Prometheus, Part 2: Mapping the Genome
Sir Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is schizoid cinema that seems to frustrate as many viewers as it wows. Some gripe at the weak script, others simply hoped for a straight-up prequel to Scott’s Alien, but instead got a tangential rim-shot. Me? I’ve said my piece on Prometheus as a film. What I’d like to do now is to explore some of the film’s key concepts in an effort to reverse-engineer my way to an explanation of just what the heck is going on in the movie, and why it’s worthy of our appreciation despite its considerable flaws.
First: What the hell is a Prometheus?
A hundred years ago, no one would need this explained to them, because Greek mythology was still a standard component of western education, art and culture. Nowadays, the only people likely to know who or what a Prometheus is are old-school myth-hounds and Dungeons & Dragons geeks (like me) or kids who own Xboxes and play God of War.
For the uninitiated: Prometheus was a titan in Greek myth who stole fire from the gods of Olympus (you know, those guys in shiny armor from Clash of the Titans) and gave that fire to primitive mankind, bestowing upon mankind the great gifts of light, heat, barbecue, s’mores, candlelit dinners and slash-and-burn agriculture. Because Zeus (who might resemble Sir Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson, depending on which version of Clash of the Titans you’re watching) didn’t really want mankind possessing fire, Prometheus was punished for his crime by being chained to the peak of a mountain for eternity, while an eagle swooped down every day to peck out his liver (before said liver grew back over night to be ready for pecking the next day).
So, given that Sir Ridley has given us a film titled Prometheus, that deals with mankind encountering aliens that may or may not be our creators, we can draw some inferences: some figure in our tale has behaved in a Promethean manner, giving humanity something that its overlords (the alien ‘Engineers’ of the film) felt it did not deserve. Not only can we assume that mankind is despised for being given this unnamed deific gift out of turn (or perhaps, for proving ungrateful), we might also assume that someone among the overlordling population probably got spanked and spanked hard for giving us the gift in question.
This could illuminate the film’s much-discussed prologue, in which one of the Engineers seems to commit suicide beside a roiling waterfall on a primordial planet that may or may not be Earth while a hovering saucer-craft rises into the clouds above (I say it’s Earth, but it’s never explicitly stated). The Engineer’s suicide results in his body dissolving in the rushing waters, and his DNA being sown into the biosphere. Did our Engineer just create mankind through his suicide, his punishable sin being our very existence?
It’s a reasonable explanation, but evidence in the film suggests otherwise. After all, the pictograms cited by Dr.’s Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (the film’s erstwhile ‘heroes’) span a number of centuries from 6,000 to about 300 BC. Clearly, the Engineers didn’t start out hating us, otherwise they wouldn’t have continued visiting and leaving behind stellae and pyramids for us to play on. Which brings us to our next thematic element—
For those of you not in the know, there is an entire semi-academic subculture of people who believe that mankind has been visited by aliens in the past, usually in our developmental stages. If you don’t believe me, just catch an episode of Ancient Aliens on The History Channel and marvel at the gravity-defying alien architecture that is Giorgio Tzoukalos’s hair. Ancient astronaut theorists suggest that any number of allegedly ‘human’ achievements—from the Moai of Easter Island to the pyramids of Egypt—were in fact the achievements of these advanced visitors, using humans as servants and slave laborers (or, perhaps, that humanity used alien-derived science and technology to achieve said architectural wonders). Proponents of such theories (two of the most important being Erick von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchen) point to all sorts of evidence, from the anachronistic sophistication of Egyptian or Mesoamerican pyramid structures, to enormous geo-grams like the Nazca lines of Peru, to Mayan and Japanese sculpture that seemingly depicts spacesuits and starships, to citations in the Bible (Ezekiel, Chapter 1) or the Ramayana (Book VI) describing what seem to be flying machines.
Scott and and his writers—Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof–seem well aware of ancient astronaut mythology, invoking it throughout Prometheus in everything from the cryptic pictograms that point man toward the stars to the use of pyramids to the Engineers’ bulky, fly-eyed space helmets, vaguely reminiscent of Mayan, Japanese and Sumerian art that ancient astronaut apologists insist are portraits of men in space suits.
Clearly, we are meant to assume that—in the universe of the film—ancient astronauts visited mankind, on multiple occasions, and that a message of some sort (the pictogram with the six-star figure) was left behind for future generations to discover. (Consider: that pictogram could just as easily be a warning as an invitation, much like the beacon that led the doomed starship Nostromo to LV 426 in Alien.) What is never fully disclosed is our exact relationship to the Engineers, and the source of their apparent hostility toward us.
Where their hostility stems from could be revealed by another prominent theme in the film: that of parents, children, and the enmities they often share.
“All children wish their parents dead.”
Throughout the film’s second act, the evermore prominent story motif of parents and their offspring rears its ugly head. The android David, for instance (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender), seems more than a little rankled at having been created by, and serving, beings whom he obviously views as inferior to himself, at one point uttering the telling line, “All children wish their parents dead.” The parent-and-child theme is given its most overt expression when we’re served the twin revelations that the believed-dead Charles Weyland (the ‘father’ of the expedition) is actually on board the ship; and that Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), his cold-blooded, economy-minded on-board representative is actually Weyland’s own daughter. Note, also, that when Elizabeth Shaw is informed by David that she is pregnant (something she previously thought to be impossible), Dr. Shaw’s first instinct is not joy in response to an apparent miracle, or wonder at her erstwhile annunciation, but a visceral horror that drives her to submit herself to remote surgery to remove her ‘offspring’ before it hatches and kills her.
Interesting, isn’t it? Time and again, Scott and his writers present us with parent-child relationships in which each party proves hostile, suspicious, or indifferent to the other. Small wonder, then, that the Engineers—who Elizabeth and Charlie believe to be our cosmic parents—turn out to be just as hostile to humans when they encounter them.
“Ask them why they hate us,” Elizabeth demands of her intermediary, David.
(David never gets to answer that question because the Engineer tears his head off… which, when you think about it, is its own sort of answer.)
My inclination is to assume that Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof have sewn this glowing thread into their big, dark tapestry as a suggestive explanation for why the Engineers seem so hostile to humankind: perhaps they once regarded us as their offspring, but at some point, they either grew wary of our ambition, or simply felt that we had fallen far short of their expectations. The pictograms indicate continual contact between Engineers and humans, so they clearly didn’t hate us right from the start. Instead, there seems to have come a breaking point, when the Engineers said, “Enough is enough,” and decided to wash their hands of us.
Hence, the stockpile of terrifying, weaponized black goo in the pyramid on LV 223: the Engineers had genocide on their minds.
Do we know what we did to make them hate us?
Perhaps chronology can help us make a deduction or two: the dead Engineers discovered inside the pyramid by the Prometheus expedition are said to be approximately 2,000 years old. If the story takes place in 2093, that places the time of their deaths—the time of the weapons stockpiling in preparation for genocide—as some time in the first century of our common era.
Funny, but the primary event that I can think of in the first century A.D. that had a long-lasting impact on mankind is the birth, ministry, and death of a carpenter from Nazareth, to whom many attributed miracles, and who some said was the son of God.
And after (allegedly) rising from the dead, didn’t the scriptures say that the Nazarene was lifted, bodily, up into the Heavens?
In summary, what do we have here? A story bearing the name of a mythological figure who earned a terrible punishment for putting man on equal footing with the gods; a story about humanity owing its civilization—and possibly its existence—to ancient astronauts who seem to bear us some terrible grudge; a story in which parents and their offspring are often set against one another in bloody generational rivalry, a hostility derived from one’s perceived usurpation of the other’s domain.
It’s true that the characters in Prometheus are poorly developed and often behave in nonsensical fashion because story propulsion is required and can’t wait for them to find a logical motivation for the requisite behavior. But, despite those complaints, I can’t remember the last time I saw a big, loud, handsomely-mounted summer blockbuster that left me asking heavy questions about big, cosmic concepts and trying to follow the frayed ends of its story threads back to their knotted source.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what real sci fi is all about—the Big Question, the Big Idea—and we simply do not get it often enough at the movies to warrant dismissing the enigmatic delights that Prometheus offers.