Prometheus October 25, 2012

At long last I got around to watching the movie Prometheus – aka Intelligent Design: The Motion Picture. It is a great film for those interested in the intersection of religion and science fiction. And I am therefore delighted to learn that there are plans for a sequel,

Prometheus begins with the discovery on the Isle of Skye the latest of a series of cave drawings depicting a giant being pointing to the sky and a particular configuration of stars. We then fast forward to the journey of the spacecraft Prometheus, which is seeking to find a planet in the star system depicted – and the beings presumed to dwell there, referred to as “the Engineers,” who are thought to have created human beings.

The journey is thus a quest for the creator, and as in any such quest, we find that different people are making it for different reasons.

Elizabeth Shaw is seeking answers to religious questions. She lost both her parents, her mother very early in her life, and she wears a cross that is very important to her. When it is suggested to her that she might want to take it off, having found aliens who created human beings, she responds by asking “Who made them?” As LOST famously put it, finding answers lead on to more questions.

David, her conversation partner, is a robot. He is like a son to the wealthy Weyland whose corporation is funding the journey, but a recording of Weyland says that David will never have a soul. Later David asks Charlie Holloway, who is pondering the question of why the Engineers made us, why humans made him, and Holloway says “Because we could,” to which David suggests that receiving such an answer from one’s creator is incredibly disappointing. David seems to be genuinely curious about the Engineers – so much so that he is happy to take risks that put the humans on the mission in danger. He is on a quest, perhaps, to discover the creators of his creators.

Weyland himself turns out to be on board, and wants to ask the Engineers to save him from death.

The movie thus explores the topic of what people seek their creators for. In some cases, it is curiosity. In some, it is existential, with the expectation that it will provide satisfying answers to the big questions about why we exist. For some, it is a desire to cheat death and attain immortality. If some scenes and plot devices in the movie are highly implausible, the motives that the characters seem to have for being on the mission closely mirror the motivations that drive people in religious questing on our planet.

There are deleted scenes that also touch on this topic, including one in which Elizabeth Shaw tells a traditional creation myth, which provides another possible answer for why a creator might create: to not be alone any longer.

Prometheus explores some very dark but profound religious ground. Who created the creators, if anyone? There is room to take this in a Gnostic direction – perhaps there is an ultimate source beyond the immediate creators – and those latter seem malevolent. Are we disappointing to our creators? Is that why they have sought to destroy us and left us seemingly alone and abandoned?

And can any answer to questions of this sort ever satisfy? The ending of the movie is striking both in its mention of “the Year of our Lord 2094” (an archaic way of putting things with explicit religious overtones), and in its very last words, “Still searching.”

At some point, I hope to watch the classic Alien movies with Prometheus in view and see what happens.

If you’ve seen Prometheus, what did you think of it, and in particular its treatment of religious themes?

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  • Michael Wilson

    I’m mixed on it. Visualy the movie was stunning and i liked the story and pacing. On the down side a lot of actions seemed arbitray to advance the plot and too mch of it was dictated by this aim Scott has of not making a prequal to Alien, but a remake. I think Scott wanted to make his own 2001 a space odyssey, but that movie was wholly scientifically plausible, this movie is not. And I really hated the ancient astronaught angle. while I suspect that that some where aliens are engineering life on distanrt planets, their is no evidence that this was one of them. What I did like though was Scott’s almost Lovecraftian view of aliens as alien, that is they dont relate to us at all. I think a point that has been central to both this movie and Alien is that the universe doesn’t care about us and we are not its center. like the eye-less alien the universe is souless. Weyland thought these aliens would be happy to see one of their creations, but the reaction was complete contempt. As the actor who played David explained about the scene were the engineer rips his head off, it wasn’t what David said that made him mad, it was that he was there, a cockroach had gotten inside his space ship.

  • I liked it. I was expecting it to be more like the Alien movies, but as a stand alone film it was good. There’s a line I keep thinking of over and over again. In the flashback scene when Elizabeth Shaw is a little girl asks her father if her mother is in Heaven. He replies yes because “that’s what I choose to believe.” And I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to believe. There’s no way of knowing for sure, so you kind of have to choose what you believe about God.

  • I enjoyed the movie. I don’t think it was about intelligent design, though. The ancestor race of us humans hasn’t actually “designed” the cells that evolve into us. Instead, their bodies dissolve into their individual cells, which then evolve into us. This is much closer to Francis Crick’s hypothesis of “directed panspermia,” where an alien race sends (undesigned) spore cells to Earth in a rocket ship, which eventually evolve into us.

    But both humans and the aliens have designed “living” things. We designed the robot. The aliens designed their monsters. Interestingly, both designs lack what we would call “souls.”

    What I enjoy is that the heroine of the movie existentially chooses to believe in God, without trying to justify it rationally. Yet she is the most committed to finding truth, and chooses to pursue it at the end of the movie, when the robot sees no reason for doing so.

  • Ian

    The film lost me at 1hr in, I’m afraid.

  • Kaz

    I had mixed feelings about the movie, though I do think that it could be said to support intelligent design indirectly, i.e.: Even the great minds of science fiction seem to have trouble coming up with so much as a fanciful guess, much less a potentially plausible one, to the mystery of the source of information in DNA. Thus, the movie begins just after that great enigmatic point that science has been unable to penetrate, and beyond which even the naturalist’s imagination seems hopelessly lost.