Repairing Prometheus: Part 4 - a troublesome android
Sacrificing characters in the name of 'meaning' leaves you with neither.
When Prometheus hit theaters there was little of substance to be found. Yes, the film was visually impressive with a matching effects budget, but pretty much everything else about the film was painfully bad. This series of four articles analyzes what could have been done to make the film work for a discerning sci-fi audience.
In the previous article I discussed the backgrounds of the characters, as well as their ability to be seen for what they are - although scientists aren't the only misused characters in the film.
David has a clear allegorical role in the film. He's an android, the direct creation of the man who is leading this mission of people looking for their creator. He's intended to serve as a relatable analog to the human quest for understanding, while also showing that understanding is not always a good thing. This part works well.
David knows his creator, and is disappointed, just as the humans soon will be when they learn their creator, ignoring the scientific impossibility of genuine emotion in a machine - an acceptable suspension of disbelief that we allow for any android in fiction - this flows correctly from the character, and is his purpose in the film. That's enough. Unfortunately he also turns out to be a saboteur of the mission. He's there, and wants to survive, but he has completely alternate goals. He is The Robot and Doctor Smith both at the same time, and that doesn't work. When he starts pulling this clearly hateful behavior, he stops being relatable, and becomes simply confusing instead. Part of what he does is understandably in service of Weyland, as we later discover, but not all of it makes sense in that context. Poisoning Holloway and, ultimately, Shaw, apparently just to see what happens, for example doesn't make any sense.
What could they have done instead? David's actions should have been divided between two characters. The android should have been the symbol for spiritual exploration and disappointment that makes sense in the tale, but one of the humans should have been the saboteur. Vickers makes the most sense, as she is already the voice of pessimism and a critic of the mission in general, and could do with a better reason for being on the ship anyway - she doesn't want to stay home and argue over his empire? Really? That's why you fly light-years away on a 5 year mission? I hear Paris is nice. One of the pilots that didn't get to do anything other than sacrifice himself for no reason would also have been a good choice. All the actions David took would still have been taken, but by a character who wouldn't be broken by those actions.
Speaking of those pilots, neither of them needed to die in the impact with the alien ship. I can believe it if I'm told that the ship would not have been able to auto-pilot a collision course, that even makes sense. If I designed an auto-pilot, I'd probably make it that way too, but do all three of those men have to die in that crash? Unless we're supposed to believe that Captain Janek really is the poor pilot they joke that he is when they agree to the sacrifice, it seems that they do it out of sheer solidarity. They nobly go down with the ship for no reason at all. It doesn't even serve a plot-purpose or develop their characters.
What could they have done instead? Interestingly, my solution for the issues with David could solve this one simultaneously. If those men really had to die to make it work, then if they had been the saboteurs of the mission, this sacrifice would have served as a symbolic redemption. The captain saves the human race, and in the process, the two saboteur pilots redeem themselves for dooming everyone in the first place. They could also simply have been killed some other way, or even left out of the film altogether, since they really don't do anything but show us how not seriously everyone is taking the mission, a job already handled well by everyone else on the ship.
Weyland keeps himself a stowaway on his own ship for no reason at all. This one is pretty simple. Weyland hides from the crew that he is on the ship and his daughter hides the fact that she is his daughter, but neither of them are doing it for any explicable reason. The only reason possible is that the filmmakers wished to surprise us with these revelations, but when there is no plot-reason for the surprise, the surprise doesn't work.
What could they have done instead? Easy, just let us know that Weyland is on the ship from the start, and have Vickers go ahead and call him "father" while he's giving his welcome speech that no longer needs to be given by a hologram in an auditorium that seems to serve no other purpose.
The awakened Engineer has a role in the film as clear as David's. He is the representative of our creators, he is the embodiment of the disappointment the humans feel when they discover the truth behind their ages-held spiritual beliefs. Their creator is not a god, but just another intelligent race with flawed ideals and who had decided to wipe us all out until their weapon turned on them.
The lore created therein is also interesting and even sort of clever: The discovery that they are mad about something that happened on Earth 'about 2000 years ago', implying (by my best guess) that Christ was one of their representatives, and they, understandably, don't like the way we treated him.
But then, when this anonymous member of an intelligent and scientifically advanced, possibly spiritually enlightened race wakes from a 2 millennia slumber to see himself surrounded by these humans, who have apparently not only not yet been destroyed, but have advanced to the point that they were able to journey across the stars to find him, his first reaction is not to talk, make a placating gesture, or even run away, but instead he roars like a lion and tears off one of their heads to beat another one of them with it. Seems a poor decision, both diplomatically and tactically. He has no idea how the other humans in the room are armed, or who else there might be outside the ship. Lucky for him, the other humans in the room are not armed. Unlucky for him, there was someone else outside the ship who did not mind blowing him up.
What could they have done instead? Pretty much anything else, honestly. There is a deleted scene on the Blu-ray which depicts David having a conversation with the Engineer before heads start to roll, and that would have helped a lot if it had been kept, but honestly, it would have been even better if the Engineer was not a ham-fisted brute. Yes, he's supposed to be disappointing as a creator, but not THAT disappointing. Consequently, the cryosleep can cause brain-damage explanation could have worked here as well as it did with the scientists I talked about in the previous article. We could even have seen the saboteur be responsible for damaging the Engineer, like he did everyone else, if that route had been taken.
A lot of aspects of fiction can be said to be a matter of taste, but this is not one of them. Poorly developed characters is a flaw in the construction of the narrative. It's like not putting an engine in the car you're building. You may think it's a prettier that way, people might even still go buy it in droves, but it's not really a car anymore at that point.
So, it's a bad film. Bad films happen every day in Hollywood, right? Prometheus is different, though, with this director, with these names, with this budget. If I were to formulate a film specifically designed to make science fiction less literary, to make scholars and critics alike less likely to take future science fiction films seriously as part of the greater context of the art of film, it would have been just like this film. And that's the real crime of Prometheus.