Just as Christianity puzzles many people, so too a new sci-fi film has drawn quick condemnation from many. I say: they are too quick to judgment, and too slow to appreciate the philosophical and religious depths to this movie’s story.
Prometheus is in theatres now as Ridley Scott’s prequel of sorts to his 1979 hit film Alien, which spawned a veritable sci-fi franchise. The film is a spectacularly impressive visual experience, especially in 3D IMAX. But because the film does not spell out everything that is happening in the story, most viewers have been confused and unable to figure out the meaning of the film.
In my opinion, the fact that people are genuinely puzzled by it reflects the genuine integrity with which the film has been constructed. It contains profound literary and mythological themes and handles them with unusual finesse.
The film opens with an alien Engineer from another planet seeding life on a new planet. It looks like Earth, but director Ridley Scott has said (to Sean O’Connell of Movies.com) that it could be taken as one of many planets on which the Engineers have seeded life. That includes Earth, but the suggestion is that the Engineers are like a race of Gnostic demiurges who have seeded life throughout the universe.
The trick to decoding the film’s deeper story is making sense of one big clue that Ridley himself has revealed. It concerns what was rejected from an early draft of the screenplay that Ridley worked on with Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts.
Ridley was asked by Sean O’Connell: “We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?”
And Ridley replied, “We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an ‘our children are misbehaving down there’ scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, ‘Let’s send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it.’ Guess what? They crucified him.”
In other words, in the final draft, Jesus is not an alien sent by the Engineers. That would be “too on the nose”, i.e., too obvious, too crude, and too partisan a message about the meaning of a huge event in human history: “The truth is…Jesus was a space alien!” Dumb idea—but that’s okay, first drafts are just first drafts.
So how has that original premise been modified in the final movie? Simple. These very religious Engineers, who are highly sympathetic to Jesus and his message, are completely appalled at the human race’s treatment of him. That’s all; Jesus doesn’t have to be an alien. Who Jesus is can be left to the viewer to decide. (For example, was he a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of the Universe?)
Damon Lindelof told MTV News: “upon multiple viewings of the movie or just entering into conversation with people who have seen it, there are a lot more answers there than people think there are.” Indeed, after seeing the film twice, and talking about it with friends who have seen it, I believe the solution to the movie’s puzzles and alleged plot holes is simple and elegant, given the sure footing provided above by Ridley’s oblique revelation about the movie’s hidden premise.
Here is the key to the film (spoiler alert): The Engineers seeded life on Earth (and elsewhere) with their religion of self-sacrifice. This practice of their religion is depicted at the opening of the film. But, about 2,000 years ago (the date is given early on in the film as the human explorers date a dead Engineer’s body), the crucifixion of Jesus happened on Earth. This caused a civil war to break out among the Engineers.
The war is about the meaning of the Cross event on Earth. The evil Engineers (let’s call them the “Gnostics”, i.e., the “Heretics”) want to wipe out life on Earth in response. The “Gnostic Engineers” want to do this because they think the crucifixion proves that the Earthlings are misbegotten children who will never understand the truth of self-sacrifice that the Engineers’ religion promotes (i.e., in the way it uses death to seed new life). The good Engineers (let’s call them the “Universal Engineers,” i.e., “Catholic Engineers”) view this as a heretical departure from their religion. The Universal Engineers think that the Gnostic Engineers have misunderstood the historical event of the Cross on planet Earth. For the Universal Engineers, the Cross has a cosmic significance. They interpret their own religion as a preparation for this event that occurred among their genetic offspring.
The Universal Engineers see their own religion of self-sacrifice as pre-figuring the Gospel now revealed on Earth. They accept the truth of the Incarnation. They are “true believers,” whereas they see the heretics as hubristically trying to usurp the role of God and perverting the meaning of sacrifice as it has been passed down in their religion.
In other words, the civil war among the alien Engineers who seeded life on Earth is a war about the meaning of Christianity. Thus, when the spaceship Prometheus arrives at LV-223, the explorers find evidence pointing to the fact that the Gnostic Engineers have liquidated the Universal Engineers on that moon, in what the movie calls a “Holocaust.” This very explicit term invites us to draw an analogy with the Jews—those other historical predecessors who paternally prepared the way for Christianity on planet Earth.
The Gnostic Engineers have a special sectarian interpretation of the ancient Engineering religion that now causes them to wage war against the Universal Engineers, i.e., those who now follow the new universal Earth religion, Christianity. The Gnostics perpetrate genocide against the Universals (who are analogous to Jews faithful to the Covenant) and plan to move against the Earthlings (analogous to Christian Gentiles) next.
If a sequel is ever made, I predict that the civil war between the two sides will be spelled out. That is, the two sides, as suggested in this movie, are definitely pro-Cross and anti-Cross. The cosmic civil war hinted at in the movie is waged by the Engineers themselves over the meaning of the crucifixion: Does the Cross event prove that planet Earth deserves to be aborted by self-appointed Gnostic gods bent on “benevolent” genocide? Or does the Cross event prove that planet Earth is “The Chosen Planet” where Providence has chosen to unveil the true meaning of life everywhere in the universe, and how all life in the universe is to be understood ultimately in relation to God?
But Prometheus gives us just enough clues that we can make sense of it as is, without any sequel. The brilliance of the movie is that it doesn’t take sides: it just depicts a real religious struggle on Earth echoed throughout the galaxies—as the very same struggle that all life must engage in everywhere. Talk about a truly catholic (i.e., universal) science-fiction vision!
Skeptics take note: If the movie had spelled out more clearly what I have written above, then it would have been reviled as crudely pro-Christian, because the movie’s hero is the Cross-wearing daughter of Christian missionaries. (Maybe Ridley learned his storytelling lesson with the crudely anti-Christian failure that his movie Kingdom of Heaven was.) Rather, to leave all the Big Questions about life open, the filmmakers (with total integrity) have deliberately chosen not to spell things out, in order not to do violence to your own existential grappling with those Big Questions.
As screenwriter Lindelof told MTV News: “for all this talk of unanswered questions or the characters theorizing but not really getting their theories proved or, more importantly, for getting their makers to answer for the condition of the movie, Ridley and I and Jon [Spaihts] all discussed what we felt those answers were and came to agreement on them, so despite whatever slings and arrows come our way, this is not a case of, ‘Well, we didn’t know, so we didn’t bother trying.’ We definitely knew, and Ridley decided that the more interesting movie was one where we didn’t explicitly spell that stuff out.”
Thus, all that the filmmakers take a stand on is this (and for artistic purposes, it is truly enough, because it preserves the freedom of the moviegoer to be both spectacularly entertained and intellectually challenged, but not preached at or ideologically condescended to): The Big Questions remain the same for all intelligent life throughout the universe. In other words, the meaning of life is debated throughout the universe in a historical dialectic between the culture of death (e.g., Gnostic Engineers and their perverted understanding of “necessary” sacrifice) and the culture of life (e.g., Universal Engineers and their Christ-like religion of self-sacrifice).
In this cosmic struggle for meaning, the meaning of the side you choose is surely up for debate. Such is life! And if we ever meet alien life, no doubt we will be debating the very same divisive religious and philosophical issues with them. But consider this: they just might already themselves be embroiled in the same debates we are! For me, the brilliant hidden message of the Prometheus film is that the religious wars and existential questions (e.g., about children and technology) that occupy the living history of our own planet have cosmic significance, because it is suggested that they will be the same concerns of all intelligent life-forms everywhere.
With this, I have barely scratched the surface of all the details within the film corroborating my interpretation. For example, I have said nothing about the symbolism of the severed head (e.g., the humble self-sacrifice that engenders new life; or the giant head that is in the center of the Universal Engineers’ temple on LV-223 because of the central significance of holy sacrifice in their religion, which pre-figures the self-emptying of the Cross; or the way Elizabeth Shaw’s head is lit to resemble the temple head just before the android David will try and separate her from the Cross that she wears). But there is so much there, I will have to be content with simply leaving you to discover such details in your own repeated viewings and discussions with friends.
Yet I will say this about one very important symbolic visual detail. The much-discussed “black goo” in the film is the Engineers’ genetic technology which, when combined with the psychic energy of an appropriately self-giving sacrifice, generates new life. As such, I prefer to call it “DNA fire,” because it is like the fire that the god Prometheus of Greek mythology stole from Zeus and gave to humans so that they might live. The analogy that the film makes with this piece of classical mythology is absolutely wonderful: Like fire itself, the “DNA fire” of the Engineers can be used for good—to generate fruitful offspring by way of truly universal self-sacrifice—or for evil—to generate monsters when this genetic technology is wielded by anyone of hubristic, Gnostic bent.
Because my translation of Hesiod’s ancient Greek poetry is out this year, I was hypersensitive to this film, as I was prepared to be disappointed with the film’s allusions to the famous Prometheus of Greek mythology. How could a modern movie ever match one of the world’s greatest classical achievements? But I was overwhelmed with pleasant surprise. The film Prometheus is permeated with the theme of parents, and of their relation to their offspring, in so many satisfying ways that it wonderfully echoes the rich and profound classical mythology of Hesiod’s storytelling.
Hesiod tells the story in his Theogony of the race of Titans, who gave birth to the Olympians, those offspring with whom they fought an epic battle for rule over the cosmos. In Prometheus, not only does this allusion resonate in the ambivalent technological offspring both of the Engineers (who seeded life on Earth) and of the Earthlings (who are now terraforming and building androids). More fundamentally, the suggestion is that the cosmic civil war of the Engineers is a war over the meaning of the Earthlings’ Jesus, who is related to them somewhat like Zeus was to the ancient Greeks. The Universal Engineers are followers of the new (i.e., “Olympian”) religion of this new Earthling god, Jesus, who (like Zeus for the Greeks) professes to bring justice and true order to the universe. (Read Hesiod for all the classic Greek mythological details.) The Gnostic Engineers, however, are like the Titans in the myth who wage war against the new order of Zeus and the Olympians.
What I find so satisfying in the film is the way it blends classical mythology with themes from Christian history, to invent a profound, new sci-fi “battle with the Titans” mythology for our times. I love this highly evocative blend of Christianity with the classics. The storytelling is so deft, and has such artistic integrity, that it reflects the divisions within our own society without descending into partisan ideology. Instead, with mythological finesse it warns us against the dangerous temptations of technological Gnosticism.
And it subtly suggests the nobility of faith seeking understanding. Yes, the film’s hero, Elizabeth Shaw, is one who “chooses to believe.” She sticks with her faith. But this faith is shown in the film not to be an arbitrary, voluntaristic self-assertion (as if made without a rational basis). It is not an individual “will to power.” No, rather the Gnostic Titans are the heretics who make that hubristic choice, on the basis of reason alone, and thereby unleash a demonic technological alien Holocaust throughout the universe.
Instead, at the end of the movie, Elizabeth (in dialogue with the android, David), vows to continue her quest for the reasons why the Engineers changed their minds after creating humans and why they now seek to destroy us. As I have been arguing throughout this essay, what Elizabeth (and most viewers) fail to realize is that they already know the answer. The facts are right there in front of us: there are Gnostic Engineers who stand for hubristic reason alone, i.e., reason that is anti-Cross. These Gnostics want to eliminate Christianity as a blight upon their technological project of acting as the universe’s godlike demiurges.
But Elizabeth has both faith and reason: in fact, it is because she has faith that she continues her epic galactic quest in search of reasons (unlike the characters in the film who lack the faith that she has). When she discovers the truth about how Gnosticism has spread like poison within the Engineers’ ancient religion, I am confident she will reject that poison—and continue the struggle against these hubristic Titans. Elizabeth will fight the good fight.
As Lindelof said about Prometheus to MTV News, “there are a lot more answers there than people think there are and room for theories, but the movie needed to end in a way that is Shaw still searching. She is not satisfied with the answers that she got. I think that’s very indicative, hopefully, if Shaw is supposed to be the audience proxy, they’re supposed to be feeling the same way that she is at the end of the movie.”
A movie mythology that commends faith seeking understanding to the audience—as an antidote to the dangers of hubristic reason alone! That’s why I like the film Prometheus so much, along with its deep theme about the responsibility we bear in relation to our offspring: Are we capable of truly noble self-sacrifice for their sake? Or are we unwittingly breeding a demonic undoing for us all, by embodying Titanic hubris in our selves? Indeed, the epic cosmic story continues.
Advisory: Prometheus is rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language.