On 4 June 2012, Damon Lindelof, co-screenwriter of the movie Prometheus, stated in an interview with the magazine DIY, "I would ask him [Ridley Scott] questions and we would sometimes talk about the script directly or sometimes talk about the thematic; there was a whole day we spent talking about 2001 and Stanley Kubrick." Lindelof thus acknowledged what was instantly clear to his fans: Prometheus was born in "conversation" with the seminal movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although they share thematic and narrative DNA, including an exploration of the origins of humanity (here more Erich von Daniken than Charles Darwin), this review will concentrates on the strand of the film that focuses on man's relationship with his own technological creation, specifically artificial intelligence.
The Prometheus character of the cybernetic being David (Michael Fassbender) is indebted to Scott's previous forays into science fiction—Ash in Alien and the replicants in Blade Runner—but he is ultimately a descendent of the HAL 9000, the computer in Kubrick's 2001. By placing the locus of our thematic investigation on David (in both the film and in the production's You-Tube viral campaign), we can gain a clear understanding of how conceptions of technology have evolved among those who create intelligent science fiction cinema.
Like HAL, David is the most emotionally complex individual in his narrative. Fassbender adds layers of ambiguity to the character's motivations. When David finally speaks to one of humanity's progenitors (called engineers), is he translating precisely or is he speaking for himself? Whatever the case, David—the creation of the engineer's creation—clearly enrages the alien.
But David is hardly HAL redux; he is the next conceptual leap forward. It cannot be an accident that this character shares a name with Dave Bowman, the lone surviving human who deactivates HAL. David, like HAL, could pass the Turing Test. Yet while HAL can read lips, David can read dreams. The YouTube campaign for Prometheus includes Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) speaking at TED, where he discussed the myth of Prometheus' gift of fire, and a commercial for the new David model. David is designed to be "almost indistinguishable from mankind," which "makes it easier for human counterparts to interact with [him]." David therefore represents a tremendous leap from HAL. The 2001 computer inhabits a machine body with a glowing red eye (reminiscent of the leopard that stalks the hominids in the Dawn of Man sequence) and is clearly designed as "the other." But David is different: he (it?) can integrate easily with humans and be mistaken for one of them.
Annals readers will note that this department carries the title "Reviews," rather than the more specific designation of "Book Reviews." Accordingly, it seems appropriate from time to time to publish reviews of important works that are not books but nevertheless speak to important themes in the history of computing.
In 2001, there is a jump cut at the end of the Dawn of Man sequence from an ape-man first learning to use a bone as a tool and a weapon to a military satellite. There, Kubrick's focus was on tools and on the destructive possibilities of technology. HAL is another tool—a highly sophisticated one—that must be deactivated when it malfunctions; that he gains consciousness is by accident and outside the parameters of his original programming. In Prometheus, the leap is from fire to David. Parallels between the two films are struck in the relationships between the progenitor race, humanity, and cybernetic "life" as that of between gods and subjects, creators and created, parents and children. To add a further Freudian complexity, Weyland clearly favors his constructed "son" David over his biological daughter Meredith (Charlize Theron).
There is a clear shift in an understanding of technology between the two films and a marked difference in the forms that computers can take. With Prometheus, technology is not simply useful. It is of us, from us in a much more intrinsic way. Scott postulates here that technology is as much our...