Is Ridley Scott’s film, Prometheus—a film that has been met, unfortunately, with disappointment and even contempt among audiences—actually redeemed by its shortcomings? I, personally, find it difficult to believe that poor screenwriting (there is some truly poor dialogue) and pacing/editing can be explained away by a kind of hidden signifier contained within the very errors of the film. I do, however, find it easier to believe that one of the biggest flaws of the film—that it fails even remotely to answer any of the questions that it raises (and the questions themselves aren’t all that original to begin with)—can actually be justified (or perhaps many of you would prefer to call it ‘rationalized’) if we consider the very nature of those questions. So, today, I’m going to ask my readers to consider two hypotheticals. First: that Prometheus is, hypothetically, an excellent film; and second: that its characters can only engage hypothetically with its own themes.
Prometheus is a film about origins. Human origins. That said, it doesn’t answer very many questions about them: Who are we? Where do we come from? Who made us? And most important, why did they make us? The film is presumably aware that this is a highly controversial premise; it is common belief in today’s scientific community that no one “made” us, but that we are the historical product of billions of years of evolution. Yet the film also pits the “ancient aliens” scenario (called Engineers in the film) against the creationism scenario, even introducing one devout character who wears a cross around her neck; two discrete brands of intervention and manipulation of the human race, two intriguing possibilities for explanation as to our biological origins. Prometheus is, we can say with some certainty, aware of the familiar territory it is treading, and almost painstakingly aware of its own concern with this territory. Why, then, does it appear to lose all sense of direction well before its rather anticlimactic conclusion? Why are the grand yet redundant questions that it raises almost completely ignored?
First, we have to realize that these questions are not ignored by the characters. Over and over again we’re reminded through dialogue of the characters’ desires to learn about their creators, the hypothetical Engineers, and the final scene wherein one Engineer is awoken from stasis (perhaps the most climactic moment of the film) demonstrates ad nauseam the characters’ almost childish obsession with being given an explanation (with the character of Doctor Shaw even exclaiming: “Why do you hate us?”). This should make it clear to us that it’s not as though the writers completely forgot what the primary catalyst for this narrative is: an obsession with origins. They remind us at every turn that we’re dealing with an exploration in creation (merely recall the android David’s line: “Big things have small beginnings,” as he examines some biological drool collected from a strange cylinder found in the site of the alien Engineers).
Second, we have to remind ourselves that there is an obvious reason why the question of origins is such a colossal question: it has, still, not been answered. The film doesn’t offer a form of alternative history, a genre that depicts historical events that are factually different from its actual course. We have to force ourselves to accept that what it posits is a hypothetical history: one that is not proven or positive, or even plausible, but one that is possible. The plot of Prometheus hasn’t been negatively criticized because it deals with subject matter that is entirely ridiculous and impossible. Rather, it has been criticized because the plot apparently fails to resolve these issues that it raises. But is this a failure on the writers’ part? Some of us might be inclined to venture that it is not, especially if the ultimate goal of the writers is to create a sequel that promises to unravel the knots of its predecessor and make even more money in the process. And it must be acknowledged that surely, in the business of Hollywood, every script, even the most aesthetically practiced and artistic, barely conceals the hidden signifier of the dollar sign.
But now let’s seriously consider the hypothetical. Let’s give Mr. Scott the benefit of the doubt, and argue that these glaring omissions in the film’s plot were done intentionally and for what we might label “high artistic purposes.” What might those purposes be? It is here that, I believe, a deeper discussion of the concept of origins will be beneficial to this examination.
In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” theorist Michel Foucault offers an interesting interpretation of the concept of origins. He writes: “The origin always precedes the Fall. It comes before the body, before the world and time; it is associated with the gods, and its story is always sung as a theogony” (NGH 372). Considering Prometheus’s clear reference to the myth of the eponymous titan (whose story is summarized in the film by the character of Peter Weyland), it’s clear that Scott has made this intriguing connection. The Engineers fill this obscure, mystical position previously reserved for deities. Furthermore, one viral advertising campaign for the film depicted Weyland giving a speech in his youth, and claiming that, because of humanity’s discovery of new technologies, “we are the gods now.” In Prometheus, human discovery and exploration results in a supplanting of the original creators; the human characters seek to understand their ancestors, but there is a kind of maniacal drive to dominate concealed beneath this journey. Jean Baudrillard relates this obsession to the pursuit of origins, often manifested in the guise of “mythological object[s]”; Baudrillard makes the interesting claim that underdeveloped, more primitive cultures fetishize power through recourse to technological (i.e. futuristic) objects, whereas advanced, “civilized” cultures fetishize the authority and authenticity of their own origins through the mythological object (SO 88). In Prometheus, the humans occupy the unique position of being both the primitive and advanced culture. The clues about the Engineers are discovered as part of humanity’s past, its history; pictographs found in the paintings and literatures of ancient civilizations have pointed to the involvement of the Engineers. Hence, humanity views them through a lens of advancement. However, the humans also acknowledge the technological advancement and authority of the Engineers, since they (purportedly) are the beings that created humanity itself, and the journey to find them takes the human characters into the farthest reaches of space. This is a narrative of traditional science fiction, and it places the humans in the spot designated for the underdeveloped, primitive culture; the people who are seeking some profound technological knowledge. So humanity occupies both places in Baudrillard’s conception; the advanced and the primitive.
This displacement results in a certain amount of anxiety placed upon the human explorers. This anxiety is not purely their hesitance and, eventually, terror upon arriving at the alien site. Rather, I intend anxiety to mean the compelling desire to find the Engineers, to commune with them, and, perhaps, to become the privileged recipients of some form of transcendental knowledge. To come to know our forefathers, but also to relieve them of their elevated status in our history. Baudrillard summarizes this urge as follows: “For we want at one and the same time to be entirely self-made and yet to be descended from someone: to succeed the Father yet simultaneously to proceed from the Father” (SO 88). He then goes on to make a remarkably poignant statement: “Perhaps mankind will never manage to choose between embarking on the Promethean project of reorganizing the world, thus taking the place of the Father, and being directly descended from an original being [emphasis added]” (SO 88). The quest Baudrillard is describing, the quest that the film depicts, is a Promethean quest; a quest that will provide a new established order, will create a new structure of knowledge, but that is ultimately doomed to fail.
How does this quest provide a new established order or structure of knowledge? Baudrillard is not the only one to make this connection. Foucault also claims that “the origin makes possible a field of knowledge” (NGH 372). What does this mean for the human characters in Scott’s film? Foucault expands upon this initial claim: “The origin lies at a place of inevitable loss, the point where the truth of things is knotted to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost” (372). This is not a very optimistic outlook on the discovery of origins; for Foucault, they become impossibly and hopelessly lost amidst a tangle of discursive knowledges, conversations that preserve remnants of the truthful origin at the cost of concealing the entire, “pure” thing. For Foucault, history reveals “not a timeless and essential secret but the secret that they have no essence, or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms” (371). Put even more bluntly, what lies at the historical beginning is not some total, pure origin, but “the dissension of things […and…] disparity” (372). The genealogy that Foucault is outlining is one of impossible truth. This is because, for Foucault, knowledge is (in a sense) antithetical to truth. Fields of knowledge, “truthful” discourses… these things do not expose the truth, but paint it in new, sometimes even preconceived colors. This is because any human discourse on origins is an anthropocentric interpretation of an utterly pre-human essence. They can provide no revolutionary re-structuring because they merely revolve around the potentially incendiary kernel of their question. The origin of humanity is not human, and the Promethean quest of Scott’s film is doomed to fail because it too is an example of such an obscuring discourse. The scientists and explorers in the narrative seek a human explanation for something entirely alien and foreign. Questions such as “Why did you make us?” and “Why do you hate us?” are human questions, and it is naïve to assume that they would even make sense for an alien culture (I’m referring not only to language, but also to the very concept of “why” itself). It is worth positing that Scott is aware of the idiosyncrasy inherent in such questions.
For Foucault, this profound awareness of and obsession with the past is a modern aspect of humanity. He writes: “We have become barbarians with respect to those rare moments of high civilization: cities in ruin and enigmatic monuments are spread out before us; we stop before gaping walls; we ask what gods inhabited these empty temples. Great epochs lacked this curiosity, lacked our excessive deference; they ignored their predecessors” (384). Is the characterization of humans as barbarians gaping before ancient monuments not an accurate description of the human characters in Prometheus as they explore the alien site? These characters, the entire narrative of the film; all of it is a representation of the epitome of human fascination with its origins, a fascination that has only been enhanced over the years as technology evolves and history flows on. However, this inevitably leads us to another impossible question: where is the process of historical development leading us? In a way, Prometheus is a reaction to the failure of science and philosophy to answer this question.
Baudrillard writes elsewhere of the failure to predict the future, and the consequences this has had for humanity. He claims that the idea of finality, the end-point, is what gives a historical movement its purpose and meaning (Passwords 59). He also claims that we have reached a point in our development where we have exhausted our hopes for understanding the future, and have thus turned to the past: “So, unable to locate an end, we strive desperately to pin down a beginning. Our current compulsion to seek out origins is testament to this: in the anthropological and palaeontological fields we see limits being pushed back in time, into a past that is also interminable” (60). This offers us an interesting complement to Foucault’s notion of the recent human obsession with origins; not only is this obsession a recent development, but it is also a reaction to our inability to determine our end (I would ask readers here to recall the tagline for Prometheus: “The search for our beginning could lead to our end”). Now we can see how Prometheus not only conflates Baudrillard’s sociological conceptions of the primitive and advanced cultures, but also the quests for our beginning and our end. Impossibility converges within the film like a concentric tidal wave collapsing inward, drowning any and every hope of exploration outward; a discursive black hole, a historical singularity that allows no truth to escape. Baudrillard also offers us another poignant comment: “The problem raised by history is not that it might have come to an end, as Fukuyama says, but rather that it will have no end – and hence no longer any finality, any purpose” (61). If history has no end, how can it hope to have any beginning? With no end in sight, only an impossibly infinite cascade through time, the origin can only ever become an intangible, primordial fantasy. We continue to strive for it, and yet it continues to evade our grasp and elude our understanding, constantly vanishing just beyond the terrestrial and cognitive horizons.
In the face of this impossibility, humanity must increase its effort. If mere knowledge and exploration will not suffice, then we must resort to coercion. The simplest way to explain this, in historical context, is imperialism, and it manifests in what Foucault’s calls the “will to knowledge,” similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power: “The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice (that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth), and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind)” (NGH 387). This argument is, of course, central to Foucault’s entire theory, i.e. that structures of knowledge are the result of relations of power. However, in Prometheus, imperialism is turned on its head, for it is not the humans at the helm of imperialist conquest. Instead, the Engineers are the ones in possession of destructive forces beyond all measure, and of a quality that is utterly foreign. One merely needs to consider the bewilderment and horror of Native Americans at the unveiling of the Hotchkiss guns to find a suitable analogy. The twist of Prometheus, however, is that there is some historical connection between the weapons of the Engineers and the creation of humanity itself. This connection is only hinted at in the film, and the details are never revealed, but the implications remain rather unsettling: the origins of humanity, whatever they may be, appear to be intertwined with a cosmically destructive bit of alien biotechnology (which hints further at the creation of the alien creature from Scott’s iconic 1979 film, to which Prometheus is a pseudo-prequel). Destruction begets creation. Beginning and end merge in a vulgar dialectic relationship, where humanity finds itself stranded between two unreachable poles, which are only reconciled in their common elusiveness.
In the case of Prometheus, the genre of science fiction allows a hypothetical exploration of the impossible closure of history; both its origins and its conclusion remain beyond human understanding. No matter what the film attempts to do, any representation that it offers must remain constrained by the images of Western historical preconceptions. When we observe history, we are not looking at some pristine, pure, untouched object. We can only, ever, look at it through the lens of modern Western ideology. Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst explain this notion perfectly:
To be accurate the object of history is whatever is represented as having hitherto existed. The essence of this representation is preserved records and documents. History’s object, the hitherto existing, does not exist except in the modality of its current existence, as representations… What the past is is determined by the content of the various ideological forms which operate within the parameters of historical knowledge. (qtd. in Jameson 473)
The origin, history, past foreign cultures… these can never be encountered except through representation, since all remnants of these objects in their original context have vanished (if they could ever be said to have existed in the first place). Prometheus is filled with characters who fantasize over the notion of discovering and understanding their own origins, but who can only encounter those origins through objects, architecture; the remains left behind by the culture that purportedly created them. There is no origin in this, only the human interpretation of origin. All these objects take on the status of texts through which the human characters attempt to read the evidence of their beginnings; but ironically, the human characters cannot read the actual text left behind by the Engineers. They rely on David, their artificially engineered counterpart (the analogous “human” to their own status as “engineers”), to read the alien language for them. Yet throughout the entirety of the movie, there is no guarantee that David ever completely understands the language of the alien beings. The only interaction with a living Engineer, at the film’s conclusion, yields no actual communication (in fact, it yields only violence). Prometheus emphasizes that no direct contact can be made with the ancient aliens; theories and beliefs can only be interpreted through representations, through dead objects deprived of contextualization. From the very beginning of the film, the human efforts are all in vain.
In the end, the film’s approach to historical understanding can be explained through Fredric Jameson’s ideological duality between “Identity” and “Difference,” the former of which posits the availability of ancient knowledge within our own cultural ideology, and the latter which posits the impossibility of such knowledge. Prometheus depicts an interpretive methodology that adheres to the latter conception, wherein, because of “the radical Difference of the alien object from ourselves […] the doors of comprehension begin to swing closed and we find ourselves separated by the whole density of our own culture from objects or cultures thus initially defined as Other from ourselves and thus as irremediably inaccessible” (453). Viewed in this light, it becomes irrational to expect any viable explanation from the film if its very point is to emphasize the impossibility of an explanation. Alien objects and texts reveal no hidden essence because of their own impenetrability, and instead of exposing some hidden secret, betray the disappointing fact that they have no secret, no potential revelation. As the android David states when he is told that humans made him simply because they could: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” As it turns out, Scott doesn’t give his audience much more to go on. The result is just as disappointing, but this isn’t necessarily a fault of the film’s presentation. Perhaps it has more to do with the very nature of its quest.
It’s not my intention to justify poor writing or pacing on the film’s part, and I certainly believe that it falls prey to these flaws (it’s no Alien, that’s for sure, and the pacing and atmosphere of Prometheus don’t come close to matching the visceral, terrifying organism that was its predecessor). It is my intention to explore the themes that Prometheus attempts to tackle, and these themes are not easy to unravel. It could have offered its audience an entirely fictional conclusion, some fantastical resolution from the depths of writer Damon Lindelof’s sci-fi-steeped unconscious; but would this have been as rewarding? Could an explanation of human origins ever hope to transcend our wildest spiritual, mystical, or scientific beliefs? It’s my claim that Prometheus’s failure ultimately betrays to us our greatest illusion of all: that there was any origin to be found in the first place. And, just as the origin remains concealed in primordial depths, so the ending as well may never materialize. Perhaps it’s much more plausible that the endings we fantasize about (the Nostradamus prophecies, the year 2000 CE computer crash, the 2012 Mayan calendar, etc.) are nothing more than illusions imposed by us on our own existence in hopes that some final purpose might be revealed.
In light of such pessimistic ideas, it’s understandable why the sign of the cross around Doctor Elizabeth Shaw’s neck might be far more inviting to some.
Baudrillard, Jean. Passwords. Trans. Chris Turner. London, Verso: 2003.
-. The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. London, Verso: 2005.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Michel Foucault: Aesthetics, Method, and
Epistemology. Ed. James D. Faubion. New York, The New Press: 1998. 367-391.
Jameson, Fredric. “Marxism and Historicism.” The Ideologies of Theory. London, Verso: