The Moviegoer: "Prometheus" Confounds

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

In one of Prometheus‘s (Dir. Ridley Scott) early scenes, a flashback reveals some helpful insight into who Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is and what motivates her expeditionary belief. The film’s crucifix-wearing central protagonist has been troubled by death and suffering since an early age. In the flashback, she earnestly asks her father, “Where do people go when they die?” And the scene works as a fine complement to Elizabeth’s present circumstance: traveling aboard a spaceship vessel named Prometheus, hoping — striving — to make contact with humanity’s creators — the “Engineers” — on a distant moon. In order to answer a big question like humanity’s destined afterlife, Elizabeth, who is, significantly, both a believer and an archaeologist, goes in pursuit of origin questions. Elizabeth and her fellow shipmates are looking for a revelation in space. But not just any revelation: they’re looking for an unmediated one in hopes of salvation of some sort.

While this summer blockbuster’s ambition to explore humanity’s most pivotal questions is admirable, Prometheus is ultimately less insightful than it is convoluted. Though the film is about the human desire to search for the meaning of its own existence, it does so in a way that doesn’t speak intelligibly about the human situation. On one level (of a few too many), Scott’s film uses a sci-fi framework to cast fairly disparaging musings on God’s nature. At the film’s most horrific core is the possibility that the Creator hates his creatures, and to discover Him would mean our utter doom. In a telling interview with Esquire, Scott offers some interesting comments in response to a question about the film’s theological horrors:

ERIC SPITZNAGEL: I got kind of an Old Testament vibe from Prometheus.

RIDLEY SCOTT: Great. Then I’ve done my job.

ES: So that was intentional?

RS: Oh, yes. I’m really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.

ES: In the Old Testament, God is kind of an asshole.

RS: Yeah, he was pretty hard on us, wasn’t he?

ES: Humanity’s creators in Prometheus aren’t much better. The “Engineers,” as they’re called, are really prickish and hostile. Are they a metaphor for your feelings about God?

RS: Me, personally?

ES: Yeah. Do you believe in a supreme deity who’s sadistic and cruel and maybe hates us?

RS: Well, that’s not me. That’s Paradise Lost.

While Scott doesn’t claim to believe in a sadistic God, he does seem to infer that if the God of Abraham existed, He would be a moral monster. In Scott’s film, there’s certainly monstrous violence, but it doesn’t seem motivated by wrathful justice. Instead, our “makers” are brutish, Olympian-looking humanoids who are wickedly violent and seem curiously emotionless and unintelligent. In this sci-fi’s theological economy, being made “in the image” of one’s maker has merely physical connotations. While the film’s direct reference to the classic Greek figure that is its namesake is questionable in its accuracy, the human  expedition seems to represent the pursuit of and striving after knowledge, while the Engineers represent little more than Zeusian force and might. Thus, the problem is that Scott’s story is too simplistic and undeveloped to say anything interesting in an analogous manner about God or creaturely existence.

And what makes this line of thought all the more confusing is that the film also resists the temptation to make a direct accusation against Christianity. Two particular scenes come to mind. In one scene, after the Engineers have been discovered, Elizabeth’s belief is questioned, and she, referring to the Engineers, responds, “Who made them?” (After all, the Engineers didn’t create ex nihilo). And later, after much devastating violence, Elizabeth reaches for her momentarily lost crucifix to once again wear it, and the natural response is levied, “Even after all this, you still believe.” So, on the one hand, the film’s horrors thrive on the premise that it may be tragic to identify our creator when there’s reason to believe that it’s a god who hates us. Yet, the film’s protagonist seems to be a Christian of some sort, or, at least persistently hopeful that the First Creator is one who wishes to embrace humanity in love. In the film, though, these two lines of inquiry never quite cohere — at least, not in any nuanced or satisfying way. In short, the film’s premise can’t support its ambitions.

Yet, the film is certainly worth seeing if you’re a fan of the genres involved. And, frankly, I’d recommend seeing it in 3D while you can. Visually, the film is a triumph, right up there with Hugo on my list of two or three 3D films which I count enjoyable, at least in part, by virtue of being 3D. The first hour of the film, in particular, offers some engrossing 3D photography. And, as a thriller, Prometheus works. It’s mostly well-paced in the sense that it has effective build-up and delivery. (Not, however, in the sense that it often achieves its plot points rather cheaply.) And there’s undoubtedly much to discuss for devotees of Scott’s Alien. Toward these ends, Prometheus is quite good and even worth the price of admission, particularly considering the excellent performances from Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, among others. Technically speaking, it’s excellent summer fare, and filled with moments that are memorably good.

However, the film’s convoluted themes are too perplexing to call Prometheus great (and I’ve only touched upon the more theological confusions). The question of being “bound” to one’s maker and all of the existential limitations that come with it is considered in an almost wholly negative sense. Fassbender’s human-created android character, David, is asked what would happen if there was no one to program him. He supposes that he would be free. And it’s freedom, unqualified by love, that is, at root, the problem with Prometheus. It has gods who create merely “because they can,” and a protagonist who doesn’t believe virtuously, but who is lauded by virtue of her “choice to believe” (emphasis on “choice”). As such, the film has little room for love as a binding purpose (a freedom that is given and necessary to inhabit) which makes sense of creation, human existence, and even horrifying, apocalyptic violence. And, thus, its big questions are not ultimately generative mysteries, but confounding dead-ends.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • Geoffrey R.

    Nick,

    I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Prometheus movie ever since I first heard about it, abd your review intrigues me yet further. I love science fiction movies that take on big ideas, even if they bite off more than they can chew (Aronokfsky’s The Fountain comes to mind). But I do have a question: each trailer revealed progressively more about the plot. Would you say that there are still surprises left for the viewer who has seen all the trailers?

    Geoffrey R.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Hey Geoffrey,

    Yes, I would say there are still a few surprises for sure. In fact, I would tried to sidestep much of the film’s twisting plot in my review.

    I’ll be interested to hear what you think!

  • http://lecoupdoeil.wordpress.com MKRoss

    Without having seen the move, I have a question :

    You say that “Scott’s story is too simplistic and undeveloped.” Could this be because the audience needed it dumbed down for them, or on a profitability-level the script needed had gone through rewrites, or finally, does the film leave tangets and storylines open for sequels?

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Good question, MKRoss.

    I think it’s quite possibly #3, but I would also say that even if that’s the case, this film doesn’t work all that well within itself. And I would say that it’s not that the audience needed it dumbed down and I would doubt, knowing Ridley Scott, that his script went through a bunch of rewrites (like, say, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN did).

    Instead, I would say that, as of late, Scott has proposed big idea movies and failed to substantively deliver. Plain and simple.

    But, of course, my knowledge of the situation outside of the film itself is limited.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    When I say “knowing Ridley Scott” (something I need to learn to avoid saying, because, you know, I don’t know him), I simply mean that he has a reputation for being a hands-on kind of guy, I believe.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    I also thought the 3D was really excellent. The scene that I found really fascinating is when David played four notes on the flute-like instrument and pushed on the egg-like buttons to bring up a holographic map of the universe. Remind me of the ancient concept of the music of the spheres, where the ancient Greeks believed that the structure of the universe was based on musical principles. Very interesting.

  • http://thinkchristian.net/ Josh Larsen

    That cross necklace you mention is very revealing, not because it tells us much about the character wearing it, but because it is the most definitive example of how Prometheus consists almost entirely of such religious shorthand. Words like “faith” and “belief” are tossed around in the dialogue, the necklace shows up repeatedly, but the movie really has nothing thoughtful to say about religious belief. I’m not sure the cross is even meant to refer to Christianity. It’s just there so that the movie can seem to be about “religion.”

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    I very much agree, Josh. Several vague references, but no substantial thread to latch on to….

  • http://www.graybuchanan.co.uk Gray Buchanan

    There is an article here: http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584135.html that picks out a lot of links with Christianity in the film. Think of the continual sacrifices of life for a greater good, the washing of feet, and pierced sides…

    I’ve no idea how the guy has been able to read so much of the symbolism in the film, but perhaps this is why the story is a little disappointing at times. The plot is reasonably simple, but the questions are big and the answers aren’t really answers. Essentially, most of the symbolism and mythologic references are too difficult to notice.

    However, the alien world and ambience is incredibly visualised and a worthy 3D experience. But the lack of compassion and love left me feeling cold, maybe that was Scotts intention?

  • Nick

    Hey Gray,

    I’ve seen that link being passed around. It certainly makes some interesting connections, but I think you sum it up best when you say that “most of the symbolism and mythologic references are too difficult to notice.”

    The subtext is entirely unclear. The connection between the first scene and the “2000 years ago” reference is, according to the article, essential to the film as a whole, but you’d have to do quite a bit of extra reading to come to it. And this is a problem. The film’s “aboutness” needs to be far more recognizable.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Nick,

    I finally saw Prometheus. I agree with you (and the other posters) that there seems to be a degree of philosophical incoherence to it. I don’t know if further movies would clarify the philosophy or not. So far most people I have seen are looking at it as a Ridley Scott film (which is not misplaced, as you noted, given his hands-on nature); but he chose Damon Lindelof to write it, and Lindelof is best-known as a co-creator of Lost, another faith-versus-skepticism mythology work. Like Lost, I think Prometheus does indeed throw around a lot of references and allusions that can’t always be read a thoroughly as I would like (though I appreciate the reading of the blogger that Gray Buchanan showed). I should say that members of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) in general seem to hate the move fiercely, if their e-mail exchanges are any indication,

    What particularly jumped out to me, however, were the parallels to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, I haven’t seen that movie since January 1, 2001, but here are some similarities I noticed offhand: both begin with an extraterrestrial account of human evolution in some ancient time; both involve artifical intelligences who have complex relationships with their makers (in one the maker is called Dave; in another, the constructed entity is called David); both feature monoliths or archeological-like structures; (I think both take place on moons…?); both have a strange alien-womb-child theme, wrapped up with musings of death and rebirth; and both close their end credits with classical music. I never could really follow 2001 well, and Nick, I know that you are a better student of cinema than I–do you have any thoughts on this particular track?

    Geoffrey


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