For seeing they saw not, and hearing they understood not, but like shapes in a dream they wrought all the days of their lives in confusion. (Prometheus Bound)
Prometheus certainly has people talking. How this talk bends and weaves from one person to the next has been interesting to watch. I think it boils down to expectations and audience knowledge and sometimes a combination of the two. Some went in for a good science fiction space flick; some saw Alien waaaay back in 1979 and find it to be a sacred film; some probably saw Michael Fassbender or Charlize Theron or Idris Elba and didn’t really care much about the premise. Except for the last reason, in which no one left unhappy I hope (unless *spoilers from here and throughout* you were excited to see Guy Pearce), I think love for sci-fi and your feelings, expectations, hopes and dreams from the Alien franchise all framed what you got out of Prometheus. In particular, the whole experience hinges on expectations, and going in the expectations were undoubtedly diverse and myriad. And it is fascinating. I’ve seen it twice now and I walked away both times completely satisfied. Personal bio: saw Alien as a kid, saw Alien Resurrection in theaters, and just revisited all four films. I also love sci-fi horror and Michael Fassbender (with a growing appreciation for Ridley Scott…er…at least when it comes to Blade Runner).
I have seen that some people are upset that Prometheus explains away the great mystery of Alien. Or does so inadequately. Or was filled with so many plot holes they couldn’t possibly enjoy it. Red Letter Media has done an excellent job of highlighting the most talked about plot holes; it’s hilarious but none of these issues bother me. Among the most fascinating ways to look at the film is through its sexual imagery. Like Alien, many scenes are akin to men being raped. In Prometheus, when biologist Millborn makes contact with the hammerpedes, he says they are female (and they are very…vaginal in nature). And some see Shaw’s invasive surgery to remove the trilobite as illustrating a woman’s right to choose.
During my second viewing, I found myself clarifying what I thought about events and finding sufficient explanations. They may be right or wrong but unless the film wants to flat out tell me the answers (it clearly doesn’t) I don’t see the harm in assuming. I just wanted to lay out a few thoughts after seeing it again, to add to the growing discussion.
David: Okay, I am fascinated by androids. And David did not let me down. An android can be used to comment on humanity, equality, and right to life; it can also be used to show what happens when our creations (artificial intelligence) realize they don’t need us anymore or what happens when they malfunction. David is an interesting case. He is a bit quirky (idolizing Lawrence Olivier in Lawrence of Arabia) but he easily fulfills his duty to “carry out directives that my future counterparts might find distressing or unethical.” Like when Weyland (presumably) tells David to infect Holloway. But the infection seems predicated on the answer to this question: “How far would you go to get your answers?” Obviously most people would reply very passionately but had Holloway voiced doubt, would David have stayed his hand? He also seems to have a particular fascination with Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw. He watches her dreams, keeps her cross in his pouch, and flies her off of LV-223. With Peter Weyland, his “father,” now dead, he believes himself to be free and I am anxious to see what his behavior might entail if we get a sequel. Because David seems to have some pretty complex emotions for a being with no emotions.
Charlie Holloway: There is no way around it: this guy is a dick. He irked me the entire time he was on screen. I can’t decipher whether he was meant to be as terrible as I viewed him. It would have helped had Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace had any chemistry. They didn’t and it made his scenes even worse. He treated David negatively (and was the only crew member to seem biased towards him for no reason; Charlize had plenty of reasons) and started a thirty minute temper tantrum when the Engineers weren’t there to roll out the red carpet and answer his questions about creation. Granted, his treatment of David is made interesting by the turn of events: did David infect him because of his incessant condescension or did Weyland make the call and the added benefit in both scenarios was Holloway’s intimate relationship with Shaw?
Connections to Alien: I thought people might be assured knowing that Prometheus takes place on the planet LV-223 and Alien takes place on LV-426. Therefore, we are not even seeing events directly setting up what the Nostromo crew finds — at least if you don’t look at the facts. This has not seemed to quell the fire of anger from some crowds though; oh well. The events of that lead up to the xenomorphs overrunning the derelict ship on LV-426 and the original space jockey are still unknown but can be discerned. The fact that space jockeys are now “Engineers” who created humans does not ruin Alien for me. Then again, I haven’t been obsessed with the mystery since 1979. Years make my head spin but the majority of Prometheus takes place in 2093; Alien takes place in 2122, thus leaving only a 28 year gap. But, when dealing with so much time, that is pretty relative when it comes to 2000 years no? The dead space jockey in Alien was carbon dated to having died 2000 years before 2122. The dead Engineers in Prometheus were also carbon dated as having died 2000 years ago. Perhaps the dead space jockeys on LV-233 and LV-426 are related by the unfortunate outbreak on LV-223.
Clunkiness: Whereas some of the so-called plot holes that left people confused didn’t affect me, the moments where I felt the writers pulling the strings did. Why did zombified Fifield return to the Prometheus? Obviously to get rid of some of the crew members we didn’t get to spend any time with. But my clunky award goes to the delivery of Charlize’s “father” like to Guy Pearce. It was clear at that point the reveal was going to be that Vickers was Peter Weyland’s daughter. Every line was alive with possibility. But nothing. Almost like an afterthought Vickers menacingly snarls “father” in her goodbye and it just didn’t hit for me.
Where do we go from here?: It already appears that we have much to look forward to when Prometheus hits Blu-ray and DVD. I’ve read rumors a certain scene was cut that, if included, would have made the overall plot and motivations much clearer. And the viral heritage of the film continues with the end credits pointing the audience to this website: http://www.whatis101112.com/. Speculation points to this as the release date as well as the date being New York Comic-Con. We can probably also expect this deleted scene: an image has appeared which shows an older Engineer participating in the film’s opening sequence. The scene appears to be a ritual whereby the younger Engineer is preparing to be used as the jumpstarter DNA for a new race.
And if you probably thought the ending definitely set up the sequel, you would be right. Ridley Scott hopes to explore the next chapter and confront notions of “God” and “paradise.” In the meantime, if you were super depressed by the lack of chestbursters, facehuggers, and xenomorphs, here is an equally detailed glossary to use in your discussions about Prometheus: like the article says, even if you didn’t like it, people will bring it up! So mark your vocabulary accordingly. And search the internet for more interviews! Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof have helped me refine my own interpretations via their cagey answers. Check out this email exchange with Damon at MTV and a more broad interview with him at Vulture (cool discussion about viral marketing, androids, rape imagery, Blade Runner, and even his Buffy spec script!).
My inspiration to take a look at representations of androids arose from the upcoming release of Prometheus. So it isn’t surprising that I specifically chose the “Alien Quadrilogy” to be a main source of analysis. However, it soon became painfully obvious that examples androids and themes that arise from their use are myriad. For my own sanity, I curtailed my study to include those from the Alien franchise, Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Battlestar Galactica, although the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper. As you can imagine, the use of androids primarily serves as a springboard to question inherent traits of humanity, the right to life and equality, and ephemeral nature of existence.
Ridley Scott’s Influence: the Mega Corporation
The Alien series is dominated by the machinations of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who are involved in everything from planet terraforming to weapons manufacturing. A casual viewer of these films may fail to truly comprehend that the villain is not the Alien (or xenomorph), but is actually human in every single film. The Weyland-Yutani group (or, as in Alien Resurrection, the military) never gives up on the idea that the xenomorphs can be harnessed as a bio-weapon. It is easy to get caught up in the Alien mythology (and fun! with terminology like: space jockeys, chestbursters, facehuggers, and derelict spaceships) but the more philosophically enduring trait of the Alien franchise is that lives are always expendable in the pursuit of corporate advancement.
In Alien, the android in question is Ian Holm’s Ash, the science officer aboard the Nostromo. None of the human crew members are aware (at least initially) that Ash is an android. His presence on the vessel is to ensure that certain events play out – in conjunction with Mother (the ship’s computer). The human crew being expendable, Ash’s programming allows him to circumvent morality by facilitating this chain of events: Mother awakens the crew from their stasis when LV-426 (a planetoid that is given this designation in Aliens) comes into range, after intercepting an “unknown transmission.” Ash reminds the crew that protocols require investigation of these transmissions. Yet, foreshadowing that Ash is operating under his own agenda, he finds no difficulty in breaking the protocol that requires quarantine when the facehugger attaches itself to Kane’s face. Contradictions like this are explained when Ripley uncovers Ash’s orders, the Nostromo was always meant to stop here and collect the xenomorph specimen, as orchestrated by Weyland-Yutani. As Ripley discovers these orders, Ash begins to malfunction, revealing his android nature. This quote from Ash exemplifies his mindset (or programming): “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” I find it interesting to consider that perhaps Ash malfunctioned because he could not operate properly with his hidden agenda while pretending to have morals for the benefit of his human counterparts. (As I will discuss below, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey malfunctions for a similar reason: keeping a hidden agenda from its human counterparts.)
In Aliens, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is personified by Paul Reiser’s Burke. He falsely promises Ripley that the mission’s purpose is to wipeout the xenomorphs, when in actuality the corporation wants a specimen. The crew (except for Ripley) know that an android, Bishop, is onboard. Scarred by her experience with Ash, she distrusts Bishop’s intentions and reacts harshly when she discovers his nature: “You never said anything about an android being on board!” Burke answers: “It never occurred to me. It’s just common practice. We always have a synthetic on board.” And Bishop retorts, “I prefer the term ‘Artificial Person’ myself.” This implies that the use of androids has changed drastically since the days of the Nostromo. They are accepted as the norm. The film goes even further to clarify the changes as with Bishop’s reaction to Ripley’s negative experience with Ash: “I’m shocked. Was it an older model?…Well that it explains it then. The A2s always were a bit twitchy. That could never happen now with our behavioral inhibitors. It is impossible for me to harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.” It appears that androids can no longer perform the dirty deeds of the corporation. By the end of the film, Bishop aids Ripley, Hicks and Newt in escaping and achieves acceptance in the eyes of Ripley: “Bishop, you did okay.” Bishop: “I did?” Side note: Every time I watch this Bill Paxton’s quotes get better and better (“Quit your grinnin’ and drop your linen!”). From the brief video about David, Michael Fassbender’s android in Prometheus, it seems as if he looked to Lance Henriksen as an inspiration for his part; they both demonstrate an otherness in their interactions and expressions, marking them as outsiders. However, as David is an earlier model to Ash and prides himself on performing jobs that are considered unethical by human standards, I would imagine that he lacks the behavior modifications possessed by Bishop.
In Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, the importance of the android is superseded by the continued threat posed by humanity itself. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation are at the heart of Alien 3, dispatching a “rescue squad” to intercept Ripley before the alien queen in her chest bursts forth. Bishop is briefly used by Ripley to access flight information to determine what made her EEV crash. Knowing that he can never be put together again properly, Bishop implores Ripley to unplug him, preferring to “die” rather than operate at a diminished capacity. By doing this, Bishop is afforded a kind of human decency — the right to live (or not to live) on your own terms. In Alien Resurrection we learn that Weyland-Yutani is no more – the U.S. military is now pioneering efforts to use the xenomorphs as weapons. We also learn that androids created their own line of perfect androids that seamlessly blended into humans, so much so that when they were recalled, androids like Winona Ryder’s Call are undetectable unless they reveal themselves. Call, recognizing Ripley’s name, attempts to kill her before realizing it is too late– the alien queen has been harvested. Appearing the most human of all, Call exhibits the greatest desire to be human (or at least accepted as equal) of all the androids in the franchise.
In sum, the life span for Weyland-Yutani androids appears to be indefinite. In the absence of malfunction or alien attack, they would arguably have no expiration date. While initially conceived to perform tasks that humans might deem unethical or unsavory, behavioral inhibitors caused them to care for human life and eventually desire to be treated as equals.
In Blade Runner, another corporation is at the heart of the android business; this time it is the Tyrell Corporation and its androids are called Replicants. Unlike the Alien franchise (which understandably also has to deal with the alien threat), Blade Runner is more sophisticated in the commentary it attempts to make about androids. The Replicants were first conceived to lack empathy; it is such an overwhelming trait to lack, the primary test to identify Replicants, the Voight-Kampff test, measures empathy. The Nexus-6 models, in particular, are indistinguishable from humans, and after prolonged life develop emotions. As a safety measure, the manufacturers build into the models a life span of four years, eliminating the android before the emotions become complications. And even beyond the Nexus-6 models, they continued to experiment: if they implanted false memories into Replicants, they argued that they might remain stable: “We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” Blade Runner spurs an excellent philosophical discussion in what it means to be human. It raises important questions via the Nexus-6 Replicants and their furtive attempt to hold onto their lives, while making sound arguments about what it means to be sentient and have a backlog of real memories. Just by having memories, experiencing something no one else has, does that not make you real?
Conclusion: The Replicants in Blade Runner are more akin to BSG’s Cylons than the creations of Weyland-Yutani in that they are embroiled in a struggle for not only civil rights, but the right to exist. Unlike the androids in Aliens, the Replicants experience emotions just as humans do, thus making their desire to live and to love more desperate and more tragic. That they are locked in a race against time only makes their experience all the more similar to the human one.
Stanley Kubrick’s Androids
While he did not live to see A.I., Kubrick was instrumental in the groundwork for the film, involved in the creative process for decades. A.I. elaborates on ideas raised by Blade Runner, especially the human emotions they can experience. Like Blade Runner and BSG (and Alien surely) androids, Mechas, were created as an economic resource in a world where the ice caps have melted and resources are scare. A.I. concerns itself with an android’s ability to not only to love, but the question of whether a human can love an android as they would a fellow human. David is created solely with the purpose to love, to love a parent the same way a real child would. It is this enduring love that propels David throughout the film and becomes his sole purpose. Other than sharing a name, I am going to wager that David from Prometheus and David from A.I. do not have much in common. Weyland Industries’ David prides itself on being able to take on tasks that humans may find unethical, similar to Ash in Alien. David in A.I. is built with the primary function of love: to love whoever rattles off the string of activation words that makes him imprint onto a person. In the movie’s case it is Monica and this love is all-consuming. His function (to love the person he imprints upon) makes it impossible for David to live any other kind of life. He is desperate to become human, not because he feels an over-arching need to, but because it will make his mommy love him. Because unfortunately for David, in the real child vs. Mecha-child war, he loses and Monica (displaying that love for Mecha can occur) leaves David in the woods instead of driving him back to be destroyed. David asks, “Why do you want to leave me? Why? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you!”
While some people criticize the use of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law’s “companion” Mecha), I think he aptly illustrates the Mecha struggle in Kubrick’s vision. Although David is our guide, he is designed to retain a child-like nature; Joe has already grasped and adeptly understands the human perception of Mecha. Astutely, he serves as a guide for the film audience to dissect the human apathy toward Mecha. As he tries to explain to David about Monica:
She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you David, she cannot love you. You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat, or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us and that is why you must stay here, with me.
And when the police finally catch up to Joe, his parting words to David are: “I am. I was!” Just like the Replicants in Blade Runner, the Mecha of A.I. are trying to make the point that they are living things, on par with the humans. They maintain memories, learn, and feel. They leave a tangible impression on the world. Monica will remember David her entire life; any one of Joe’s customers will retain memories of a night with him years later.
In sum, the Mecha are built for a variety of reasons. Initially as an economic resource and then as a filler (for things like human children). Although they demonstrate the same capacity as the Replicants, Mecha do not have a shortened life span. Flesh fairs are created for human entertainment and to whittle down the numbers of Mecha but as we see with Davd, he lives many years into the future. Eventually, as predicted by Joe, the Mecha are all that is left, outliving the human race.
Before any of these ideas there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s masterpiece in filmmaking. While HAL is not an android, the computer still represents an important exploration of artificial intelligence that deserves recognition. The film draws a line under HAL’s inability to commit error. But just like the Nostromo’s ship computer, HAL is operating under different orders, unbeknownst to the crew. This contradiction leads to HAL’s unprecedented malfunction, resulting in the deaths of crew members in stasis as well as a crew member sent outside on a false report. What results is deeply unsettling as HAL descends into error and then attempts to reassure Dave that he is fine: (“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you”). Putting too much power into artificial intelligence can lead to disastrous consequences, especially if an entire ship is controlled by a central computer. HAL demonstrates the most human trait of all, the tendency to err.
A Long Form Exploration: Battlestar Galactica
Like Replicants, Cylons were created by humans as a worker race. Going into the history and creation of Cylons is convoluted (which is a consequence of its long form nature) but if you embrace BSG’s mantra (“All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again”) it becomes clear. Mankind is locked in an endless cycle of creating artificial life, only to have it rebel and destroy both sides. The human race had spread out among the stars but BSG does not originate on our Earth. Similar to Blade Runner, sleeper agent Cylons (like Boomer) have false memories, to such a large scale that until activated they believe themselves to be human and actively despise Cylons. Because BSG had numerous seasons to ruminate on the relationship between humans, humanoids, Cylon Centurions and Raiders, it offers one of the most complex android stories to date. It is a fight over the right to exist, over the ability to practice a certain religion, fanaticism and compromise. It fascinatingly portrays the numerous issues that dominate human/android coexistence. BSG offers the most hope to its race of androids; it opens up the possibility that the Cylons can intermingle with humans to create life, to make a hybrid species to unite them with humans once and for all.
Prometheus is doing a really good job of creating buzz while remaining fascinatingly opaque. The Cabin in the Woods experience has proven that in this spoiler-obsessed day and age you can still get away with surprises (hey, Joss Whedon has some good explanations on the dynamics of spoiler culture, of course) and I want to remain as in the dark as possible for the remaining months before its release. Ridley Scott wants me under a rock and there I will stay. Except when it comes to viral videos like this, which appeals both to my love of Michael Fassbender and dystopian androids that look like Michael Fassbender, available for purchase:
A friend pointed out that David is also Haley Joel Osment’s name in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. This viral video gave me the bug: cue my overwhelming desire to watch A.I. as well as the Alien Quadrilogy. Also, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe Blade Runner as well. Who knows what other tangentially related movies I can find in my collection…Sorted: Alien blu-rays Amazon’d. I predict a long post on androids in my near future.