tricks and treats: the visual splendor of the landscapes and sets, the strikingly original appearance of the “Engineers,” a storyline which engages with its audience on an intellectual level (so rare these days in any mainstream film), and above all a central performance which holds the film together from beginning to end.

The technology portrayed in Prometheus is largely convincing, though the spacesuits are a long way from R.A. Smith’s 1940s design for a lunar moon-suit (below).

Michael Fassbender provides this essential cohesive thread as the android David, so human he is outwardly indistinguisable from the rest of the crew and far more likeable than his fellow explorers. This apparent contradiction is the dichotomy at the heart of Prometheus, just as it was with Blade Runner: the artificial human is better, in just about every way, than the real thing, and certainly far more sympathetic. Like the replicant renegade Roy Batty, David is more resourceful, more determined, more curious and in many ways more civilized than his organic counterparts.
David’s antecedence can be traced back not just to Roy Batty but all the way back to his namesake onboard a very different spaceship, to David Bowman on the Discovery. The two space travelers look alike, and even sound alike; one of the opening scenes has David being greeted by the ship’s onboard computer in just the same way that HAL might have done.
The highly capable and sapient David is continually derided and mocked, even physically abused, by his companions, unsettled as they perhaps are by the presence of a being who may represent the next stage in human evolution. This contemptuous, xenophobic attitude leads to the death of at least one member of the crew. By and large that same crew is much less likeable than their counterparts on the Nostromo, and as a result their fate is of little interest. A degree of empathy for anyone other than David is only experienced towards the end of the film through the character played by Idris Elba (Janek), and the life and death decision he has to make as the captain of the Prometheus. But by then it is largely too late to care about anyone else.
Elizabeth Shaw, the film’s other main protagonist, displays in David’s own words “extraordinary survival skills” as she self-aborts a non-human fetus which has taken root inside her abdomen (thereby escaping the fate which befell John Hurt in Alien). But by this time we are less interested in her personal struggle than in the upcoming encounter with a surviving “Engineer,” an encounter which rapidly degenerates into extreme violence. The Christian symbolism surrounding Shaw’s character (played with some gusto by Noomi Rapace) is at odds with the rest of the movie, as is the cheesy voice-over in the final scene. The religious iconography is as anachronistic as the cave paintings discovered at the start of the movie.

“Good morning, Dave.” Keir Dullea as David Bowman (from 2001: A Space Odyssey), a man who has a lot in common with his namesake on the Prometheus. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Setting aside the fact that starship technology will almost certainly not exist by the end of this century (the Prometheus begins her voyage in the year 2093), the outward journey is used as a mechanism for introducing the crew, most of whom are stock characters. I don’t know that many geologists but I’m pretty sure very few opt to have their head partially shaved, adorn themselves with tattoos, and shout at colleagues they disagree with. No doubt this is all done to make the characters more interesting but it is achieved at the expense of credibility.
The Prometheus expedition is financed by the head of the Weyland Corporation, an ancient entrepreneur determined to find out if the “Engineers” can prolong his life. David’s conversations with Weyland, when the businessman is in cryo-sleep, are reminiscent of the surreal discussions between Captain Doolittle and Commander Powell in John Carpenter’s Dark Star. The borders between life and death are rendered ambiguous throughout the movie, first by the sleeping hibernauts who seem suspended between the two states; and then by a genus of creatures who are capable of regenerating themselves within the bodies of their still living hosts.
For much of the film the audience is left guessing whether there is a second android amongst the crew in the form of Meredith Vickers, a key role played with sultry charm by Charlize Theron. Indeed, despite her amorous encounter with Janek, we are never quite sure whether Vickers is as much David’s brother as she is Weyland’s estranged daughter.
The movie may not be a seminal event in the same way that Alien and Blade Runner were but for all that Prometheus remains the film of 2012. Its sequel (already in pre-production) demands to be seen if only to discover the fate of David, for that is the essence of Scott’s story – not the discovery of bizarre alien life but rather what it means to be human. To have the soul that David so desperately longs for.
Prometheus is out now on DVD/Blu-ray
Mark Stewart, FBIS
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian/Editor (Odyssey)
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