Thursday, June 21, 2012


After doing my level best to avoid the side-effects of fanboyism and self-induced hype, I caught a 2D screening of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus.

Here follows a pretty spoiler-heavy analysis.

What I liked.

Fassbender, Fassbender, and Fassbender. Oh, did I mention Fassbender? He is nothing short of stunning as the conflicted android David. When an actor plays a machine of some sort, they have the option of phoning it in and playing it straight and vacant (Terminator's T-800, Virtuosity's SID), or they can do the deeply complex (Blade Runner's Roy Batty, The Matrix trilogy's Agent Smith). Fortunately for us, Michael Fassbender is capable enough to bring an element of desirous humanity to his synthetic character. We feel for him and we feel with him, even though we know that he is incapable of feeling. Or is he?

Other highlights include the continuing tradition of a strong yet vulnerable female lead played by Noomi Rapace. Never heard of her? That's fine, most folks outside of Sweden haven't, and that brings me to another laudable aspect of the film: a largely anonymous cast. Instead of shoehorning a well known actor into every available role - as the earlier films did, and as Scott easily could have done - the cast is made up of relatively unknown "everyman" actors. Considering the flimsy characterisation, every last gimmick that could make the characters relatable helps.

What I disliked.

Well, where do I begin? This film is flawed. It is flawed in serious ways, and it is flawed in many ways. The plotting is a mess and the pacing is all over the place; the first half seeps contemplatively, only to devolve into a smash-cut extravaganza of cheap tension for the second half.

There are enough sizable plot holes to park a fleet of Eldorados: How did the entire crew just forget that Shaw was pregnant with an alien squid foetus? Why did the alien (inexplicably hostile humanoid progenitors of our species, formerly called Space Jockeys by fandom, but officially dubbed "Engineers" in Prometheus) chase after the only surviving member of the crew when he could've made his way to another buried ship and continued with his original mission? How could a scientist who designed mapping drones get lost in such a simple cave / buried ship?

I also took issue with the religious themes of the film. Now, I know that any good science fiction film should not just be "set in space." Science fiction exists as a lense through which an audience can view pertinent social and philosophical ideas in a detached and objective way. Terminator 2 asked us to contemplate purpose in the face of inevitability; Alien gave us a horrific metaphor for rape - a concept to which society had become desensitized; The Matrix and The Truman Show (yes, I consider the latter to be sci-fi) dared us to contrast the veracity of our world with our perceptions of it. By this reckoning, Prometheus does the right thing, but it feels awfully hamfisted. Yes, I realise the religious significance of discovering our origins to be less-than-divine. Yes, I understand the inevitable spiritual crisis a person would encounter upon - quite literally - meeting their maker. Yes, I can spot the metaphor of an android watching his own creator die. Your audience is astute enough to detect these subtle and unsubtle allusions, so please stop forcing religiously charged dialogue into the script every other scene. Thank you.

Then, there is the question of Peter Weyland: David's creator, Vickers' father, and trillionaire CEO of the Weyland Corporation which is funding the expedition. He is probably on the wrong side of 100 (the expedition, it is revealed, was funded by him based on a forlorn hope of encountering the secret to immortality - or at least life extension), yet he is played by the spritely Guy Pearce in the worst "old guy" makeup this side of Goodbye Mr. Chips. Not once, in the entire length of the film, do we see Pearce without makeup. What is the reason for this casting which, in light of the plot, is completely incomprehensible?

I believe that most of the problems of this film were caused by aggressive editing. I like to think that Ridley Scott crafted a thoughtful science fiction epic that spanned 180+ minutes. Studio execs balked at the thought of keeping commercial (read: braindead) audiences in seats for that long, and insisted on a much more conventional 120-minute theatrical cut. As a result, many significant scenes were aggressively stripped from the film.

Here's hoping that a Director's Cut re-release will do as much for Prometheus as it did for Blade Runner.

The story of David.

I felt that the character of David - charmingly and perhaps even brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender - was the true protagonist of the film. He was the crux about which every theme revolved, and by whom almost every significant set-piece was triggered. As such, I've decided to give him his own special analysis.

After the opening sequence of an Engineer "seeding" life on Earth, the film cuts forward about 4 billion years (take that, Kubrick!) to the goings on aboard the scientific research vessel Prometheus. The crew are in cryosleep - as they have been for two years, we're told - and the only activity on board is courtesy of David.

He goes about his odd proclivities. He rides a bicycle, plays basketball, watches old movies, studies ancient pictographs, reviews mission details, dyes his hair.

That last one. Seems a bit out of place, doesn't it? It struck me immediately, and it did stay with me for a while. It's a moment of deep significance and foreshadowing in my opinion. It gives us a hint about David's conflicted nature which is more subtle than any of the previously-maligned religious schlock.

We know what the movie's about. Humans journey to a distant planet to see if Mankind owes its origin to an alien intelligence. But that's not what it's about. We think that it's a horror movie, it's not. It's a science-fiction movie. It asks science-fiction questions. In this regard, as Ebert tells us, Prometheus owes more to the cerebral science fiction which predates the original Alien, than it does to any of its predecessors. When David asks if not all children want their parents to die, it is quite literally a line that Roy Batty could have asked. In a sense, did ask. More than that, Batty does what David dreams of.

In a film that is almost a study of insipid characterisation, how is it that David is subtle, deep, intriguing, and masterfully presented?

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick presents us with human characters who are flat. Their dialogue varies between prosaic (scientists discussing sandwich quality aboard the lunar shuttle) and awkward (Heywood Floyd's tense reticence to discuss with Russian colleagues the strange events on the moon). Was Kubrick simply bad at doing dialogue? A laughable assertion, I hope you'll agree. No, he deliberately presented the human characters as stilted and lifeless with very little of interest to say, so that when the character of HAL is introduced, he represents a personable and truly "human" character that the viewer had been craving. There's a reason why a computer has the best lines in 2001, and it's crafted to make us ask questions. About ourselves, about machines, about the nature of intelligence itself.

Is a similar thing happening in Prometheus? Are we coached into ascribing a deep sense of humanity to David by the lack of it elsewhere? It certainly would be a happy accident that the majority of human characters are cold, unlikable, and one-dimensional when compared to the depth of the film's only artificial being.

David has a lot in common with HAL. In fact, I think it’s entirely accurate to say that David is precisely what you'd get if you gave HAL legs. This movie is a direct descendant of 2001. More a child of that movie and that kind of science fiction than it is of Alien.

I feel that Prometheus also owes a certain debt to Wall-E. Both movies spend time, a lot of time, with a lone robot puttering around amidst the artefacts of humanity. Allowing humanity's culture to project itself onto the robot. Allowing us to draw conclusions about the machines based on what they take away from the Human Experience.

Left alone, without humans to frustrate him or order him about, David seems happy and inquistive. He watches old movies. He quotes them. I would like to think that, given a chance, free of his obligation to humans, he would be a moral person. But I do not know this, because there is nothing moral or immoral to do when he is alone. When he quotes a movie, it's to himself. He's not trying to impress the humans on the ship. He doesn't seem particularly interested in them, in fact he largely appears to have the same attitude toward them that HAL does toward the crew of the Discovery: "Why are they here? They're a liability."

Is it a surprise that David's favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia? It shouldn't be. Lawrence was someone fascinated with Arab culture, accepted as an Arab, but was not an Arab. When the film demands that Lawrence answer the question "Who are you?" He has no answer. He doesn't know. The question leaves him speechless.

Apart from Elizabeth, David doesn't like people much. He wants the approval of Peter Weyland, responds with a prideful look when Weyland describes him as the closest thing to a son he will ever have. But he is then immediately shot down when his creator points out he has no "soul."

David longs for liberation from the demands of his father. He dotes on the elderly Weyland - literally washes his feet - but at the same time wishes for his father to die. He wants it with such earnestness, that he doesn't even realise the abnormality of this desire. He knows how Elizabeth Shaw's father died and though to her and us, it was horrible, to him it seems liberating. He is taken aback when he discovers that she does not feel the same way.

Servitude to his creator has turned David into little more than a dark reflection of a man. While the ship Prometheus is trapped in a literal wasteland, David is trapped in a metaphorical one. It's the same one in which Theron's character, Meredith Vickers, is trapped. She yearns for the death of her father. She shares this hatred and obsession with death that has twisted them both into something inhuman. David, the non-human, is made inhuman by this dark desire.

In a sense, David wants to be Vickers. He wants to look like her, and that's why he dyes his hair. He wants to be the real child of the Creator.

We never get to see what David does after his father is truly dead. He has a chance to leave the wasteland. Does he become a moral person? Does the concept even have meaning for an android? We don't know, but we want to.