UPDATE: Like our analysis? Check out our post on answers to common Prometheus questions.
What This Is And Is Not
Everyone seems confused by Prometheus to varying degrees. I was confused (and still am on several points) but have spent enough time thinking about it that I have at least cracked the story I think. So this is an analysis of what the film Prometheus is about, what it means, why it was made (in regards to artist purpose, not commercial interest), and how the major plot points fit together. It is not a review of the film (although I do have some commentary about that along the way).
A Word About Ridley Scott
I refuse to believe that scenes in Ridley Scott films such as Prometheus are “accidents.” Ridley Scott doesn’t randomly put things on the screen. His attention to detail among working directors today is legendary. He acknowledges Kubrick as a major influence. He is a “hands on” director, participating in every aspect of the film. So much so in fact that Ridley was actually the man behind the camera for most of the handheld shots in ALIEN.
So when I saw Prometheus this past week, I walked out of the theatre in awe of the technical achievements and scope of the film and a bit confused by the script and character decisions. Knowing that Ridley would not have allowed anything on screen that he did not have a specific reason for, I couldn’t get the film out of my head even though my immediate reaction was that the script had problems.
I wouldn’t normally give a film this kind of time or mental effort. But Ridley has earned my benefit of a doubt due to his lengthy and weighty film history. This is a director that is working on a level that most other people in the industry cannot even hope to achieve. So when Ridley releases a film, especially a big budget science fiction epic with roots to a beloved franchise, I am going to give him more of my brain power than I would someone like Michael Bay whose films exist purely to turn off the brain and entertain. Make no mistake, Ridley understands that entertainment is the name of the game but he is also interested in bringing some meat with the milk.
To understand Prometheus, it is worth taking a look at what Ridley’s own personal beliefs and interests are. Ridley recently said, “one of the biggest problems in the world is religion.” (1) “It is very hard to merge art and commerce in a big budget movie.” (1) Elsewhere Ridley has expressed his deep interest in the poem “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. (2) Finally, we have Ridley’s obsession with the themes of the creation of life which are so well addressed in Blade Runner. If Ridley’s attention to detail is unparalleled, then it makes sense that the themes and story of Prometheus can be better understood by understanding the director’s point of view.
Definitions, Terminology, and Ground Rules
Since this article goes into detail about Prometheus, it should go without saying that it is riddled with spoilers and should best be read after seeing the film. In fact, this film has enough depth that even if you disliked it the first time, it is worth seeing a second before forming a final opinion. Preferably seeing it after a couple of days to decompress from the first viewing and think on the themes.
I am going to use the “official” names of things in the film and characters so I wrote a quick guide to help keep track of terms and people (see bottom of this article).
David Is The Key To Understanding Prometheus
After first watching Prometheus, I was captivated by the story of the crew and the interaction with the Engineers. But I think that is a bit of a red herring for where the real story, message, and ultimately theme of the film resides. Instead, David is the heart of this story.
The journey of the Prometheus ship starts with David. It shows his life aboard the ship, what he spends his time on, and the film grants a great deal of time to showing us all of this. This is the best part of the film. So why spend so much time on David up front?
David loves to watch Lawrence of Arabia (based on the life of T.E. Lawrence and a personal favorite film of Ridley Scott by the way). David practices talking like Peter O’Toole’s character. He dresses like O’Toole. He dies his hair like O’Toole. He walks around the ship working on his line delivery to get it just right. Now, if you have seen Lawrence of Arabia (and if you haven’t, you should rectify that right away because it is one of the greatest films ever made), you know that the basic story is that Lawrence is a fish out of water. A soldier that doesn’t belong where he has been put and who his commanders can’t stand. They send him out into the desert to attempt to contact some Arabs to ask for assistance in the war effort. But Lawrence does much more than this, he finds that he excels in his new desert surroundings and ends up becoming the leader of an Arab rebellion that changes history.
So why show us scenes from Lawrence of Arabia and spend so much time on David’s infatuation with the film? David will continue to quote lines from Lawrence of Arabia throughout the entire Prometheus script. It is because an idea is starting to form in David’s mind on their 2+ year journey to LV-223. He starts to see himself like the fictional Lawrence. A fish out of water. Maybe even better than humans. The idea has hatched for him that he may even be advanced enough to supplant his own creators (or commanders in the case of Lawrence) and have a greater purpose like Lawrence did.
David spends a good deal of time monitoring the crew and even watching their dreams. He knows everything about them. Whereas the crew know almost nothing about each other nor the mission they are to perform. David is a robot playing at being a man. He eats (when he obviously does not need food to function) because it makes him more human. He wears a suit and helmet outside of the ship when he doesn’t need to breath (which he defends to Holloway as a way to make humans feel more comfortable around him but is actually a way for David to feel more human).
It is about the time the crew is waking up that David is starting to see himself (as the classic Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner marketing line says) “more human than human.” It is like David is saying “I can do everything you can do and then some.” This will be illustrated more and more as David becomes increasingly self confident and independent as the film progresses. There is a point after Shaw and Holloway explain the mission to the crew and the revealing fact that they believe they are here to “meet their maker” that the camera spends a long time on David’s reaction. He stares forward, obviously thinking of something. This is an epiphany moment for David. The reason he looks like he has just discovered something is because he has hatched the idea of playing “god” himself.
When Weyland is describing the basic point of the mission, he mentions that David does not have a soul. David looks almost sad as he hears this said. Holloway will later bring this back up in regards to pinocchio and the fact that David is “not a real boy.” But David’s newly hatched idea is radical. It is like the moment HAL 9000 decided to kill Dr. Frank Poole in 2001. David sees that if the Engineers created humans, then it doesn’t matter if David has a soul or not. David knows he is immortal (as Weyland also points out) so he is already half way to being a “god.” As Holloway will later say, there is nothing terribly radical about the act of creating and it can be done by anyone with basic knowledge. It is at this point in Prometheus that David switches from being the helpful “butler” robot of the ship to the passive aggressive, manipulator playing “god” that we see through the rest of the film.
To illustrate David’s new found independence, he starts withholding information from people such as Vickers when she asks what Weyland said from his stasis chamber. Or when he decides to open the door to the tomb without Shaw’s permission. Finally, he will make up a lie about fixing the pup that is signaling a life form and instead, break off from the group and search this part of the Engineer ship alone. He will withhold all information he has learned from Shaw and the crew. At one point, Holloway mentions that the Weyland Corporation is making David 8 models very close to humans. David replies “Not too close I hope.” David now believes his is better than those who created him. David’s comment “A superior species no doubt” in regards to Weyland seeing the control room of the Engineer ship is telling as well. David is making it clear that he feels on level footing with the Engineers.
But even more than that, he will attempt to play god and grant the wishes of certain members of the crew. David attempts to give Weyland the immortality he craves by taking him to meet his maker. He attempts to grant Shaw her wish of having a child by helping her keep the baby (many believe this is similar to the typical ALIEN universe robots that are always preserving the alien specimens but this was before Weyland had any knowledge of the creatures so there is no directive from the company to preserve them). Instead, in David’s childlike mind, he is the wish granting god to the crew. He is careful to ask for permission from Holloway before administering the black liquid to him (again to fulfill Holloway’s wish of meeting his maker). David is doing this while he continues to pursue his own personal agenda of being in control and eventually he realizes he is ready to be on his own. When Shaw asks him what will happen if Weyland dies, David replies that he will be free. Then the more telling line of dialogue “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” David is ready to take complete control of his existence. Humanity’s creation (David 8) has taken the final step to being sentient. David has a soul, a purpose, and a reason to exist within himself.
After David’s head is ripped off and he is lying there as Weyland dies, we hear Weyland say “There’s nothing.” To which David replies, “I know. Have a good journey.” David knows because he has met his maker already. David has advanced beyond what the maker originally intended. Holloway had illustrated it earlier when David asked him why humans had created David. Holloway’s depressing reply is “Because we could.” David illustrates his view of his creators by telling Holloway that the same statement would not be very comforting to be heard from Holloway’s point of view. This scene perfectly illustrates why David “knows” there is nothing. Just as the humans have advanced to a point where their creator doesn’t seem that amazing, David feels the same way. At some point, with enough knowledge, the experience of meeting a creator with the same knowledge means “nothing.”
Themes Of Prometheus
The film is playing with several themes simultaneously with the greatest being the creator / created relationship. We see the interactions of three levels of creations. 1) The Engineers who we are lead to believe created humans. 2) The humans who created robots such as David 8. 3) David and his relationship to his human creators. Depending on how advanced a creation is, meeting his or her maker may not be as grandiose. The film hints many times at how amazing and spectacular it will be to meet the creators of humanity. But when the creator is met, it is only death and destruction. That is why Holloway (albeit melodramatically) begins to get drunk and sulk when they find the dead engineers for the first time. The dreams of meeting something unintelligible and greater than anything that could be imagined have been crushed by the reality of the death and ruin in the Engineer’s ship.
In fact, as the team discovers the accident that killed the Engineers (through the holographic projections), they begin to realize that not only are the gods less than grand but in fact, they appear to be as flawed as their creations. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” speaks of fallen angels. (2) In fact, the original title of Prometheus was “Paradise” but Ridley felt it was too obvious for what they were going for. (3) But these Engineers seem to be very much like fallen angels. Creators who made mistakes that ended up wiping them all out.
There is an element of despair as the crew of the Prometheus find out more and more about the Engineers. In a dream that David had watched of Shaw’s while she was in stasis, a young Shaw asks her father “Why do we die?” To which her father (played by Patrick Wilson in a jarringly small role) replies “Sooner or later everyone dies.” It is the inevitability of fate. Something that we can’t stop. Not even the richest and most powerful man in the world (Weyland) can turn back the tide of death. To emphasize this hopelessness, the entire crew with the exception of Shaw and David die by the end of the film, many going out with little purpose or heroism.
Most telling of all is David’s repeated line from Lawrence of Arabia, “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” In other words, David knows, humanity will not like the answers they seek because they will leave them with “nothing” as Weyland’s last words reinforce. But it is the natural yearning and desire of man to look for something mystical or greater than himself. “No man needs nothing” refers to man’s need for a greater purpose.
In addition, there is the constant theme of birth and death throughout. This is actually something that ties most of the Alien franchise together. The alien impregnates the host, then something new is created and reborn through the chest or stomach. This feeds into several scenes of penetration and then the birth of something new including the Engineer in the scene at the beginning of the film ingesting the black liquid after which he dies and ends up creating life, the hammerpede entering Millburn’s throat, the black liquid changing Fifeld to a different creature, Holloway ingesting the black liquid and beginning to change before Vickers burns him, the Trilobite that Shaw is pregnant with and then forcefully surgically removes, the mouth of the Trilobite that attaches to the Engineer at the end, which ends up birthing the Deacon.
All of these examples point to this concept of the creator / created relationship. To further drive home the point, there is a subplot family triangle between Weyland, David (whom Weyland feels is like his son) and Vickers who is actually Weyland’s daughter, starved for attention, always discarded in the relationship. The family tension only reinforces (although pretty clunky in the way the line “Father” is delivered by Vickers) the relationship between creator and created in the film.
There are several creator / creation relationships explored in the film including:
Engineers (creator) and humans (created)
Humans (Weyland / humans) and David (created)
Shaw (creator) and Trilobite child (created)
Weyland (creator) and Vickers (daughter)
Relevance of The Prometheus Myth
Weyland explains that the Prometheus myth, at its most basic, tells us of a god who gave to his creations the gift of knowledge (symbolized by fire). In a viral video for the film, Weyland is seen at a TED conference, giving a speech about the creation of robots and makes the comment, “we are the gods now.” In regards to the three levels of creator / creations that are being explored, each creation has attained enough knowledge that it has matched or supplanted its own creator.
Role of Religion and Religious Symbolism
While Ridley’s own personal beliefs are decidedly anti-religious, the film appears to be packed full of religious references. It makes sense that Prometheus would deal with religion as it is the most commonly accepted way for humans to feel in contact with their creator and acknowledge the presence of a higher being from themselves. There is a fabulous analysis of some of the religious iconography written by Adrian Bott. (4) Bott postulates that there is heavy religious and mythic symbolism in Prometheus that can explain some of the bigger mysteries and themes. While I do think he went a bit far in pulling in some of the references, I think his basic premise is very sound. For instance, look at the many references to Christianity including: Shaw’s cross necklace which is her most prized possession, the first thing the captain does when he wakes from stasis is decorate a christmas tree, the mission arrives right around christmas, the Engineers have been dead for approximately 2,000 years (roughly attempting to complete their mission around the time of Christ), David’s pronouncement that Shaw is with child (like an immaculate conception since she was barren), Shaw’s first name is Elizabeth (Elizabeth in the New Testament was also barren and suddenly was with child), when Weyland first awakes from stasis, his staff wash his feet similar to the washing of the feet of the apostles on the night before Jesus was crucified, etc. Bott does a great job of examining all of these themes so I won’t go into all the examples.
In addition to the above religious references, there is the religion of the Engineers themselves. The crew explores what is thought to be a tomb with a large human-looking face carved into the wall. There are reliefs on the ceiling that bring to mind the Sistine Chapel. The Ampules arranged ceremonially on the ground (reminding us of the way a Xenomorph queen lays her eggs) could be urns with the essence of dead Engineers. Opposite the human-looking head statue is a large mural of a Xenomorph in the pose of a crucified being reminding us of many of the gothic cathedrals of Europe.
The moon’s name is LV-223 (it is technically a moon capable of life, not a planet according to the film’s explanation). Looking at the Holy Bible, we might use LV as an abbreviation for Leviticus in the Old Testament. There is no Leviticus 2:23 because that chapter only has 16 verses but looking at Leviticus 22:3, we find the following verse, it seems possible there is a connection to the greater themes of Prometheus here:
Say unto them, Whosoever he be of all your seed among your generations, that goeth unto the holy things, which the children of Israel hallow unto the Lord, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord.
Finally, we have Shaw’s father (from her dream) declaring why he believes in Heaven and God, “That’s what I choose to believe.” This really drives home the point of Ridley’s personal opinion that religion is the main problem of the world and that belief comes down to a personal relativistic opinion. Ridley might say “whatever you choose to believe makes it right for you and you would be better off choosing to not believe in any of it.” Thus giving way to Shaw’s belief in something beyond herself even when faced with the obvious existence of less than godly creators and their decidedly inglorious reality.
The Black Liquid
Many people have referred to the black liquid seen many times in the film as “black goo” or “black ooze”. Upon first viewing, the liquid appeared to have different affects on different hosts depending on the circumstances. Upon further viewing, it seems that the liquid is a substance with the power to mutate the host. The liquid first has a destroying affect on the host but after the destruction, a new creation emerges. In all cases, the creation is “bad” in the sense of it being aggressive, vengeful, and very much like the mentality of a Xenomorph. Why the black liquid is present on the Engineer’s ship is hinted in David’s comment “Sometimes you have to first destroy in order to create.” The point here is that this liquid follows the theme previously discussed of men being fundamentally evil. To this point, even our creation was from something evil.
For example, let’s take each instance where the black liquid comes into contact with a host:
Engineer at the beginning of the film - The engineer’s purpose appears to be to seed life on a planet. He must sacrifice himself in order for this to occur. But because he appears to have spiritually prepared for this experience, the black liquid does indeed destroy his body (we see DNA double helix being turned black and breaking), his body turns to black dust (maybe even more of the black liquid), and he finally is completely consumed. Once his essence is in the water, it begins to regenerate and we see new DNA being formed which is the beginning of life on that planet. But because it is from the black liquid, we could take it to mean we were created from evil (and this would fall in with the religious symbolism of “original sin”).
Worms slither through the liquid - The worm’s are neither good nor bad but could be taken to be “aggressive” in the sense that they are mindless creatures that will do whatever it takes to survive. They are exposed to the black liquid and crawl through it. Later, we see they have mutated into the Hammerpede snake-like creature. It is assumed that the liquid destroyed the worms and from their essence, created this much larger creature which appears to be particularly aggressive when provoked or put in danger. It goes out of its way to attack until Millburn attempts to “pet it.”
Fifeld falls face down into the black liquid - Fifeld’s character is very much written as the proverbial “jerk” of the crew. There is very little redeeming value in anything he says or does. When he attempts to cut the Hammerpede from Millburn’s arm, he is sprayed with the Hammerpede’s blood which appears to be acid like the Xenomorph’s blood. He is sprayed on the helmet which melts and burns his face. He falls face forward into the black liquid and it fills his helmet as he lies there unconscious. Later, we see Fifeld in some middle ground between being completely destroyed (he is severely deformed) and being mutated. He is also insanely aggressive and doesn’t appear to be conscious of his former self. He is finally killed by fire after viciously killing many of the crew and taking several bullets without being phased. This is the most curious of all the black liquid transformations because is not out right destroyed by the large dose of black liquid.
A drop of liquid is given to Holloway - Holloway is dealt a very small dose of the black liquid which affects him over 10 or so hours. Its affects for the first half of the exposure seem to be negligible. Only after he wakes in the morning, does he start to see the affects. What is curious is that it appears the black liquid has been multiplying within him over the time. He sees what looks like worms in his eye ball (which most likely are the “alive” representation of the black liquid as it continues to overtake him). He has a much faster reaction in the next hour as he gets progressively worse in a short period of time and finally (before we can find out exactly what would happen to him), he begs Vickers to kill him by flame thrower. Its assumed that because Holloway’s intent was generally good (albeit reckless), he would have just turned to dust like the first Engineer and possibly have regenerated to something else (his essence forming new DNA if water had been present).
David touches the liquid - David is a robot and has synthetic skin. In fact, there are probably no biological parts to David. So when he touches the black liquid, it has no affect on him.
Shaw is inseminated by Holloway’s semen which is infected with the liquid - When Shaw and Holloway have sex, Holloway has been infected long enough by the black liquid that it can be transmitted by his semen. Shaw will later grow a first trimester fetus in a matter of 10 hours. This fetus is the Trilobite (squid-like creature) that she will eventually have to surgically remove from her body. So in this case, the black liquid again causes rapid growth and the result is something “bad”.
The black liquid appears to require a biological host to have any affect. As to where it came from or what it is specifically, the answer will most likely be revealed in the sequel.
David is the key to understanding the basic theme and “point” of Prometheus. His character, better than any other, illustrates what we know Ridley’s own personal beliefs and interests are as well as themes that have appeared in a lot of Ridley’s other films. But this film brings up many other questions outside of the theme that are worth addressing. I attempt to answer common questions I’ve personally had or heard others ask below:
(1) Ridley Scott Interview - http://collider.com/ridley-scott-prometheus-deleted-scenes-interview/172202/
(2) “Paradise Lost” by John Milton - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_Lost
(3) Decoding the Cultural Influences in 'Prometheus,' From Lovecraft to 'Halo' - http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/06/decoding-the-cultural-influences-in-prometheus-from-lovecraft-to-halo
(4) Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About - http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584135.html
(5) 'Prometheus' Secrets Spilled By Co-Writer Damon Lindelof - http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1687022/prometheus-secrets-damon-lindelof.jhtml
Guide To Prometheus Terms
Shaw - Played by Noomi Rapace. First name Elizabeth. She is the lead scientist and partner of Holloway.
David - Played by Michael Fassbender. David 8 is his technical model number and name. He is a robot created by Weyland Corporation.
Janek - Played by Idris Elba. Captain of the Prometheus.
Vickers - Played by Charlize Theron. Daughter of Weyland and in charge of the overall mission and crew.
Weyland - Played by Guy Pearce. Founder and president of Weyland Corporation. He is very old and almost about to die.
Holloway - Played by Logan Marshall-Green. Other lead scientist and partner to Shaw.
Fifeld - Played by Sean Harris. Resident “jerk” of the crew. Anti-social geologist who uses his “pups” to map the Engineer’s ship.
Millburn - Played by Rafe Spell. Biologist who likes to wear hoodies and pet scary animals.
Ford - Played by Kate Dickie. Female scientist who is mostly a side character.
Black liquid - Strange liquid that seems to be alive and has the ability to mutate anything biological that it comes into contact with.
Prometheus - The name of the ship that takes the crew to LV-223.
Ampules - The cylinder-like containers that are found in the tomb room inside the Engineer’s ship. They are also stacked in the entrance to the bridge. In the tomb, the cylinders are lined up in a ceremonial-like pattern. They may be urns contained dead Engineer’s essence. The way they are lined up in the tomb is reminiscent of the way the eggs in ALIEN are aligned.
Hammerpede - Worms that have grown to snake-like creatures from the black liquid. They appear to have a “cobra-like” ability to open their head flaps when threatened.
Trilobite - Creature birthed by Shaw that resembles a squid-like animal. Capable of rapid growth with large and powerful tentacles. Its final form appears to be a large “face-hugger” that can implant a Xenomorph.
Xenomorph - The form of the traditional fully-grown creature in ALIEN.
The Deacon - The creature that emerges from the chest of the Engineer at the end of the film. Has a strong resemblance to a Xenomorph with noticeable differences.
Engineer - The assumed creators of humanity. They share the exact same DNA with humans but are much larger, have gray skin, eyes with fully dilated pupils, and appear to be hairless.
Stasis / Hypersleep - Because of the need to travel long distances in space, the crew are put to sleep to slow their body functions and preserve food and resources until the ship arrives at their destination.
Pups - Small round spheres that fly in the air. They emit a red laser light that maps the contour and direction of a given area and relays the details back to a central mapping computer.
I have written a follow-up to this article with Answers to Common Prometheus Questions.