By Ben Owen
If you haven’t seen Prometheus, this post contains SPOILERS pretty much from the get-go.
I didn’t much like Prometheus. There were a few reasons. They’re a little difficult to parse, because some of them are critical in the manner of a film critic, while others have to do with my fannish fascination with the Alien franchise, and still others are to do with my bodily revulsion towards horror movies, particularly those that deal with disease, contamination, and parasites. It’s particularly complicated because that revulsion is also a large part of the reason that I love Alien and Aliens in the first place. I saw Aliens when I was ten and it fucked me up worse than any other film I’ve ever seen (including Snowbeast, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and Labyrinth). It’s true to say that I love the Alien franchise so much because it made me feel so terrible.
So it seems somewhat perverse to say that I didn’t like Prometheus because it was so icky. But I think I may be annoyed at it because I experienced some of the same visceral shudder watching it that I experienced watching Alien and Aliens (or more properly in the nights after I watched them), and yet it wasn’t nearly as good as either of those films.
Its dialogue was stodgy and its symbolism cack-handed. Having your characters talk constantly about whether they have faith or not doesn’t mean your film has anything interesting to say about theology. It’s possible, though it seems unlikely, that the film’s ideas will come to seem more interesting as the franchise progresses, but the very fact that Prometheus is so obviously a franchise film in the contemporary mold is another reason for me not to like it. The original Alien gave us a brief glimpse of a much larger, more complicated story and then refused to tell it, which in turn gave its smaller main story a sense of life and depth—the knowledge that it existed at the fringes of weirder territory about which the viewer was invited to speculate (much as Alien’s kid-friendly contemporary, Star Wars, provided its audience with toy replicas of every extra in the movie, and made its fortune by inviting everyone to play out the stories not told within the limited confines of the film’s plot). My principle gripe with Prometheus is that it seems to suggest that everything will be revealed in plodding, expository sequence. The franchise has the quality of policing audience participation by tying it into expectations about what comes next, rather than open speculation about what already could be. My schema here is too simplistic—franchises obviously do give fans ways to speculate, but they’re different ways. Allow me my grumpiness, particularly because there’s no sense that the ideas or spectacles revealed will be worth the wait. Prometheus’s whole “we all come from alien gods” thesis has been done to death. It was done better in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was done with equal sophistication and less portentous nonsense in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Battlestar Galactica already spun it out into a complicated speculation about… uh… stuff, and despite Battlestar’s camptastic ending, it generally did so with an ambiguity and sophistication that Prometheus shows no sign of matching.
All that said, I liked Michael Fassbender, who comes close to redeeming the film. He plays the film’s only real character, a Gay British Android (GBA) named David. He belongs to a small but proud tradition of GBAs including Anthony Daniels’s C-3P0 and Jude Law’s robo-gigolo from A.I. Their gayness is encrypted, having less to do with homosexual desire, and instead subsisting at the level of their hyper-insistent artifice: their punctilious style, physical perfection, and status as not-quite human. In each, too, there is an absence of sexual desire that suggests the confirmed bachelorhood of the well-wrought closet (in the case of Law this gets emphasized precisely because his android sexbot routine is always just a show for women customers). We see their queerness in the shininess of all three, the radioactive hotness of Law and Fassbender, and the general fruitiness of their Received Pronunciation British accents.
I can’t quite figure out the valence of the GBA generally, what specific kind of politics or cultural work it’s doing. It has presumably changed over time, though it’s difficult to tell how much. Daniels’s C-3P0’s sissiness is played for comedy (a joke brilliantly but perhaps cruelly summarized by a brief sequence in Futurama, where Farnsworth creates a C-3P0 lookalike who, upon activation, asks, “Might I favor master with a tender kiss on the forehead?” and then gets crushed like the Terminator). There’s little comedy in Prometheus, and Fassbender’s David seems to be trying to annihilate humanity because humanity’s goals in creating him were disappointingly shoddy. In this way we might read David simply as a regressive stereotype of an evil queer, trying to wreak revenge on the world that excludes him from the plots of marriage and reproduction.
But David is also quite plainly the film’s antihero. Evil or not, his motivations seem much more interesting than the other characters’. In the third scene of the film Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth, the film’s final girl, gets a backstory that involves a gauzy and dull flashback of her father delivering a lecture on comparative religion. But the delightfully creepy plot mechanism that allows the viewer to see the flashback is that David has access to holographic visions of the human characters’ dreams while they are in suspended animation. David watches Elizabeth’s boring dream with the same detachment we do, searching it for her obvious character traits, just as we do. David himself doesn’t sleep because he’s an android, and so doesn’t dream. But he’s free to go watch Lawrence of Arabia during the long empty hours in space, and we see him particularly entranced by the moment where Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence lets the match burn out between his fingers. The metaphor is as heavy as any other in Prometheus, and yet there is something genuinely cool about its nesting of artifice—an artificial man (an android) watching another artificial man (a recording of an actor) delivering an aphorism about how to be an artificial man. The moment is particularly satisfying because the scene in Lawrence of Arabia can also be read as a cryptic meditation on Lawrence’s own queer sexuality—asexual and/or homosexual and/or masochist.
I fell for a similar device in WALL-E, watching the main character tentatively try out dance moves while watching Hello, Dolly! It’s nothing new to say that we rely upon androids to evoke a deeper identification than human characters (Data in Star Trek, everyone in Blade Runner, etc.) because their ability to perform as humans is always flawed, and we, as flawed humans, understand that. I may be talking myself into liking Prometheus more than it deserves. But Ridley Scott is best when telling the stories of androids. My favorite GBA is of course Ian Holm’s Ash in Alien, predecessor and successor to David. When he tells Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley that he admires the alien’s purity, he’s praising its style. Stylistic purity is—as DA Miller argues of Jane Austen’s free indirect discourse—the compensation for human weakness. Performing a perfect style allows the aesthete, the android, and the alien to stand outside of the weakness of actually having a fallible human body. It means, as O’Toole says in Lawrence of Arabia, not minding that it hurts.
In Prometheus it is David’s quality of committed, martyred style that made me root for him and his murderous scheme. I understand something of his motives, but I’d also like to see the world he would create. If humanity were as dull as the humanity on display in the film, then giving way to something more dynamic and interesting would make sense—aliens, x-men, cylons, Fassbenders. His apparent rapprochement with Elizabeth at the end of the film is a disappointment, and I kind of hope that in the next film it turns out to be another of his artifices—that he’ll carry on with his dream of an alien-bio-weapon Armageddon, and bring about a more stylish world.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There's a really absurd comment thread of IMBD that claims that this post "proves" that David betrays the crew of the Prometheus because he is gay and lusts after the Engineer's rock hard physique. I hope it is very, very clear that that is not what the above post is arguing, as Ben is talking about ideas of gayness and artifice and how they interact with our portraits of artifical intelligence. He's also trying to identify a trope here, the Gay British Android and explore what that trope's meaning might be.