Pondering Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Pondering Ridley Scott's PrometheusWarning: If you haven’t seen the movie Prometheus yet, don’t read this! Many spoilers ahead.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was perhaps the most fiercely anticipated sci-fi film in recent memory. For many it would be the long-awaited prequel to the Alien saga, with an explanation to the pertinent questions revolving around the mysterious origin of the “Space Jockey” and the Xenomorph alien creature. In Prometheus, the aliens as we came to fear them look very different still, and the “Space Jockey” is known as belonging to a new race of aliens, referred to as the Engineers.

When I finally went to see the film, it was a different type of prequel. Though I never expected direct answers to our questions, it’s clear that Ridley Scott moved away from that concept before going into production. The result is a film that is much more vague in its metaphors and allusions to the Alien saga. The principal moral hinges of course on the myth of Prometheus, the tale of the Titan who created man and gave them fire.

A cue to understanding the meaning of the philosophical backbone of Prometheus can be found right at the beginning. The camera soars above breathtaking vistas and beautiful landscapes of a planet, which is supposedly a primordial Earth. For several minutes, the film opens with steady shots leading through mountain ranges, and above lakes and rivers to a torrential waterfall. The music at this point is not at all eerie or full of foreboding. Instead it almost sounds majestic and hopeful, not at all the score of an Alien film. It’s almost melancholy, as if lamenting the imminent death of a character. Death indeed happens in this prologue, almost ceremonially.

A nearly egg-shaped spaceship hangs in the sky above the waterfall, as the camera moves backward to reveal a very alien character. This being with white skin and large dark eyes looks like a Titan with its Greek appearance. Scott already revealed that there will be upward of 28 minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, including the full extended version of this opening prologue. Actor Darwin Shaw, who plays the Engineer seen later in the film, also confirmed this on Twitter.

This confirms my assumption that some important plot has been left on the cutting room floor. Photos of this missing scene floating around the Internet show an elder Engineer looming over the younger Engineer we already see in the theatrical version. In view of the endless speculation, it is safe to assume that the tale of the Titan Prometheus is interwoven with the film’s plot on a much deeper level.

At the end of my studies in creative writing, I wrote a final piece based on the Greek myth of Atlantis. After seeing Prometheus I recognize many similarities between its plot and the myth of Atlantis. Most people only know that Prometheus defied the gods of Olympus by stealing fire and giving it to the mortal humanity below. Yet the story is much more complex. So I would like to illustrate in how many ways the myth of Atlantis explains the story of Prometheus.

There were four Titans, all of them brothers. Their names were Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. At the beginning of time it was the Titans who were the rulers of the world, and represented the physical world as follows: Hyperion in the west, Iapetos in the east, Koios in the north, and Krios in the south. The fifth Kronos (Time) stood in the center, and the sixth, Okeanos, circled the world in the form of the river Ocean (source). Robert Graves, an English poet, is also famous for his now seminal work The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. This is also the book I used for my own research, while writing my final project at university. So bear in mind that everything I write about these myths are already interpretations.

Later in the film it becomes clear that Christian symbolism is also present in abundance. Starting with the strong faith of the female protagonist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, leading to the quasi-religious presentation of the Engineers and their Xenomorph murals. The spacious room with the humongous head sculpture, which the scientists of Prometheus enter after discovering the alien structures, houses a very strange and ultimately deadly organism. It is safe to assume this to be the same substance that the Engineer in the prologue drinks. Taking it in leads to his gruesome disintegration and eventual dissemination of his DNA strings, kindling the evolution resulting in human beings.

Ridley Scott has this to say about the scene: “That could be a planet anywhere. All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space. And the plant life, in fact, is the disintegration of himself. If you parallel that idea with other sacrificial elements in history — which are clearly illustrated with the Mayans and the Incas — he would live for one year as a prince, and at the end of that year, he would be taken and donated to the gods in hopes of improving what might happen next year, be it with crops or weather, etcetera.”

He also says this in response to rumors that the movie was originally scripted to hint that Jesus Christ was one of these Engineers: “We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an ‘our children are misbehaving down there’ scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, ‘Let’s send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it.’ Guess what? They crucified him.”

In the Greek myth, Atlas was the king of Atlantis. The legendary island was home to a people who believed they could become as powerful as gods. In one of the viral videos for Prometheus, we see Peter Weyland giving a fictitious TED talk in the year 2023. He says: “We are now just three months into the year of our lord 2023; at this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: We are the gods now.”

This sounds to me very similar to the defiance of the Atlanteans, for which they burned under the wrath of Zeus. Atlas’ fate is of course well known: He was condemned to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders. His brother Prometheus was punished for his own disobedience. Imagine, if you will, the Engineers as the gods of Olympus and us humans are the mortal subjugates. Then it is not so far-fetched to believe the Engineer in the prologue, who sacrifices himself for whatever reason, is in fact an incarnation of Prometheus. He didn’t give fire to humanity or any civilization, for that matter. Yet he gave life.

What if the Engineer’s hatred of humanity lies within our lust for power and immortality? Peter Weyland wants that one thing, more than anything. He is willing to give anything for that to happen. I am pretty sure that death was not the price he was willing to pay. Could it be that the Engineers’ desire to destroy humanity comes from fear of losing their power? In an important scene, where Peter Weyland and other crew members meet one of the Engineers, David addresses him in a strange ancient language. We all wondered what it is he said, because the reaction he elicits from the Engineer is not at all friendly.

Yet perhaps this very request was the trigger of all the fear and wrong impressions the Engineers had. In this context, his reaction was not surprising. What would you do, if you were a being of great power — the cause for the creation of a new species — and one day a member of this species made the request to be better than you? The Engineers are not immortal, yet this human creature, in their eyes inferior in every way, requests to possess an attribute not even they have. Philosophically speaking, destruction is not a singular hatred directed at one species, but rather an effort to erase from history an event they consider to have been a mistake.

What will Elizabeth Shaw really find out when she reaches the home planet of the Engineers? Well, I sure hope she doesn’t make the same arrogant request as David did on behalf of Peter Weyland.

Dr. Anil Biltoo of the University of London gave an approximate translation of David’s line to the Engineer:

/ida hman?m a? kja nam?tuh zd?:taha/…/gh??vah-pjorn-?ttham sas da:t? kredah/

A serviceable translation into English is:

“This man [Weyland] is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life.”

Prometheus international poster image via Recent Movie Posters.

Article Written by

He's a writer and photographer living in Sweden. Technology, philosophy, and films are some of his other interests. In 2008, Maximilian completed a BA in creative writing in London. So, being a writer has been important to him for a long time -- although he prefers to be called a "storyteller."

  • Bruceolee

    Great article! I think this is a highly misunderstood film. The film requires us to participate by thinking about the deeper implications of what our characters motivations are and what they are experiencing. I think it’s a rare film that actually requires us to study before seeing. I think I read every Ridley Scott interview regarding this film and his thoughts about the “space jockey” it also requires a lot of thought regarding our place in this universe and what it means to be created “engineered” It puts us in the position of what it would mean to be engineered and what if our engineers or creator didn’t want us. The film asks a lot of questions but really leaves us to find the answer much like Elizabeth at the end. The film is not a passive experience at all and if you’re just looking for a movie to entertain you while you empty your 76oz soda and large bucket of popcorn, then stay away. Ridley is going for something bigger here and I think this film will build a significant following as the years go by. The debate about the movie on various forums can be very robust and to me that’s always the sign of a great film.

    • veevee104

      Yup, exactly wht i thought of the movie. It takes us to participate and think. Rather then just out right telling us. I loved the movie!!

  • John Verdon

    I loved the film – I saw it Imax 3D – this provides a visceral experiential dimension that augments the mythos of the story. I have only contempt for people who say they didn’t think much of Avatar – and when you ask them if they saw it in 3D they say no. To me that means they did not experience what the film was about.

    The other thing that I thought was very interesting was the number of allusions to ‘Blade Runner’ – where Ridley Scott has Rutger Haur meet his maker and then kills him because like Dr. Frankenstein he had forsaken his own creation. I know the film was called Prometheus – but the theme is less about stealing fire/knowledge from the gods/creators then it is Mary Shelley’s more modern take on how the creator fears their own creation and abandons/forsakes that creation. This is a theme in the second and third season of Dextor as well.

    The many questions that arise in the film making the ambiguity/uncertainty of beginnings and direction so delicious are also about the human story of actions/reaction to human creations. As human reach the star and domesticate life itself.

  • http://twitter.com/karldallas Karl Dallas

    You don’t offer an opinion on whether the film’s any good. In my Movietime radio show on Wednesday I expressed the view that it’s a turkey. And I regard Alien and Bladerunner as not only the best SF, but probably among my personal 10 best in any genre.

    • Maximilian Majewski

      This is not a review of the film. If I spend time to write an article about the meaning, you can assume that I loved it :)

      • zitiboat

        Your in depth analysis of the film reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut once said. He was replying to the critics that analyzed and praised one of his novels and feigned amazement that he had himself missed understanding so much of what he had written. He had only told an extended story that people seemed to like. The fact (according to the analysts) that there was deep meaning and several layers of controversial thought provoking subtleties that explained portions of the cosmos and the human condition completely escaped him.
        He requested those analysts tell him what his next story was going to be about because he was afraid he would miss the meaning in that one too if not enlightened beforehand. He didn’t want to get any of the story wrong.

        What I got out of Prometheus the movie was that the crew took one look around and decided they knew exactly what had happened and that although there had been thousands of years since the aliens had killed the engineers, the home planet of the “life seeders” was still there and business as usual because one tiny mistake that stopped hundreds of ships from departing for Earth didn’t even get noticed back home. The android had an agenda not unlike the one in “I Robot” but submitted to the humans will whenever they asked politely.
        You may have seen revelations to the mystery of life (Oh, sweet mystery of life at last I found you); couldn’t resist after reading the Mary Shelly reference, but I saw that a billion dollar investment ship to reach the edges of the universe had a bunch of psychologically damaged jerks as crew. I guess to hire astronauts in the future you have to be willing to accept affirmative action non-discrimination practices wholehog. Experience and expertise in their fields is not a requirement.
        One atom of a molecule in our physical reality could be an entire universe that has galaxies and planets with humans on a planet with a physical reality that has atoms of molecules of their own. We could all be just particles of a proton in a much larger reality. I used to smoke the weed and seduce freshman co-eds with that stuff too. I think they call it string theory now.
        Thanks for the history of mythology though.I guess as it gets Piled higher and deeper something has to be in the pile.

        • dStam

          totally agree with zitiboat. Although Mr. Majewsky’s analysis is, indeed, very thorough in terms of symbolism discovery and offers some good food for thought about Prometheus, i am not convinced at all about the quality of Scott’s movie.
          To my opinion, this is a very shallow film, with over-designed special effects and landscapes but one that adds nothing to the original saga (or to the sci-fi genre in general) except, probably, for a new path to some sequels, something not necessarily bad after all.
          If i am allowed a conspiracy scenario here, there is a feeling that this is not an original Ridley Scott film at all. Could be that an android that looked like him was the actual director? (lol) Let’s hope that the next Prometheus-series film will be much better…

  • Janettwokay

    Nice review. I saw the movie and enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than I expected it to be. I’m waiting for the next movie in the series (I figure there will be one).