Spoiler Alert: I talk about crucial plot points in this entry so this is better read after watching the film.
Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi flick Prometheus is his most blatant attempt at being philosophical. Admittedly, the film’s weakest points are when it tries to grapple with these big existential issues and it succeeds when it is less ambitious, in the moments of pure suspense and horror.
Nevertheless, the film gave me questions that it left unanswered, all of them religious in nature. Scott doesn’t really make a case for atheism but he is very critical of certain forms of theistic beliefs. Here is a list of the questions that struck me and the succeeding ideas that flowed when I started to think more about them:
1. What are the implications of having an evil creator?
Most depictions of the Creator among religions is that of a benevolent entity or god, but the aliens in Prometheus who supposedly created humanity are anything but. They are ruthless creatures who don’t treat the life they made as sacrosanct. They don’t claim to have any moral obligations over their creations. And for reasons made unknown to us, they are bent on eradicating our entire species.
When Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the rest of the crew realizes the repugnant nature of their “fathers”, they try to kill the remaining survivor. Prometheus is essentially a narrative of humanity vanquishing their creators who turn out to be undeserving of their reverence. It is a humanist epic in that sense, an awakening to the reality that our morality and humaneness make us superior to them.
This reminded me of the biblical Great Flood. How can people keep worshiping a god who demonstrated the willingness to kill on such a massive scale? Shouldn’t we, like Dr. Shaw, resist and slay this malevolent force? David (Michael Fassbender) suggests a similarity between the weapons of these aliens and the Ebola virus, which killed Dr. Shaw’s father. Implicitly, the movie seems to argue that a god that plagues humanity with disease and suffering might not be worth venerating.
2. What makes David different from humans?
Unlike the first Alien movie, Prometheus is more transparent in revealing that an android is part of the crew. When a hologram of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) tells this to the people in the ship, he says that the primary difference between David and the rest of them is that he has no soul.
But what exactly constitutes this “soul”? Is it a sense of moral judgement, the imperative to choose to do what is “right”? But if that’s the case, then how is he different from Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) or Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who selfishly place their own interests over everybody else’s? And what explains David’s willingness to assist Dr. Shaw towards the end of the movie?
Is his perpetual child-like approach to learning about the world what sets him apart? But that reduces him to a child who also learns through rote memory, not something inhuman.
The only significant difference that makes sense within the context of the movie is that David knows his creators. He is familiar with the way humans think; he knows their strengths and their flaws. He also knows his purpose as an ancillary tool to human activity. Thus, he is unburdened by the cumbersome existential issues that weigh down on people. This liberation is what for me distinctly makes him inhuman.
But because of his freedom from human curiosity, he is rendered cold and unethical. Scott doesn’t seem to argue that asking these philosophical questions are irrelevant to human existence. Instead, continually investigating our origins and purpose, no matter which rabbit hole it leads us to, is a purifying endeavor worthy of scientific pursuit.
3. Is nature beautiful or grotesque?
There is a gnostic worldview that the natural order of things is flawed and that the material world is rotten. All that is truly good and beautiful are transcendent and spiritual.
The corpreal horror in the movie points to a perverted biology. The various modes of parasitic reproduction and disembodiment are viscerally sickening. But are they purely fictional or are they just stylized representations of things as they are?
The cross-breeding of species, the evolution of DNA, the negative symbiotic relationships — they all happen in our world. If we find what we see on screen abhorrent, why is it that we continue to worship nature’s beauty when it is similarly hostile and brutal to living things?