Prometheus - Profound Parables vs. Cautionary Tales vs. Pointless Cynicism

Thoughts On: Prometheus (2012)

A crew attempting to discover the origins of human life come across more than they were hoping for.

Prometheus has been on my watch-list for years now... I've finally seen it... and I hold not regrets at all. Prometheus is a pretty great movie, but, much like The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, without more supporting narratives in the form of sequels that extend this prequel - which Alien: Covenant is (and is another movie I still need to see) - this will remain only on the cusp of genuine greatness.

As is, there are a few minor faults, as well as one possible major fault, that hold this film back from transcending greatness. The minor faults of this movie aren't, surprisingly so, to do with pacing and a slow start. Whilst I heard that this movie takes time to pick and was boring in parts - even pretentious - I certainly did not feel this way. In fact, the first hour of this movie was the most immersive part. It was when things started going bad that I began to find the faults in this film, and so distanced myself from the narrative. These faults primarily concern dumb character choices and stupid elements of writing and structure. As anyone who has seen this movie could tell you...

... this is one of the most egregious examples of running away from a huge falling object when you can merely...

... roll to the side to escape it. And there are many infuriatingly moronic character choices in this film which are hard to overlook. For instance, taking off the helmets; not telling anyone about your infection and the damn worm in your eye; splitting up; getting close to and trying to make friends with an alien snake thing... the list goes on and on. The only way in which we could forgive all of this stupidity is to accept that these characters are all supposed to be faulted and dumb as they were written to be - and all under the guise that this film is, in large part, a cautionary tale akin to the likes of Terminator. However, this, in itself, is an approach that leaves me conflicted. But, we will return to this idea.

What cannot be looked over throughout Prometheus is the terrible dynamic between the crew in this ship. No one communicates like they do in Scott's original Alien.

Here, almost all problems are discussed by the whole group; they argue, they fight, but they work together and try to figure things out. This approach is reference throughout Prometheus. Take, for example, the scene in which Theron's Meredith Vickers shuts the crew out and then, rightly so or not, decides to burn our protagonist's, Elizabeth's, boyfriend to death. When Ripley locks the crew out of her ship, everyone freaks out and Lambert even attacks her.

Everyone is affected by this decision and it is not skipped over. Cut back to Prometheus where our protagonist's boyfriend is murdered before her eyes and... nothing. She doesn't say a word to Vickers--no one does. This issue is completely by passed over like someone's iPod was destroyed, not a human being. And when we look to later scenes, such as Elizabeth performing an abortion on herself, I was seriously left thinking... what the fuck? This has nothing to do with the logic of the scene itself as it eventually makes sense why David would be fascinated by this pregnancy and, consequently, why Elizabeth would want the thing out of her. However, the logic of everything around this scene is mind boggling. Does no one in the crew care even slightly that she just ripped an alien from her womb? Can they show no sympathy? Did they not see all that went down on the cameras? Why didn't David try to stop her if he was so fascinated? Why doesn't he inspect the alien life form after it is extracted? All of these ridiculous moments,  and the questions that they force, stem from the fact that the dynamic between the crew in this movie is horrifically designed. Understandably, this is again done to construct a cautionary tale with dumb characters, but, moments like this are absurd. For this, Prometheus has its problems, and leaves a lot of questions.

However, if we look for the positives of this film, we can see quite a few major ones. In certain respects, I think that Prometheus is a better movie than Alien. I'd like to watch Alien another time before committing fully to this idea, but it seems to me that Alien didn't have a very (relatively) strong subtext. Prometheus, however, concerns itself with existential questions in a way that only science fiction can manage. The core question that this narrative asks is then: why believe in anything? This in turn has us question: what makes us human?

This narrative quickly implores that belief makes us human - and we know this from the role that the subservient, existentially wandering robot, David, plays. Instead of simply dropping this cliche before us, this narrative suggests that belief in fact has very little to do with, say for instance, a god. For characters in this film, belief is the construction of meaning and motivation, and we understand this through Elizabeth, who, though she is on a scientific mission, still bares a cross. The cross for Elizabeth seemingly represents sacrifice for the greater good - which is symbolised affectingly and graphically with the abortion scene; though Elizabeth wishes she could have a child, she sees the alien to be a corrupt and malevolent being that she should in no way think of giving birth to. Because David is merely curious about this birth, he shows himself to be a robot and not a human by not understanding the danger that this symbolises. Giving birth to the alien is to utilise destruction - what some would refer to as evil - to skew natural law, which would in turn lead to further decimation. David does not understand this element of destruction because he, too, was created by humans. This wrongly implies that a non-natural birth of something resembling life is possible, and even a positive thing, to David. However, David does not have a soul - and this is incredibly important to recognise.

What is a soul? This is an abstract question and one that no one should attempt to directly answer with rationality. A soul is a metaphor which people use to describe the essence of life. If we were to begin rationalising from this stance, a soul is the recognition of the human spirit or our motivation to live. Because humans have this motivation to live, to survive fundamentally, we are compassionate; we take care of our young and support one another through positive societal acts. However, because we have a motivation to live, and primarily as an individual, we kill and suppress other organisms - for food, for sport, for the protection of ourselves, etc. We even kill each other; those that we deem inhuman, or less human - at the very least, less important - than ourselves. In my opinion, this element of human nature is not entirely corrupt and in need of change, though, it does need to be carefully managed. These conflicting motivations that reside within ourselves to destroy and to create as to sustain humanity are arguably the most crucial element of living. To expand, take, for instance, one of the most iconic symbols of Christianity, The Virgin Mary standing on a snake...

This image simultaneously represents the highest virtues of creation and compassion as well as the destruction of evil. When we see Elizabeth abort the alien, we are seeing a very similar symbol of compassion and destruction. After all, one of the most fundamental lessons of Prometheus is sacrifice: it is the most virtuous people in the crew sacrificing themselves to save the rest of humanity. However, there is a difference between Mary standing on the snake and Elizabeth aborting the alien: Elizabeth does not kill the alien to secure humanity's safety (and maybe she couldn't, which is an expressive idea itself). Instead, the alien instead is allowed to become one of the most destructive and evil organisms that have ever been put to screen: the xenomorph. However, whilst this does occur, the alien also destroys what we could archetypally see to be the devil: the malevolent Engineers. So, this sets up a complex paradigm which will likely be explored further in the sequels to this film.

To take a quick step back, the Engineers in Prometheus that made humans, turn on us. They seemingly do not see the goodness in humanity. So, whilst the Engineers are initially compared to Prometheus, the Greek Titan who created humanity and stole fire from Mount Olympus for us, this betrayal of humanity parallels Satan's fall from heaven. This then leaves the crew aboard the 'Prometheus' to be the Titan that attempts to steal fire from Mount Olympus and the Engineers. That said, Satan, unlike God, did not see the good in humanity and so used his free will to turn against him and then humanity, much like the Engineers do. So, whilst we get no direct allusions to the Engineers being the devil, this seems to be the case in Prometheus as it is quite easy to recognise this archetypal kind of character.

With The Engineers as fallen angels and the alien as a snake that Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary, lifts her foot off of so that it is allowed to destroy the devil, we see many twists built into this very old kind of meta narrative. The result of this is 'Mary' deciding to confront the devils and ask why they wanted to kill us, in turn, why they didn't see good in humanity. (This is, of course, the end of this story that sees Elizabeth go looking for the Engineer's planet). We can, however, infer the answer to this question of the Engineer's motivations to destroy without waiting for the sequel.

What does this opening mean? It seems that this figure here sacrifices himself to create life on Earth. This, of course, draws up parallels to Jesus' compassionate sacrifice. However, what if the other Engineers didn't think that the sacrifice of their own kind for the birth of a new species was a good thing?

This is a very rational position for a species to take, and it is one we have already come into contact with. Why, after all, does Elizabeth have to abort the alien? We have already suggested that this was because she would be skewing natural law - to give birth (to something we presume is a snake, and so evil) when she is unable to conceive. However, and as David the robot represents, there seems to be a way for humans to give birth to a new form of life, that being A.I. But, as Terminator asks, will this bring fourth our judgement day and the end of our species?

This is a question that is often answered without much nuance. However, when we look to David in Prometheus we find access to a more nuanced view of this question. As said, David doesn't understand that giving birth to the alien is a big no-no. This is because he doesn't have a soul. David, first and foremost, is a somewhat safe creation of humanity as he has no free will; he has no soul and so no means to disobey orders. (Again, this is explored in many films such as Terminator and I, Robot). Nonetheless, the aliens in Prometheus do have a soul. And as we explored, having a soul means that you have an inherent motivation to live, which can drive you to destroy anything that threatens your, and your species', existence. Humans are a threat to the aliens. This is why they kill. They recognise everything as a threat; they cannot be reasoned with; they are pure destruction, a snake that never stops trying to bite you. Elizabeth could not give birth to a creature like this that has a soul. But, David does not understand what it is means to want. What this means is that he does not understand or appreciate life itself like humans, and I'm sure the aliens, do. In turn, David doesn't understand what it means to want to save your soul and your species like Elizabeth and the best people on the crew do.

What Prometheus is then about is the conflict that arises from different species, all of which, in a way, and for better or for worse, worship this image...

... coming into contact. All species with a 'soul' understand that to have a virtuous life, evil must be destroyed. However, how different species define evil can be relative to themselves alone, not always a greater ideal (which is often what a god, ultimate goodness, symbolises). Whilst many people, many species even, have different gods - as is picked up on in the film - this understanding of the preciousness of life can allow us to communicate and co-exist despite these differences. However, if you don't have a god, or a higher set of morals and standards which you adhere to, then nihilism and anarchy can become overwhelmingly destructive forces - as with the xenomorphs. So, to believe in something, is not a mere cliche; to believe is to have a soul, is to recognise that you do not want to die. However, to merely not want to die is not good enough; to want to live righteously, and in a way that only leads to the destruction of evil, never innocence or goodness, is what separates angels from demons and good humans from bad humans - in this story, good species from bad species.

What the ending of this film then suggests is that the Virgin Mary is going to attempt to confront, and possibly, transform a lost species, Satan's spawn, and convert them into angels once again by showing them 'the light'; the good side of humanity. As awkward, cheesy, cliched and preachy as this sounds, these are all archetypal and truthful ideas. And I say this as someone who is not religious. By recognising the parallels between the profundity that can be found in religious texts and Prometheus then reveals how great this narrative really is.

However, we have not yet touched on the one possible major fault of this film: its cynicism. All of the minor issues concerning dumb characters, in turn stupid choices, moments and scenes, all stem from this narrative trying to construct a cautionary narrative, not just a profound parable, without much optimism. Whilst the final scene is redeeming as it implies that evil will be confronted by Elizabeth and David, and that the initial questions of belief will not just be set to the side, but properly investigated by the pair (which represent humanity and its child: robots/A.I), there remains a strong sentiment of pessimism. For example, if we compare this image...

... to this image from the end of 2001...

... there seems to be a clear parallel. However, this left a bad taste in my mouth as the end of 2001 is ambiguous; the coming of the Star Child is neither positive of negative. However, it is a test of your optimism, and a question of if the Star Child's coming to Earth is going to be good or bad. What Scott seems to assert with his reference to the end of 2001, which cannot be confirmed, but seems obvious, is that the coming of the Star Child that Weyland prophesieses is in fact the destruction of himself and humanity. This taints the ending of 2001, taking away its ambiguity and replacing it with an undeserved and ill-explained sentiment of pessimism.

Much like in the original Alien, there are also many implications of commercialism and capitalism meeting with science being the great evil force that will guide humanity towards its destruction. This is what we see in films such as Terminator, too. Whilst I can appreciate that these films are constructing cautionary tales, the focus on the faults of humanity to a degree that paints them out to be so dumb is a trope that I don't like. This is because Prometheus raises some astounding questions and concepts, but doesn't have the time to fully focus on or explore them as it is too busy constructing absurd and dumb scenes that just say: aren't scientists stupid? With smarter, more self-aware characters that try to work together, Prometheus would have managed to bypass much of its obvious and shallow commentary on capitalism, feminism, nihilism and science and delved into serious questions. For instance, instead of just implying that this whole mission went awry because of a selfish rich guy, this narrative should have made him a little more of a complex and intelligent bad guy that could make a good case for what is ultimately his own evil. In such, this narrative would have revealed that the line between good and bad is not so obvious, and so would have challenged itself to define what is 'goodness' with greater skill. Concerning feminism, instead of just utilising a strong female protagonist and implying pro-choice sentiments, this narrative should have delved into a greater confrontation between the males, both good and bad, and the females, both good and bad, as means of properly asserting its ideas. With the nihilism, the Engineers should have implied some reasoning for wanting to destroy life. And concerning science, instead of showing scientists as extremely cautious or extremely curious to the point of their own destruction, this narrative should have shown the tension that arises between these two inclinations upon a more sensible middle-ground.

The issue we're faced with when bringing up much of this criticism, however, is that Prometheus 2, or Alien: Covenant, exists. This film may correct many of this film's faults and delve into what Prometheus couldn't have. And so this is what we'll all have to find out soon when I watch and write about this film. For now, however, there is much we didn't touch on in this film; a lot more concepts and symbolism. I found Prometheus to be pretty excellent despite its shortcomings. But, what are your thoughts on Prometheus and all we've covered today?

UPDATE: The post on Alien: Covenant can be found here.

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