The Duck of Minerva

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Prometheus and Lawrence of Arabia

June 19, 2012

[Spoiler Alert: Obviously, you shouldn’t read this post if you want to see the movie unfiltered.]

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012) is a film about creation, abortion, and redemptive self-sacrifice.  Although elements of the plot do not have as much art or integrity as one might like, the film has moments of complex and sedimented allegory. The film obviously operates at the granular level of biopolitics as well as posing the fundamental questions of philosophy, but it is Michael Fassbender’s role as the android David who is obsessed with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia” that adds the richest and most unexpected layer.

In a meta-theatrical moment, we hear David quote from “Lawrence of Arabia” just as the spaceship descends to the mysterious planet of the Engineers: “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” However, he is not quoting the blond Bedouin, but Prince Feisal. The original quote from “Lawrence of Arabia” is: 

“I think you are another of these desert-loving English. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with because we are a little people?  A silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel?  What do you know, lieutenant?  In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village.”

This is a notable slippage which moves David from the role of the messianic agent-provocateur, to the marginalized colonial subject — from the narcissistic “creator” of another’s nation to the object of imperial intrigues; from an Englishman to an Arab man. I don’t think this slippage or duality is unintentional as it reinforces David’s status of subordinate masculinity which T.E. Lawrence himself came to embrace as he adopted Arab dress and the Arab cause, and particularly after he was raped by Turkish soldiers at Der’a. Of course, even Lawrence’s self-effacement and rejection of hyper-masculinity is problematic and deceptive from a Foucauldian/Butlerian perspective (see Grant Parsons, “Another India” in Philip Darby’s At the Edge of International Relations, 1997, pp. 169-171).  Power cannot simply be rejected. Thus, it is unsurprising that from this position of subordinate masculinity Fassbender’s character works his subtle, seductive, and treacherous charms on the hapless crew members.

At another level, an android quoting the phrase “no man needs nothing” is a ponderous enigma. The double negative turns the nothing into something.  But more to the point, the android reciting the phrase is no man even though he clearly has desires and wants something. In fact, the android desires to kill off his human creators in collusion with the Engineers who seeded humanity but now seek to abort the species. 

The desert setting of the film is also ironic because the extra-terrestrial desert, much like the desert of Arabia, is hardly empty. However, and by way of contrast, the desert of the Engineers is loaded with weapons of mass destruction which are discovered within minutes.  This is perhaps meant just as a quick jab at Westerners who have sought repeatedly to create, abort, and re-create the Middle East in their own image even while unleashing massive slaughter. However, it is not the WMDs but the engineers’ and android’s motivations for aborting humanity that remain an elusive mystery in the film.

We are left without definitive answers, except for snippets of dialogue between David and crew members in which we are told that men created the android simply “because they could,” much as the Engineers probably created man because they could. Perhaps any answer from a film would be trite or perhaps the film is telling us that the motivation for creation is unknowable.  For the motivation for the impending genocide we are only told that all children naturally seek to kill their parents. The one chance in the film to receive a straight answer is scuttled when an alien Engineer is woken only to be transformed into a caricature of Mary Shelly’s modern Prometheus. Thus the film is not interested in explaining motivation so much as means — and here we are referred back to “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In a rehearsal of a scene in which T.E. Lawrence shows his comrades a trick to putting out a match with his fingers, we are told that the key is “not minding it hurts.”  The snuffing out of the generative flame bestowed by Prometheus must be carried out without emotion — a task for which the android who is capable of feigning but not feeling emotion is most well suited, much like the alien spawn created by the Engineers.

The film leaves us with a simple if revolutionary sub-text: to the creators/created, nothing is owed.

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia