A linguistic take on Prometheus: from the sublime to the ridiculous

(This is your obligatory spoiler alert - here be spoilers)

While viewing the sci-fi film of the moment, Prometheus, I was happy to see that the use of language was well considered, perhaps even much more so than previous sci-fi endeavours (Star Wars/Trek et al.) at a fundamental level. It probably won't go on to develop into the realms of Elvish, Romulan or Klingon, but as a realistic constructed language (or conlang, as I think they're known) goes, it was very well considered.

As shown in this blog post, which goes into detail on the mechanics of the synthesised-PIE language, even managing to source a few words from its creator, Dr. Anil Biltoo, of the SOAS Language Centre in London. All fascinating stuff.

What I can't help but mention, however, is that after all of this hard work, nobody on the production team realised that their project was being massively undermined by the accents of the lead characters. At least for me, as a Brit who has lived in Sweden and North America, the supposed British and American accents of the leads amount to a good effort, but in no way matched the polish of the rest of the film.

Noomi Rapace, of the Stieg Larsson trilogy fame, and Idris Elba, of the BBC's Luther fame, both spent the whole film repeatedly reminding me that I was watching a re-enactment of a story. Suspension of disbelief suspended.

Noomi plays a British archaelogist, Idris a gritty US military type. The archaelogist is shown as a child speaking with a very British accent early on in the film, then for the remainder we get the very close approximation of RP English, but with tell-tale Swedish intonation and pronounciation littering the dialogue. I know it's tough, nigh on impossible, to perfectly emulate the phonetics of a foreign language. I know that it could be seen as nit-picking, given that most people wouldn't have been bothered by it; perhaps she's from somewhere in the British Isles with a funny twang? Perhaps an impediment developed? But, to be honest, with expectations as high as they were, it was just a disappointment in an otherwise intriguing film.

Noomi has excellent English, of course, and the script-writers were obviously native English speakers, giving the character very natural-sounding expressions in the dialogue; but when 'crazy' is Swedified as 'cray-sy', or when any of the many other stilted instances that drag you out of the immersive experience are heard, you can't help but feel like a large aspect of the intended realism has been overlooked.

Likewise for Idris, whose attempt at a southern/military American accent left me cold. The actor himself usually has such presence and intensity before speaking, especially with his native accent, but the misfiring American twang just missed the mark too many times to be believable, removing around 90% of the character's impact for me. Affecting an 'American accent' is something I find cringeworthy at the best of times, typically perceived by actors and directors as a single accent that's no more complicated than letting your mouth drawl out the same British lines, normally with no attempt to localise the expressions. That's the impression I got here; a large underestimation of the importance of accent in delivery, and a general face-palm that someone thought a tough-guy stance with a gritty tone was believable enough for the audience.

In summary: the awareness of the critical role of language use in large-scale productions in Hollywood seems somewhat lacking. It is as if looks, popularity-potential and basic delivery style were the only casting criteria in this case. Imagine that. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, but I'm sure the directors themselves are trying to cover every conceivable angle, so why not this one?

Finally, I should mention that Michael Fassbender played his role to perfection, and his accent-work was perfectly believable and even enjoyable, as he imitated classic films and consistently delivered his lines with a sinister and threatening tone. But then I'd expect a major Irish-German actor to have a great feel for language and consistency!

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