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“That’s what I choose to believe” – Prometheus at 10

7 min read

20th Century Fox


When the summer of 2012 came along it had been thirty three years since 's hit screens, with its ominous poster assuring us that “In space no one can hear you scream”. Having left the series to have a revolving door of directors come in – James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Paul W.S. Anderson and The Brothers Strause – Scott decided he would return to the series for what would become ; an enigmatic and misunderstood film, but one of the most ambitious big budget studio films of recent times.

Prometheus takes place long before Alien, following Catholic scientist Elizabeth Shaw () and her partner, arrogant atheist Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), as they and a crew head to planet LV-223 to investigate what they believe is an invitation by the ancient beings that created mankind. Scott spoke about the film before its release, when hype was at its most virulent about how the film would “share strands of Alien's DNA.” By which he meant that the film would take place in the universe of Alien but not be beholden to explaining every detail of its mythology. 

Scott was interested in one element from his original film that no subsequent director decided to explore – the large elephant like creature in the chair, dubbed “The Space Jokey”. While other sequels continued using the Xenomorph alien and added new elements, such as the concept of a Queen alien, no film utilised the Jokey, which hosted with humans more organically.

The title refers to the myth of the titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods of Olympus to give to mankind. This act gave way to mankind gaining knowledge, creating arts and becoming more intelligent. For his crime Prometheus was bound to a rock, forced to endure daily torture for the rest of time. The naming of the film ties into this myth. In the opening of the film we see one of mankind's creators, an Engineer, sacrifice himself on a mountain side, his body collapsing into water and the strands of his DNA mixing with water to create the helix that will eventually bring about us.

The film is about faith, the idea that a woman of faith would seek out answers to a question that would completely disprove her own beliefs is the conflict at the heart of the film. In several interviews Scott stated that it was his intention to make reference to Jesus Christ, calling him an envoy from the Engineers to broker peace with mankind only for this Engineer to be crucified by a fearful and ignorant humanity. If this is the case, then it makes sense why Prometheus is set on Christmas Day. The setting at first seems like two throwaway jokes – the first being the weed smoking Captain Janek (Idris Elba) putting up a small Christmas tree in the dining hall, and an eager Holloway proclaiming “it's Christmas Day and I want to open my presents”.

20th Century Fox

But, this setting actually alludes to more about the film's themes. Christmas Day is of course a celebration of the birth of Jesus, yet the date was moved to coincide with the winter solstice. Moreover, as time has worn on the overtly religious elements of the season have given way to commercialism; big business has hijacked the season into a way to make money. For personal gain. Embodying that is Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the ruthless CEO of Weyland Corp. In Weyland we see the origins of what will become Weyland-Yutani, the company that ultimately funds experiments into the creatures at the heart of the series. 

Shaw and Holloway hope to find answers: why the Engineers created them, why they were abandoned by their creators and what is mankind's purpose in the universe? Shaw is a woman haunted not only by her father's untimely passing in a refugee camp as a doctor, but by her own belief that she is not fully human as she cannot conceive a child. Shaw's desire for answers will gain knowledge for mankind, but Weyland concealed on the ship without anyone's knowledge and desiring an audience with the Engineers, seeks only to gain a longer life. Weyland is shown to be a cruel man even into his tenth decade. As his body is failing him his mind appears to be sharper than ever, driven by a desire to prove himself as equal to his creators.

Weyland's disregard for his own daughter Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and affection for his android creation David () is also a sign of the connection to religion. Peter was the first Pope of the Catholic Church, the name literally meaning “rock”. The bible tells us that Jesus said to Peter “upon this rock you shall build my church”. Weyland, similarly, has built an industry terraforming planets – building his church upon rocks. David alludes to the biblical painting The Creation of David as well as Scott's pre-occupation with artificial intelligence. David's intelligence is so vast that he has grown hateful towards mankind. His own creator disgusts him, and he, like the Engineers, seeks to experiment on people. In the presence of the Engineers Weyland arrogantly compares himself to them, saying he created David just as they created man and that is reason enough for him to be granted everlasting life. Instead the Engineer removes David's head and murders Weyland with it.

When David takes samples of biological weapons from the Engineer temple and places it in the drink of Holloway he is knowingly creating something. Like the Engineers he is experimenting on life, his desire to see what will happen and what the Engineers have created. In doing this, unbeknownst to David, Holloway impregnates Shaw when they have sex. Thus further alluding to the overt religious iconography. Shaw is infertile and yet here we have an immaculate conception. In the eyes of the faithful – a miracle.

But away from the religious references, the philosophical questions of the film remain in tact. A simple question is asked – why? If we were created by one Engineer and far outgrew any purpose our creators might have had for us, why have they not destroyed us sooner and is that what the room of goo is? Are Xenomorphs just a way of easily dispatching with mankind. An entire planet cleansed of us simply by unleashing a few of these relentless creatures that have a life cycle that is near flawless? 

What links the film to the Alien series more isn't the paralleling of certain scenes, or the references to later films, but instead to the ongoing theme the series has which is the fear of sexual assault. Alien is as much about the male fear of rape and pregnancy as it is about an alien killing people, just as Aliens deals with military assault, Alien 3 with toxic masculinity and prison assault, and Alien Resurrection focussing on people's discomfort with artificial pregnancy and transgenderism.

What Prometheus looks at is the fear and anxiety women have around pregnancy. When Holloway offhandedly states that creating life is easy, Shaw pointedly asks “if it's so easy why can't I do it?” A large part of her character is this feeling that she is less than human because she is unable to create life, in looking for the Engineers her desire to understand the why is not just about mankind but about her own perceived failings as a woman and what she has been lead – through religion – to believe is her purpose in life. 

Once impregnated with the Engineer pathogen, the rate of its growth is alarming to Shaw and she opts to terminate the pregnancy. The medical pod she attempts to use is only calibrated for a male occupant – another way in which Weyland thinks only of himself. Even so, Shaw opts for a surgery in the pod to remove a “tumour”. Shaw does the one thing her faith would not permit her to do – abort a child – and yet in doing she shuns the role she thought she wanted. The pregnancy was a danger to her and not what she had wanted, and using a risky procedure she is able to abort. 

20th Century Fox

The fact that in a time when film's aim to be accessible for all and build a strictly connected narrative, Prometheus was almost stubbornly its own thing. 2012 was also the summer of The Avengers, a culmination of five previous films building to one massive event film, and The Dark Knight Rises; an end to the Christopher Nolan trilogy that changed the landscape of blockbuster filmmaking. What Scott's film did was to explore deeper themes that only tangentially suggest a connection with the other films as opposed to being beholden to them.

It's also worth noting that Scott's clear interest was with David and artificial intelligence suggesting he was more concerned with ideas that came from Blade Runner than anything in the universe of Alien. Though easter eggs in both films suggest they are also in the same world.  As time has gone on and the hype has died down Prometheus remains an interesting proposition; it's an original film only tenuously part of a franchise and follows its own trajectory. The film itself is, interestingly, an act of faith for audiences. Trusting us to go with it in its exploration. Like its central characters it asks us how far we will go in search of answers.

Alien suggested that in space no one could hear your scream. Prometheus suggests that someone can, they just don't care. That might be scarier.