A brief shout-out to Vickers

Warning: Prometheus spoilers; although that’s a fairly silly thing to say. Some movies really hurt from spoilers but many are the opposite: the more you read about them before seeing them, the better, and Prometheus is the latter.

Prometheus is, as everyone is already bored of hearing, a deeply flawed film, mostly because of a deeply flawed script. It is poorly structured, poorly communicated and poorly voiced, full of character inconsistencies and plot weaknesses, and generally messy. However, it is a film directed by Ridley Scott, who has a great eye for detail and a great talent for mise-en-scene, and can use those things to craft character very effectively without a word of dialogue. Combine that with some first-class actors and there are a bunch of lovely moments in the film, and almost all of them belong to Charlize Theron’s performance of Meredith Vickers.

If you’ve seen Arrested Development, you know just how incredible Charlize can be, and she doesn’t disappoint. And one of the things that Alien gave us, besides anything else, was an incredible female heroine for SF fans to enjoy. We didn’t really get that in Liz Shaw – although she is a tough survivor, she is flat, childish and bordering on annoying. Looking from a purely “who deserves to be on a t-shirt” perspective, Vickers is worth considering. Yes, she has very few scenes, but given how poorly more dialogue served Ms Rapace, that may be a good thing. And again, because it’s Ridley and because its Charlize, we get a lot out of those scenes. Vickers was my favourite character, and had an incredibly interesting story to tell.

In a very real sense, Shaw is the wrong central character, and the film seems to know that. Apart from David, nobody really gives a damn about Shaw, and she only ends up in the final scenes because nobody can think of a reason she shouldn’t tag along. Meanwhile the central story of the film is actually about a messed up family. A dad who refuses to die, a son who cannot die, and the final leg of the tripod, a girl who gets screwed by both of them.

Yes, Vickers is daubed in cliche and patriarchal ones at that. She’s the forgotten “son”, disinherited for the anointed one, a trope as old as Isaac and Ishmael. She’s also an Ice Queen Bitch with Daddy Issues, who tries to minimise her sexuality in order to be Tough In A Man’s World. But somehow, I find the character and the performance to be more than just the sum of all this. Being a disinherited heir explains all the Daddy Issues and the Ice Queen. Of course she’s trying to be a man, and a robot: those are the two qualities her father looks for in a child. And her nature is used to make a point, to move the story forward.

We start by not liking her – the push-ups are impressive but she has no time for the soft, artistic David we have come to enjoy in the opening scenes. Then she tells the scientists they work for her, and makes David her houseboy. But the latter scene is a triumph because Vickers sits uncomfortably in her surroundings. The girl who did her push-up routine before saying hello orders her vodka straight, unadorned, yet she is surrounded by style and comfort. That is our first big hint that Peter Wayland is alive and well. Her sense of separation from the crew, emphasized by living in an escape pod, is not because, like Gorman, she thinks herself above them, but because the pod is home to her father. Indeed, her whole existence on the ship – the idea that she’s in command, “her” quarters, “her” command, “her” stand-offishness, these are all just proxies for her father. And while David smiles beatifically at the privilege of doing His Master’s Bidding, Vickers bristles and seethes at being his puppet, his shell. And that contrast is key to the family story.

Vickers’ seething is clear when Captain Janek calls her a robot. She chooses emotion instead, because although she craves her father’s love she is fighting against becoming his slave. She gets the same choice again when her father is brought back to life. David, adoringly, bathes his father’s feet, in a deeply intimate fashion. Vickers bends, and in my favourite scene, tries one last time to join that intimacy, to do what David is doing. She reaches out to kiss her father’s hand, and he retracts it and curls it into a harsh fist. Then the script throws that scene away by her shouting out their relationship ham-fistedly, but it’s a hell of a scene. She’s tried everything she can to be as robotic as he wants her to be, to gain her father’s love – but in the end, the robot gets the love, and her sense of humanity, her sense of her true self, of reaching out to her father through emotion, not obedience, is rebuffed.

And she flinches like he struck her with the fist. It’s a scene with so much meaning and no words, and very powerful. It almost justifies the whole film. It almost justifies the stupid scene with the hammereel (as I’m told its called), where previously, someone reached out in kindness and was punished for it with pain. It’s a motif we saw with said scientist at the very start too – reaching out to the geologist and suffering for it.

I don’t know what it means that Vickers is killed. The film is a bit too incoherent – does she fail to choose nobility with Janek and is thus condemned for it? That seems unfair given Shaw is also praised for her survival instinct later. Is there any reason at all she would not be ejected with her own safety pod? I’m sure somebody can think of some but I couldn’t find one in the film at the time. In the end, the story seems to treat Vickers like her father does – cutting her out of the picture so father and son can take centre stage. Which seems very unsatisfactory. She is, for my money, the most interesting person on the ship. She’s not blatantly likeable like Janek, she’s genre-savvy and intelligent enough to set fire to her own men, but she manages to do it without seeming entirely cold and heartless, and she has a fantastic character arc which reveals her humanity under her hard, angry shell – a humanity that gives a greater understanding to her father’s madness, and her brother’s sickness.

In so many ways, Prometheus wasn’t what anyone was expecting. It’s not really an Alien prequel, on its own. It’s not really a film about the originators of life, but – like 2001 – about what the robot does on the way to meet the originators. And Shaw isn’t a new take on Ripley: she’s not a bad-ass SF heroine, she’s neither cool nor poignant, she’s not dramatically interesting.  All those titles go to the lady on the side of the stage: to Meredith Vickers. For the love of God, let’s remember that, and not the stupidity of her death.

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