Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Prometheus Explored Part 2

Gods and Supermen: Prometheus and Religion

"They aren't what we thought they were. I was wrong. We were so wrong."                                  - Elizabeth, Prometheus
There are many religious threads within Prometheus. Here, I have chosen to focus on, what I believe, are the three most important, the allusion and ultimate subversion of the Greek myth of Prometheus and the origins of man, the hellish parody of the Christian Nativity played out through Elizabeth Shaw and the continuing faith she displays despite this, and the ideas of the Übermensch concept expressed in Peter Weyland and the Engineers themselves.

The mythical figure from who the name of the film and ship is derived from is famous for stealing fire from the Gods of Olympus and giving it to man, incurring the wrath of Zeus. As is true with all Ancient Greek myths, there is no one definitive retelling of the story, but the most widely known is that for this transgression, Prometheus was chained to a rock for all eternity, and an eagle was sent daily to feast on his liver.

Less well known is the fact that he was also credited with being the creator of humanity out of clay, with the goddess Athena breathing life into Prometheus' creations. Overall he was seen as a benefactor to mankind, one who represents striving for a better existence and, in more modern traditions, scientific inquiry (1)

The 'creation of life' seen at the beginning of Prometheus is one of the scenes most difficult to interpret. Firstly, the sweep of the camera reveals that there is some life on the planet already - we see grasses, but no animal life - so already it isn't a creation, merely a 'seeding' of specific gene sequences into the existing ecosystem. There is no date stamp for when this occurs, and in fact no indication that this could be Earth at all. It merely looks like it probably is.

Secondly, the way the 'seeding' is accomplished is highly strange. The Engineer is left on a planet at the top of a waterfall (2) and drinks a black liquid that attacks his DNA. Clearly in a lot of pain and rapidly mutating, he falls from the waterfall, before completely dissolving in the water at the bottom. His 'remains', the now broken up parts of his amino acids, 'seed' the water, leading to cellular development that rapidly propagates over the title screen, implying that these will survive and rapidly mutate into new life forms - possibly even us.

Later, the cave paintings imply that to a certain degree the Engineers return to Earth at intervals to communicate with early man. The fact that David is apparently able to learn to communicate with one suggests they also gave us the gift of language.

The difficulty comes in interpreting what the Engineer is doing. Is it a scientific experiment? A religious ceremony? Ritual suicide? Many of the difficulties of Prometheus arise from interpreting the Engineers' actions, and characters in the film misinterpreting them. There is an interpretation that I consider to solve many of these questions, and it is certainly one that is implied throughout the film. I will return to it later in this essay.

The whole opening, and the implication that they have been communicating with us since, ties in to the myth of Prometheus beyond the creation of man in important ways. The first is that if we substitute it for fire, language in many ways is a form of technology, one that has been 'gifted' from the Engineers. The opening, up until the arrival of the ship at LV-223 is essentially a modern retelling of the myth. The fact that the other Engineers are shown to be clearly not benevolent also ties into the Greek Pantheon - the Gods of Ancient Greece were often actively evil compared to human moral standards.

The second religious aspect of Prometheus is the Christian aspect - particularly the faith of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and the parody of the nativity that occurs through her. Elizabeth is one of the key figures of Prometheus, essentially the protagonist. She is a Christian, albeit one who's specific denomination is never expressly stated. She also engages in premarital sex and clearly believes in an ancient Earth so is clearly not a devout fundamentalist or biblical literalist. In fact, beyond her attachment to her father's cross, there is little that we see her do that could be described as 'Christian behaviour'; she doesn't ever pray or say grace before eating, for example. Despite this, she is still treated by much of the crew as a strange anachronism rather than an object of ridicule. David seems curious about this aspect of her, but then David is curious about everything. Her early characterization is interesting, in that her ideas about the Engineers reflect her religious identity - vague, naive and underdeveloped. What she expects of her God and what she expects of the Engineers are never made clear and clearly she has little idea herself. She has faith, but it is initially the faith of a child.

One of the early scenes that seems almost like a throwaway is the charismatic Captain Janek putting up a Christmas Tree. Along with Elizabeth's closing monologue, these are the only to indicators of time and time passing during the whole film (3). However, this almost acts as a symbolic foreshadowing of Elizabeth's fate over the next few days and the parallels it draws with the Christmas story. Elizabeth amalgamates two women from the bible, Elizabeth (4), the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Elizabeth is implied to be infertile in the Gospel of Luke, and is gifted a child by the angel Gabriel. Another, more obscure parallel is that in one of the apocrypha, her husband Zechariah is murdered. The parallels with Mary are, again, an impossible pregnancy, being informed of it by non-humans, in the case of Prometheus' Elizabeth, David, in the case of Mary, Gabriel, and a Christmas birth of an unearthly child.

Here, the similarities stop and Prometheus slips into a horrifying parody. The Christmas story ends with the birth of the savior of mankind, the celestial being that will lead us out of the darkness into the light. Dr Elizabeth Shaw instead births a hideous, tentacled monster, a foul, corrupt creature that she immediately tries to kill. It's birth and survival is essentially a failed abortion. It is a visual representation of the failure of her assumptions about the Engineers and the universe.

However it is interesting to note that this creature does in fact save Elizabeth's life by attacking and killing the enraged Engineer. She has given birth to a hideous creature, but it is, in some way, her own personal savior.

Ultimately though, her failure to kill this initial offspring leads to the birth of something far worse - a creature that appears to be a prototype of the creatures in the Alien franchise. Rather than birth a savior, she has done the opposite - given birth to a destroyer and a monster (5). In the dome where the black liquid is first found, an Alien creature in a crucifixion pose is shown clearly above the head in the center of the room, reinforcing these ideas.

Despite all this, she never loses her faith, and as the sole human survivor sets off to find further answers. Her faith is implied to have somewhat matured - no longer does she hold the same naive ideas as before about the Engineers. She still wants answers, of course, but perhaps has a better idea of which questions she should be asking.

Dr Elizabeth Shaw provides an interesting contrast to Peter Weyland. Whereas the former wishes to 'meet her makers' in order to 'worship' them, Weyland seeks to place himself on their level and possibly even usurp them. He sees himself as superhuman, an Übermensch, who has gifted humanity with huge amounts of technology (6). However, he is a cruel, vindictive and morally bankrupt man for whom the mission is simply to fulfill his selfish purpose. To this end, he indirectly causes the deaths of several of the crew of the Prometheus and is ultimately killed by the awoken Engineer. As he dies, he whispers "There's nothing." His philosophy, in an ironic twist, to merely extend a meaningless life, is what kills him.

The most complex and mysterious religious elements are those displayed by the Engineers themselves. The information we are given is very thin on the ground - we essentially have what we see of the opening sequence, covered earlier in this essay, the pyramid structure itself and the behavior of the live Engineer after it is revived from stasis. A lot of criticisms aimed at this film are aimed at the behavior of this Engineer and of the plan to wipe life out on Earth that it tries to enact.

The first, simplest explanation is that we are simply a science experiment that has run its course, and that we are essentially being 'reset' for the next experiment. However, there are hints that the true motivations of the Engineer are more complicated than that. The 'experiments' that the Engineers carry out are either vast, multi-generational affairs, or the Engineers are extremely long-lived. Given their similar DNA, the former is more likely. In addition, the room where they first find the black liquid contains a giant sculpture of an Engineer head in the center, and the canisters arranged almost like offerings. This is clearly not a storage room - we see one of those later - or a manufacturing plant, and the presence of the head and murals suggest some very interesting conclusions. What we are looking at is a temple.

As well, the Engineers we observe in the film never display any sort of fear of death. The Engineer in its final duel with Elizabeth's offspring struggles, to be sure, but even at the moment he knows he's lost he is angry, rather than scared. The Engineer at the beginning clearly feels pain in its suicide, but unflinchingly drinks the liquid and succumbs (7).

All this leads to one possible explanation for the Engineers that fits with everything that we see, even if it is never fully spelled out. The Engineers, unlike Weyland, are true Übermensch. They worship an idealized vision of themselves, a self-sacrificing, productive member of a society that transcends even a fear of death in the pursuit of the betterment of his species. Symbolically, they are much larger than us and extremely muscular - literal supermen.

This theory explains to important decisions made by the Engineers during the film. The first is to wipe out humanity. We have clearly been educated by them in the past, but as we know from human history, ideas about an afterlife, gods and ultimately God emerged instead and we may have simply been a failed experiment to create 'intelligent' life - at least as they saw it.

It also explains the extreme violent reaction the awoken Engineer has to the humans that surround it. A creature asking for it to give it more life is not just impertinent, it is absolutely antithetical to the Engineer's world view. The request for more life is, in this Engineer flavored version of Nietzche's philosophy, tantamount to heresy. Having killed the humans immediately surrounding it, it then proceeds straight away to continue the attempt to destroy Earth, convinced of its moral obligation to do so by the actions of the humans it's encountered.

This philosophy, beyond an abstract, is something very strange to humanity as well, including those in the audience, rendering his actions the actions of an evil being. It has a morality, to be sure, but it is one that is alien to our own. It is the most subtle and difficult to grasp philosophical strand in the film, and can be missed on multiple viewings. The idea that an alien being can be so different in thought as well as appearance is one that makes Prometheus one of the most interesting science fiction films of recent times.


(1) Prometheus also figures prominently in other stories, particularly one involving an attempt to trick Zeus with the remains of a cow. The best sources for his myths are Hesiod's Theogeny and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which can be read online here.
(2) The enormous spaceship is clearly leaving. He's been left alone to die. 
(3) This puts the time-span of the film over about a week. 
(4) The name is a coincidence. The Prometheus character is named after Dr Elizabeth Shaw, a companion of Doctor Who from the Jon Pertwee era. 
(5) The only other film to equate the Alien creature with a demon or the Devil is Alien 3. In it, a doomsday-like cult of monkish violent ex-prisoners attempt to kill an Alien in a semi-abandoned lead foundry. The parallels with a biblical hell are pretty obvious and it's the best original idea in what is generally regarded as a weaker entry in the series. 
(6) According to the background material, virtually everything from David the Android to interstellar travel is implied to have come from the Weyland Company. 
(7) The only scene which may contradict this is the Engineers running from something in the hologram David activates soon after they start exploring. However, if there had been a black liquid spill as is implied by the head the crew finds, then of course the Engineers would move to get away from it and contain it. They may be fearless, but they're not idiots.

No comments:

Post a Comment