as Christianity puzzles many people, so too a new sci-fi film has drawn quick
from many. I say: they are too quick to judgment, and
too slow to appreciate the philosophical and religious depths to this movie’s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 ideabut
that’s okay, first drafts are just first drafts.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Jewsthose other historical predecessors who paternally prepared
the way for Christianity on planet Earth.
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.
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?
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 galaxiesas the very
same struggle that all life must engage in everywhere. Talk about a truly
catholic (i.e., universal) science-fiction vision!
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.
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.”
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).
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
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
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 goodto
generate fruitful offspring by way of truly universal self-sacrificeor for
evilto generate monsters when this genetic technology is wielded by anyone of
hubristic, Gnostic bent.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 poisonand continue the struggle against these hubristic Titans. Elizabeth
will fight the good fight.
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.”
movie mythology that commends faith seeking understanding to the audienceas 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.
Prometheus is rated R for sci-fi violence including
some intense images, and brief language.