The Postmodern Prometheus

(Warning: This post contains SPOILERS regarding the film Prometheus)


Prometheus, a Titan from Greek mythology, is a fascinating and important figure who appears frequently in literature as one who overreaches in a quest for scientific knowledge.  Mary Shelley famously adapted the Prometheus story for her novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.  Victor Frankenstein stood alone in his quest to create life.  His intent was to improve human existence, but the story turned tragic when the creature caused great harm.  Prometheus the Titan, who created humankind from clay, rebelled against Zeus to bring fire to humans.  Zeus punished Prometheus by having him bound to a rock and sending an eagle to eat his liver.  Prometheus, being immortal, grows a new liver, which the eagle returns to devour each day.

Noomi Rapace as Dr. Shaw

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) launches the mythical story of the Titan into the postmodern world.  Scott presents several different pairs of creators and creatures.  One set is the extraterrestrial “engineers” who created human life on Earth.  Another is Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), founder and CEO of Weyland Corp., who created David (Michael Fassbender), an android on board the star ship Prometheus.  A third is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who literally gave birth to a squid-like creature who appears to be an ancestor to the deadly aliens from Ridley Scott’s earlier film, Alien (1979).  Scott juxtaposes each pair against the others in a masterful exploration of the religious, scientific, and sexual implications of creating new life.

The Extraterrestrial Creates Life

The film opens with an extraterrestrial humanoid newly landed on a barren planet that could be Earth in the distant past.  The humanoid drinks a mysterious substance, and breaks apart, releasing DNA into a waterfall.  Creation comes with sacrifice.  Then, we see archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering a series of cave paintings and ancient relics from around the world depicting giant beings pointing to a configuration of objects in space.  Scientists match the objects to a planetary system, where a moon (LV-223) of a gas giant has the potential to support life.  The star ship Prometheus arrives at the moon and the crew begins to search for the extraterrestrials, or engineers, who created human life on Earth.

Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Janek (Idris Elba)

Elizabeth Shaw, the central character, is the only true believer among the crew.  She lost her father to an epidemic many years before, and she wears a cross around her neck.  She has been searching for answers for much of her life into the meaning of human existence.  Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) voices her skepticism about finding any intelligent life, and represents corporate interests.  It’s unclear exactly what her relationship is to Peter Weyland, but she makes it clear that she is in charge of the mission.  The aged Weyland later reveals that he is searching for immortality.  Vickers expresses her disapproval by telling Weyland, “A king has his reign, and then he dies.  It’s inevitable.”  David, the android, serves Weyland and follows his orders, though seems to see himself as superior to his human counterparts.  David represents the outsider’s point of view, a soul-less, impartial view.  In one scene, David asks Dr. Holloway why humans created androids, to which Holloway replies, “Because we could.”  David retorts with, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”

Star Ship Prometheus

Though Shaw and the rest of the crew never hear any answers from their creators, as most are dead, they discover that their plans were to destroy the human race.  Ironically, though, their own biological weapon destroyed them.  All but one, whom David finds in stasis.  The biological weapon turns out to be the same life-giving liquid that started life on Earth, though this time it creates serpent-like creatures, echoing Genesis and the Garden of Eden.  The religious connotations continue when Shaw discovers that the extraterrestrials who created us decided to destroy us about two thousand years ago, around the time of Jesus on Earth.  Perhaps Jesus was one of them, trying to set humans on a better path, and the humans responded by crucifying him.  The one creator who survived, when David revives him, decapitates David and kills Wayland.

David (Michael Fassbender)

Science created David, who, in following human orders, causes much of the trouble for the crew of Prometheus.  David secretly steals one of the urns inside the chamber, discovers the brown fluid inside, and uses it to infect Holloway, who in turn impregnates the sterile Dr. Shaw.  Later, Holloway becomes severely ill and allows Vickers to burn him alive.  David discovers that Shaw is pregnant with a rapidly growing fetus.  Her pregnancy is something of a miracle, perhaps echoing the virgin birth in the New Testament.  The offspring, born through an improvised cesarean procedure, is a squid-like creature that saves Shaw’s life later on when the extraterrestrial creator tries to kill her.  Shaw’s offspring rapes the extraterrestrial through the mouth, and a deadly alien bursts through the body.  New life that is a threat to human existence is born.

Space Jockey scene from Alien

Prometheus is an ambitious film, searching for life’s big questions by trying to balance science and religion.  It succeeds to a point, but at times it becomes confusing, particularly as it attempts to link up with Scott’s earlier film Alien.  The film tries to do too much.  Scott was attempting to build a back-story for the “space jockey” revealed near the beginning of Alien, the gigantic, deceased pilot of a derelict spaceship whose distress signal lures the crew of the Nostromo to the deadly aliens.  Prometheus comes close to making that link, but there seems to be something missing, some plot points held back for a sequel or two.  In addition, the story stretches credibility at times, such as when Shaw, who had just had the cesarean, runs through the ship covered in blood, stitches holding her wound together.  For one, it would be difficult to run right after major surgery, and second, nobody on the ship seems concerned, or even curious, as to why she looks the way she does.

The brightest spot in the film is Michael Fassbender’s performance as David.  He brilliantly portrays a soulless character with a vacant stare, a kind of Hal 9000, dysfunctional machine who causes things to go wrong.  I also admired Noomi Rapace’s performance as Dr. Shaw, a tough female character sort of in the tradition of Ripley from the Alien films.  While Prometheus was not perfect, it was an entertaining sci-fi film, and I am looking forward to Shaw and David continuing their journey in a sequel to find more answers.

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