The Avengers was a great, entertaining summer film, and yet I’m pretty sure I stopped thinking about it before I even pulled out of the parking lot of the movie theater. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is also great entertainment, and yet two days after seeing it I have yet to stop thinking about it. This is not to say that the latter is smarter than the former. Both of these films are smart as well as entertaining. But Prometheus actually wrestles with interesting questions and asks the audience to wrestle with them as well, which I almost always prefer to the “that was fun!” one-off popcorn movie.
Prometheus has a lot going on. A lot of big-picture, metaphysical questions about existence, creation, evolution, etc. Questions come fast in furious in the film, far more than answers do. It’s a film that–like any given Lost episode–allows the audience to merely see one part of what is obviously a much bigger reality (Lost’s Damon Lindelof wrote Prometheus). I won’t speculate here about what lies beyond the limited field of view of this film (I’m not a fanboy), but I do have some scattered thoughts on what we do see in Prometheus, and I’ll share some of them below (SPOILERS ahead!).
I think the film can be read as a dark, secularist’s perversion of the Christian narrative–particularly the theology of Incarnation. Images of Christmas and Incarnation abound in the film, albeit with a horrific twist. The Christmas tree aboard the ship tips us off to this motif. The events of the film unfold (not coincidentally) during Christmas. But the most visceral nod to Incarnation is the actual literal entrance of the alien species into the body of the film’s heroine, Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace).
Christians celebrate Christmas as the moment that the Creator took up residence within his creation, humbling himself to the place of a tiny fetus within Mary’s womb. In Prometheus, we are led to believe that the creatures the humans encounter are in some sense their own Creator Gods (“Engineers”), and yet when one of their biological creations sprouts inside Dr. Shaw’s womb, the results are far less “Emmanuel” than they are “Get this monster out of me!”
In Prometheus, Scott’s vision of the relationship between Creator and created is one of spite and hostility. In the Christian narrative, God is a benevolent creator who takes on the form of his creation so he can rescue and redeem those he created in his image. In Prometheus, the “gods” also seem to have created man in their image, and yet they despise humanity and want to destroy it. Incarnation for the purposes of redemption is re-imagined as infection for the purposes of eradication.
The hubris of the humans in the film is that they assume that once contact is made with the “Engineers,” it will be a pleasant experience–that Creator and created will be reunited in a lovely moment of discovery and redemption. But of course, it doesn’t turn out that way.
Meanwhile, the humans are themselves “engineers/creators,” having spawned robot creators like “David” (the phenomenal Michael Fassbender) in their own image. But the humans resent David because he is fundamentally different than them: lesser, devoid of soul. Why should they expect that those who engineered humanity would feel any differently toward their “lesser” offspring? Indeed, Scott’s vision of the “Creator” perspective on creation is one of resentment, disgust and hostility rather than sacrificial love. Humans are misguided, pride-driven fools if they expect to be welcomed with open arms by the vastly superior Engineers who created them, Scott seems to suggest.
Certainly Scott is correct to chastise the pride of man and his penchant toward self-destructive hubris; and he’s also right to paint in more favorable light the characters who shun the need “to know” and end up saving mankind when they sacrifice their lives to prevent the alien ship from leaving for earth.
Yet Scott also seems to critique the very notion of curiosity and discovery–man’s wiring to inquire about his origins and his Creator. Is it science Scott is critiquing? Religion? Both seem to drive the Prometheus and its crew in their ill-fated expedition. If the film has a bone to pick with Christianity, it has at least as much of a beef with science and industry–the innovations of mankind which are simultaneously his most crowning glory and most explosive source of destruction. Indeed, Prometheus is on one hand a showcase for the impressive creativity and reach of mankind (the technology, the ship, the weapons, the robots are given more than just passing screentime). But on the other hand, the film’s quick “in over their heads” descent into hell demonstrates the humility of mankind against the vast mysteries of the universe that remain outside our reach. The film seems to go outside of its way to hammer home the point that–in juxtaposition to other alien species and unexplained phenomena–earthlings are not especially savvy, adaptive or impressive.
Scott may well intend all of this to add up to a cynical view of humanity, religion, and our hapless tendency to destroy that which we create. And yet something about the film also evokes–perhaps inadvertently–a sense of wonder and worship. What does lie beyond? The unapologetic open-endedness of the film’s inquiries puts man in his place and yet affirms the validity of our skyward-gaping curiosity. The film may slap humanity on the wrist for its reckless hubris, yet ultimately it seems to suggest that there is something valuable to discover in our search for answers. And though many may die trying, it might still be worth the pursuit.