* SPOILER ALERT *
(Do not read the following article if you still intend to be surprised while watching Prometheus.)
Ridley Scott’s kinda-prequel to the Aliens franchise, Prometheus, has gotten quite a lot of attention due to its laborious ad campaign, which spread virally across YouTube over the course of what has felt like decades (it was actually less than a year but seemed much, much longer). I have to admit that as a huge fan of both Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), I was very excited to see an installment that appeared to have a comparable visual and conceptual rigor, combined with a strong suite of actors. As the reviews suggest though, I came out of the theater with highly mixed emotions. The allegorical ambitions of Prometheus fall a little flat and the story fails to completely satisfy a suspension of belief that good writing tends to aid. The characters are often impossibly stupid, and most of them (with the exception of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender) are so disposable and underdeveloped that the viewer is excited to see them die, since it often promises a glimpse of some unimaginable creature. With that said, the visuals are stunning, the concept is compelling, and the overall vision is admirable. However, perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the Alien cannon has been its constant gender positioning and repositioning. Ellen Ripley, the femme fatale of Scott’s original Alien, played by Sigourney Weaver, provides fairly large shoes for filling. Shoes that I desperately hoped would fit Noomi Rapace in her role as archeologist Elizabeth Shaw. Maybe that’s a bit unfair but Ellen Ripley was an incredibly significant character for me growing up. She contradicted contemporary portrayals of women in all her gender-non-conforming glory. As a budding queer, it was truly refreshing to watch a strong female character who didn’t get bogged down in some tedious hetero romance. Instead, she kicks a lot of tuchus in spite of the surrounding patriarchy, while showing a depth of character that resisted being overly sentimentalized. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that Weaver’s character was originally going to be cast as male. Thankfully, it was decided that a female lead would help Alien stand out in a male-dominated genre.
In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw is a bit more emotional and naive by comparison. This could have been a problem if Rapace was a less skilled actress but she seems to be convincingly human in the role, unlike Charlize Theron, who always seems to have her drama dial set one notch too high lately. A scene that did spike my Ripley nostalgia though, involves Shaw using an automated surgical unit to extract a newly acquired alien fetus (yes, there must be at least one involuntary impregnation per Alien plot, otherwise it’s not worth seeing). Her character frantically administers anesthetics, while trying to convince the machine to extract a lethal parasite from her abdomen. I’m not sure if anyone noticed this, but the scenario seems extra loaded with political allegory. When Shaw realizes that her “pregnancy” will kill her, David (the not-so-friendly robot), refuses to remove it and renders her unconscious. Strangely, some of the crew seem aloof to her rational desire for an immediate abortion, hinting that they also have a stake in a corporate agenda to study these creatures further. The allegory becomes more salient later on after Shaw awakes and struggles to arrange her own C-section. Unfortunately the surgical machine is only formatted for male anatomy, an aspect of the film that seems laughable but does solidify notions of female oppression and the war over women’s reproductive freedom, which are coincidentally hot button issues this year.
The film also creates a binaristic struggle that seems awfully gender-charged. The "Engineers” for instance, appear overtly masculinized (although admittedly we know very little about them or their preferred pronouns), while the aliens have typically incorporated some female attributes. The “facehuggers,” or in this case, the freaky parasitic cave worms, have a rather vaginal flare, and historically the aliens themselves inhabit a matriarchal system fronted by a queen. Gender also seems to inform the relationships between Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), David, and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Weyland notes his fondness for David, who he considers like a son, but fails to mention that Vickers is in fact his daughter. The familial connection is revealed later in the film, suggesting that Weyland prefers a robotic son that he can conveniently program, over a strong-willed daughter who challenges his authority. Sadly, Vickers is pretty despicable herself and rather heartless.
So what is all of this gendered imagery saying? You’re guess is as good as mine. Like the plot itself, the messages are equally muddled. But here it goes...
Prometheus appears to reflect on established gender tropes (both masculine and feminine). Masculine tropes are embodied by the “Engineers,” who look like Greek statues, and the corporate interests of Weyland. Each entity thrives on control; controlling nature, controlling women’s bodies, and controlling the things that they create (androids, weapons, technology, black goo, you name it!). One could infer that feminine tropes are elicited through “uncontrollable” elements (like aliens), but also primarily through nature itself, which Weyland and the Engineers both attempt to manipulate and dominate. This gendered positioning of Technology vs. Nature is really nothing new but the characters in Prometheus (whether male or female) seem to fail because of their need for control, rather than a desire for genuine knowledge. In some ways, this dynamic begins to un-gender what are frequently stereotyped qualities, while acknowledging significantly gendered tropes within film.
At the end of the day, Prometheus still suffers from a number of inconsistencies and offers viewers a muddy incorporation of political and existential subtext. The discussion that it initiates concerning power and control as they relate within a gendered framework is interesting but not fully realized. In spite of the muddled outcome, I am still interested in seeing how future installments tackle questions posed in Prometheus.
This post was written in conjunction with the 2012 Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrrr!