E.T. Lawrence Phone Home
In developing the applicability of the work of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin for understanding the cinema, Robert Stam argues that, “every text forms an intersection of textual surfaces. All texts are tissues of anonymous formulae embedded in the language, variations on those formulae, conscious and unconscious quotations, conflations and inversions of other texts” (204). This formulation seems particularly fecund for considering Prometheus (2012), Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Alien (1979), one of the masterpieces of New Hollywood science fiction.
Despite the director insisting that his new film is not a prequel, Prometheus hews surprisingly close to Alien, offering in fact a film with the same plot. Humans arrive on the same planet, to be killed one by one by alien creatures in various phases of evolutionary development. The really scary H.R. Giger-designed creature from the original film is seen at the very end of Prometheus, offering an origin story for the square metallic toothed baddie.
What I imagine Scott means by refusing the prequel designation for his new film, in addition to some sort of marketing scheme, is that the generic conventions of Prometheus trend toward artsy science-fiction as opposed to Alien’s roots in the slasher film of the 1970s, from its primordial biogenesis in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) to the more canonical Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). As almost all of the actors stumping for the film have stated in television interviews, Scott’s new film wants to ask “big questions” about the metaphysical origins of humanity, as scientists from Earth travel to the alien planet to seek the Engineers, a race of creatures that apparently created humans via genetic experimentation on themselves.
The science fiction DNA of Prometheus is expressed most clearly via David (Michael Fassbender), a scheming robot similar to Ash (Ian Holm) from the first film. However, whereas Ash was merely a tool of the Weyland Corporation, following orders to sacrifice the crew such that the alien can be taken back to Earth to be studied by the weapons division, David plays a primary role in the film’s exploration of humanity. Similar to Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982), Prometheus is concerned with what gives Earthlings their humanity, and the attempts by roboticists to capture ephemerals such as the soul. Most banally, David’s exploration of his humanity seems like warmed over Stanley Kubrick, both via the android’s quest to become a real boy like Pinocchio, best articulated the auteur’s last film, A.I. (2001), and also by the relationship to another equally robotic Dave, Bowman (Keir Dullea), antagonist of the HAL-9000 in Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001, an artsy science-fiction film about a spaceship’s voyage in search of the origins and future of humankind, that is the exact plot of Prometheus.
However, the Bakhtinian polyphony of Prometheus is surprisingly far flung. In a really bizarre scene early in the film, before his human crew wakes up from sleep stasis on their long voyage to what they believe to be the home of the Engineers, David watches the opening narrative scene from Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), in which T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) waits in Cairo for his adventure with the World War I Arab revolutionaries to begin. Purportedly, David is watching the erudite Briton to learn how to be cultured and civilized. However, the housing of Lean’s film within the imaginary of Prometheus allows the film to engage in a critique of colonialism that would otherwise be absent from a Hollywood science fiction film: after all, he could have watched Hello, Dolly (Gene Kelly, 1969); that happy Hollywood musical taught Wall-e all he needed to know about love. Instead, Lawrence’s story is one of failure: his life’s work of building an Arab homeland fails at the hands of British and French colonial collusion, leading the disgruntled warrior to kill himself in the 1930s, driving his motorcycle deliberately recklessly.
Similarly, the Engineers’ project of colonialism is also a dismal failure. The Earth scientists come to discover that the Engineers both regret having come to Earth to seed humanity, as well as lamenting their later work on the present planet, giving rise to the murderous life forms which will become the Giger Alien, an aftereffect of their genetic attempts to create weapons. In this sense, Prometheus offers a much more critical take on the double destruction of colonialism (devastating both to the colonizer and the colonized) than the far more unctuous science-fiction blockbuster, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). In that simplistic film, military Earthlings come to colonize an alien planet, Pandora for its energy resources; when a few of our heroes realize the devastation this will inflict on the native inhabitants, a counter-insurgency ensues, resulting in an epic battle between the force of evil (industrialized humans) and the natural goodness of the Na’vi and a few white people “gone native.” This is merely warmed over canonical fantasy fiction: in texts as diverse as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’ Star Wars, we are presented with an easy choice between the goodness of nature (the Hobbits, the Ewoks) and the murderousness of industrialization (Sauron’s Orcs, Darth Vader’s Death Star).
For all its obvious referencing of artsy science fiction to establish its profundity, Prometheus does extend its domain into an intriguing tissue of cultural history. Beyond the obvious engagement with colonialism implied by David watching Lawrence of Arabia, a more complex historicity is implied by the film’s “mosaic of citations.” In the wake of Lawrence’s World War I, Western culture took a utopian turn, perhaps best exemplified by the New York World’s Fair of 1939. In that glorious cultural presentation, fair director Grover Whalen spearheaded the theme, “dawn of a new day,” expressed by corporate fantasies such as Futurama, an ad for a 1960 America with a vast infrastructure of highways to allow for plenty of General Motors built automobiles. Within a few years of the opening of the fair, the new day that dawned would not be over a real-life Futurama, but instead Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Like Alien before it, Prometheus is rightfully suspicious of a similarly named Weyland, this time corporate huckster Peter (Guy Pearce), head of the corporation which bankrolls both the visit to the Engineers as well as the Nostromo’s detour to collect Giger’s Alien so that he may be weaponized. The scientists in the present film, and the miners in Alien, are betrayed by corporate forces that resonate so clearly with T.E. Lawrence’s tragedy. Britain and France doomed us to the future we now inhabit, carving Middle Eastern oil fields up among the Western European powers. By placing weapons ahead of human lives, both the Engineers and the Weyland Corporation commit the same sin. While utopian films such as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) suggest that human barbarity can be overcome by a heartlight bond between alien and little boy, Prometheus suggests that we are doomed to repeat the horrors of human history. As Weyland discovers as he is murdered by an Engineer, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz from Heart of Darkness had it right: there is a void at the end of our selfish lives. “The horror, the horror” of a betrayed Lawrence indicates that for this T.E., there is no one of any ethical standing at home to phone to transcend our gloomy destiny.
– Walter Metz
Stam, Robert, et. al. (Eds.) New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.