There’s one rule in Ridley Scott films: never trust the robot. It should be noted that few protagonists or characters recognize this as a rule, and this typically leads to their downfall.
I remember early seeing advertisements for Prometheus and wondering to myself, “What the hell is that?” When a friend later explained to me that it was a “Prequel” to the Alien series I was a bit intrigued, though somewhat hesitant since there didn’t appear any xenomorphs, Sigourney Weaver, face-huggers, chest-bursters, or the nasty broken down ship motif I had come to expect from the series. Plainly speaking, I didn’t much care about Prometheus because Alien as a franchise was made up of fascinating films because they were so different than most of the science fiction I had encountered up to that point. I’ve never been much of a fan of Star Trek, and the only reason I really love Star Wars is the everyman feel the franchise has going for it, but most other science fiction always felt too “clean.” The atmosphere was always hundreds to thousands of years in the future and in that time man developed a way to dispose of waste so that his world was crisp, pristine, and devoid of grime. This in turn meant that mankind in science fiction was always in a place where there was no difference in class. Watching the first Alien there is a clear recognition that society hasn’t changed so that class isn’t an issue. There are levels of workers on the Nostromo, ranging from science officer to ship engineers, and two of the workers Brett and Parker regularly bring this up.
One scene in particular seals this impression:
Parker: Uh, before we dock, I think we oughta discuss the bonus situation.
Parker: Brett and I, we think we oughta… we deserve full shares, right baby?
Brett: Right. You see, Mr. Parker and I feel that the bonus situation has never been on a-an equitable level.
Dallas: Well, you get what you’re contracted for like everybody else.
Brett: Yes, but everybody else, uh, gets more than us.
It may seem ridiculous but hearing people bitching about how much they’re getting paid was comfortable because it implied that while technology was advancing, human beings had not evolved with their technology and there was still something to connect with. Part of this may simply be because I grew up in a middle class home, when there still was a middle class, but watching working-class people in science fiction always seemed more relevant than figuring out which of aliens Kirk was going to bang this week.
Another early impression of Prometheus was the absence of the consistent aesthetic and concept: rape. It may seem ridiculous to the reader if they know nothing about the background and concept of the film, but the writer of the very first Alien was explicit and honest about his creative goal. A few years back Cracked.com posted an article by Dan Dietle titled Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely On Rape. Before I stopped reading Cracked regularly (the website got so buggy and slow after a while) this essay was forever one of my favorites because I had read few essays online that had such precision, and which shocked me so much. Dietle actually quotes Dan O’Bannon directly and once the reader reads it they can’t unread it:
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'”
Alien was, and is, a film franchise surrounded, founded upon, and embedded with phallic and vaginal imagery to make the viewer aware of the implicated sexual violence.
Prometheus takes a different direction tackling the origin of life, and the dangers inherent to entitlement, but I should probably get back to the robot.
The character of David is one that, again, since he’s a robot in a Ridley Scott movie, the viewer should immediately distrust, but every time I watch the film I’m struck by his character and the real humanity he’s able to achieve. My little sister for the record admits with no shame that David is her favorite character. Part of it may simply be the, to quote the great philosopher Rob Zombie “More human than human” quality he exhibits, but while this is a cliché it’s not an unfair or unreasonable reason to like the character. David is played by Michael Fassbender, a man who I may or may not have a crush on, but who also has established himself as one of the most important actors of his generation, and in many ways the creative successor of Peter O’Toole. The fact that Fassbinder looks alarmingly like the man is no mistake, and Ridley Scott plays this up in the film by having David style his hair and body after O’Toole in the film Lawrence of Arabia. David watches the film regularly, and quotes the film three different times during the film:
David: Big things have small beginnings.
David: There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.
David: The trick William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
David’s role in the film is not simply to quote other movies, for his presence and actual humanity sets itself against the actually human characters in the film, particularly Charlie Holloway the protagonist’s love interest. Charlie is drunk and angry and David, eager to test a hypothesis about a black ooze discovered on the planet LV-223, brings Charlie more champagne. Before he dips his finger, and the ooze, into the spirits, he asks Charlie a question:
Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.
This is a brief exchange, and while the viewer is watching they’re most likely pre-occupied with the fact that David is tricking Charlie into drinking the black ooze, but this conversation does reveal a continuous idea explored throughout the work: where does life come from?
Ridley Scott has “explained” Prometheus in a few interviews, and it’s fortunate that he has since people like me tend to become frustrated having to explain the opening sequence. A pale humanoid stands on a rock above a waterfall, a ship belonging to his people is ascending into the clouds while he drinks a black ooze. He coughs, dropping the cup in the valley below him, and he watches as his veins turn black and his body begins to disintegrate. The camera shows his DNA turning black before splitting apart before he finally falls into the water below. Every part of the Engineer, for that’s the name of the creature, is dissolved but after a moment the viewer sees coils of yellow matter joining together to form a new Double Helix and this in turn creates single celled organisms.
This scene was one of the most misunderstood moments, and one of the books on my shelf Movies-R-Fun sums up the collected sentiment in one sentence:
I still find this funny because I largely had the same reaction when I watched the film in theatres, and even after watching the film three times I still didn’t have an answer. A friend of mine who was taking Shakespeare with me explained. The black ooze deconstructs whatever living being it comes in contact with down to the minutest of particles. Once the organism is destroyed is it remade and can assume a wide variety of shapes and types. The chemical essentially engineers new life. This becomes part of the actual conflict within the plot as the humans are about to encounter the remaining Engineer on the planet:
David: A superior species, no doubt. The hypersleep chambers will impress, I trust.
Elizabeth Shaw: So they were traveling somewhere?
David: I’ve managed to work out the broad strips, it’s fairly evident they were in the process of leaving, before things went to pot.
Elizabeth Shaw: Leaving to go where?
Elizabeth Shaw: Why?
David: Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.
At this point the reader will object, wondering what relevance any of this would have to a casual viewer. The film, by the looks and sounds of it, is just as an avant-garde sci-fi flick that went over everybody’s heads. Why should anybody care about a movie that explores the ideas of “humanity” in an unwatchable film?
The problem with this attitude is that it is ill founded, though I’m partly responsible for this impression. I’ve made it thus far seem that you have to have three PhDs in Philosophy and Biology just to appreciate the film, but this isn’t the case. The film explores the ideas about the origin of life, and while ship Prometheus does float through the stars, the heart and soul of the film is leveled firmly on the ground. Prometheus follows two researchers who have amassed a body of data of various civilizations varying from Sumerian, Mayan, Egyptian, all of which show a large humanoid pointing towards a cluster of stars. Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) give their presentation and the reaction should demonstrate that the film is not avant-garde science fiction:
Charlie Holloway: These are images of archaeological digs from all over the earth.
[pointing to different images]
Charlie Holloway: That’s Egyptian, Mayan, Sumerian, Babylonian. That’s Hawaiian at the end there and Mesopotamian. Now this one here is our most recent discovery, it’s a thirty five thousand year old cave painting from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. These are ancient civilizations, they were separated by centuries, they shared no contact with one another, and yet…
[he gathers the hologram images to line up and he goes through each one]
Charlie Holloway: The same pictogram, showing men worshipping giant beings pointing to the stars was discovered at every last one of them. The only galactic system that matched, was so far from Earth, that there’s no way that these primitive ancient civilizations could have possibly known about it. But it just so happens, that system has a sun, a lot like ours. And based on our long range scans, there seemed to be a planet. Just one planet with the moon, capable of sustaining life, and we arrived there this morning.
Fifield: So you’re saying we’re here because of a map you two kids found in a cave, is that right?
Elizabeth Shaw: No.
Charlie Holloway: Yeah. Um…
Elizabeth Shaw: No. Not a map. An invitation.
Fifield: From whom?
Elizabeth Shaw: We call them Engineers.
Fifield: Engineers? Do you mind, um, telling us what they engineered?
Elizabeth Shaw: They engineered us.
Much like Alien before it, Prometheus relies on and explores the idea of class. If it isn’t the geologist Fifield saying plainly he’s only there for money, it’s Vickers casually dropping in conversation that Weyland Corp. spent a trillion dollars on the expedition. On board the ship along with the various scientists are the pilot Janek played by the, I think my wife’s expression is, hunksickle Idris Elba, and two support pilots who regularly discuss a bet and their shares. Contrasting to these two is Meredith Vickers played by Charlize Theron, and the dynamic of this difference of class is not particularly subtle. The pilots wear jeans and t-shirts, Vickers wears a skin-tight space suit through most of the film. Vickers is constantly concerned about the mission at the end of the film it’s revealed that Peter Weyland, the near ancient CEO of a massive Terraforming corporation, has not only funded the expedition but has stown away in order to meet the Engineers and hopefully learn from them a way to avoid dying. Weyland is a man who has built a business empire, and while it may border on cliché, all men in their own way build empires in order to overcome death. The thought process is largely, I have achieved so much, it would absurd that my life is simply done, and because they possess wealth, and privilege, and power, death becomes a physical being that must be overcome.
During the exchange between Meredith and her father there’s a line that, apart from making its way into the trailer that so originally befuddled me, provides a great opportunity for a final summation of the film:
Meredith Vickers: If you’re really going down there, you’re going to die.
Peter Weyland: Very negative way of looking at things. Exactly why you should have stayed at home.
Meredith Vickers: Did you really think I was gonna sit in a boardroom for years arguing over who was in charge while you go look for some miracle on some godforsaken rock in the middle of space? A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable. That is natural order of things.
I honestly wasn’t sure what was the best lesson to take from Prometheus since, whenever I watch the film, I’ve usually overcome with awe that a film could balance so many high concepts without becoming full of itself and actually remain entertaining. Being the case I consulted my friend Michael Siegler who is an Alien fan, bordering on psychosis perhaps but that just makes him more fun, and I asked him what he felt a casual viewer should be left with. His answer, was actually his fiancé Victoria’s answer. I could rewrite it, but honestly quoting it verbatim is the best way to keep such a great idea intact:
Just because you want something doesn’t make you entitled to it. Almost every character in the movie feels entitled to something that they’re not, and it’s those feelings that unilaterally lead them to their dooms.
Every character in the film Prometheus is after something, and more importantly they are driven by the idea that because they want it that they’re owed it. Elizabeth Shaw is after answers to the origin of life, Charlie Holloway is after the same thing however his motivations are more ego driven, David wants his “father” Weyland to be dead, Weyland himself wants to live forever and avoid dying, Fifield wants to make money for doing little work, Vickers wants her father to die so she can take over the company, and the worms in the Giant Head room just want to eat the biologist who’s name I honestly can’t remember. Each character, apart from the worm, pursues this motivation doggedly often without regard or concern for the other people around and them and each of them, apart from Shaw, are ultimately undone by their own ego and this seems a fitting reason why a film like Prometheus deserves the attention that it does.
Once the viewer is able to get past the ontology, Prometheus offers a lesson keeping vein to many great science fiction works. Science fiction often explores the concepts of new worlds, but more importantly it explores how often men’s egos and selfish ambitions serve as their undoing as they enter said new worlds and realities. Human beings tend to be narcissistic and selfish creatures, and rather than marvel at the new discoveries and life, they are driven first by personal ambition, and one by one the characters in Prometheus are destroyed until all that’s left is Elizabeth Shaw, who narrowly escapes being face-raped by the tentacle monster she gave birth to, or killed by the pissed off Engineer (who himself gets face-raped and gives “birth” to the first xenomorph), and David’s talking head in a bag. Prometheus is a film reminding the viewer that, while pursuing questions about the origin of life are noble and worthwhile, the answers will have implications and consequences.
Elizabeth Shaw wanted to know her creator, and when she finally does she has only one question:
Elizabeth Shaw: [to the Engineer] Why do you hate us?
What’s important is not the answer to this question, but instead why it is asked. Why do human beings desire so much to know their maker, and discover if there is a meaning to their existence? Prometheus doesn’t offer any clear answer to this question, but it does at least offer up the hope that human beings can overcome the selfishness inherit in the question.
Or perhaps I’m wrong.
Elizabeth Shaw, at the end of the film, feels like she deserves an answer as to why the Engineers wanted to destroy humanity because her life has been completely destroyed by the events which transpire in the film. Rather than recognize that her needs, her concerns, her life in general is not inherently meaningful or important, she’s still driven by the idea she is entitled to an explanation.
In the end my sister may be justified in liking David, for by the end of Prometheus he’s the only person in the film who recognizes that wanting something selfishly doesn’t necessarily mean you deserve it. Then again though he’s a robot in a Ridley Scott film, so trusting him will probably end in disaster.
I need to thank my friend Michael Siegler and his fiancé Victoria for helping me with this essay. Victoria provided me with a thesis to work with, and my friend Michael, who lives Alien and has two book shelves dedicated to everything Alien, offered me a few links to help me give this essay some context. The first is the actual screenplay for the film, the second is an interview with Ridley Scott in which he “explains” the movie, the third is an interesting examination of the film, exploring the spirituality and mythical elements found therein, and finally the fourth link is the cRacked article that explains how the Alien Franchise is built around the concept and imagery of rape. Hope you enjoy:
David in the Orrery is a scene that, when I first watched it I admit freely it had me in tears. I’ve included a link to it below because there are few moments in movies that genuinely leave me awestruck. Hope you enjoy.