June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.
I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.
The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.
That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.
So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)
After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.
These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship; gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.
This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.
Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!
(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)
After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:
The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.
A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)
Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”
Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.
(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)