Abstract and Keywords
Prometheus (2012) provides ample material for cyborg criticism in the figure of its android protagonist, David. Modelling himself after the archaeologist, promoter of Arab nationalism and British spy T.E. Lawrence, David functions as both a cultural artefact in, and an agent of, Prometheus's expedition to the origins of human life, an enterprise that, like Lawrence’s, is an anthropological recovery of an early phase of civilization that promotes the interests of the industrial-military complex that David serves (in Lawrence's case, Britain's Foreign and Colonial Office). David is the pivot upon which the film's historical fabula turns, is the "cyborg site" from which the diegetic environment of material science flows: as a non-human marginalized figure, the cyborg David simultaneously embodies and resists the originary trajectory and the racist/speciesist discourse that lay at the heart of early archaeological thinking. Ultimately, theories of common origins that infuse Scott's film are dismantled along with the conservative political agendas such myths serve. As a signifier of the archaeological business of gathering artefacts into partial typologies of origins and progress, the cyborg archaeologist is a fitting coda to my investigation of the uneasy and ongoing alliance between archaeology and global politics circulating in the popular imaginary of SF.
Building Better Worlds
Weyland Industries corporate motto
Big things have small beginnings.
Lawrence of Arabia
In concert with the 2012 TED conference in Long Beach, California, the creative agency Ignition Interactive launched an elaborate marketing campaign to promote the release of Prometheus (2012), Ridley’s Scott’s pseudo-prequel to Alien (1979). In a virtual TED talk delivered from the year 2023, the CEO of Weyland Industries, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), discusses his company’s breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. The talk concludes with an invitation to visit his corporate website, which unlocks Prometheus media to ‘investors,’ including information about ‘Project Genesis,’ an interstellar expedition to investigate archaeological evidence supporting the intelligent design theory of humankind.1 The campaign also featured a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal and a video for the company’s latest android, the David 8.2 Altogether, the advertising strategy immerses fans in the Prometheus backstory by blurring, in the words of Creative Director Chris Eyerman, ‘the boundaries between content and marketing, fiction and reality, story and game […] to the point of invisibility, creating a holistic narrative experience that entertains and engages regardless of platform’ (Karpel).
In her review of the film, however, Vivian Sobchack argues that (p.168) the disconnect between the ‘anticipation generated by the trailers, website, and viral marketing’ and the ‘extremely confusing, illogical, and disjointed plotting, and weakly conceived characters who act implausibly’ is symptomatic of the Herculean task Scott set for himself: to build a better world from the materials and corporate expectations of a highly successful franchise. Prometheus is caught ‘in its own almost inescapable double bind’ between ‘the filmmaker’s desire and demand for originality and […] a huge parasitic franchise and stifling mythology’ (2012, 33). Her assessment is rooted in Roland Barthes’s injunction that the
very end of myth is to immobilize the world […] [E]very day and everywhere, man is stopped by myths, referred by them to this motionless prototype which […] stifles him in the manner of a huge parasite and assigns to his activity the narrow limits within which he is allowed to suffer without upsetting the world.
(Qtd. in Sobchack, 2012, 32)
Invoking Barthes’s ‘huge parasite’ is significant in the context of a franchise whose central fascination is a huge parasite of its own: the iconic face-hugging Xenomorph, whose plastic life cycle is a compelling metaphor for the potentially protean franchise mythology augured by the Prometheus marketeers. Sobchack contends that despite its narrative shortcomings, Prometheus is ‘quite coherent as an allegory of the film’s own struggle to pay respect to yet reject its own origins’ (34), an observation that invites us to peer beyond the dialectical dead end of Barthean mythology to a space inhabited by another creature who plays a pivotal role in the promotional material and in the film: the David 8 android played by Michael Fassbender. No mere ‘repetition of the devious Ash [Ian Holm] or Bishop [Lance Henriksen] in the first film and its sequel’ (34), the film’s protagonist departs from the model company servant by disrupting, like HAL or his Cylon counterparts, anthropocentric control of the archaeological record. In this context, David’s role in the search for humanity’s ‘Engineers’ and his secret genetic experiments with their parasitic bio-technology introduce a potentially novel cyborg mythology into the Alien franchise and a more opened-ended appreciation of the film as an allegory of its Promethean struggle to square origins with originality.
To this end, Scott attempts what is for Barthes the impossible task of vanquishing ‘myth from the inside’ (qtd. in Sobchack, 2012, 34), a project that begins with the promotional materials’ intertextual—which is to say parasitic—relationship with another film, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Weyland’s TED talk, which is ostensibly about the (p.169) future of artificial people in deep space exploration, pays homage to the figure of Lawrence promulgated by Lean. He opens with an anecdote from the film: ‘T.E. Lawrence, eponymously of Arabia but very much an Englishman, favoured pinching a burning match between his fingers to put it out. When asked by his colleague William Potter to reveal his trick […] Lawrence just smiled and said “The trick, Potter, is not minding it hurts.”’ Weyland likens the ‘fire that danced at the end of that match’ to Prometheus’s gift to ‘mankind,’ the spark of technological innovation from which sprang stone tools and gunpowder, combustion engines and nuclear weapons, fusion and ultimately ‘cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years,’ he says, ‘will be completely indistinguishable from us, which leads to an obvious conclusion: we are the gods now.’ Visual cues support his titanic solipsism. The video opens with a low-angle reverse shot of Weyland entering a massive stadium, arms raised in salute like a boxer in a title fight. Camera drones project his image onto enormous screens broadcasting Twitter feeds from 76 million online viewers. The cost of claiming divine power—Lawrence’s singed fingers, the Titan’s eternal agony—is implied in the scopophilic low-angle shots of Weyland at the centre of the adulating crowd, a clear reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s fetishization of Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology in Triumph of the Will (1935). ‘My ambition,’ he asserts, ‘is unlimited, and I will settle for nothing short of greatness, or I will die trying,’ a plot spoiler redolent with the corporate expectations to which the twenty-first-century Prometheus holds his cybernetic progeny accountable.
If the 2023 TED conference marks the unofficial launch of David, a being for whom ‘not minding it hurts’ implies rather ominous motives underpinning Weyland’s need to ‘change the world,’ the marketing symbology of the David 8 advertisement, ‘Happy Birthday, David,’ raises pertinent questions about the integrity of a corporate culture mirrored in the monstrous appetite of the Xenomorph. Weyland Industries unveils its new model android through the ambivalent imagery of unwrapping a present or unpacking merchandise, the opening of a sarcophagus or a birth from an industrial womb. The white circulatory fluid that routinely erupts from dismembered androids in the Alien films is injected like mother’s milk into David’s naked body.3 Preschoolish music and a soft-spoken male inquisitor complete the parodic nativity. Asked ‘What can you do, David?’ the eager and earnest android replies, ‘I can do almost anything that could possibly be asked of me.’ David’s child-like sense of wonder and trust in corporate authority resonates in unsettling (p.170) images of replication. David plays chess with David and paints a figurine of a man in a suit, crafty forms of intelligence and mimicry that simultaneously forecast the fragility of the human/machine binary promoted in the advertisement. Asked ‘What do you think about?’ David’s response ‘children playing, angels, robots’ implies his sense of ontological separation from created beings and their materiality, an assertion of individuation freighted with the sinister S.S. imagery imparted by cybernetic skulls flanking the decidedly Aryan figure cut by Fassbender. With a slight sigh he relates that he can carry out directives that his ‘human counterparts might find distressing or unethical.’ Prompted to speak for himself, David expresses his ‘gratitude towards the people who created me.’ But what form will his gratitude assume in a film whose title references the rebellion of created beings against their gods? What kind of ‘better world’ can the Weyland Corporation build with and even for its artificial people? ‘Happy Birthday, David’ thus promises to reinvigorate the Alien universe by developing a backstory for cybernetic individuals raised from Weyland’s industrial sarcophagi, and in the process an alternative history for a franchise that casts the future of human labour relations in the monstrous form of the Xenomorph.
For a film whose title invokes the SF uber-myth of Prometheus/Frankenstein, the intertextual relationship with Lawrence of Arabia adds an unexpected dimension to the cyborg question introduced in the promotional material. If Lawrence is the genealogical lynchpin joining Weyland to the Greek titan, the myth of Lawrence also connects Weyland to the future through David, who adopts his creator’s cinematic tastes. Early in the film, David watches the very scene from Lawrence of Arabia that Weyland references in his TED talk. David styles his hair like Peter O’Toole’s, mimicking the actor’s inflections in front of a vanity mirror as he does so: ‘The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.’ That this android, whom Weyland introduces to the Prometheus crew as ‘the closest thing to a son [he] will ever have,’ so closely resembles Lean’s protagonist warrants investigation of the connections between David’s adolescent gestures of individuation and the megalomania of a ‘father’ who finances a trillion-dollar archaeological mission to look upon the face of God. Lawrence of Arabia is, I contend, a mythic threshold through which David enters Prometheus’s meta-performance of its struggle with its parasitic franchise mythology. Whereas Weyland appears to accept unreservedly the romantic image of Lawrence for his own plan to ‘change the world,’ David’s emulation articulates a more nuanced understanding of the paradoxes Lawrence embodies as a servant of the British Empire and leader of the Arab Revolt, a legendary figure born from the complex (p.171) nexus of archaeology, military conflict and entertainment explored in ‘Battling Babylon.’
As a film buff himself, David develops self-awareness in relation to the symbolic medium that he as a technological being is uniquely equipped to appreciate. Initially, David filters his experiences of the desert world of LV_233, the destination of the Prometheus expedition, through Lean’s lens. He invests his hopes for a meaningful contribution to the mission in a mediatized appreciation of barren places. But like Lawrence, whose fascination with the desert and its peoples is systematically eroded by the imperial machinations of General Allenby’s expeditionary force and Prince Feisal’s promotion of Hashemite nationalism, David becomes discomfited by the meta-filmic space bequeathed to him by his ‘father.’ In a film shot entirely with 3-D cameras (Wong), his vision matures, rather, in the stereoscopic environment that Scott carefully constructs around the particular anxieties of individuation confronting the android servant. Sobchack’s observation that the director uses ‘3-D unobtrusively, and thus effectively’ (32) gestures towards stereoscopic space as an alternative mode of storytelling for a protagonist eager to free himself from his creator’s parasitic attachment to evolutionary typology. Out of David’s struggles with the worldview Weyland promotes through his uncritical admiration of Lawrence ‘of’ Arabia, a new myth of origin for the franchise emerges like the birth of the alien life form.
A short genealogy of the Lawrence myth is necessary to contextualize the manner in which the polyvalent figure of Lawrence as an archaeologist and military commander, and as an enigmatic outsider and a celebrity, filters into David’s cybernetic psyche. The recurrent references to Lawrence in the viral campaign and in the film underscore how Lawrence as an archaeologist-cum-spy gathered and produced particular kinds of intelligence in the geographical and historical milieu with which he is eponymously remembered. The genesis of Lawrence’s activities in the Middle East lay in a version of ‘The Great Game’ playing out before the outbreak of World War I. Along with Near Eastern archaeologists Gertrude Bell and Leonard Woolley ‘of Ur,’ Lawrence was recruited as a secret agent to monitor German activities in Palestine by the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and wartime Deputy Director of the Arab Bureau, D.G. Hogarth (Satia, 24–39). Hogarth’s excavations at Carchemish, which Lawrence joined in 1911, were the base of operations for gathering intelligence on the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railway line, which he and his Arab combatants famously sabotaged during the war. At Hogarth’s recommendation, the Palestine Exploration Fund hired Lawrence and Woolley in 1913 to map (p.172) the Israelite exodus across the uncharted Wilderness of Zin on the Sinai Peninsula, a topographical expedition that would be crucial for planning the defence of the Suez Canal. At the outbreak of the war, Lawrence was assigned to the British War Office’s Geographical Section and then dispatched in 1916 to implement the Arab Revolt plan. Together the ‘Oxford Four,’ relates Tobias Richter, used their ‘knowledge gained as part of their archaeological explorations—geographical expertise, language skills, and personal contacts—to foster essentially imperialist agendas during the war’ (225).
In Orientalism, Edward Said offers an illuminating reading of the convergence between archaeology and espionage in the myth of Lawrence adopted by David Lean and Ridley Scott. In his analysis of the Englishman’s best-selling memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935), Said contends that Lawrence introduces a ‘new dialectic’ in Orientalist discourse by conflating the knowledge-gathering paradigms of the archaeologist with the political aspirations of the Colonial Office, a new mode of representing the Orient and its peoples at the intersection of ‘vision’ and ‘narrative.’ Through Lawrence, ‘[k]nowledge of the Orient’ leveraged for the war effort is ‘directly translated into activity, and the results give rise to new currents of thought and action in the Orient.’ Promising to destabilize the panoptic vision of the archaeologist who ‘surveys the Orient from above, with the aim of getting hold of the whole sprawling panorama before him—culture, religion, mind, history, society’ (239), the new imperial strategy ‘will require from the White Man a new assertion of control, this time not as the author of a scholarly work on the Orient but as the maker of contemporary history’ (238). But the Orientalist cannot easily escape the synchronic vision of the Arab world he propagated as a scholar. The central conceit of Lawrence’s memoir is that his monumental effort to draw the Arabs into the purview of modernity collapsed into a ‘powerful sense of failure and betrayal’ (241). Lawrence’s ‘vision’ thereby ‘became the very symbol of Oriental trouble: Lawrence, in short, had assumed responsibility for the Orient by interspersing his knowing experience between the reader and history […] All the events putatively ascribed to the historical Arab Revolt are reduced finally to Lawrence’s experiences on its behalf’ (243). For Said, the tension between (narrative) diachrony and (visual) synchrony is the very essence of the Lawrence myth, the synthesis of a dialectic in which Lawrence’s experiences stand in for the epic failure of the rebellion. In short, the myth of Lawrence is a huge Barthean parasite in the history of Orientalism.
What is pertinent for the present analysis is not the fairness or accuracy of Said’s assessment of Lawrence’s controversial place in history, but the (p.173) distinction he draws between vision and narrative in the Englishman’s representation of his role in the Arab Revolt. If as an archaeologist and a military commander Lawrence becomes in Said’s words ‘a figure of Oriental history, indistinguishable from it, its shaper, its characteristic sign for the West’ (238), then the manner in which the figure of Lawrence of Arabia circulates within the popular imaginary as a stage and screen celebrity is also of vital importance for understanding his lingering influence in Scott’s film. While Said does not consider Lawrence’s earliest expositor, the American journalist and adventurer Lowell Thomas, who in the words of Lyon Macfie ‘created one of the most powerful orientalist images ever created’ (82), nor Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning film, his dialectical model of vision and narrative gives rise to new currents of thought and action in David’s own ontological engagement with the popular cultural image of Lawrence promoted by Thomas and Lean.
Thomas’s treatment of Lawrence’s activities in the Near East unfolds unproblematically within the spatial purview of the Orientalist. Assembled from a stock of still images and moving pictures gathered from his travels in the Levant—including records of his time with General Allenby in Palestine and his two-week sojourn with Prince Feisal and Lawrence in April 1918—Thomas presented ‘With Allenby in Palestine and the Conquest of Holy Arabia’ to New York audiences in March 1919, and then in London the following year under the new banner ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence of Arabia.’ Illustrated with 240 lantern slides and some 30 film clips (including the first aerial photography of archaeological sites in Egypt and Jordan) and accompanied by Levantine music and oriental dance routines (Hodson, 27–44), the show’s central conceit is the British liberation of the East from the Turks, a modern-day crusade with Lawrence playing the leading role of white knight (Macfie, 83). Thomas neatly evades the problem of imperial politics by directing action and the possibility for change into a closed system of spectatorship at the interstices of vaudeville, tourism and the Western literary canon. A progenitor of the reductionist and revisionist TED brand of infotainment championed by Weyland, Thomas’s show transforms Lawrence into, in his own words, a ‘kind of matinee idol’ (qtd. in Anderegg, 283).
And it is ‘precisely as a matinee idol,’ contends Michael Anderegg, ‘that Lawrence returns to the screen […] in Lawrence of Arabia’ (283–84). The film responds to several critical biographical studies of Lawrence published after World War II, the most infamous being Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia, A Biographical Inquiry (1955), which attributes Lawrence’s ‘sense of failure and betrayal’ to an underlying crisis of personality characterized by ‘his angst over his own illegitimacy, his hybrid British national identity, and his reported sadomasochism and (p.174) homosexuality’ (Patterson, 159).4 Lean sublimates the film’s political matter into the story of Lawrence’s dissolution, rendering the failure of the rebellion through the emptying ‘desert’ of the protagonist’s psyche. Unlike Said’s syncretic figure of Lawrence as the still centre of the failed English attempt to drag the Orient into the modern era, or Thomas’s shining image of Lawrence as the hero of medieval chivalry, Lean translates the dialectics of vision and narrative into the cinematic process itself, such that, as Anderegg observes, the ‘formal properties’ of the film ‘reflect the thematics of the fable’ (296). The desert is the co-star and its spectacular and mercurial representation becomes the spatial analogue of Lawrence’s psychological breakdown under the (narrative) rigours of leading the revolt.
In her examination of Lawrence’s ‘person-environment interaction’ with the desert, Christina Kennedy observes that two distinct conceptions of the desert correspond with the ambiguities of Lawrence’s character. The first half of film presents a version of the idealist protagonist promoted by Thomas. Lawrence enters his role through the ‘catalyst’ of the desert, which transforms the archaeologist and map-maker into an intrepid agent. ‘Originally,’ she says, the desert is a ‘clean, heroic landscape full of challenge and beauty where Lawrence is alone or with allies or friends. Panoramic shots show the scale of the landscape. In medium-range shots, Lean makes extensive use of triangular composition—reflecting the forms in the landscape and indicating stability. Modern technology is largely absent’ (166). But following the capture of Aqaba, Lawrence begins to succumb to his own myth as liberator. His relationship with the desert sours as a result, becoming ‘a metaphor for the capitulation of the Arab nations to British hegemony that, ostensibly, represents progress’ (162). In the second half of the movie
the desert is decentered from the narrative and, importantly, it loses its beauty. There are few panoramic shots, and those mostly of retreating armies or massacres. The narrative focus shifts to battles and destruction. Modern technology is more in evidence. Triangular composition is gone. Vertical and diagonal lines meet at odd angles, giving a sense of instability and chaos. (166)5
(p.175) It is significant that the film resumes after the intermission with the appearance of Lowell Thomas’s alter ego, American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy). Prompted by Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to account for his interest in Lawrence, Bentley responds, ‘I’m looking for a hero,’ a telling assertion at a moment when heroic action has reached its zenith and is thereby ripe for mythologizing. The film thus takes as a central issue the problematic image of Lawrence engendered by Thomas and, as Anderegg argues, the ‘intensely self-conscious way [Lawrence] acts out his heroic role. Lawrence simultaneously performs as a hero and watches himself performing,’ complicating ‘the categories of actor, role, and identity’ (296). For a film that is ostensibly about Lawrence’s own ambivalent relationship with myth-making, the notion of ‘vision’ in the cinematic sense is more flexible than that to which Said accords the Orientalist’s memoir. Resisting panoptic control, the desert is a touchstone for Lawrence’s quest for personal freedom, an impulse shared by one of his big fans, David, who begins to challenge his scripted role on the Prometheus expedition through his critical appreciation of Lean’s film.
If Weyland fancies himself a Lawrencian prophet of revolutionary change, then David identifies with the other Lawrence, the misunderstood soul buffeted by the caprice of the Arabian theatre. In the closing chapters of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence recalls the sensation of his ‘detached self always eying the performance from the wings in criticism’ (561). David also inhabits this ambiguous (spatial) position: initially adopting Weyland’s admiration for Lawrence, David’s experiences aboard Prometheus also leave him critical of his performance, which is to say his vocational programming. And it is precisely as the author of a rebellion of his own that David introduces a potentially novel cyborg mythology to the Alien franchise. Like Lawrence’s mutable relationship with the desert in Lean’s film, the metier for David’s evolution is the space he inhabits, in this case an alternative stereoscopic environment in which to contemplate the fundamental questions of cyborg existence. The film’s formal properties reflect the thematics of an emergent cyborg fable.
The majestic opening title sequence intimates the potential for stereoscopic photography to translate space into an alternative narrative field. The Engineer spacecraft/camera plunges through the cloud cover to reveal the monochromatic cobalt patina representing the elemental forces of the world in its infancy, the rugged mountains, steaming volcanoes (shot in location at Mount Hekla in Iceland), glacier-scarred plateaus and imposing cataracts (Dettifoss, Iceland). The sublime and estranging perspective draws us backward to the point of origin of our species rendered as technological mediation, a documentary imposition (p.176) on free, uncharted space similar to the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence in 2001. Marc Streitenfeld’s haunting musical score facilitates this transformation. A simple horn melody and drum beat squire the ship’s passage through the atmosphere; then, like the diegetic electronic notes that alert Moon-Watcher to the presence of the monolith, alternating tones fold into the orchestration like sonic echoes of the digital hum that pervades Vangelis’s futuristic score in Blade Runner.6 Rising out of these musical nods to Kubrick and to Scott’s second SF film, the Prometheus theme invites the audience to behold Scott’s version of the dawn of time in the form of the Engineer’s (Daniel James) ritual sacrifice. He swallows a vial of black fluid and immediately convulses as his body is torn apart at the molecular level then falls into the cascade below. The moment of creation signals a rupture in the visual field, a shift from primordial beauty to a microscopic, clinical 3-D animation of ruptured DNA nucleotides swirling in the tumbling water and reforming into new helical structures. The camera then ‘pulls back to reveal myriad cells undergoing mitosis […] depicting the birth of life on Earth’ (Fordham, 39). Refracting the ancient astronaut premise of intelligent design through sublime aesthetics and scientific process introduces one of the film’s major themes: creation as an act of pollution, which, as evidenced by Moon-Watcher’s first kill or Lawrence’s military campaign in pristine environments, forecasts the destructive frontier mentality underpinning Weyland’s corporate motto ‘building better worlds.’ Referencing Scott Bukatman’s ‘The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime’ (1999), Nicholas Brinded considers how ‘science fiction cinema as a repository of the modern romantic sublime’ in films like 2001, Blade Runner and Prometheus recasts American exceptionalist rhetoric into ‘dramatic landscape shots that involve the viewer in sublime vistas’ (231). The immersive experience of stereoscopic sublimity is constitutive of the technological mastery of space and its temporalities. The aesthetic measure of space is thus an important thematic aspect of a film that explores the relationship between creation and colonization through the ‘promise of rejuvenation’ (Brinded, 234) that the characters are eager to find in the archaeological record left by the alien creators.
Millions of years later, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover the material remains of the primal scene, a petroglyph depicting a group of people worshipping a giant being pointing to a constellation, which the archaeologists infer is a ‘star map’ to the location of the Engineers’ (p.177) homeworld. Shot at the Old Man of Storr rock formation on the Isle of Skye, the filming site itself marks the ideological nature of romantic aesthetics. Tapping into the ‘primal, mysterious and earthy’ aura of the Scottish Highlands, Prometheus contributes to the flattening effect of the transnational tourist and film industries, what John Marmysz calls the ‘myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular’ (30). In Prometheus, the ‘picturesque and awe-inspiring’ aerial views of the geological fixture that inspired the local legend of the Storr giant pointing to the heavens are co-opted as the point of origin for the film’s own mythic concerns. Both ‘ancient and futuristic all at once’ (34), the site is a chronotopic threshold through which the film industry exerts technological mastery over ‘ancient’ terrain. Prometheus thus renders ‘traces of past mythology’ into sublime sources for decidedly ‘monolithic’ conceptions of space. Through the contemporary myth of ancient astronaut speculation, Prometheus reconfigures the ‘myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular’ into symbolic terrain upon which to introduce the myth of Lawrence that David adopts during his mission to help his master colonize the future.
The following scene presents David onboard the Prometheus. He appears through laterally opening doors, an SF device that alludes to the visual vocabulary of the stage. The actor enters into his role through—indeed as—stereoscopic space, emerging from the ‘backstage’ of the positive parallax plane to the zero parallax space of centre stage. In a film whose theatrical self-referentiality combines with stereoscopic effects to disrupt the ‘artificial construction of the fourth wall,’ the potential for a liberating cyborg mythology resides in situ in the ‘thick palpable screen spaces where the boundaries between the film’s objects and the viewer’s bodies are unclear’ (M. Ross, 63, 13). David moves ‘stage left’ to the hyper-sleep pod containing Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. He monitors her dreams and memories through a HUD ‘neuro-visor,’ one of the many futuristic screen configurations that point to the film’s ‘thematic concerns with technology, interfaces, cyberspace, and the boundaries between the real and the virtual’ (Purse, 2005, 153). He watches residual image-traces of Shaw’s childhood, when she as a motherless girl plied her archaeologist father for information about the after-life. David is drawn to Shaw, whose dream-world provides a spectatorial, philosophical, emotional and technological framework through which he begins to formulate questions about his own origins, ends and purpose. Spying creates an unsettling intimacy between the pair. Crucially, the archaeologist’s very name is a direct allusion to the identity Lawrence assumed after the war, when he joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1925 as Private Thomas Edward Shaw (having served under the pseudonym Private John Hume Ross in the RAF from 1922). Cast onto the electronic display of the neuro-visor, (p.178) David’s silhouette is superimposed momentarily on the dream image, suggesting that she is dreaming of him, too. Through her, he dreams himself. The implication is that David is developing a psychology and, like Lean’s Lawrence, an alter ego from spying. This scene reveals that as a technological being, David is beginning to experience agency within the haptic play of stereoscopic space. Like Lawrence’s immersion in Lean’s deep focus Panavision photography, David confronts his own identity as a simulated person whose imagination and material reality are, in Aneta Stojnić’s words, the ‘two pillars supporting every possibility for historical transformation’ (51).
David’s first activities aboard Prometheus are indicative of the Lawrence/Shaw intertext. As well as the expedition’s custodian, he is an archaeologist. He spends his time learning Proto-Indo European, the presumed language of the Engineers, by repeating ‘Schleicher’s Fable,’ an invented text that serves as a touchstone for reconstructing the language and its pronunciation. But the content of the fable—a story about a sheep and a horse whose empathy for each other’s service to humans causes them to recognize and confront their own identity as slaves—comments on labour relations aboard Prometheus. As an intelligent and emotional being, David becomes increasingly self-aware through his dawning understanding of the disparity between himself and the crew, a disparity that he connects to Lawrence’s prevailing sense of isolation in Lean’s film. In his solitude, David watches Lawrence of Arabia on a curved projection wall—an exaggeration of the CinemaScope screen used to correct the aspect ratio while providing the sensation of three-dimensionality (Belton, 1992, 201)—and dyes his hair while imitating O’Toole’s inflections. The camera tracks across the film, replicating for the audience David’s own viewing experience of what amounts to Scott’s stereoscopic restoration of the 1962 film. These three moments in the first act of Prometheus—the origins of life, archaeological (re)discovery, and David’s duties and entertainment predilections—are defining elements in David’s character as an Orientalist, a lover of Lean’s film, a keeper of the crew and a spy. While the questions ‘What can you do?’ and ‘What do you think about?’ are answered explicitly in relation to the mission objectives, the real answers lie in the mirror world David constructs around himself.
Having reached the secret destination LV_233, David revives the crew and they assemble for Weyland’s holographic briefing recorded in the year 2091. Supposedly dead after the two-year voyage, the briefing forms a continuum with his TED talk. As the creator of artificial people, Weyland introduces himself through the myth borne vocatively by the ship and its mission. ‘There’s a man sitting with you today,’ he says,
(p.179) His name is David. He is the closest thing to a son I will ever have. Unfortunately, he’s not human. He will never grow old. He will never die. And yet he is unable to appreciate these remarkable gifts, for that would require the one thing that David will never have: a soul. I have spent my entire lifetime contemplating the questions Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die? […] The titan Prometheus wanted to give mankind equal footing with the gods. For that he was cast from Olympus […] [T]he time has finally come for his return.
Motivated ostensibly by Weyland’s philosophical inquiry into the mysteries of life, the central tension in the film is the relevance of these questions to an artificial person whose creator denies him a soul. The bastard progeny sits in rapt attention while Shaw and Holloway brief the crew on the secret objective to find their creators, the Engineers depicted on the various ‘star maps’ discovered at ancient sites around the world.7 Challenged by the biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) to disprove 500 years of evolutionary theory, Shaw responds that faith guides her inference. It is, she says, ‘what I choose to believe,’ a direct quotation from her dream about her father’s faith in the after-life. The scene ends with a cut to a perplexed David, who seems to realize that the mission and by implication his very existence is based on a figment. As a repository of what Sherryl Vint terms the ‘embodied subjectivity’ of the post-human subject, David is a material site for reassessing ‘currently dominant constructions of the social’ (2007, 21), a corporeal signifier of his father’s unbounded corporate ambition and narcissism, and, moreover, the unstable fantasies originating in Shaw’s loss of her mother. Born from these two fractured psyches, and desirous of severing his umbilical connection to the corporate ‘mother’—from Freud’s ‘biology as destiny’—David begins some creative myth-making of his own and in the process becomes unbound to the Promethean will of Weyland.
Similar to Lawrence’s ambivalent relationship with the desert, David comes to ‘signify new forms of exclusions’ by inhabiting ‘new spaces of freedom’ (Vint, 2007, 21). These spaces are manifest in the desert environment of LV_233. The descent of Prometheus in the next scene mirrors the activities of the Engineers in the opening sequence. The diminutive ship banks into rolling cloudscapes, then passes over sweeping mountains and valleys of the primal world below. The (p.180) Prometheus theme rises once again, immersing the audience in the sublime prospect unfolding before the crew. The filming location is a crucial point of contact between Scott’s and Lean’s conceptualization of character in relation to desert spaces. Aerial photography for the entry was taken from a helicopter over the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan (Fordham, 41), the historic site where Lean filmed Lawrence’s march to Aqaba. The Seven Pillars rock formation (so named by the Lawrence tourist industry and not after the Quran quotation from which Lawrence takes the title of his memoir) completes the mise-en-scene. Breaking through the clouds, the crew comment on the expansive waste below. David enigmatically offers, ‘There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.’ When the physician Ford (Kate Dickie) demands an explanation, David replies that the phrase is ‘just something from a film I like.’ This direct quotation of Lawrence of Arabia carries a surprising revelation of aesthetic sensibility for an artificial person, an emotional response to the rugged beauty filtered through David’s appreciation of Lean’s cinematography.
At once a mark of individuation, the phrase also invites reflection on the politics of the mission. Spoken by Prince Feisal, the full quotation undermines Lawrence’s aesthetic claims upon Arabia. ‘I think you are another of these desert-loving English—Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.’ In Lean’s film, these words convey Feisal’s suspicion of British imperial interests in terms similar to Said’s. But here, quoted selectively, the double negative conveys a special meaning for David, who literally is no man. Set apart by his status as an artificial person, his attraction to the desert of LV_233 as an archaeologist and admirer of Lean’s epic film offers David a potentially transcendent space in which to explore his burgeoning sense of purpose and identity. If, as Scott Bukatman observes, the ‘precise function of science fiction, in many ways, is to create the boundless infinite stuff of sublime experience, and thus to produce a sense of transcendence beyond human finitudes’ (1999, 256), then David is the consummate spectator of the SF special effects unfolding all around him. His aesthetic appreciation of the sublime transforms the desert of LV_233 into a transcendent space wherein he begins to heed the insistent call of his own soul.
But like Lawrence, the seeds of David’s disillusionment are also sown in the territory he finds so invigorating. This is manifest in his tense relationship with Holloway, who delights in teasing David for his human pretensions. It is significant that an archaeologist is most disturbed by David’s encroachments on biological reality. Similar to the Colonials in Battlestar Galactica, Holloway cannot reconcile the objective nature of (p.181) time that David embodies as the latest artifice of human design with his professional appreciation of time’s passage through material culture. The future that David anticipates for himself in the desert is incommensurate with Holloway’s long-awaited encounter with humanity’s creators. Preparing to enter the toxic environment outside the ship, Holloway (whose name suggests an empty reading of Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’) makes a flippant inquiry: ‘David, why you wearing a suit, man? […] You don’t breathe, remember, so why wear a suit?’ Of course, he does not need it: no man needs nothing. And David, like Lawrence, is well-adapted to this environment. The exchange that follows conveys the horrors of difference that David will in turn visit upon Holloway:
‘I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.’
‘Making you guys pretty close.’
‘Not too close I hope.’
As an artificial person created in a man’s image, David’s future is prescribed within the generic history of his kind. The very title of the film connects him to Mary Shelley’s industrial creation myth of Frankenstein, the work whose anxieties about the mechanization of social relationships set the terms for the debate about the ‘co-evolution of Homo sapiens and Robo Sapiens’ (Kim and Kim, 316). The unnamed creature embodies the asymmetrical power relations that ‘are the basis for the construction of otherness that will become one of the central motives in the cyborg myth’ (Yaszek, 2002, 50). At this critical moment, the anticipation of actualizing a dream hard-wired into his programming and stamped onto his physical features is deflated and trumped by Holloway’s privileged sense of destiny on LV_233. In forcing David to articulate and thereby acknowledge his difference, the android begins to open critical distance between himself and his creators (‘you people,’ ‘your own kind’) in the very terms with which Holloway sets David apart. Whereas Shelley’s cyborg is initially and irreparably severed from the social order through physical monstrosity, the handsome David is forced by Holloway to question the viability of the cultural myths and performances that shape his existence. Akin to a spiritual crisis, the ‘cyborg is rather uncertain about its own status’ (Smelik, 2010b, 94). Disassociated from the kind in whose image he was created, David becomes unkind, a killer in fact, who chooses Holloway as the first subject for his Promethean design to create life of his own and, in the process, render the soul a redundant sign of human ascendancy.
The anxiety of David’s uncertain status inflects his parallel (p.182) archaeological activities, his mission to deliver Weyland, who is secretly in cryo-stasis aboard Prometheus, to the Engineers, and a secret agenda of his own connected to his struggle to liberate himself from the prejudices of his human colleagues. While his motivations are never fully explained in the film, they are clearly connected to his discovery of and experimentation with Engineer bio-technology, a version of the black fluid the Engineer imbibes in the opening sequence. The expedition enters a conical structure that turns out to be a hangar bay for the Engineer ‘juggernauts.’ David lags behind the group to examine cuneiform inscriptions on a control panel that activates a holographic recording with Sanskrit voicings of the Engineers fleeing some unseen danger (Wong). The holographic shadows pass through David’s body. David reacts physically, almost ecstatically to the sensation, as if he were touched by grace. It turns out that the ship is a temple of sorts dedicated to the Xenomorph, which the Engineers depict in a Christ-like crucifixion on a frieze in a chamber lined with amphorae of the fluid. Clues to David’s agenda are revealed in the iconography of what may very well be the Engineers’ own myth of origin. Are the Engineers looking for the ones who made them? If so, David continues their mission: like Ash in Alien, who under classified company orders to collect a sample of the alien life form allows the infected Kane (John Hurt) to enter the Nostromo, David secretes an amphora aboard the Prometheus and sets to work in his laboratory.
Another important intertextual moment with Lawrence of Arabia occurs during his examination of the unctuous liquid. Peering into a drop on the tip of his forefinger, which bears in its swirls the Weyland logo, David says, ‘Big things have small beginnings.’ In the context of Lean’s film, this line refers to Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab Revolt articulated by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), the fictional head of the Arab Bureau modelled on Hogarth. In this context, though, the android has embarked upon his own revolt against the establishment whose proprietary brand he bears. In the desert world of LV_233, David finds inspiration to forge an alternate future independent of the human evolutionary path. The transforming characteristics of the fluid on organic DNA is the medium for David’s own will to power, of unshackling himself from Weyland’s thrall and becoming a god himself. The ‘small beginning’ of his rebellion is infecting the clearest object of his subjugation, Holloway, who takes out his frustration in finding the Engineers dead on David. The archaeologist’s impossible desire to ‘meet his maker’ is for him reason enough to belittle what he and his kind have created in their own image. Holloway wants to know why the Engineers created humanity, a question that also fuels David’s need (p.183) to understand his purpose as a sentient artificial being. For David, the bio-mechanical engineering of humanity and androids suggests parity in their shared material genealogy. His exchange with Holloway draws out the philosophical and ideological concerns of artificial people as a second race:
‘Why do you think your people made me?’
‘We made you because we could.’
‘Could you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear that from your creator?’
‘I guess it’s a good thing you can’t be disappointed.’
David (laughing in return):
‘It’s wonderful actually. May I ask you something? […] How far would you go to get what you came all this way for—to get your answers? What would you be willing to do?’
‘Anything and everything.’
‘That’s worth drinking to, I imagine.’
Harbouring the bitterness of his failed mission to meet his makers, the archaeologist relegates David to the status of tool or experiment. Holloway’s naked assertion of power and his own hubris are all the evidence David needs to continue the Engineers’ programme of genetic manipulation. He contaminates the drink he pours for Holloway, setting off a chain of mutations. Holloway impregnates Shaw, Shaw gives birth to an alien foetus (the ‘trilobite’), which grows into a giant trilobite which in turn ‘face-hugs’ a surviving Engineer, from whose body emerges the ‘deacon,’ a prototype of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph, complete with a snatching set of inner teeth. His alter ego Shaw becomes the surrogate for David’s line of cyborg progeny: David in turn becomes the surrogate father for the Alien franchise by fulfilling what may be the Engineers’ own quest: to recreate or honour their own god/origin in the shape of the Xenomorph.
Like the cycles of human/Cylon creation in Battlestar Galactica, Prometheus reimagines through David’s experiments an alternate history for biological and synthetic life. A fluidic medium for surprising forms of creation and procreation, the black fluid is also a spatial analogue of progressive SF cinematic storytelling. Scott Bukatman’s examination of the relationship between identity and digital morphing is fruitful for locating a cyborg narrative within the thematics of Alien mythology. Bukatman observes that around virtual reality and morphing ‘images of reality, identity, and history are put up for grabs by a mutability so apparently radical that these categories appear to be superseded, (p.184) even obliterated […] [M]orphing holds out the promise of endless transformation and the opportunity to freely make, unmake, and remake one’s self.’ Morphing disrupts discrete categories of space and time by presenting a ‘condensed performance of vision,’ which is to say, an ‘enhanced temporality’ that ‘also enacts a performance of memory, yielding further self-(re)generation’ (2003, 133–34). With morphological interventions into normative spatial experience, history too becomes an open signifier of fluid identity politics. David’s experiments with new life forms are an extension of his emulation of the mercurial figure of Lawrence in Lean’s film and the contradictory historical myths he as an Orientalist and military commander embodies. David’s meta-morphic creations function on the one hand within the Alien franchise like his own David 8 type, as a physical and ‘cultural “double” [that] enacts our own greedy and effortless consumerism’ (Sobchack, 1999, xii). But these disruptions are also ‘meta-phoric’ in their ‘historically substitutive activity’ (xiii). The possibility for embodied forms of subjectivity beyond biological reproduction and heteronormative sexual relations opens up, as Lisa Yaszek observes in her reading of Scott’s replicants in Blade Runner, ‘the possibility of new, non-Oedipal ones as well’ (2002, 147). That the infertile Elizabeth Shaw, whose very name collapses the myths of Frankenstein and Lawrence, is the vessel and incubator for David’s ‘child’ potentially circumvents his Oedipal relationship with Weyland. David inseminating through laboratory processes Shaw, who vocatively carries the unstable historical image David bears, represents a kind of self-replication, a mode of cyborgian continuity and futurity that usurps Weyland’s factory-line replication of Davids (and the kind of horror that compels Spielberg’s own David to stave in David’s head with a floor lamp). A frank exchange between Shaw and David, who have developed a grotesque intimacy through her impregnation, articulates how disruptions to sexual subjectivity posit new forms of agency for a being freighted with fulfilling the impossible dreams of the father:
‘What happens when Weyland’s not around to program you any more?’
‘I suppose I’ll be free.’
‘Is that what you want?’
‘Want? Not a concept I’m familiar with. That being said, doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?’
The irony of David’s quotation ‘No man needs nothing’ assumes its full meaning here. If we read this statement as an expression of his desire for freedom from his human programmer, then David as an archaeologist (p.185) is not so much discovering his origins like his human counterparts, but rewriting their genetic code.
But David still has his other parents to deal with, the Engineers themselves. David’s petition to the surviving Engineer (Ian Whyte) on Weyland’s behalf is answered with a murderous rampage. The reason why the Engineer decides to kill Weyland is not explained, but the Frankenstein intertext would seem to suggest that, in Stephanie Smith’s reading, ‘the creator loathes his creation so much that the creator actively seeks his creation’s demise’ (67). With their cache of black fluid, which Captain Janek (Idris Elba) presumes is a bioweapon of mass destruction, the Engineers have in their plans to return to Earth with the fluid revealed if not the reason for destroying what they created a simple will and ability to do so. They make and unmake us, to echo Holloway’s words, ‘because they could.’ Dying from the Engineer’s blow, Weyland utters his last words ‘There is nothing’ to the extra-diegetic leitmotif that played when David spoke the line during the descent to LV_223. That no man needs nothing is a pun on the way an android’s search for individuation has replaced the original, just as the black parasitic fluid renders the original untenable. Weyland’s dying words are a testament to David’s triumph. To a degree, of course, because David’s own Promethean desires fall just as short as his maker’s. If he thinks he needs nothing, he ultimately requires Dr. Shaw’s help after the Engineer, in a comic gesture and homage to Ash in Alien, rips off the android’s head. The act is at once the denouement and a commentary on the competing agendas jostling in the microcosm of corporate society onboard the Prometheus. The film ends with Shaw and the decapitated android flying one of the juggernauts in the direction of the Engineer’s homeworld. The archaeological mission to revisit the origins of life and time continues with Lawrence’s alter ego Shaw and her disciple David ‘heading off’ on another galactic road trip. Captained by two failed Lawrences, whose breaks with their personal and corporate mythologies open the franchise to a potentially novel post-archaeological and post-apocalyptic future, the new Prometheus expedition just might have lighted out for another shot at a truly original sequel, which is to say an alternate prequel to Alien.
If Prometheus ultimately fails to break radically from the parasite of franchise mythology, the film does gesture towards a cyborg subjectivity beyond recycled myths of biological or mechanical reproduction. Like Lawrence of Arabia, the formal properties of the film reflect the thematics of the fable: the plastic computer generated environments David inhabits are analogous to the fungible futures David tries to create for himself and potentially for his kind. Roger Beebe observes that ‘the narratives that we tell about an emergent posthuman cultural (p.186) formation’ are contingent upon ‘the new cinematic narrative forms that are produced under and bespeak this new cultural formation’ (160). If David is the author of a new species, which is continually shifting shape and eluding the confines of its control systems, his subjectivity most directly and fully emerges within the CGI worlds he encounters aboard the alien spacecraft. David’s discovery of the juggernaut bridge is a pivotal moment, a potential rupture with the historical paradigms infecting his manufacture and programming. Alone and having severed communications with the crew, David discovers the very point of origin of Alien, a version of the chamber where Kane discovers the ‘Space Jockey’ and the Xenomorph egg clutch. Here David triggers a hologram of the Engineers on the bridge preparing to leave LV_233 with their cargo of black fluid. In one of the film’s most spectacular moments he activates the Engineers’ version of the star map, a lambent stereoscopic ‘orrery.’ With the Prometheus theme resonating in the compartment, David immerses himself in the dense matrix of visual technology. Like the audience’s encounter with Lawrence entering the depth of the desert (or David Bowman’s journey through the infinite in 2001), this sublime moment invites the spectator to inhabit as much as watch the film.8
If Lean’s Lawrence found purpose and inspiration in the cleanliness of a pre-technological world, David works in the opposite direction, locating beauty in the technological sublime. Combining narrative strategies with stereoscopic visuality provides a ‘meta-visual account of how embodied vision might function’ (M. Ross, 43). For David, the effect and the mode of production are one and the same: the manifestation of the star map is a chronotopic threshold for the cyborg’s cognitive mapping and, moreover, emergent spirituality. For the technology that carries death to Earth holds the utopian promise of an artificial soul, the dawning sense of his own ‘cosmic connectedness’ (Bukatman, 2003, 105). Stereoscopic imagery is a fitting medium for cyborg dreams of emancipation. Echoing the opening scene of the Engineer’s sacrifice, David swims in fluidic stereoscopic space, the awesome grandeur of the universe collapsed into kinetic bands of DNA, planets and galaxies. Similar to Lawrence’s shadow-dance in the desert when he receives his white robes from Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), David dances in his new luminescent cobalt coat, the artefactual gift from the future. In this moment, David, like the audience in the opening sequence, encounters aesthetics proprioceptively as an effect of the technological system of 3-D imaging (Richmond, 6–9). In contrast to the spectacular thrills generally associated with the medium, the ‘floating aspects of mise-en-scene (p.187)
impart an altogether different impact, a kind of lyricism and awe’ (Klinger, 2013, 191). In this environment, David broadens his emotional intelligence through his sensory experience of the Engineers’ embodied technology. For David stereoscopic space is diegetic: a spatial distortion that he shares with the audience.9 Breaking down the perceptual space between screen and viewer, stereoscopic cinema promotes what Miriam Ross calls ‘hyper-haptic’ experience for the audience (18–46): ‘rather than finding distance from the screen and a sense of mastery over the images, we consider and reconfigure our bodily placement in relation to the screen content’ (24). By collapsing the scopic distance between the viewer and subject, Scott invites us for a time to feel, in Bukatman’s words, David’s ‘extended encounter with the sublime, rehearsing (and hyberbolizing) the filmic spectator’s own response’ (1999, 259–60). In this fashion, stereoscopic space functions like the meta-filmic perceptual apparatus of the Cylons, who translate their desires for transcendence into environments and experiences that they share with each other and occasionally manifest for Baltar and, through him, the audience.
In a surprising gesture, David plucks the Earth from the centre of the orrery. He regards the planet with awe and a sense of possession, enjoying the privileged view of the Engineers. Holding the whole world in his hands, David experiences a Promethean moment of creation. For an archaeologist, the orrery is the ultimate artefact: a map of origins connecting early civilizations to their future through a cyborg ‘[c]onsciousness, which perceives space and experiences duration, (p.188) makes the self and the universe at once’ (Bukatman, 2003, 136). Like the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, the orrery opens possibilities for an alternative narrative register that supersedes the galactic mapping and colonial imagery of the Weyland website. Prometheus thus offers glimpses into an alternative future for the franchise in the ongoing SF cinematic project of destabilizing, like 2001 did for its generation, the present through the experience of the artificial sublime. The cyborg body enters a fluidic narrative field that visually disrupts the Alien origin story. At this exultant moment the new-born Dave slips the controls of programmed memory to discover—like the replicants in Blade Runner—that ‘reality can be morphed’ (137). For a brief moment, the viewer and David are confronted with the possibility that it ‘is the world that morphs and not the body’ (138).
The conclusion of the film supports this reading. David and Shaw lift off from the planet to Shaw’s voiceover of her report to Earth. But unlike Ripley, she does not embark upon a homeward course, does not fall asleep to become absorbed back into the company. Having given birth to an alien life form herself, she is also a cyborg, suggesting a co-evolutionary future alongside her artificial companion. The search for origins has given birth to a potentially viable cyborg myth for a franchise poised to reimagine how we construct intelligences around objects deemed historical. Like the Cylons, David opens up fissures and troubles this relationship by asking questions and demanding answers of his creators, demands for reciprocation that trouble the easy othering and binary of us and them, subject and object, biology and materiality. While the Cylons create a space to cohabitate with their Colonial brethren, this is not the end of their story, for the coalition invites attentive viewers to reconsider the history and co-evolutionary path of power and technological ascendancy that will bring them once again to the precipice of nuclear annihilation. David’s future has yet to be written and so remains a potential avenue in SFFTV to continue to examine critically the ways we graft the production of knowledge into corporate dreams of colonizing the future.
Whatever surprises the future-past of Alien might have in store, the biggest disappointment of Prometheus may be that the film is ultimately an allegory of an android’s failure to find an equitable station in the future, an ending foreclosed by the parasitic imagery of the franchise with which Scott leaves the viewer: a version of the Xenomorph erupts from the belly of the Engineer, unleashed upon the future by a disaffected cyborg from the very DNA of his creators. We are also left to ponder what role a headless android might play in shaping his future and that of the franchise. While these questions remain to be answered (p.189) in a potential sequel, I suggest that these closing images of monstrosity and disincorporation offer an oblique yet apropos commentary on recent events in the cradle of civilization, the desert from which the film’s allegory of creation accrues so much of its aesthetic and historical imagery. David and Shaw’s envoy to meet their makers is a fitting envoi to the archaeological themes of the film and to the present examination of archaeology and geopolitics in contemporary SFFTV.
Writing at the end of the 1990s, Steven Caton makes the interesting observation that old films like Lawrence of Arabia have a surprisingly durable shelf life. He recalls his experience of watching the 1989 restoration, which was still playing in repertory cinema houses during the First Gulf War. He argues that two aspects of the ‘film’s anthropology’—its historical material and its aesthetic content—were still relevant for the critical appreciation of ongoing political affairs in the Middle East. He offers a ‘speculative reading of the film as allegory of the First Gulf War’ (194–99; cf. Hodson, 128), a reading that recognizes the fairly facile identification of ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf with Lawrence (a comparison the general himself makes in his memoirs ), but is more interested in the particular narratives about the Gulf War that the comparison spawns, especially in relation to the bilateral issue of war atrocities. This reading dovetails Lawrence’s ‘revenge’ upon the Turks after they slaughtered the villagers of Tafas with the issue of civilian deaths in a new era of ‘intelligent’ warfare. For Caton, Lawrence’s massacre of the Turkish column, the ‘climax of Lawrence’s journey into his heart of darkness’ (196), resonates with one of the grisliest televised images to emerge from the war: the so-called ‘Highway of Death,’ the firebombed Kuwaiti road carrying Iraqi civilians fleeing from the allied advance, a controversy that could never be fully settled because of the tight rein on a press relegated to reproducing the official rhetoric of the campaign handed out during briefings. Filtered through the dehumanizing experiences and culpability of Lawrence, Caton concludes that ‘it was, sadly, as though this movie spoke more honestly and painfully of this war than any representations of it emanating from the government or the press’ (198). If the film is both an artefact of an imperial imagination and a critique of the hegemonic system that produced the myth of Lawrence, it continues to have ‘moral relevance to our colonialist involvement in the Middle East today’ (199).
Similar comments could no doubt be raised about the 50th anniversary 4K restoration released in 2012 in the context of the ongoing efforts against al-Qaeda and the new challenges to global security arising out of the Arab Spring. Released in the same year as Prometheus and the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, Lean’s film is an uncanny testament (p.190) to the forever war in the Middle East. Us watching David watching Lawrence is a contemporary metaphor for reflecting upon our latest return to the birthplace of civilization. David’s immersion in the stereoscopic restoration of Lawrence of Arabia affords a glimpse into the future of East/West relations as yet another incarnation of the tension between vision and narrative formulated by Edward Said. In this sense, Prometheus offers material for contemplating the latest phase of the myth of the eternal return not explicitly as an allegory of contemporary events, but as a cluster of images that prompt questions about the relevance of SF as a symbolic medium for considering relationships between material culture, progress and politics. The present study concludes with an envoi that considers how Prometheus as an SF film artefact helps us to reflect upon real-world uses of 3-D cinema in the symbolic war on heritage currently raging in the cradle of civilization.
(1) The talk was uploaded on 28 February 2012 to the official TED site (Sancton). For more information about the viral campaign see Eisenberg and Karpel.
(5) Caton (95–99) details how these thematic shifts are also a product of the ‘material contradictions’ (95) of moving from Jordan to Spain, and the necessity of narrowing the camera focus to accommodate the new topography.
(7) The Project Genesis page on the Weyland website displays pictorial representations of the Engineers being worshipped at all the ancient astronaut hot spots, including Nazca, Palenque, Babylon and the Valley of the Kings.