Fassbender manages to best his predecessors by becoming, ironically, the film’s moral center even as he commits amoral acts that spark a nightmarish sequence of events.
Though 2011 was undoubtedly the Good German’s breakout year, with no less than five noteworthy parts under his belt—well, six noteworthy parts under his belt if we count the Shame hullaballoo—it is his standout performance in this year’s Prometheus that is most deserving of awards buzz. Few things in Ridley Scott’s maybe-Alien-prequel were easily agreed upon by critics and audiences, save for its arresting visuals, its murky script, and Fassbender’s eerily incandescent portrayal of David, a remarkably humanlike, quietly mischievous android who accompanies the film’s scientists on their journey to discover the origins of mankind. Though we’ve seen this obligatory character in other installments of the bruised franchise, Fassbender manages to best his predecessors—no small feat, considering Ian Holm’s startling, cagy turn as Ash in the 1979 original—by becoming, ironically, the film’s moral center even as he commits amoral acts that spark a nightmarish sequence of events.
The reliably chameleonic Meryl Streep once said that acting “isn’t about being someone different…, [but rather] finding the similarity in what is apparently different, and finding myself in there.” If we’re to take Streep’s word as rule (and honestly, why shouldn’t we?), it makes all the more stunning Fassbender’s ability to convince us that he is in fact a robot working overtime to imitate humans he’s literally unable to empathize with. David, essentially an ultra-advanced computer encased in synthetic flesh, is both unfathomably intelligent—mastering all known languages, both contemporary and dead, instinctively decoding extraterrestrial security systems—and childishly curious. One of the movie’s early sequences shows David virtually alone aboard the Prometheus space vessel while the human crew members slumber for years in cryo-chambers, obsessively watching Lawrence of Arabia (mimicking Peter O’Toole’s cadences and facial expressions, even dyeing his hair blond), “eavesdropping” on the human’s dreams, and expertly twirling basketballs and making half-court shots while cycling in circles. This tranquil montage, paired with a similarly explorative sequence halfway into the film when David locates and fiddles around with the control deck of an alien craft, establishes David as the film’s most complex character, despite the fact that we’re to believe that he, existing without human emotion of any kind, isn’t designed to be very complex at all. But as the script shoehorns in conceptual question after philosophical question after existential question about our Creators, Fassbender’s David becomes afflicted with a Pinocchio Syndrome of sorts, and begins to believe his limitations unacceptable and his creators too flawed to control him.
Ultimately, the true brilliance of Fassbender’s performance resides in his ability to transfer his own inquisitiveness as an actor to David. At the risk of pulling out the overused “meta” and “method” cards, it is in the act of Fassbender attempting to conceive of and understand the interior and exterior motivations of a character whom we collectively as an audience cannot conceive of or understand, that he manages to bring David to life. Fassbender appears to be feeling out and working through all the possibilities on camera, from his small smiles to his suspiciously austere gait, and a result he’s able to realize David with extraordinary authenticity—or rather, an illusion of authenticity, since we’ve literally nothing to compare him to in “real life.” Though Prometheus will likely be remembered most for its graphic depiction of a futuristic self-administered Cesarean, it is in David that Michael Fassbender contributes something we’ve never quite seen before.