Note: if you want to leave the film Prometheus a mystery and not try to figure out the storyline in advance of any sequel, you might not want to read this review. But if like me you feel like trying to figure out the mystery in advance, read on.
According to Greek Mythology, the Titan Prometheus created mankind from clay, stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man, and as a result allowed civilization to progress, but at the same time was punished by the Gods for his transgression. Understanding the Prometheus myth is key to unraveling Ridley Scott’s film (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) of the same name.
The film opens with a lone figure of an alien creature, likely on Earth, sacrificing himself in some sense. Exactly why it is not clear– but it appears that he is spreading his genetic imprint on the land – providing the ‘fire’ of his genetic intelligence. Thus the film’s ‘Prometheus’ gives of himself to generate new life –displaying one of the core themes of the film: that sacrifice and destruction are required for creation. Our initial Promethean figure is also somewhat Christ-like in that he is willing to give of himself to bring life to others. This Christ-like sacrifice and the inspiration it invokes will be echoed throughout the film in other ways and through several characters, including the principal character of Elizabeth Shaw (powerfully played by Noomi Repace), who not so coincidentally carries a cross as her talisman.
The crew of the story’s interstellar spacecraft (also named ‘Prometheus’) travels to a distant planet in search of the genetic creators of humanity, whose star maps were discovered in cave paintings by Shaw and partner Charlie Halloway (well-played by Logan Marshall-Green in spite of having some of the film’s worst dialog). As the story unfolds, we find that the race of what Shaw refers to as ‘Engineers’ apparently do not think very well of their errant creation, and intended to return to Earth to destroy the human population. Moreover, something stopped the Engineers from doing so (what we do not know — although many conjecture is was the black ooze that could morph into any ill-conceived intention). Those among the Engineers who sought to wipe out humanity would do so with a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ – the black ooze (interestingly reminiscent of crude oil) through which an ill-intended humanity would morph into their own demise.
It is interesting to note here that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled ‘A Modern Prometheus.’ For here the unintended consequences of the opening figure’s sacrifice apparently comes into play. Did that being, in ‘seeding’ the Earth genetically, create a sort of Frankenstein race as a result? Is the human race, in fact, a genetic aberration that must be wiped out? Not only in and of itself, but in what it in turn would attempt to create: an inorganic, soulless Superman via robotics? A race that strings up its altruists on crosses and seeks an unnatural immortality in machines?
The violent reaction of the Engineer ‘awakened’ from his hibernating state — particularly to the robot figure of David — may in fact be explained in this context. Why did the Engineer react so negatively to the robot? My conjecture is that the evolution of humanity into the ‘perfected next step’ of robotics would be seen by the Engineers as misguided. In other words, the evolution of humanity into a ‘machine man’ (and corollary ‘corporate human’ as reflected in Charlize Theron’s icey portrayal of Meredith Vickers) might, to these beings, be an aberration, ‘anti-life’ (anti-Christ?) and immoral.
Some have conjectured that the Engineers were destined to return to Earth to destroy humanity because it had killed Christ on the cross (Ridley Scott himself hinted at this). If this were the case, certainly the Engineers would dislike where humanity was heading in modern times –i.e., toward creating a new race of robot beings with corporate masters, soulless and without flaws. And they probably would disapprove of the ‘immortality’ touted by Mr. Weyland (the industrialist sponsor of the Prometheus mission played in heavy makeup by Guy Pearce) that David apparently possessed, for it was (as symbolized by the decapitation of David) ‘mind separated from body’ – an unnatural, inorganic, non-genetic ‘Frankenstein’ outcome of immortality without soul that was the pre-ordained result of a humanity that would routinely crucify the innocent. Their robot creations also indicated a singular selfishness in Weyland and Company and the inability to accept death as part of life.
To any defenders of humanity, the ‘perfection’ of the robotic David may be seen as the logical next step of evolution, particularly if such a creature were able to obtain an emotional life and thus a soul. David apparently did develop hatred for Charlie (as his patronizing oppressor and obstacle to his growing love for Elizabeth), and wound up killing him with a genetic concoction that mutated him into a monster. While David’s emotional life was immature and reactionary (even pathological, like some of his human mentors, who would do whatever they could to get what they want), it did show that David’s robot race — and by inference his human creators — perhaps had a potential not seen by the Engineers (or their creators!). For while if a human cannot physically survive without a body, David could (symbolically ‘transcending’ the body). Ironically, one could argue that David was almost Angelic in his outcome, and not a Frankenstein at all. David, in fact, became Elizabeth’s guide – thus the ‘head guides the heart’ in search of truth, while the heart provides the passion required for survival. A combination of super intelligence and superior passion (compassion?) would indeed be the most formidable survivalist in any Darwinian struggle for dominance. For those interested in dominance and power, the issue of who survives trumps all others. For the character of Elizabeth Shaw, what leads to the greatest truth is even more important.
And then there is of course the other survivalist: the Alien creature made famous by earlier movies. Was the final Alien monster creation simply an accident? An unintended consequence of science? It seems so. And the tragic and unintended consequences of science is again a major theme taken from the Prometheus myth.
Prometheus poses such questions about truth, life, power, sacrifice, creation, death and immortality. The film also portends what may evolve into a very real ethical debate between bio-engineering and robotics regarding the nature of life itself (i.e., can life be only DNA based, or can it be inorganic?). And while the film was pretty derivative and I have some issues with its overall execution (much of it likely due to editing it down to a releasable version and cementing its ‘prequel’ feel of the Alien movies) I do believe Prometheus opens up a series of questions that lifts it to the level of true science fiction and above the melodramatic ‘cowboys vs. aliens’ that are a mockery of the genre, which at its best forces us to look deeply into questions most often relegated to religion and philosophy.
D.R. Thompson is a producer and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is available from Del Sol Press.