My first impression of Prometheus was a very superficial one. I was stunned by the incredible aesthetics and the capacity of the film to get you to close your eyes and get your heart beating in the comfort of your movie seat. It has great appeal because, like most generally acclaimed pieces of art, it presents multiple themes which appeal to a wide audience while also providing them with a few instances with seem highly relatable to their own particular experience.
My initial perception of the film wasn’t wrong, it was just one of the outer layers of depth this movie has. Perhaps at a very low level of consciousness, I was aware that there was a much greater complexity than the already great impressions it had left on me. After a second viewing of Prometheus and the 1979 film from the same universe, Alien, I will attempt to bring out the inner layers of the onion, at least in the way they have impacted me. I must also recognize the influence, perhaps even guidance, of a diversity of critical interpretations of these films.
My belief is the following: the theme that unites all other themes in Riddle Scott’s masterpiece(s) is that of creation and destruction. The very first scene illustrates this point as the Engineer sacrifices himself in order to bring about life on Earth, specifically humanity. Millions of years later, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charles Halloway team up with an ambitious corporation belonging to Mr. Weyland, his daughter (Charlize Theron), a robot called David (Michael Fassbender) and a group of specialist contractors on a mission to “meet our makers”. They are all self-interested, albeit to different degrees and in different ways, with the exception of Dr. Shaw.
I will continue to explore how each character relates to their efforts, their creators and their creations. Perhaps the easiest to start off with is Mr. Weyland. In his TED talk, the entrepreneur talks about becoming something beyond even Nietzsche’s ubermensch: gods. The ship his corporation sends to this distant place where we have been “invited” is named Prometheus. Prometheus is a Greek Titan who sacrifices himself in order to bring humanity the fire which belonged to the gods. Mr. Weyland makes this sacrifice about himself, about his own immortality and omnipotence. However, he has two creations of his own, his daughter and David (the robot), which are no sacrifice for him, but mere means to his own desire. He goes so far as to say that David is the closest thing he has to a son, only because he is more useful to him, but in all truthfulness nothing beyond a useful tool. It is no surprise that the Engineer he meets is repulsed by his species’ creation. The Engineers had created mankind through the self-destruction of members their own kind, and now the ungrateful child, reluctant to die or make any sacrifice of his own, has come to ask for divine power. Accordingly, the Engineer takes Weyland’s self-interested creation, David, rips the robots head off and beats him to death with it.
Weyland’s creations, perhaps ignorant of the value of selflessness, inherit their father’s selfishness. David is treated as sub-human by his companions and Meredith Vickers is at most a disappointment to her father. David is almost indistinguishable from a regular human. He is just slightly colder than Vickers and far smarter than any of the crew, but he is considered dispensable because of his lack of a soul. The humans seem to have forgotten that they are also the creation of another species. The Engineer sacrificed himself for his creation; humans have created for themselves. It is no wonder that whatever type of consciousness or ‘soul’ David has, he is as self-centered as his origin, just much more calculative than him. Note how this relates to our increasingly everyday concern over whether we have consciousness or a soul, whether animals do, whether artificial intelligence does, and if so, what are their natures? If animals, humans and robots all have some type of soul, then maybe we would have to start changing the way we relate to other species, to other people and to our own silicon offspring. The line between us, the important human individuals and them, everybody else outside of myself or species is getting increasingly blurry. Deciding what and who to destroy, manipulate and create and to what ends is something we must reflect on.
Meredith Vickers is also an interesting character. Having been deprived of a true father, she has grown and lived all on her own, in a world where it’s every (wo)man for (her)himself. She is a sad case of independence and self-reliance taken to its unhealthy extreme. Her hated for her father is deep inside the only way she knows how to cope with that desire for his love that she continues to be denied. With all justice on her side she wants her worth to be recognized by him. In a sort of Hegelian-Lacanian way, this illustrates the point that everybody’s identity is intrinsic as well as extrinsic. To have recognition, love, an identity, we must see it reflected in other people. This implies that the other person has their own worth, for we can only accept true respect from those we consider to at least on the same level as us. To receive any appreciation of our worth from others, requires that we appreciate their worth, otherwise their appreciation of our worth has no value to us. Deep down she wants her worth to be recognized by other worthy people. Having her worth denied, she has chosen to deny the worth of any other being, protecting herself from the idea that if she is unloved by worthy people, then she must be unworthy. Rather than recognize her own worth (despite the lack of appreciation) and the worth of others she chooses to cut herself off and tries hardly not to care for anybody. It is all too human to show hate and indifference to the people we wish would love us more. Just like her “brother” David, she has no appreciation for sacrifice and ends up being tragically destroyed, her death being in vain, offering no good to anybody but the end of her tyranny. Perhaps it is symbolic that her apparently stupid (although violent) death took place due to her inability to look around and change her path.
Here I would like to bring up the notions of gender equality. Meredith Vickers is feminism gone wrong. She has chosen to uphold her value at the expense of everybody else. In a way it is an unhealthy reaction to an unhealthy, oppressive and inconsiderate male figure, her father (Patriarchy). Selfishness breeds selfishness in others, which ends up being opposed to the first person’s goals. A society focused towards the goals of men, leaves women unhappy and not surprisingly, there are angry feminist movements who want to do away with male privilege, often, seeking to replace it with female privilege and dominion, something obviously not aimed for by men. What this implies is that everybody who is part of problem, whether abuser, abused or both is at least partially responsible for not letting the damage go on. If not, we end up having no sense of responsibility, because we can always argue that making mistakes is just our reaction to our circumstances (our parents, our social context, our personal economy, etc.). If we are not to blame, but our parents, couldn’t they argue the same about their parents? Blaming our circumstances places the control of our lives outside of ourselves, leaving us powerless to make things better. Healthy feminism does not go so far as to proclaim the superiority of women, but rather, to proclaim the equal worth of men and women, respecting their value, even if they have not respected theirs.
This problem is not just limited to gender. We could easily replace gender equality, women, feminism and patriarchy with socio-economic equality, the lower classes, socialism/democratic movements and capitalism. Or black people vs white people, Western Civilization vs other cultures, materialism vs idealism, left-brain vs right-brain, religion X vs religion Y, brother A vs brother B, criminals vs victims, an alcoholic abuser vs his/her family. Every generation has the chance to continue oppression, overthrow the former oppressors and oppress them instead or to give value to both the oppressor and the oppressed. Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi are great men who have achieved this, but in order to produce nation or even global-wide change, we must begin with our personal lives. It requires forgives, and dealing with our pain while recognizing that revenge and self-promotion won’t heal it. In Prometheus, the healthy revolutionary is Shaw, not Vickers. Shaw is not shy about affirming her self-worth, strength and independence but she doesn’t do it at the expense of others, if anything the contrary: she holds no grudge against Vickers, she is not bitter at life for having made her an orphan and is a warm lover to Holloway. Did I mention she is the only who treats David with an ounce of respect? Like Ripley after her, she reaches an almost ideal balance. She is strong (considered a typical male attribute) but motherly and loving (considered a typical female attribute).
If you believe I am possibly projecting onto the film with my theories of creation and destruction across the biological, psychological, social and even spiritual, I challenge you to rewatch Alien and make no notice of the constant reference to rape and sex, bodily fluids, sex organs, birth and death.
The next theme I would like to bring up is religious faith. Elizabeth Shaw has four doctorates, clearly a smart person, and yet she is the only one who has faith. Once again she is the only one who achieves balance, in this case, between reason (a left brained trait) and a religious faith (more of a holistic-right brained one). All the other characters believe in a concrete, material existence which is perhaps a strong factor in their selfishness. Shaw’s parents were generous and religious, and their early death makes Elizabeth hope for a re-encounter in another life. Her faith that her life is not limited to her bodily existence gives her openness that, perhaps, in a way that might escape her understanding, part of her will remain beyond death. Thus, she is willing to make sacrifices, because she believes that somehow, she is part of something greater and she will live on. Notice the similarity to the Engineer’s willingness to die, a calmness that probably reflects his understanding that through his sacrifice he will live on and benefit that which he is a part of, and yet, transcends him.
Now notice the following image.
One more reference to faith and sacrifice (Jesus). Christianity in particular is big on both of these themes.
This is not to say that only the believers are capable of good and sacrifice, although it may be limited to the material (non-spiritual). Holloway sacrifices himself probably with his love for Elizabeth in mind (remember how he dies and you will see a link to the myth of Prometheus). The ship’s captain and his copilots kamikaze their ship into the Engineer’s one to stop them from heading towards Earth to destroy it, saving all those who live on it. It might be an interesting topic for another day to interpret the fact that the captain and at least one of his copilots are minorities keeping the black man from Alien in mind. Perhaps their relegation to secondary characters isn’t just a narrative convenience.
All the science, technology, ambition and money of the world couldn’t save our dead characters. It is only those who sacrificed that will live on. Even Elizabeth Shaw lives because of the unintentional fruit of her pains. It is her mutant alien daughter that saves her from certain death at the hands of an Engineer. It would be odd to think this creature is capable of a spiritual or even social understanding, but in its own biological way, it dies impregnating the Engineer, yet another instance of destruction and self-sacrifice in order to create (also remember the face-huggers from Alien and their snake-like relatives in Prometheus). The monstrous nature of these creatures is probably explained by tracing their origin all the way back to David’s devious intentions when he infected Holloway, who in turn went on to impregnate the infertile Elizabeth. Perhaps there is even a connection to the biblical Mary’s impossible pregnancy or the also impossible one of her cousin ‘Elizabeth’. Writer and producer Damon Lindelof has been known to place a wide range of references in his work (such as Lost). I wonder how many other possible references there are in the movie that I have not picked up on.
“To love is to give what one doesn’t have.” -Jacques Lacan