'Prometheus' Raises Big Questions

Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to existential themes. His past work has weaved life’s big questions into a range of genres, stretching from Blade Runner’s musings about what it means to be human through to Gladiator’s recurrent maxim that “what we do in life, echoes in eternity”.

His latest movie, Prometheus, tackles one of the biggest issues of all: Where did we come from?

A quasi-prequel to Scott’s 1979 space-based horror flick Alien, Prometheus takes place on a far-flung planet where – eighty years from now – intrepid explorers are looking to connect with the alien race (the ‘engineers’) who made our species.

Scott’s modern creation myth is, like so many origin stories both ancient and contemporary, really only partially about the question of material beginnings. Its greater purpose is to deal with the question of who we are right now.

The story we tell about our origins profoundly shapes the way we see everything.

Warning: contains spoilers

Take, for example, two of the most famous historic creation stories: the early chapters of Genesis and the Babylonian myth of Enûma Eliš [also transliterated as the Enuma Elish - Ed.]. If you read these two narratives side-by-side, you will see how each one both reflects and also promotes a very different perspective on life.

The calmness and structure of the former story leads its readers to expect an ordered and coherent creation, which is full of meaning and beauty because it is crafted by a designer who declares it "good". And humans are made from "the dust", so they are constructed from the same material as the rest of creation, yet they are made "in the image of God", so they are distinct from it. We are both one with creation and yet also set apart from it. When disharmony and pain enter the scene, they do so as an intruder and not as a part of the original design nor as an echo of any flaw in the divine character.

The Babylonian story, by contrast, is a tale of beginnings soaked in blood and conflict, with the world emerging from feuds between warring gods. The earth itself is, in this telling, fashioned from the corpse of the slain goddess Tiamat. Suffering, violence and interpersonal discord are not – for those following this story – unwelcome visitors into our creation, but have always existed in the heavenly realms and have simply spilled over into ours.

The story we tell about our origins profoundly shapes the way we see everything.

Two very different types of story which lead to quite divergent understandings of our world.

So, what kind of reality is described by Prometheus? Is it more Babylonian or does it have echoes of Genesis?

Actually, both feature in the plot.

Many of the principle characters are gripped by the hope that they may – in the tradition of Genesis – turn out to be the meaningful products of a beautiful designer.

This aspect of the film is encapsulated in an exchange between two of the principle characters. The blond person in this scene is David, a cyborg designed by humans, and the other is Charlie, an archaeologist on a search for the creator(s). You can see it in the video below.

The humans, and even the robots, of Prometheus long to hear from their maker(s) the words "I made you because...".

As Prometheus progresses, it becomes clear that some of the human characters believe uncovering this original design will help them rescue their species from itself: one of them pleads that "if these things [the engineers] made us, then surely they can save us".

And yet the characters of Prometheus are confronted by the possibility they may be little more than the incidental by-products of somebody else's bored experimentation. They hope for Genesis, but they seem to be uncovering something closer to the Enûma Eliš. This is hinted at by the movie's titular nod towards the similarly strife-ridden ancient Greek creation stories which featured a titan named 'Prometheus' (though Prometheus was a late replacement for the film's original title of Paradise).

It's not a welcome discovery and by the time the final credits roll, the humans have chosen to slay the last living 'engineer'. Even if we could discover God, Prometheus seems to be suggesting, who's to say that doing so would be pleasant?

...there is an emotional resonance about the longing of Prometheus' characters to discover themselves by first discovering their origins and their originator

It's a creation myth for our time.

Though there are people who struggle with the rationality of believing in a God, many other people today resist the idea of God because they don't want it to be true. They don't intellectually dismiss the possibility of God, nor even the probability, but they emotionally recoil from who they perceive or fear him (or her) to be, whether this comes from what they have learnt elsewhere or from their own imaginations.

Despite this, there is an emotional resonance about the longing of Prometheus' characters to discover themselves by first discovering their origins and their originator. It is, to be sure, a yearning which isn't restricted to the silver screen.

This is one reason why Jesus is so attractive. When he famously said "he who has seen me has seen the Father", he was asking his listeners to redefine their mental imagery of God according to what they saw of his personality and character. He was claiming to be the answer to the question of "who made me?".

In some ways, Prometheus is posing the biggest question of human existence: Are we hungry for a creator who makes sense of our present reality because he really exists and is both knowable and likable, or are our longings simply a glitch or a mistake and forever destined to remain unfulfilled?

© 2012 Luke Cawley
This article was first published on the Chrysolis website and is published by the kind permission of the author. For further material visit www.chrysolis.org.