Film: The Journey from Devout to Zealot in “Prometheus” (2012)

Due to the misfortune of a friend of mine having his computer going kaput (hopefully only temporarily) I found I had a somewhat free evening. Also due to the good fortune of getting a deal on Sky Movies I had a number of films recorded, waiting for such an opportunity. I chose Prometheus, since I have wanted to watch it since release. After all, Ridley Scott has crafted some of my favourite films. Also though I had read some rather critical views on the film post-release, and wanted to know if what those reviewers saw as weakness was a weakness that I recognised.

The credits rolled perhaps thirty minutes ago, and I can say I had a really enjoyable time. I think I can understand some of the disappointment others might have had in this film, though I do not think they can really blame Ridley Scott for this. This is connected to the Alien timeframe, but Alien it is not. If one was expecting a film such as Alien I can see where one might be let-down. Likewise if one wished to have some things explained this film is going to leave a somewhat sour taste – if it discloses one answer it is only to reveal more questions lurking beyond it. Also I suspect some folks have put some of Ridley Scott’s earlier work on a pedestal to which all his future work will be compared to, and in that comparison can only be found to be lacking.

Looking through his acting credits I discovered, to my surprise, this is not the first film I have seen Michael Fassbender in – he had a supporting role in 300 apparently though I could not place him by memory. I have seen none of his more recent work, though have heard consistently good things of his ability. Now I have had a chance to see him exhibit his talent myself, and he is a consummate performer. Watching Michael Fassbender play the android David, that modelled himself and his manner on Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia is an exhibition of ability that had be smiling at odd moments. Of course, it helps that I love Lawrence of Arabia.

David is one of a trio of characters that spoke to me particularly in the film. He is an android set amongst humans, a thing made to serve those who are his inferiors in physique and intellect, forever acting on the orders of another. His presence is almost like a mirror, to allow us to see ourselves mirrored in his eyes. His questions challenge, but they appear sincere. He doesn’t truly understand the motivations of those around him.

Ridley Scott is no stranger to androids of course – in particular there were two Androids in the Alien franchise – simplistically one good and one bad. There were also the replicants in Blade Runner, and there was nothing simple about them. David is a different incarnation yet, and a very good film could have been made just from his viewpoint. I think it would have been a more limited creation however than what we have. David is encompassed both by a sense of the sinister, but also by a sense of solidity.

Charlize Theron plays Miss Vickers, the lurking presence of authority on the ship Prometheus, whose will overrides even that of the captain. Vickers is present in quite a lot of the film, but rarely draws attention to herself. She has the difficult role to cast a shadow. She is threatening with very few words. She wears a mask, fulfils a role, but her motivations and actions often remain opaque, and little is actually explained. We are offered two particular glimpses of the person behind the face, but they are incomplete.

The lead character of Elizabeth Shaw is played by Noomi Rapace, and she turns in a stunning performance. She carries off that trick of being a strong woman and not a woman being strong. By that I mean she is herself, rather than playing the role of someone weak being strong in moments of crisis. Modern culture still offers shockingly few roles where this can be exhibited.

Elizabeth is a scientist, and a devout Christian (though her denomination is never explained). In the company she keeps – other scientists, hardened crew, and an android – this makes her something of an oddity. One of the central themes I found in Prometheus was the journey of her belief, which appears to be a thing of conscious choice.

There are some obvious mythological references in Prometheus, starting with the very name. However, I do not want to get hung up those. I think they get in the way of the meanings I take from the film – and for me the twin themes of journey and of choice are near the heart of things.

Choice is ever-present in the film. Sometimes these choices are obvious – such as deciding to take off one’s helmet in an apparently breathable atmosphere. Others are less clear and have clouded implications, such as accepting a drink in awkward celebration. These are highlighted by the fact one character – David – appears to lack the capacity to make choices, instead he follows orders. He is asked at one point “what happens when  [your creator] is not around to program you anymore?”. Just perhaps at the end of this film we have an initial answer, a sign that David too can make a choice.

The idea of a journey is a very old one. The oldest literature we know – Gilgamesh – is filled with journeys. The mythic character of Prometheus embodies more than one journey in his tale. So too this film has a number of journeys swirling about it. Chief amongst these is a search for knowledge – different knowledge for various members of the expedition, but knowledge all the same. It is this search for knowledge that I think binds the audience to the crew of the Prometheus, for us film-watchers too are on a search for knowledge – to know about the Alien franchise.

Our own search for knowledge is frustrated by the film’s innate ambivalence. This is not a film that really explains things. It shows, like its gorgeous prologue scene, but nothing more. Much of what we are told comes from David – and do we trust him? What answers we do get are often made irrelevant by events, dead-ends on the knowledge-quest perhaps.

If Prometheus is an ambivalent film, I also found it something of an impermanent one. What I found very interesting about the three characters I named above all feel apart from the main group of characters, not entirely part of the common weal. David is an android, inhuman. Vickers is apparently in charge, aloof and alone. Elizabeth is a believer in an apparently atheistic group. I get the distinct feeling that the rest of the group do not quite seem as real as these three, but also that these three are somewhat ephemeral to the group. Elizabeth alone appears to have a connection in the form of her lover, but even so there is a sense he has more in common with the group than with her. Love is strange, but in the presentation he wishes to answer in terms of science, she in terms of belief. There is a strangeness to all of them.

Elizabeth is also the source of the last journey I wish to write about: the one I reference in the title of this post. At the start of the film Elizabeth is a devout believer. The actions that the film depict are, as much as anything else, a test of her faith. She has her moment of doubt, a moment of crisis. Her faith survives, but it changes. By the end she is the only human left, and her language has changed. She does not “want” to know the answers to her questions, she “deservers” to know. She has nothing to live for now but her belief. It is a belief of conscious choice, and it is all consuming. She has the option at the end to turn back, to forsake her faith. She does not. In one of her last lines David says that he does not understand, and she replies that is the difference between him being a robot and her being a human. Yet there is a sense that she has now moved herself beyond humanity – she has no human ties and her quest dominates.

The ending of Prometheus is the start of a new journey, one of the central questions still unresolved. I love that it is so. I think it is fair to say I massively enjoyed this film, and would unhesitatingly recommend it. Just try to leave expectations aside.

  1. Bernard said:

    Comp is back, still some issues to resolve (one being with my monitor and the DIV-stuff the PC normally uses. Currently using HDMI, which is -despite everything- still a tad “off”).
    But I’m getting there.

    Nice review of Prometheus btw. Not something I would have gotten from the film but then again: I watch movies to shut my brain up (if and when I actually watch a movie) more than anything else.
    I like the quiet… if you get my drift…

    • stnylan said:

      I often find I have a slightly different perspective on films than many folk. Comes with the territory I guess.

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