Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror Prometheus is about aliens, androids, creation and … Christmas? Four theories explain what the heck the film is about.
What is Prometheus about?
In 2089, scientists discover ancient cave paintings on the Isle of Skye. These appear to point the way to the alien creators of life on Earth (the ‘Engineers’).
Four years later the scientists – Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) – are onboard deep space exploratory vessel, Prometheus. But when the ship arrives at its destination, the Engineers seem to have left in a hurry.
All that remains are hundreds of jars of an unknown organic substance. As the team interact with this new environment they activate the organic material, causing it to create hostile life forms.
Prometheus takes place around 30 years before the original Alien film, and provides some back story to the xenomorph (i.e., the alien). It’s also the first of the prequel movies, with Alien: Covenant following in 2017.
1. Prometheus as origin story
At the start of the film, we see one of the gigantic Engineers drink something that makes his body crumble apart. His DNA disperses through a river, causing the beginnings of life on Earth.
When Shaw analyses the Engineer’s DNA millions of years later, it’s an exact match for human DNA: we came from them. So Prometheus is an origin story for humanity – a fairytale or ‘just so’ story about where we came from (somewhat unexpectedly, so is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
It’s also an origin story for the Alien franchise, explaining where the xenomorph species came from. The Engineers were running scientific experiments, one of which led to life on Earth. But it’s likely they were also deliberately trying to create some kind of killing machine in the form of a xenomorph.
When Shaw first enters the Engineers’ lab, a vast mural features both human and xenomorph forms. The digital recording of the Engineers’ last days, along with the gruesome remains Millburn and Fifield discover, suggest they weren’t able to contain the xenomorph and it destroyed them.
This is why the Engineers left in a hurry – they were running for their lives.
The end of the film underlines this a bit more. Shaw returns to Miss Vickers’ life pod, only to find her alien ‘foetus’ is now an enormous, tentacled creature. Shaw saves herself by putting the Engineer in its path.
Just before the credits roll, we get our first glimpse of the xenomorph – now recognisable as the creature from Alien – as it bursts from the Engineer’s chest.
2. It’s about faith and creation
Like Alien, Prometheus is about creation in the hands of male scientists and aliens. Prometheus puts women back into the picture, but with Shaw reduced to a ‘carrying case’ for the new species.
Like Covenant, Prometheus also dwells on questions of faith and belief.
The story suggests we need creation myths to feel secure in our existence. Meanwhile, Holloway and Shaw’s disappointment in being abandoned by their makers is mirrored in David’s disappointment at how humans treat him.
Shaw believes the Engineers made humans, yet she wears a Christian cross in tribute to her [earthly] father. When she rescues David, the first thing she does is put her cross back on.
What comes after death is a primary concern to several characters, too.
Shaw’s father tells her people have their own words and concepts of heaven – i.e., that diverging beliefs can co-exist.
Interestingly, when Weyland ‘meets his maker’ – quite literally, as he dies – his final words are “there’s nothing”. For the sadistic Peter Weyland, there’s nothing redeeming after death. Perhaps this matches what the Bible tells us about rich men and the kingdom of heaven (see also David Fincher movie The Game).
Weyland is one of several father figures who die during the movie. There’s Shaw’s father, whom we only see via her dream. Vickers (Charlize Theron) is likewise driven by a lost father figure, i.e., Weyland.
Contemporary science has rejected the idea of spiritual creation, yet Shaw and Holloway feel abandoned by God. Their search is for a replacement father figure.
It’s interesting that this is exactly what they find: yet another all-powerful male creator.
3. Is Prometheus a Christmas film?
Prometheus as Christmas movie may sound implausible but, crucially, the film is set at Christmas.
The story takes place between December 21st 2093 (when the Prometheus crew wake up from crysosleep) and New Year’s Day 2094 (Shaw’s final sign-off).
In fact, one of the first things Captain Janek (Idris Elba) does on waking is to set-up a Christmas tree.
Based on the movie’s timeline, it doesn’t look like Shaw ‘gives birth’ on Christmas Day, though it’s pretty close – probably December 23rd.
And yes, it’s a take on the Bible’s virgin birth. As she reminds Charlie earlier in the film, Shaw can’t have children, and is amazed when David tells her she’s pregnant.
Like Mary in the Bible, Shaw has a human partner (Holloway). Yet her baby isn’t his – it’s a ‘miraculous’, non-human entity.
Other ways the film mirrors Christmas story traditions:
- The Prometheus’ mission is to follow a star. Specifically it’s a particular constellation of stars, the heart of which is a star just like our Sun.
- There are three wise men on board: Janek, Chase and Ravel.
- When the Prometheus first lands, Holloway is determined to go exploring. He tells Janek: “it’s Christmas, Captain, and I want to open my presents”.
- The carbon dating suggests the Engineer’s head is around 2,000 years old. This mirrors our own relationship to Biblical events (i.e., around 2,000 years ago).
Prometheus is a Christmas movie because it’s about the redemption of humans who overcome difficulty (and evil) to rediscover hope, love and life. And there’s a Christmas tree.
And if you consider Die Hard a Christmas film, well, Prometheus is even more so: it has far more in common with the Bible story and its themes.
4. The film has some dubious messages about gender
Prometheus raises interesting questions about faith and existence, but falls short in its reliance on gender clichés.
When Shaw and Holloway first find the body of the decapitated Engineer, Holloway tells Shaw to wait until he’s checked things out first. This ‘little women’ attitude is repeated in how Vickers is portrayed.
Vickers is technically in charge of the ship – an authority so tenuous she has to downplay her femininity to hold on to it.
Like Lady Macbeth, Vickers has to ‘unsex’ herself to be taken seriously, to the point that others suspect she might be an android.
Yet when Captain Janek torpedoes the alien space craft there’s nothing she can do to stop him – it’s his ship in every way that counts.
However hard Vickers tries to be unfeminine, it’s never enough for her father. Weyland wants a son so much that he builds one, even going so far as to replicate Vickers’ looks and personality in android David.
Shaw is the film’s strong female lead, yet despite her science credentials, her role defaults to creation (with shades of the virgin birth, as described above).
But most damning are the film’s messages about masculinity. Time and again strength in men is equated with sacrifice and stoicism.
We see this in the way Holloway opts for suicide when he’s ill. It’s there in the way Janek, Chance and Ravel become suicide bombers, killing themselves in the name of a greater good (yikes).
In fact, when the captain gives them a chance to leave, Chance and Ravel turn him down with jokes and devil-may-care, as if they don’t mind if they die.
This is all the more surprising again given the film’s era. It’s 2093, and yet dated attitudes of women and childbirth, or strong silent men going down with the ship, remain frozen in time.
More masculinity in movies:
The Prometheus myth(s)
In some versions of the Greek myth, Prometheus creates the first people out of clay. However, the best-known story has him stealing fire from the other gods to give to mortals. He’s chained to a rock as punishment, and eagles eat his liver for all eternity (see also The Lighthouse).
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley reworked the story in his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). Actually, his wife got there first: Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, or to use its full title: The Modern Prometheus.
Her novel about a scientist who gives life to a damned creature has further parallels with the film beyond the xenomorph. Weyland creates a man-like creature in David, but denies him the full range and freedoms of human existence and reproduction.
Aside from this, the film is thematically twinned with the myth in the way it returns to creation stories, hierarchies of creation, and the consequences of overstepping boundaries.
Timeline of the movie’s science
- The Engineers visit Earth in the long distant past and use their DNA to kick-start life on the planet.
- Several million years later, the crew of the Prometheus discover the Engineers’ mural room with its jars of organic material. The presence of the crew causes this material to activate.
- Some of the material falls on the ground, interacting with tiny worm-like creatures. By the time Milburn and Fifield are stranded, at least one worm has mutated into a deadly, snake-like creature (this may account for the ping Janek reports one click West of the trapped scientists). However, their deaths have nothing to do with the xenomorph or the rest of the story. Which is pretty tough luck.
- David steals a cannister of organic material and puts a drop in Holloway’s drink. This seems to be a way of impregnating Shaw with the alien foetus.
- Despite Shaw’s Caesarean birth and the lack of food in the med bay, the alien survives and grows to phenomenal proportions.
- Shaw feeds the final Engineer to her alien baby, thereby creating the xenomorph species of the Alien franchise.
Why do the Engineers try to destroy the Earth?
The Engineers create the human race. Later, they change their mind and try to destroy the planet using weapons of mass destruction (i.e., the organic material). The film doesn’t reveal why they changed their minds, only that they’re determined to destroy the life they created. See also The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Goofs and Easter Eggs in Prometheus
- Chance and Ravel give away the film’s twist when they take bets on the real reason for the ship’s journey. “If you said the dead old man wanted to talk to Martians, then I’d pay”. This is exactly why they’ve come.
- Tiny worms are shown in the earth in the mural room, but if there’s no other life on the planet, where did they come from?
- David takes a whole cannister from the Engineer’s stash when they first discover the mural room. He feeds a single drop to Holloway … so what happens to the rest?
- David asks Shaw when she and Holloway last had intercourse, yet given they’d all been in cryosleep for years he must know it can’t possibly have been within “the last three months”.
- The Engineers use a flute to wake their spacecraft control panel, foreshadowing the flute David uses in Alien: Covenant.
- The film ends with Shaw’s monologue saying “It’s New Year’s Day, the year of Our Lord 2094”. But she believes the Engineers created humans – and is even still trying to find them – in which case, God no longer exists as the creator and father of Mankind.
Prometheus (2012), directed by Ridley Scott
What to read or watch next
- Alien, Aliens etc. (franchise)
- The Day The Earth Stood Still (aliens that want to destroy us)
- Flatliners (scientists trying to see beyond human existence)
- Event Horizon (space horror, what lies beyond)
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (aliens and human evolution)
- Ex Machina (AI)
Picture credit: Wesley Tingey