Though the origin of its idea as a prequel to his Aliens (1979) goes back to almost a decade, Sir Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) hit the US market simultaneously with the news of the Chinese aggressively expanding their space explorations.
As fate would have it, China launched its first female taikonaut aboard a rocket on one of its most ambitious space missions on June 12, 2012. Liu Yang, a 34-year-old air force pilot, and two other colleagues, were aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft on a voyage that would include docking with an orbiting space module. The project points to China joining the US and Russia seeking a permanent base in space. According to Al Jazeera: “Success in docking, and in living and working aboard the Tiangong 1, would smooth the way for more ambitious projects, such as sending a taikonaut to the moon, and add to China’s international prestige in line with its growing economic prowess.”
In Sir Ridley’s Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw (Naomi Rapace) would be Liu Yang, this time a fictional archeologist who turns into a warrior astronaut in search of the ultimate mystery of our universe – who in the world are we, and what are we doing here?
The colonial conquest of the universe
Prometheus has all the ingredients of a cosmic epic: the missionary zeal of Christianity, the colonial curiosity of a Lawrence of Arabia lookalike, an android named David (Michael Fassbender) designed to look frightfully like humans, the scientific adventurism of Dr Frankenstein. They are all here.
The year is 2089. Archeologist Elizabeth Shaw and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have put together a puzzle of ancient origins and found their way to the “Engineers” – the forerunners of humanity on a distant moon. Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the decrepit CEO of Weyland Corporation, funds the scientific vessel Prometheus to the distant moon LV-223 in search of his own personal immortality, which dovetails with the young archeologist couple’s scientific curiosity. The crew travels in stasis as the android David monitors the voyage. In 2093, the crew is awakened to perform their mission and find the Engineers.
Like its Greek namesake, Sir Ridley’s Prometheus is concerned with the creation of humanity and the fire that is in the belly of that earthly proposition. The punishment of Prometheus as a consequence of the theft of that fire was eternal torment. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, just like we humans are to earth, though he was routinely visited every day by an eagle feeding on his liver, only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day. Was that a hint at our self-devouring curiosity?
Sir Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is very much in the longer tradition that has adapted the Greek mythology in varied media and contexts. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), Percy Bysshe Shelley referred back to Aeschylus’ take and made the hero triumphant over gods. In Lord Byron’s poetry, Prometheus is equally unrepentant. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, was equally concerned with dangerous zones of science. Curiosity kills the cat, advances science, conquers the earth, explores the heavens, and makes monsters in human shape. But today, as the Chinese are rushing to find their place in the sun, where does Sir Ridley Scott’s epic take on Prometheus stand in the long and gallant Greco-Christian colonisation of our creative imagination?
Human, all too human
In Prometheus, humans and humanoids reflect on each other, from David the android to Elizabeth the archeologist to the forerunners of humanity, the giant Engineers – they all keep transmuting into each other, so that we humans craft the image of both our created and our creator in our own image. The reverse theology, at the thither midst of a post-secular age, makes for a cine-metaphysical humanism.
In the company of these creatures and characters, we too become unsure of our own “humanity” – now subjected to a set of compromising quotation marks – and look on at what is sculpted on a frightful screen from behind a set of 3D glasses handed to us by the ushers upon entering the dark hole of the IMAX theatre.
On that spectrum, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland Corporation officer leading the expedition, looks almost indistinguishably identical with David the android, so much so that Janek (Idris Elba), the captain of the Prometheus, asks her in a “late night” encounter if she is human or robot. She invites her to her private chambers “to get laid” by way of assuring him she is human. We are not made privy to that encounter, and left to our own human devices, as it were, to imagine the rest.
Meredith Vickers might as well have been a moral android. We are introduced to David, the android who looks perfectly human, while he is watching Lawrence of Arabia, as directed by Ridley Scott’s fellow British epic filmmaker David Lean in 1962, and then earnestly trying to mimic Peter O’Toole’s accent – the accent with which the android will speak for the rest of the film. David looks and speaks like O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia. That intertextual reference between Lean and Scott, between Lawrence and David, earthly and heavenly colonialism, mimics the androgynous disposition of humanity and humanoids in Prometheus.
David and the Engineer thus form the two sides of our fragile humanity – the two ends of the spectrum on which we believe ourselves to be human. That framing amounts to a metaphysics of humanism, cinematically moderating any intuition of transcendence that a scientific atheism can fathom to rid the world of the abstract mystery of its whereabouts, replacing that ennobling mystery with high-tech IMAX 3D, in which we become yet another whirling delusion in the ever receding universe.
The paradox then dwells in the superior technological gadgetry of watching this film on a huge screen, and in 3D, where before you know it, Neptune and Uranus are coming out of your right and left ears and suck your nose towards the sun. That fearful fantasy works for a few fulfilling minutes, before your mind overcomes the gadgetry and the voluptuous screen becomes flat as a page of paper, and you are taught that the gravitational forces of the universe are all that exists – no poetry, no philosophy, no mysticism, and no metaphysics.
You may think that you might not give that entire experience to just one page of Rumi, an episode of Homer, or a delightful recitation from Ramayana – and that you might be richer in the exchange. But that kind of antiquarian nostalgia will not suffice – something else is in the offing.
The extraterrestrial Lawrence of Arabia
The jarring discrepancy between the corporate zeal for immortality represented by Peter Weyland, the billionaire founder and CEO of Weyland Corp, and the scientific urge to discover the origin and purpose of humanity here are having a habitually Christian rendezvous.
With capitalism now enjoying “Asian values”, as the distinguished European philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, the Protestant ethic may no longer have much to do with the spirit of capitalism, as Max Weber suggested. For what we have here is science at the service of corporate capitalism, in search of immorality.
Habitually Sir Ridley ends his films with a gift exchange between the two initial antagonists of his plots. The scene towards the end of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) when the Christian crusader Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and the Muslim warrior Imad ad-Din (Alexander Siddig) exchange a horse and bid each other farewell in each other’s language is identical with the final scene in Black Rain (1989), when the American cop Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) and his Japanese counterpart Masahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura) exchange gifts and greetings before they depart. These gift exchanges have become acts of cinematic embracing of two protagonists across an otherwise vast cultural divide – having just gone through a transformative experience together that has altered them both for the better. Balian of Ibelin returns to France a little Muslim, having left Imad back in Jerusalem a little Christian.
If you’ve not seen Prometheus, here’s a spolier alert. In the film, Elizabeth Shaw the archeologist and her partner Charlie Holloway have intercourse after he has been infected by David with a tainted drink containing a dark liquid – a biological mutant – so she, in effect, gives birth to an Engineer, and from the transmutation of that fetus and the last surviving Engineer, a new creature is born in the very last scene of the film. That humanoid creature is in effect the offspring of humanity as we know it and our creator as Scott imagines her – a half woman/half god.
But here Sir Ridley has become nostalgic and self-referential, for if the Chinese taikonauts proceed to do what they are doing, neither Greek mythology, nor Christian theology, nor indeed the Enlightenment absolutism of science or Renaissance humanism will determine the philosophical terms of outer space explorations, or inform the visual vocabulary of our future cinema – if Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige were to make a space odyssey, they might be looking where Buddhism and Taoism come to shape the Chinese bureaucratic party politics and their globalised capitalism coming together to replace Sir Ridley Scott’s Peter Weyland.
And if you think that’s too farfetched a science fiction, then you need to take a look at a recent (July 11, 2012) centrefold page of the Financial Times, in which the paper lists the princeling political elites-cum-corporate magnates who run the Chinese show in this latest stage of globalised capitalism and its “Asian values”.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He was the chief academic consultant to Sir Ridley Scott when he was making his Kingdom of Heaven (2005).